by Jaime Grijalba.
It is fascinating to actually see again this film in the light of this countdown and find how incredibly funny it is regarding its dialogue, plot and even shot composition in its whole first hour. It is not until the film deliver us one of its most fascinating, horrific and funny experiences (Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich? Malkovich!) that it makes a shift for a fantasy/drama/horror that atonishes to this day, it is quite the tone shifter, and its done in a way that is so well done, that you don’t actually miss the funny parts of the first half of the film, but you actually start to thank them because of how serious and dark the movie gets once the hour mark is past, you at least had your chance to have a bit of fun before you took a dive inside the dark depths of the mind of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman, the principal responsibles for this masterpiece of fantasy/comedy/drama/science fiction that is ‘Being John Malkovich’. So, in the spirit of this countdown and experience of comedies that we are having, let’s take a look at those elements that are mostly present in the first half of the film before we take the deeper examination of the themes and practices that make this film so spectacular. First of all, let’s say that this is a dark comedy, one that wants us to laugh at the bad luck and bad choices that our protagonists makes (John Cusack has never had a better role in his entire life than this turn as the puppeteer Craig Schwartz) as well as of his obsessed new-age stoned wife that carries and treats animals as if they were human beings (the role that really shows the range and overall mastery of Cameron Diaz regarding on-screen performance when she’s given a good script), it wants you to laugh at the sexual fantasies of an old man, it wants you to laugh at Malkovich’s own reactions to the whole situation in which he is driven into (even if he emphasizes many times that it is his head that is being played with, just to be hit with a can in the head just after he says that). Above all, it wants you to laugh about mysery, the mysery and the sadness of the life of its protagonists that can’t help but feel awkward in the real world that they are pushed to, just to find themselves in an even stranger realm than the one that they were accustomed to.
Because our two main characters (Craig and his wife; I’ll talk about Catherine Keener’s character, Maxine, later) are oddballs, they are strange and they don’t live in the same world as all of us are used to. Lotte Schwartz (Cameron Diaz) is an ambientalist and animalist, one that thinks that animals should be taken care of with more delicacies and love than any other human being, including his husband, who she just accepts au contraire to trying to understand him; later in our story, once she experiences the trip to Malkovich’s mind, she starts to think that she is a transsexual, that she really is a man, giving us the funnier lines of script of the whole movie (I think 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.) even though we are talking about serious business, one’s discovery of your own sexual identity is something that has been toyed way too much in an offensive manner, and those of us who believe that there shouldn’t be any discrimination towards anyone’s decission in that realm of existence, we fight and fight, day after day, year after year, to condemn and try to stop anyone from being offended by either curse words or degoratory terms towards anyone and coming from anywho… and then we find ourselves laughing at the prospect that Cameron Diaz wants to have a dick, that she may become a lesbian. Why do we think that her thought process is wrong, funny and at the same time so ridiculous? Because we have grown to know her in some fashion, and even if her love for another woman, Maxine, prooves itself to be real and that her tranny fantasies are just some confusion of her state of mind after the shock of being inside another people’s mind… and why do we think that she’s wrong? Because we root for the looser, and the looser isn’t her, the looser is our main character: Craig Schwartz (John Cusack).
Now, Craig Schwartz is an even weirder character, someone that we don’t find each day in the street, he is more of a recluse, someone that has made its life in its interior, and your guess on how he married Lotte is as good as mine, because I really have no clue how that even happened (we can say that these two oddballs found to be the only one that could stand the strange quirks of the other, because of their own strange characteristics). Anyhow, he’s a puppeteer, and maybe the most passionate about his career than anyone you would ever found (you won’t think about puppetry the same once you finish this film), I mean, this guy makes his own puppets based on his own contexture, that of his wife and then later the one about his partner and love interest Maxine, and he even goes and re-enacts a conversation that was cut off by Maxine once she found out what he really was, I mean it’s like she said, that he was playing with dolls, and here we see him at his most intimate and saddest at the same time, fantasizing about kissing his work coleague after he tells him how he feels when he is doing his puppeteer work, and that’s why we root for him, no matter how bad we think that he is in fact looking for another woman even though he’s married (after all, Maxine is pretty clear to say that she doesn’t find Craig attractive), and while sad, the trials and tries of Craig are the funniest parts of the first part of the film, for example when Maxine suggests that Craig is gay, he shout-whispers in the middle of a crowded bar that he’s not, that he loves Maxine’s tits and that he wants to fuck her, and the desperate way that he says it, as well as the calmed performance that Maxine gives reacting to those sayings is simply what makes the funny scenes of this film work: a dark or serious subject subverted to become comedy, and that works a lot, and makes the film a memorable one.
