Compare the representations of memory and time control in mainstream and independent films. Use Looper and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in your analysis.

While sharing a common idea, Looper and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are fundamentally different films that attract very divided audiences. Both include what Smelik notes as a warning of the cataclysmic implications of technology- a moral ending characteristic of Hollywood science-fiction[1]. However, the core difference between the two can be expressed by the fact that in Eternal Sunshine the use of memory technology may be seen as more of a metaphor, while Looper aims to fascinate with its time travel technology. With this in mind, I will be exploring how the films differ thematically, generically and stylistically, as well as the way they are marketed and consumed.


Most apparent is the generic difference between these films. Looper is recognisably an action film, while Eternal Sunshine may be categorised as a psychological drama. Mainstream time travel films tend to be very much in the high concept category, independents in the experimental. Ian Long writes: ‘High Concept appeals to basic human curiosity or interest… Science fiction’s preoccupation with time, identity and alternative future makes it a natural home for High Concept’[2]. This is corroborated in Looper, with a review remarking that with it ‘you’ve got a high-concept action film rooted in science fiction and driven by characters’[3]. Independent film tends to focus more on experimentation, making it, in the same vein, apt for philosophical debates and audiences. To this extent, though both films include similar concepts of technology, only Looper would be widely acknowledged as a science fiction film, because of the privileged status it gives science.


With this differentiation in genre comes a divided demographic and consequent marketing strategy. Both use stars, but Looper puts Willis in his type cast, while Eternal Sunshine subverts audience expectation, creating an experimentation in performance rather than playing up to genre. This appears to divide the audiences into the passive mainstream, and the active art-house viewers; the former comfortable in their understanding of the characters, the latter challenged and provoked. However, the two are not inextricably linked. With the two-tiered system of communication in mind, film-literate audience will also find intellectual stimulation and cinematic allusions in Looper, while the mass mainstream audience (making up the majority) will look at it purely as a form of passive entertainment. This adheres to Adorno’s theory that ‘passive dupes’[4] indulge in mainstream popular culture, and helps to clearly differentiate the two audiences of complicity and passivity into high and low brow categories.  

Such audience distinctions display varied forms of consumption. Rian Johnson actively uses new media to mediate fan involvement and extend their curiosity, encouraging such blogs and videos that study the franchise and find loophole in material- typical discriminatory behaviour of fandom. Indeed, John Fiske asserts that ‘fans discriminate fiercely…the boundaries between the community of fans and the rest of the world are…strongly marked and patrolled’[5]. Independent films are less about fandom and more about individual engagement; the affecting nature of the material and style makes it a personal experience.  


Themes in the mainstream films are generally more focused on a fascination in the technology of memory or time control, while independent films tend to investigate the moral codings that the concept of this control initiates. Certainly, much of the discourse surrounding Looper deconstructs the film’s ‘rules’ of time travel. For example, Kevan Roche writes: ‘[Looper] does a good job of giving the audience just enough of an explanation to logically follow the plot and action, while also being vague enough to inspire questions and debate about the overarching structure of how it actually works’[6]. Again, this highlights the combination of passivity and fascination in the consumption of mainstream film.

However, Eternal Sunshine explicitly depicts a philosophical discourse regarding the ethics of memory control. Twice are Nietzsche quotations (to which the film title alludes) spoken by Mary, including: ‘how happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!/ The world forgetting, by the world forgot/ Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!/ Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d’[7]. This engagement with philosophical debate clearly puts the film’s intentions before the audience, along with symbols that aid the argument. For instance, Joel changes his mind about getting memories erased, but is powerless. Furthermore, the erasers are portrayed as irresponsible as they get high while in the process of deletion. Taking this point further, Reeve claims that memory control is not the given debate, but more is the Freudian focus on love’s roots in childhood[8]. This positions the literal technology even further in the background, using it merely as a foundation on which to experiment. Meanwhile in Looper, the technological system is at the forefront of the film’s plot and fan discourse. Though some morals may be found in Looper, it seems evident that such readings are not the primary intention. As shown, most science-fiction fans find pleasure in deconstructing the time travel system, rather than finding philosophical codings. Eternal Sunshine viewers tend to come away appropriating the argument that has been put forward into their own life, which may not necessarily include the literal concept of memory control.


Stylistic variances denote that Looper is less about affect and more about the idea of the pace-turning thrill-seeking. While both films include a film noir-style narrative voice-over, that featured in Eternal Sunshine is a stream of consciousness, less coherent, more providing a tone and atmosphere. In Looper it is direct, concise and informational. In the same vein, shot transitions in Looper are deft and scene-to-scene progressions are clear, while in Eternal Sunshine we are often unsure what time period we are entering in each scene. Furthermore, stylistic devices such as lighting, sound and focus distortion are used to portray the fading of memories in Eternal Sunshine. In Looper, effects are less alienating, and more aesthetically pleasing, which again denotes the primacy of the spectacle, the aesthetics of astonishment. Eternal Sunshine techniques are closely linked to Deleuzian theories of affection[9], while Looper’s are powerful and visually impressive (for instance the spectacular sequence when the Rainmaker kills the looper). Affect is therefore an important difference between the two. Colebrook claims that ‘art may well have meanings or messages but what makes it art is not its content but its affect[10]. This may be contested because of the hybridity of Looper’s style, but that typical art film affection is only explicitly foregrounded in Eternal Sunshine.

Joel interacts with his memories with a consciousness towards the activity of deleting them, allowing affecting self-reflection for him and the audience. While characters in Looper also interact with their future selves, the interaction is more focused towards feeding the plot progression. Here, the audience is complicit in the fictive world as they follow the twists and turns, though self-reflexivity is not demanded of them; they can remain passive on a deeper level, engaged on the superficial level. Even Old Joe even says ‘let’s not talk about time travel or we’ll be here all day’. This line almost satirised the genre by acknowledging the insignificance of intellectual depth.


