****/**** Image A Sound A Extras B-
starring John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, John Malkovich
screenplay by Charlie Kaufman
directed by Spike Jonze
by Walter Chaw The moment you realize that Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich is more than just another ultra-high-concept indie calling-card is right at the end, when all that quirk reveals itself as bleak, desperate, lonesome. It's the first time most of us conceptualized the idea of Charlie Kaufman, in fact--the moment that any follow-up became a cause célèbre. It's silly, really, to bother trying to synopsize the film, but for the uninitiated, it's about a failed puppeteer's discovery of a portal behind a file cabinet on the low-ceilinged floor of an office designed for the dwarf wife of a sea captain. ("Curs-ed t'ing," he calls her.) The portal leads, of course, to the inside of John Malkovich's skull for around fifteen minutes before expelling the interloper to the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. Looking here, it's possible to begin to trace Kaufman's auteur obsessions with interiors, with language (in a job interview hinged on malaproprisms and miscommunications), with doubling, identity, surrealism, systems of belief, and, sneakily, science-fiction. What's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, after all, but a fairly extraordinary SF piece that just happens to be one of the best movies about love ever made?
Hyperbole upon hyperbole, Being John Malkovich is an essential existentialist text. Early on, said puppeteer, Craig (John Cusack), watches a massive public manipulation of an Emily Dickinson marionette on TV and mutters Decartes's maxim about consciousness to his pet chimp, thus aligning himself with Kierkegaard's Sisyphus and Kierkegaard in general in the way that the passions of these characters define the film's reality. Yet Being John Malkovich works best as something like Kafka. It's about an everyday schlub with a perhaps real, perhaps unwanted artistic gift who is forced into menial labour by "today's winter economy" and consequently discovering a means of existential escape while literally bent over in supplication. I like to think of the sequence where Malkovich enters his own portal as the gratification of the problem at the centre of Kafka's "Before the Law" ("I have been to the dark side. I have seen a world that no man should see... That portal is mine and it must be sealed forever for the LOVE of GOD.")--and I like to think of all the other tourists of Malkovich's brain as violators of Kafka's doorkeeper's explanation that "No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you." Craig is the film's seeker of Law: he's looking for definition or affirmation or justification for his existence; failing that, he's looking to engage in adultery with hot Maxine (Catherine Keener). That Craig finds release from his private hell through a different kind of wet hole is one of those funny ironies, those entanglements of sex and psyche, that Kaufman layers into his scripts. Not content, Kaufman allows Craig to use the vehicle of Malkovich to "rape" Maxine (who's managed to seduce Malkovich). Even more grimly, Maxine likes it. It's less a metaphor agonizingly extended at this point than it is a universal parable of otherness and dislocation.
A better question surrounds Maxine. If Being John Malkovich were a film noir--and it is, if we think of noir as a movement based on masculine displacement and sexual insecurity--then Maxine is the obvious fatale and key to the picture. Sexually voracious (sexually omnivorous, more precisely), Maxine is an alien construct--a vagina dentata flashing her pearlies and handily un-manning Craig's every attempt to get into her pants. She agrees to a date because of a word game (again, Kaufman's fond of them), allying her in that way to besotted, lust-crazed Dr. Lester's (Orson Bean) monstrous Girl Friday Floris (Mary Kay Place), who has some sort of aural dyslexia that jumbles speech in her mind. Maybe. There's a moment where Floris makes a pass at Craig, acts confused at his rebuttal, then snarls a warning to him for refusing. The women in this universe are total enigmas--including Craig's scruffy, long-suffering wife Lottie (Cameron Diaz), who's displaced her desire for a child onto a menagerie of rescued animals but finally becomes actualized by her detours into Malkovich. The sequence in which she pursues Maxine through John Malkovich's subconscious is brilliant, indescribable, and rife with subtext destined to go unnoticed if you let it, so lovely is it woven through the narrative impetus of the piece. Maxine is, at the end, a lesbian, placing her in a position entirely unknowable to men (it is one great fantasy for men that lesbians are interested in them sexually). Kaufman's women are entirely unknowable to men. I don't see this as misogyny so much as absolute honesty coloured by a lifetime's fear and self-loathing. His namesake's interior monologue prior to meeting Tilda Swinton's literary agent in Adaptation. is further evocation--ditto Joel's lament upon spying Clementine in a deserted diner in Montauk.
If the question is around Craig, then Being John Malkovich becomes a Frankenstein story of unnatural creation and functional equivalence. As a puppeteer, he creates a dance of his own debasement and enacts the Letters of Heloise and Abelard, as Kaufman himself will to some extent in the interactions between Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind's central couple. Once Craig masters the ability to treat the Malkovich host as a marionette, he recreates this dance of debasement as a courtship--as foreplay in his budding relationship with Maxine, who is seduced for a spell by her perception of illicitness in what is basically a ménage a trois. Left there, Maxine would be despicable, but Kaufman allows her a transformation through pregnancy and childbirth--which, again, is less misogynistic than archetypal; were Clementine to get pregnant like she wants in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind sometime in the continuation of those characters' unseen futures, the destructive/repetitive cycle of her relationship would end and a new cycle would begin in its place. Craig's fate at the end of the film is fascinating, because he's more or less transformed into an author without a voice, an artist without a medium. It's an existential castration, an evocation of Sisyphus's priapism with no possible release, a moment of absolute horror provided for the protagonist most calibrated for audience sympathy--at least until the raping, kidnapping, and body-snatching. But even after.
