Beginning Exploration of Phenomenology in Film

It is raining. But it is kind of a delightful rain. It is raining in that way where it is just a light drizzle. If you allow yourself to think of it as such, it is almost charming. It reminds me of these days when I was a child. I used to go outside with a raincoat, maybe even rain boots, and I would pretend that I was in a rain forest or some enchanted world, exploring a world of rain dropping into puddles.

There is a scene in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind where Clementine tells Joel to conjure a memory that does not have her in it so that the “Eraser Guys” cannot find them. Joel first argues that he cannot remember a time without her but eventually finds a childhood memory chanting the nursery rhyme “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” while playing outside and jumping in puddles. Jon Brion’s beautiful piano music plays in the background. This scene is so touching to me (and honestly almost always makes me cry, in a good way) because it really captures the magic of these moments in childhood. Further, the idea of being able to take someone into the exact setting and situation of a memory is intensely loving and compelling.

(On a personal note, “Row Row Row Your Boat” was also my favorite nursery rhyme as a child. I would hum and sing it endlessly, and constantly ask about the line, “Life is but a dream”, which puzzled me with wonderment. Further, although this my own a personal association, I feel that it is also extraordinarily fitting in this scene where Joel’s character experiences his past in a dream.)

I do not think humans will ever develop a technology that will allow us to reproduce memories. Memory does not have a set of simulacrum pairings for the reproduction of events in a way that could be experienced externally. The best we can do is to use language, art, and recorded media to share an experience. Recorded media is thus the closest we can get to sharing the phenomenological “what is it like” characteristic of experience with someone else or to ourselves at a later point in time. In that sense, there is a tight closeness between film and memory because film captures a moment in time in a very real way that probably renders more detail than actual memory. Further, film can artistically dress up a recorded moment to make it feel more like a memory. Film can really play with what it is like to have a memory.

In that sense, I can almost wonder the extent to which this memory that I mentioned at the beginning (of jumping in puddles as a child) is really my memory, and the extent to which it has been “infiltrated” and blended with this montage from Eternal Sunshine. If film can do this, though, I think it is one of the gifts of film to give people memories that might even feel like their own. In the end, I do not think it ultimately matters whether a memory was actually “mine” or not because the impact can be the same.

Because Eternal Sunshine is a film story about erasing memories, the film (in this scene especially) explores the internal path of conjuring a memory. Joel remembers the melody of the nursery rhyme “Row Row Row Your Boat” (rhythms like this have a patterned mnemonic that can trigger memories) and this conjures a memory of rain, then sitting by a window as a child looking at the rain, going outside and jumping in puddles, and seeking shelter from rain. His memory is not targeting one specific moment as much as a myriad of moments spanning the themes of this nursery rhyme and rain. Therefore, this scene depicts not only what it “looks” like to have a memory, but also subtly explores the thought processes that span the course of having a memory.

A similar scene occurs in Zach Braff’s new film Wish I Was Here. In a scene where the father reflects on his life, he says that he remembers his sons chasing after an ice cream truck on a summer day (at approximately 1:00 in the trailer). The father says that he recalls that there were fireflies, even though the son insists that there are no fireflies in LA. The film then cuts to a scene of the boys’ backs running after the truck on a summer evening. The appearance of embers dazzle through the image like fireflies and it appears magical in the way that memories can become over time. This scene only lasts a few seconds, but it captures so much depth in its portrayal of having a memory.


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