Emotion is far more significant in Eternal Sunshine through the developed sequences of the couple’s relationship, while in Looper his marriage is shown merely through brief flashbacks. The increased sympathy stimulates metaphysical discourse rather than superficial engagement with story as mere stimulus for the hero’s plight. Though criticisms of Willis’s performance aid this argument of a very superficial engagement with his relationship, viewer empathy seems of less importance to the enjoyment of the film. As Smelik articulates, independent memory or time control films are more concerned with the portrayal of emotions than realistic technological inventions[11]. With Looper, a full picture of time travel is attempting to be portrayed, and is what interests the mainstream audience.


Narrative structure also aids the distinction between the two representations. The fragmented style in Eternal Sunshine is arguably more true to human experience, due to the complexity of emotional implications being affecting for the audience. Looper follows the typical Hollywood ending of inevitably making the protagonist the ultimate saviour. Though the fate of Looper’s remaining characters is left unstated, it is very much implied. Moreover, audience focus has remained on the hero, meaning there is a satisfaction of resolution when the ‘loop’ is ‘closed’. Thus, the ambiguity that comes with the tenuous subject of time and memory control manifests itself in different ways in the two distinctions: here, Hollywood convention smooths out such issues with narrative closure and close adherence to the unambiguous formula of the action genre. As Shaw writes, ‘Classical Hollywood films do indeed tell us precisely how to respond to emotional scenes, using every technique in the book…In so doing, they achieved a remarkable uniformity of emotional response in audiences worldwide.’[12] While not a ‘classical’ film, Looper’s narrative is certainly ‘Hollywood’, and follows these conventions that result in more unequivocal, passive, pleasure-viewing. The motif of the stopwatch symbolises the theme of the manipulation of time. This reflects the fact that everything within the plot as well as the creative process is pre-determined, progressing to a resolution. Indeed, everything in mainstream cinema is strategized and scheduled, allowing the audience to remain passive. Meanwhile, independent films such as Eternal Sunshine ‘allow for the ambiguity of affect by foregrounding the ambiguity of memory, which results in a non-linear, fragmented narrative structure’[13]. Here, audience response has less ‘uniformity’, as it is more personally affecting; the viewer’s role is more active.


Ultimately, both films look at the ability to control destiny, and queries over how much we can learn or how much we are shaped by our memories. The main difference is evidently the thematic use of time and memory control, which is determined by the genre and the target audience. For Looper, it is the novelty of time travel as a technology and a focus on the action hero. Eternal Sunshine uses concept of memory control as stimulus for social experimentation and commentary by stimulating affect in viewers.


[1] Anneke Smelik, ‘The Virtuality of Time: Memory in Science Fiction Film’ in Technologies of Memory in the Arts, eds. Liedeke Plate & Anneke Smelik, (Palgrace Macmillian: 2009), p. 57.

[2] Ian Long, Sci-Fi Workshop, Euroscript,, [accessed 10.05.13].

[3] Matt Barone, ‘The 25 Best Movies of 2012: Looper’ (21.12.12), [accessed 07.05.13].

[4] Theodor Adorno, Essays on Music: Theodor W. Adorno, (London: University of California Press, 2002), p. 459.

[5] John Fiske, “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” in The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, ed. Lisa A. Lewis, (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 34.

[6] Kevan Roche, ‘Looper analysis: Deconstructing Its Time Travel’, (04.10.12), [accessed 06.05.13].

[7] F. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, (New York: Random House, 1974), p. 52. 

[8] David Reeve, “Two Blue Ruins: Love and Memory in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind ed. Christopher Grau, (USA: Routledge, 2009), p. 4.

[9] Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

[10] Claire Colebrook, Understanding Deleuze, (Allen & Urwin: 2002), pp. 24-5.

[11] Smelik, p. 63.

[12] Daniel Shaw, ‘A Rejoinder to Noël Carroll’s The Philosophy of Motion Pictures‘, Film-Philosophy, (vol. 12, no. 2: 2008), pp. 142-151., p. 146.

[13] Smelik, p. 62. 


Adorno, Theodor, Essays on Music: Theodor W. Adorno, (London: University of California Press, 2002).

Barone, Matt, ‘The 25 Best Movies of 2012: Looper’ (21.12.12), [accessed 07.05.13].

Carroll, Noël, Engaging the Moving Image (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).

Colebrook, Claire, Understanding Deleuze, (Allen & Urwin: 2002).

Fiske, John, “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” in The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, ed. Lisa A. Lewis, (New York: Routledge, 1992).

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

Long, Ian, Sci-Fi Workshop, Euroscript,, [accessed 10.05.13].

Nietzsche, F., The Gay Science, (New York: Random House, 1974). 

Reeve, David, “Two Blue Ruins: Love and Memory in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind ed. Christopher Grau, (USA: Routledge, 2009), p. 4.

Roche, Kevan, ‘Looper analysis: Deconstructing Its Time Travel’, (04.10.12), [accessed 06.05.13].

Shaw, Daniel, ‘A Rejoinder to Noël Carroll’s The Philosophy of Motion Pictures‘, Film-Philosophy, (vol. 12, no. 2: 2008), pp. 142-151, [accessed 07.05.13].

Smelik, Anneke, ‘The Virtuality of Time: Memory in Science Fiction Film’ in Technologies of Memory in the Arts, eds. Liedeke Plate & Anneke Smelik, (Palgrace Macmillian: 2009).


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