What’s So Funny ‘Bout BEING JOHN MALKOVICH?

As a part of this week’s inaugural, blogosphere-wide celebration of the Criterion Collection,* Loud Green Bird offers a semi-coherent look at Spike Jonze’s BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, one of the films in the Collection. First, I’ll provide some interesting background on and commentary by its writer and director, as well as its namesake. I’ll end with some brief comments about major themes in the movie, with a little help from Criterion itself.

BEING JOHN MALKOVICH: Background

Given the madcap, fantastical nature of this satirical comedy/fantasy story, it’s not surprising that many consider the resulting film unique. In fact, the 1999 theatrical release of BEING JOHN MALKOVICH was the occasion for celebrating several “firsts.”

It was the first production of a screenplay by its writer, Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman went on to create several more scripts that were later made into well-received, cutting-edge films, including “Adaptation” (2002), “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004), and “Synecdoche, New York” (2008). In the interview captured by the following video, John Malkovich related the story of how he admired Kaufman’s script, yet at first rejected the opportunity to play a fictional version of himself in it.

The role must have been difficult and challenging for Malkovich. It did not involve simply playing himself, with the potential for embarrassment inherent in such a part. Nevertheless, the role of John Horatio Malkovich (as IMDb lists it) was not entirely a fictional character either. Kaufman’s screenplay guaranteed that Malkovich would be playing a version of himself that would need tolerance and humility (as well as a good sense of humor) to pull off. It’s no wonder that Malkovich first offered to direct the film if Kaufman changed the title character to someone else.

In an interview with British film critic Mark Kermode, Kaufman explained his writing process, which led him to write more and more of himself into his screenplays:

Given his unique method of creating and telling a story through cinema, it’s not surprising that Kaufman ultimately became a writer-director (“Synecdoche, New York”). As he mentioned in the video interview above, Kaufman worked with director Spike Jonze on BEING JOHN MALKOVICH. It was the first feature film that Jonze directed. Having done only shorts (music videos and commercials) before this, Jonze’s experience directing his first feature was apparently a nauseating process, as the following video (shot by interviewer Lance Bangs in September 1998, immediately after production wrapped) attests:

Nevertheless, Jonze had the stomach to helm other features. His most recent effort, “Her” (2013), was a hit with both critics and moviegoers (according to Rotten Tomatoes).

BEING JOHN MALKOVICH: Discussion

Yet another video reveals that the Criterion Collection had three reasons (however facetious) for selecting BEING JOHN MALKOVICH for its DVD and BluRay collection:

I’ve organized my thoughts about the film around Criterion’s three points. Surprisingly, they fit well together.

The Mysteries of the 7 1/2 Floor

For me, this point brings up the existential questions that the film asks. Is identity relative? Is one’s consciousness vulnerable to invasion by another? Just what kind of hold do human beings have on their identities? On their bodies? Can one person manipulate another like a puppeteer his marionettes? The portal is not only a means to stave off mortality through transmigration. It’s also a way to cast off one’s identity, along with low self-esteem and poor self-image, and assume a “celebrity” identity. In the end, though, the film seems to undermine this identity theme by showing a family of three, each member of which is comfortable — literally as well as metaphorically — in her own skin.

The Malkovichian Three-Way

Ah yes, sexuality – a significant part of a person’s identity. The film seems to be saying that it’s more in the mind than in the body. Freeing the mind frees up one’s sexual perspective. For example, once Lotte (Cameron Diaz) has a taste of being John Malkovich and experiences a heterosexual male viewpoint, she develops transgender desires and fantasies. Then she competes with her Craig (John Cusack), her husband (a heterosexual male), for sex with Maxine (Catherine Keener). At first, Maxine doesn’t care for Craig, but has the hots for Lotte — but only when she is Malkovich. Despite dumping Lotte for Craig, whose puppeteering skills astound her, she cannot forget her desire for Lotte. Ultimately, Maxine and Lotte end up in a committed lesbian relationship, complete with a child that they conceived together. Craig, on the other hand, ceases to exist as Craig, at least from the point of view of the rest of the world? Does this mean that women only need men to fertilize an ovum — then they can disappear? It’s unclear how seriously that Kaufman and Jonze want their viewers to consider this and related questions. After all, the Malkovichian Three-Way is as much a device for comedy as it is for sexual psychology.

Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich

In my opinion, every member of the film’s cast turned in a fantastic performance. Malkovich himself does very well with a difficult part. He is all over the film, both as an actor and as a character. This Malkovichian ubiquity brings up the theme of narcissism. Self-love and its opposite, self-loathing, are a prominent motifs in the film. The end of self-hate seems to be self-destruction, as in the case of Craig. By the end of the film, he exists only as an element of Emily’s unconscious mind, of which she is not aware. The reduction to absurdity of self-love, however, is psychosis. When Malkovich enters his own portal, he effectively enters his own consciousness as a passive observer. What he finds is a remade world that is entirely self-referential. The scene in question would be as terrifying for the viewer as it is to the character if it weren’t so funny.

*This essay is just one of many posts produced this week, by a multitude of film bloggers, for the first annual Criterion Blogathon. I encourage you to browse through the Blogathon schedule and then read as many posts as possible. Kudos go out to the three Blogathon hosts — Criterion Blues, Speakeasy, and Silver Screenings — for organizing and running this event!

BEING JOHN MALKOVICH: Trailer