Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which opens Friday, is the latest brain-bending film from Charlie Kaufman, writer of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation.
Last week, I sat down with writer Kaufman and director Michel Gondry to ask them why they are so attracted to unconventional stories.
Eternal Sunshine takes us into a bizarre dream-state. We enter the mind of an unconscious brain surgery patient (Jim Carrey) as he struggles to make sense of his scrambled memories. He has asked the doctor to "delete" all his memories of his girlfriend (Kate Winslet), but now he's having second thoughts. So he frantically tries to salvage some of the most precious moments they spent together before the doctors erase them from his mind. The result is something like a love story thrown in the blender.
Kaufman clearly delights in confounding audience expectations. Viewers respond in two ways—some are delighted to experience something new, challenging, and enlightening, while others are disgusted that they did not get the formulaic, easy-to-swallow entertainment or the happy ending they expected.
But Kaufman's stories can be unsettling for other reasons as well. In Kaufman's view of the world, people seem depraved, selfish, even self-absorbed. Like Flannery O'Connor, his stories are like nightmares that compel us toward the truth by showing us the consequences of foolish behavior.
Is Kaufman's spectacular avoidance of clichés a reaction against Hollywood? Or is it a reflection of obscure filmmaking influences?
"It might be a reaction," he muses. "Conventional story elements and frothy romantic stories—I have a reaction against that. I don't have that experience in my life, and I've always felt left out because of that, so I don't want to write that stuff.
"But in terms of figuring out different ways of telling a story, I don't know whether it's so much a reaction as just a creative impulse. If something is important to me in telling a story, then I get excited about the challenge of finding a way to do it that serves the story."
Gondry has a different answer. "It's not an influence, it's not a reaction. It's like you get to construct a toy that you will like to play with. If I get so extremely lucky as to direct a film, I don't want to spoil it by doing something that I've already seen. I would never do a remake, for instance. They asked me if I wanted to do a remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and I said, 'Why would you want to do a remake? Just watch the movie.'"
The debates and differing interpretations amongst viewers after Kaufman's films seem to delight him. Sometimes you have to wonder if bewilderment might be one of his aims—to divide us in order to get us talking. (Sounds like another famous storyteller who always challenged his audience by refusing to explain his parables.) When I proposed a possible interpretation of this film's conclusion, Kaufman gave me a perfect poker face and said, "Your interpretation is absolutely valid. But I think the ending is open to interpretation."
It should come as no surprise that, when this director/writer team is asked about their inspirations and favorites, Kaufman mentions his deep respect for David Lynch (especially the labyrinthine and confounding mystery Mulholland Drive) and Gondry quickly names Groundhog Day as one of his favorites. But you've got to be careful with these guys. Gondry also insists that he loves "that Superman movie with Richard Pryor. It's a masterpiece!"
You can read more about their dodgy answers and revealing anecdotes in the full interview transcript at Looking Closer. My review of the film will post at Christianity Today Movies on Friday, and next week's Film Forum will include a roundup of Christian press reviews of the film.
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