‘Being John Malkovich’ is a movie which received many controversial reviews. Some of them praise it for its ‘originality’ others consider it a sort of an indie hit or a cult movie. However, most of them have something in common: they all describe it as an awkward movie. Words like ‘kitchen sink surrealism’ or ‘interior adventure’, can be often encountered, alongside with characterizations like ‘a production situated midway between a Monty Python sketch and a Buñuel film, with dreamlike structure and pseudo scientific charts to match’.
So, what’s BJM about? Nothing much, in fact. It’s the story of a chronically unemployed puppeteer - Craig Schwartz who finally succeeds in getting a job at LesterCorp, a filing company located, oddly enough, in aManhattan high-rise, at seven-and-a-half floor. His unexciting life lived in the proximity of his wife, Lotte, and any number of her animals, takes a turn when he meets Maxine, a co-worker, and ‘falls in love’ with her. Things get interesting the moment Craig discovers a portal that allows one to enter into John Malkovich’s mind for about a quarter of an hour. From here on, the story unravels in the most unexpected and bizarre ways making you wonder what’ll happen next. Shortly put - Maxine falls in love as well, not with Craig though, but with Lotte… as John Malkovich. Craig and Maxine win big charging people for a ride in Malkovich’s head. Malkovichhimself has the opportunity to go through the portal into his own mind. Then, in a desperate attempt to conquer Maxine’s heart Craig discovers that he can manage to control Malkovich’s body which proves to be a big turn-on for Maxine and causes an unexpected elevation of his social status and a recognition of his abilities as a puppeteer. Thereafter, Malkovichbecomes only a vehicle, a tool. Not for long though: Dr. Lester, the head of LesterCorp, together with his decrepit friends need to go through the portal themselves in order to keep alive. There’s a chaise and a run through Malkovich’s unconscious and for a split second the guy, empty and dizzy, is left on his own devices for the first time in quite a while. The end presents us with couple of lovers, a ‘Lesterized’ Malkovich and a man trapped in a little girl’s body. What a ride!
What follows is not an explanation or an objective interpretation of the movie but only a subjective view tainted with some philosophical ideas about identity, society, love and other ‘demons’.
‘Hell is the other people’, wrote Sartre, and BJM is an excellent example. John Malkovich’s hell is the other people. All those who claimed a place within him (literally) wanted to control him or to make him go their way. All their doings were nothing but hell itself. The others are causing pain. This idea points out some difficulties regarding the question of identity. Suppose I admit that I cannot obtain any truth whatsoever about myself, except through the mediation of another. The other is indispensable to my existence, and equally so to any knowledge I can have of myself. Under these conditions, the intimate discovery of myself is at the same time the revelation of the other as a freedom which confronts mine and which cannot think or will without doing so either for or against me. Thus, at once, we find ourselves in a world which is, let us say, that of ‘inter-subjectivity’. It is in this world that man has to decide what he is and what others are. However, this is where things get complicated because it seems that one’s identity is somehow lost in social constraints, where the others are given a lot more than due importance. It seems that this leads to total annihilation of the self. The self vanishes or becomes a mere playground for ‘the others’. At least this is what comes to mind when thinking about the number of trips through the portal. There is little thought given to what Malkovich might feel or suffer or think. He’s only taken as means by the others in their attempt to reach selfish wishes, flaw-indulging endeavors.
Now, what would happen if one has the chance to glance withinthemselves? What do they see? Nothing else but a world populated with tokens of the same self. Was Hume right? It seems that there is nothing that gives a certain unity to the self. There is a bundle of perceptions, a bundle of different ways in which we perceive the world or relate to it. We are, at the same time, men and women, young and old, we are handsome and ugly, conservative and radical, straightforward and queer, we are everything we ever were and everything we wanted to be. The scary thing is that we are alone. We are alone in there. Just us. Getting to know this, getting to see our loneliness has no other consequence than making us want to run ‘out’ raving mad. This is what Malkovich did when he slid through the portal and landed inside himself.
What are we to chose? There is no ‘good’ alternative. The others take us means and this is deplorable but, heck!, we, in our most intimate self, are no better. Our fantasies and desires are as flaw-indulging as those of the others. Coming to understand this pushes us on the brink of craziness.
When Lotte is going through the portal for the first time she states that she’s one with herself, that for the time she was in there everything made sense. Thus, one needs to be able to detach from oneself so that the world makes sense. Or, because there is nothing that makes up our self in a fulfilling way, because there is this feeling of fear of the loneliness and bluntness of our self, we are only happy when we become someone else, when we are someone else. The only difficulty is that it only lasts for fifteen minutes. Unless you are a puppet-master and know how to become the master of the other. Becoming the master of the other. This is what we are looking for and what we dream about. It can be the most rewarding but, gee!, if we are alone in there again!
Being someone else seems to be the key to happiness. At least temporary. At least when it comes to love and love making or, simply, seeking pleasure in as many variations as possible. Just think about how it would be to be a woman and share your love with another woman, while being a man at the same time. Or, sharing your love with another woman while she is a man. This is the story that unfolds between Lotte and Maxine. Again, poor old Malkovich is only a means for these women’s happiness. He’s not to be taken into account as a person himself, but only as a vessel through which Lotte’s love for Maxine is channeled.
In a world where everything moves fast, where everything changes every day, one needs new stimuli. What is love today? Is ‘promiscuity’ the word I am looking for? I am not sure what to answer. What I know though (or I think I do) is that love is not as simple as it used to be. Of course, love is never simple, never understandable, never reasonable, impossible to grasp. It’s not difficult to figure out that throughout the movie, none of the characters is in love except, perhaps, when we get to the very last scene. Love per se is not ‘celebrated’. Instead, what we are presented with is an awkward sort of lovemaking. So, here, the word ‘love’ should be taken cum grano salis. Love is the ground where experiments happen, it’s not love as such, as a feeling, as deep affection toward someone. Thus, Maxine loves the puppeteer because of what he can do, not because of who he is. She loves Lotte not because of how she is as she is, nor because she is a woman, but because she is someone else, because she can be someone else. There is a continuous quest for the other. However, this ‘other’ is dry and empty inasmuch as feelings are concerned. The ‘other’ is just a drug, something one needs to make use of so that one would evade from the dull reality. Even though usual people are boring, even though celebrities are no better the possibility of alienation, of radical, awkward change is only essential matter. That’s what incites one, that’s what makes life interesting. What is not real, what is not obvious, what is weird, what is unusual, that’s the appealing part!
‘We will use Malkovich’s notoriety and money and we’ll become famous!’, said Maxine, happy that she can have Malkovitch and Craig at the same time. One cannot impose one’s will upon a system and one cannot change a system either. The only way to deal with it is to become part of it using someone else’s name and money, in other words: someone’s social status. This is how the western world works. This is an expression ofwhat’s been called the male way of thinking, the male hierarchical structure of the western social and political world.
Craig Schwartz, the puppeteer, tried over and over again to make his ideas public, to make the others see what he thinks and what he can do. Hewas forced to give in and look for a regular job although his dreams and aspirations were high. This is where I always remember something that Leo Shestov (a Russian existentialist) once said thinking about the youth - ‘you teach them how to fly and then you break their wings’, he said. And I guess there’s a bit of truth in there, relative to the movie at least. Craig was able to perform. He had what it took in order to express something meaningful and beautiful at the same time. However, he was only taken seriously when he got inside the system, using someone else’s fame and money. It would’ve worked otherwise? The most likely answer is ‘no’.