Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman

An interview with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, director Michel Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.

Visiting town recently to discuss Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, director Michel Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman emphasized how the memory-removal device wasn't meant to seem like some futuristic gadget from a sci-fi flick. Nor are its operators intended to appear unduly wacky or evil. "There's a sort of mundane quality to it, I think—the procedure," says Kaufman. "We didn't want the technology to be the issue. It's a movie about a relationship, really." Of the guys rather causally hooking their crude computers into protagonist Joel's skull, he adds, "I was thinking of that as a customer-service kind of job. You have to deal with people, and you don't really like them. And you have to pretend you like them. And this is a situation where you don't have to pretend because the person is unconscious." As a result, in the film's latter stages, Kaufman refers to "the two separate realities that we're in": the interior realm of comatose Joel, and the wage slaves hacking away at his brain. The valence between them, Gondry adds, shows up on the computer screens monitoring Joel's flickering consciousness: "I like the MRI imagery of thought. Like, for instance, somebody thinking of doing an action and somebody actually doing an action, and the difference is equally . . . nonexistent." It's all the same, all contained in what he calls "the little pixel" on the MRI screen. And when the technicians zap those little pixels, or synapses, all our memories go, too, which gives Mind a melancholy sense of loss. Even without the memory zapper, all memories—both good and bad—are fleeting and perishable. This was intentional, says Kaufman: "There's just a little red light that goes off, and [the doctor] says, 'That's it.' That's so devastating to me. There's the contrivance of this story, but I think it's based on the reality that . . . these things that are important to us don't exist. They're gone." While not sci-fi, Mind offers a different kind of scientific showdown between the neurochemical zapping and the chemistry of Joel's brain. Says Gondry, "He becomes resistant to the procedure, like when you take antibiotics and the bacteria becomes stronger. The procedure becomes less efficient." Like a man recovering from brain damage (even as he's experiencing it), Joel's cerebellum proves unexpectedly resilient. The low-tech assault provokes a sophisticated chemical response—perhaps like the chemical response to a loved one—that can't be easily erased. Instead, the memory goes into hiding, or grafts itself onto a different memory, Gondry concludes: "Even if you think it's not there, it's in there somewhere." B.R.M. bmiller@seattleweekly.com

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