What if the question were around John Malkovich? An actor playing himself as an actor who is the best friend of Charlie Sheen and given to running lines and lounging dramatically in his posh apartment. His is a face everyone recognizes but no one knows from where, and yet there's a moment in which Malkovich is venerated as a deity by a corridor packed with sad penitents, waiting to pay two-hundred dollars to be in his head for fifteen Warholian minutes. On some level, Being John Malkovich is a dissection of America's culture of celebrity, whereby every citizen is the star of his or her own show and every aspiration is to be famous. Tie it to the bit where Elijah the chimpanzee has a flashback to a jungle intrigue that sees him failing to save his parents from chimp-catchers, spurring him to free Lottie--a traumatic memory that teaches Elijah a new skill. It also offers insight into the film's concern with the nature of consciousness: Is Malkovich less animated because he's playing a role? How about when he's playing someone playing him? Or, more precisely, playing a perceived version of himself as that version of himself is being controlled by an Other. Now make him a puppeteer--and remember how during the prologue the Cusack puppet (Craig) looks up at Craig (Cusack), the creation beholding its master at the nadir of his fear and loathing. Does this cloud of indicators make Malkovich a less "real" scrim through which Kaufman presents his case? Does giving the chimp a backstory suggest the chimp doesn't have complexity? I don't have any answers to these questions, but they move me.
Being John Malkovich is strange, surreal, absurd--every word you use when you want to illustrate your difficulty and delight with something. I've said before that while I don't understand Kaufman's films, they seem to understand me. There's an unbelievable emotional pull to his work, augmented by its strangeness rather than distracted by it. Being John Malkovich is, among the many things it is, an adaptation of William Carlos Williams's "The Red Wheelbarrow", a picture that is whatever it is in the contrast it presents itself as against what's knowable. It's a conversation about ultimate questions and proximate ones, too. It's the best of theatre (Beckett or Brecht), finding itself through the motions of ritual and repetition, nesting itself in layers of artificiality and drama. And it's most effective talking about the things that drive men and the shame that follows close behind. I compared Kaufman once to Orson Welles--I wonder if a better comparison isn't John Keats. Being John Malkovich is about yearning, eternity, and creation and how each of those things is the same. It's about being afraid, and loneliness, and captivity, and freedom. It's hilarious and sad, it feels dirty, it feels true; and, for as odd and indefinable and utterly alien as it is, I recognize it.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The Criterion Collection brings Being John Malkovich to Blu-ray in a 1.85:1, 1080p transfer described by Spike Jonze himself in the accompanying booklet like so:
Supervised by director Spike Jonze and cinematographer Lance Acord, this new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on a DFT SCANITY film scanner from the original 35mm camera negative. The data was then colour corrected on a DaVinci Resolve at Company 3, with colourist Stefan Sonnenfeld, who recently cut off his ponytail of twenty years. It's still a little shocking to see him without all that hair.
It's a wiseass, stream-of-consciousness riff that goes along with all the other wiseass stream-of-consciousness riffs-as-extras decorating this release. Acord is a genius and the image retains the grunginess of my theatrical experience with Being John Malkovich. Organically dim, grainy, and slightly soft-focused (there's a certain ironic naturalism to the cinematography), this is, according to Jonze, the first video presentation of the film to get the colours right. Indeed, cyan has replaced the DVD's drab grey as the primary hue. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is fabulous and immersive, with Malkovich's dialogue relegated to the rear channels in P.O.V. shots and sounding strangely damp--an effective cinematic approximation of what your voice sounds like bouncing around your cranium.
Supplementary material docks in HD in a mix of 1080i and 1080p, much of it seemingly prepared by filmmaker Lance Bangs, including: "An Intimate Portrait of the Art of Puppeteering" (8 mins.), a nice vignette on operating a marionette; "Spike's Photos" (16 mins.), a photo diary of the shoot narrated by Jonze; and "All Noncombatants Please Clear the Set" (34 mins.), the product of Bangs's fly-on-the-wall access to the set. (The latter is one of those non-narrative pieces I tend to associate with special features on Japanese art films.) "American Arts & Culture Presents John Horatio Malkovich: Dance of Despair and Disillusionment" (5 mins.) and "7½ Floor Orientation" (3 mins.) are the complete faux-documentaries generously excerpted within the film. "John Malkovich and John Hodgman" (28 mins.) is more earnest than you'd think, as Malkovich recalls reading the script for the first time before delving briefly into the longevity of the picture. A "Selected-Scene Commentary" is another jokey flourish courtesy of Michel Gondry, who, in the yakker's best moment, reveals how the failure of his own first swing at a Kaufman screenplay, Human Nature, resulted in people asking him why he wasn't as good as Spike Jonze. He wonders if his helming of Eternal Sunshine didn't level the historical perception of the two. Perhaps, but Jonze pulled out ahead again with Where the Wild Things Are. The insert booklet also, by the way, contains--in lieu of the usual essay--a Coen Bros.-like kick in the ass at critical theory by positing a conversation between Jonze and Perkus Tooth, a character created by Jonathan Lethem. This is only interesting because a created character, probably written in-character by Lethem, interviewing Jonze about a film about created characters clothed in layers of complexity, is really terribly, awfully clever, isn't it? Incidentally, the opposite side of the reversible cover art features a Rorschach blot. Perfect.