It is interesting how Craig defines his professional experience as a puppeteer to Maxine (puppet and real version of her), as being in someone else’s skin for a little while, thinking differently, moving differently, feeling differently… as if he was subjecting his own mind to the experiences that the puppet must feel and not those that he wants the puppet to enact, as if the puppet were a living thing, something with its own story and background, with its own history, characteristics, and those should be honored, that’s why he defines the experience as being inside someone else. Then, the magical thing happens, he is given the opportunity to be someone else for a little while, John Malkovich, and he tries to try his own morality and personal mission as a puppeteer to feel differently, think differently and move differently, being the difference, moving, feeling and thinking like John Malkovich would. Hence, as time goes by he is proven to betray himself and become a bad puppeteer, according to his own standards, as he takes control of Malkovich and doesn’t want to feel, think or move like him, but wants to be just like himself, pushing the experience of being John Malkovich to the lower level of conciousness (hence the joke of the title, at the end, when Craig Schwartz is inside the body of Malkovich he is not Malkovich, he is Schwartz with a nice expensive suit, just as he says… it is to note the physical transformation of the body of Malkovich once Schwartz takes over him, having the same hairdo and facial hair that he had when he entered the little door on the floor 71/2). He puts his own thoughts, movements, feelings over those of Malkovich, and so, he doesn’t become other, he just becomes a better version of himself, betraying the experience in favour of his own egotistical goals, pushed by the pressure of what sorrounded him: jealousy, love and his own dreams of grandeur.
It is in that cathartic scene in which Schwartz demonstrates the grasp of his control of the actor John Malkovich when he reproduces the puppet dance that started the film (a technical note aside, the scenes with the puppets are so incredibly well coreographed and done that they become the most beautiful scenes and sequences) but with the body of Malkovich, we become to understand the conversion of Schwartz in a disgusting character, one that anyone would hate inmediatly. But here is where the real puppeteers appear: director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, that have given us a character that we can’t help but love and root for, no matter how many times they try to cut back to Lotte’s sorry position. We champion his triumph and we feel bad when it all comes crumbling down, and the final shot of the film give us a final chance for us to feel sorry for him, and think that maybe one day he can be happy… but then the movie ends and you (or at least I did) begin thinking of how much of a prick he really was once he managed to take over Malkovich, not only sacrifying his own morals towards his loved profession, but at the same time leaving his own wife tied up and to become alone, that is enough to hate a character, but we don’t really have time to do so, and that’s where the mastery of the filmmakers comes forward, when you find yourself manipulated, as if you were a simple puppet, to feel what they wanted you to feel at the specific certain moments. Here’s a chance to talk about a really interesting character, Maxine, that manages to become the master puppeteer of Craig character, using him to her own advantage, social escalation and wealth increment, but she in fact is the most normal character of them all, the one that never enters a strange world (she doesn’t live in one and she doesn’t enter another one once she leaves her commodity), she becomes the impersonation of ‘bursting the bubble’, she rationalizes, economizes and never wants to become involved with the Malkovich issue except for the real body incarnation of the actor.
The film has many themes and interesting discussions that one can have, and I have laid out a few all over the recent paragraphs, but I think that it’s not so complicated to actually mention those themes, because the film itself, through its dialogue or even shot composition lays them out for you, actually speaking them out loud. For example, there’s the issue about the actual portal that is found in the 71/2 floor, how does it work, what does it mean, why does it lead to a person’s head, anyone experiencing that would have questions about God, the soul or all the things that are happening around you would be more confusing and not enlightened… and that’s the same things that Craig Schwartz asks himself after his first trip inside the mind of Malkovich, and instead of telling his wife, he uses this questions and other cunundrums as a way to approach Maxine, to make her interested in what he says, but it doesn’t get beyond that, because those themes are put to rest by Maxine herself that founds no interest in that, and just tries to find a way to make a business out of it, that’s how the film, in a really intelligent way, tries to avoid giving questions to the things that it shows and leaves the audience to think about those, and it does it through humour, every discussion about the important stuff behind this fantasy is shot down by jokes or ridiculous situations or gags. For example, the whole scene when he explains stuff to Maxine about what he experienced is interrupted when she asks ‘Who the fuck is John Malkovich?’ and he answers by saying that he played a jewel thief, a role that he had never played (to that date) and that he was confused with in a conversation with a taxi driver that Craig witnessed in his first trip. Then, there’s the part when they start the business putting people in Malkovich’s mind for 200 dollars, the first client (or the first client that the movie decides to put in screen) talks about the issues behind the fact that the film is about the obsession with celebrities and the problem with being someone else to try to subvert your own unsatisfying existence, and the whole speech of this first client is cut off by Maxine when she asks for the 200 dollars. As I said, she’s a bubble burster.
So, let’s just say that the film is a grandiose example of an incredibly well manufactured script (that always makes references to the future and the past of the characters at every moment, giving it place to breathe and at the same time being completely tonally coordinate, a film that is an exploration of the mind of anyone of us, but with quirkier characters, a film that manages to pose questions for us to go on about (I’d like a discussion on this on the comments, for example: Why John Malkovich? Why not Tom Cruise? Or anyone else?). You can think that this film is a puzzle, but it is based on a really simple concept and the only complicated thing in it, is the rules that are thrown near the end regarding the character of the boss of Craig Schwartz, but even when you start understanding that, you find much more satisfaction at the end of it all. This is a deep film, but with a comedy exterior, you just have to take the dive inside, and remember what lies at the bottom, Charlie Sheen said it best: witch lesbian lovers.
How Being John Malkovich made the Top 100:
No. 8 Pedro Silva
No. 20 Jaime Grijalba
No. 26 David Schleicher
No. 46 Bob Clark
No. 52 Pierre de Plume
No. 56 Sachin Gandhi