Director Series: Spike Jonze - Being John Malkovich
“Do you see what a metaphysical can of worms this portal is?”
Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is a puppeteer. In fact, he fancies himself an important man, an artist, and a revolutionary who raises issues. He spends hours in his workshop breathing life into inanimate objects and works tirelessly to perfect his art. One of his pieces, aptly titled: Dance of Despair and Disillusionment, is an intimate portrait of loss and ennui starring a puppet that bears the visage of its creator. Craig’s hands glide above, composing each movement with grace.
This is Craig at his most comfortable. In the marionette, anything is possible. He can live out his deepest fantasies. He can take over the world. In the marionette, he is important. But, when the performance ends to pre-recorded applause, we come face to face with the man himself. Pallid. Unkempt. Self-involved. Craig is a shipwreck of a man.
Who else could be more destined to discover a portal that leads directly into the mind of actor John Malkovich than Craig Schwartz?
Being John Malkovich is a surreal and darkly comic journey through the minds of director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman. If Jonze is anything, he is an explorer. A storyteller who has burrowed into the incongruent recesses of our minds, and discovered a deep, fragile, pining to be understood. This longing has laced its way through all of Jonze’s work. Other than the man himself, I can’t imagine a better director to visualize a Kaufman script. It introduced Jonze as a bold and melancholic filmmaker, who instead of shunning the absurd, embraced it.
Seriously, this movie is wild. Craig, the sad sack from earlier, is an unemployed puppeteer living with his pet-obsessed wife, Lotte Schwartz (Cameron Diaz). At her suggestion, he gets a filing job on the 7½ floor of LesterCorp to make ends meet. There, he falls in love with his unattainable co-worker, Maxine Lund (Catherine Keener) and, behind one of his filing cabinets, finds a portal that drops him into the mind of John Malkovich for fifteen minutes. Craig tells Maxine and they start selling tickets to the Malkovich experience for $200 a piece.
Despite tackling vast existential concepts, Being John Malkovich never feels unapproachable. The film is littered with intimately layered characters that give the story room to breathe and carry emotional weight (even Elijah, Lotte’s pet chimp, is given a small arc). Each one of them yearning to be known. Each one looking for an escape. That is what Malkovich, unbeknownst to himself, provides.
Craig, dungeoned by his ego, finds a home in Malkovich’s life where he can be respected and adored as the esoteric artist he is. Lotte, a caring wife in a passionless marriage, is just trying to find the cause of her malaise; in Malkovich she falls in love with Maxine and uncovers her desire to be a man. The other countless patrons of Malkovich’s mind could be there for any number of reasons. And before you balk at the idea of being tempted to enter his mind yourself, think of how easily you fall for the impossible solace of cinema and how you keep coming back just to be transported to those worlds.
After all, Being John Malkovich isn’t really about celebrity. It’s not as if Malkovich’s life is that extraordinary. Yeah, he’s famous, but most of his day is spent like ours: lonely, uneventful, and full of miscommunication. Most of the characters didn’t even know who Malkovich was. They just knew of him (and incorrectly assume he starred in that jewel thief movie). Given the chance, it’s hard to imagine Malkovich wouldn’t have jumped at the opportunity to enter someone else’s head. It isn’t about his celebrity as much as it is about the rush of doing things for the first time. Everything has a honeymoon phase; so, why should some temporal portal into another’s mind act any differently. Instead, the film acts as a prescient commentary that speaks directly to our current landscape. Social media, in many ways, gives us all limited access portals into each other’s brains. Now, more than ever, we feel entitled to what others are thinking and we are encouraged to seek constant validation from our peers.
And what of poor, discarded, Malkovich? He is no different than anyone else: vulnerable, lost, full of desires. Yet, the possession of his mind and, later, body is played for comedic effect. And, it works. Perhaps as soon as we feel entitled to somebody’s thoughts, we feel entitled to their bodies. In many ways, this is a horror story, harkening back to Invasion of the Body Snatchers — which might explain the hellscape Malkovich finds himself in after entering his own portal.
Jonze grounds the surrealism in hyperrealistic photography and he doesn’t reveal new concepts, they just happen. Information comes to us the same way it does the characters: It is mildly disconcerting, yet not all surprising in the grand scheme of things. Who cares how strange it is that Malkovich has a portal at all. How can it be used? Not that Jonze and Kaufman leave everything unanswered (it’s actually remarkable how much they do answer), the world is just sculpted in such a way that the nonsensical holds an internal logic and feels…possible. And at no point does it feel like Jonze and Kaufman are out of ideas. I’ve only scratched the surface of this movie’s narrative.
Throughout his career, Jonze has uncovered stories about self-obsessed and self-destructive people getting exactly what they want and discovering that it isn’t enough. He lingers on these moments with a pensive form of intimacy that craves for repentance. When first performed, Craig’s Dance of Despair and Disillusionment is painfully affecting, but the scene takes on an unsettling air when performed a second time while he inhabits John Malkovich’s body. Something becomes clear in that moment: This is not a portrait of a struggling artist. It is an ode to self-loathing and narcissistic fantasy. In Malkovich, anything is possible. He can live out his deepest fantasies. He can take over the world. In Malkovich, he is important. But, at the end of the day, he sits in a body that is not his own, in a house that is not his own, in celebrity that is not his own. So imprisoned by the self, Craig Schwartz is doomed to a life of simulation.