1999 was an incredibly important year for cinema.
That year we had many films that not just question authority but the concept of reality itself and our true nature. A lot of these had regular office type workers realize they are a pawn in the chessboard of life and embrace the darker side of themselves to enjoy a more desirable life that they either accept or reject.
The films that embrace this philosophy and thematic arc were films like Eyes Wide Shut, The Matrix, Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, and of course, Being John Malkovich. All of these films, no matter what decision they make, whether to accept or reject reality, have a consequence to face when confronted with this glitch in the matrix so to speak.
Spike Jonze’s preoccupation with the human body and making our own reality/humanity takes hold with his works from Fatboy Slim Praise You music video starring Jonze himself to his award winning Apple HomePod commercial starring FKA Twigs.
Both leads in these are people trapped in a mundane crowd and world who try to find escape through movement, a constant movement that separates them from everyone else. An individuality that makes them weird or off to the world but eventually through struggle they come into their own and find self acceptance within themselves and someone else, no matter how strange it may seem.
Charlie Kaufman however is more cerebral in his work.
Kaufman makes films with characters that can’t get over their own self aggrandizing nature, they constantly analyze others but never truly analyze their own selves because they’re afraid of the toxicity that truly lies beneath themselves. No, his characters must pull a narrative that they are a true artist that no one understands when it’s really they themselves that they don’t know.
Combined together, They created Being John Malkovich.
Everyone in Being John Malkovich wants to be in complete control. Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) embodies a control freak from the very start of “Being John Malkovich” where we get a glimpse of who he is with his dramatic to the point of parody ballet show where the dancer is a marionette puppet modeled after himself.
The puppet sways from wall to wall in agony, in the middle of the performance we get a glimpse of Craig’s face for the first time as he seems embarrassed to look at his own puppet, culminating in the puppet throwing a vase at the mirror, ashamed at his own face, a scene that will be mirrored near the end of the 2nd act when Craig finally takes control of the titular John Malkovich.
When Craig pathetically ends his self deprecating puppet show, he’s shown as a complete loser. His wife, Lotte, is seemingly innocent and surrounds herself with zoo animals within their New York apartment, taking care of them which in a way seems like self healing for herself, a woman in a loveless marriage that suppresses her true desires. Craig cares very little for Lotte or any of her own interests that don’t correlate with his worldview.
He can’t even remember her animals’ names, yet when we see him performing with the puppets on the street you can clearly tell it’s her voice and his voice performing as the puppets, as if Lotte still wants to find something redeemable in Craig’s masturbatory art.
Eventually Craig has to lower himself, in his own definition, to the worst thing imaginable: a 9 to 5 Office job on the 7 ½ floor of a place called LesterCorp. The importance of the office milieu in Being John Malkovich expands the text more to the 1999 aesthetic of mind opening revelations of the true nature of the real world.
Catherine Keener’s Maxine is seemingly set up to be the tempestuous office coworker that will have Craig stray off the path from his marriage which is quickly taken apart when it’s clear that Maxine has no interest in Craig as a person. The very sight of Craig disgusts her because she views him as weak and pathetic.
We see Craig reenact a romantic scene with puppet versions of him and Maxine, where he has more confidence in his imagination. When he tries to recreate this interaction in real life, it’s met with the same hostility that Maxine has explicitly shown Craig throughout the entire film. Craig seems to be bending over backwards for any escape from Lotte, but he does find that escape, but not in a way anyone would expect.
Eventually, Craig reveals the portal to Maxine who comedically isn’t phased and believes Craig about this portal and immediately wants to monetize it as a tourist attraction. One night Craig takes Lotte into the portal and she finds herself in Malkovich’s head while he’s taking a shower, as he starts to rinse his body off, Lotte starts feeling an intense amount of pleasure.
When she comes out, Lotte immediately wants to go back in. On the drive back, Lotte begins to describe, well, being John Malkovich. Lotte describes Malkovich’s essence as, “…it’s kinda sexy that John Malkovich has a portal, y’know, sort of like, it’s like, like he has a vagina. It’s sort of vaginal, y’know, like he has a, he has a penis AND a vagina. I mean, it’s sort of like… Malkovich’s… feminine side. I like that.”
The first question that comes to mind during my first viewing was: “Why John Malkovich?”
It’s quite a puzzling concept for a film: a puppeteer finds a portal into the mind of two time Academy Award Winning Actor John Malkovich.
Even for 1999, that’s a pretty baffling concept, even to the actor himself who thought, like other people, it should be Tom Cruise instead of John Malkovich.
The scenes that answers that question the most convincingly are Lotte’s first time inside John Malkovich and the famous “Malkovich Malkovich” scene.
In the “Malkovich Malkovich” scene, Malkovich discovers the portal into his own mind and ends up in busy restaurant where everyone and everything is..John Malkovich. We see Malkovich panic and run through the crowds of himself. We see tall Malkovich’s, little Malkovich’s, female singer Malkovich’s, businessmen Malkovich’s. It’s a nightmare fever dream of endless John Malkovichs.
John Malkovich is the perfect actor for a project such as this. He’s not an ordinarily attractive looking man but he exudes a confidence people wish they had. He’s comfortable in both his masculinity and his femininity that makes him appealing to everyone. He is a vast contrast to the characters that wish to control him.
Being John Malkovich ends in reality being accepted by Maxine and Lotte meanwhile Craig will forever wallow in the misery of having no control over life yet continually deny it forever. It’s a reversal of what happens in films where the main protagonists accept the reality of their situations and find peace within the uncertainty of the future.
Almost all the protagonists face the consequences of their actions and accept their fate. Our protagonist Craig refuses to do either and is put into a hellish limbo because he refuses to accept his own reality.
Being John Malkovich is the psyche of the mentally stunted man who refuses to mature and tries to manipulate the world to his view when he will inevitably crumble. The film ultimately tells us it’s not being John Malkovich..it’s about being yourself and accepting every flaw in yourself. In time, we end up being able to reflect and change for the better.