Millennial Malaise 23: Being John Malkovich

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In the broad sweep of films that fall under the, “mainstream culture and work life sucks” banner, many try find the out to such ingrained office and suburban ennui. In a myriad of movies our angst ridden heroes are saved by some sort of rebellious combo of artistic expression and romantic engagement. In our series we have seen this manifest in the form of people dropping out and being involved in music (Reality Bites), or dumping their current partners for more cavalier relationships (Office Space). These tropes are so ingrained into the popular consciousness that they’re more than expected, they’re rewarded (as we’ll see with Best Picture winner American Beauty next week). What makes Being John Malkovich not just a brilliant piece of writing and filmmaking, but stand the test of time better than many of its contemporaries is that Being John Malkovich realizes these revolts will not be enough to heal our existential wounds.

In fact the first collaboration between manic screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and music video director Spike Jonze feels like a thorough refutation of the many thematic through lines of the era. That, no, the world of office jobs and steady living is not worse in some total spirit crushing way than the purposeful conflicts of the past century, you just have more time to confront the fact that you’re isolated and one day will die. And no matter what love or art you pursue you may just end up trapped in your own head, or the unwilling vessel for others fleeing their own demise.

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So the story of jilted puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) starting a new job as a filer, trying to cheat on his Lotte (Cameron Diaz) with hot new office mate Maxine (Catherine Keener), and eventually stumbling upon a tiny door that leads into the mind of famed character actor John Malkovich (John Malkovich) feels both like a literalization of the fears of modern living and a kick in the pants to the idea that there’s an easy solution to these fears.

Because Kaufman, Jonze, and the actors make a bold decision that adds greater depth to the terror we as the audience perceive and empathize with in the film. For the most part the trio of lead actors alternate their characters between pitiable and reprehensible. Never giving them a full on moment of decency to save themselves from the horrors that life tosses their way. Cusack bears the brunt of this, by playing Craig as a needling irritant that is willing to enact violence to get his way. He’s gross, angry, self-centered, and delusional, but in a way his struggle is fairly universal. His fears of anonymity and purposelessness are nothing inherently special. In other stories the way he reacts to this (moping around work, trying to start an affair) has been depicted as either heroic or needed to tear down the mainstream structures of society. But Craig is repugnant. His entirely human folly draws the viewer deep enough for them to be disgusted by his awful abuses. Kaufman forces us to confront how our feelings of emptiness and fear can lead to wretched acts like shoving your wife in a cage with a chimpanzee named Elijah and mentally puppeteer another person.

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Even if Lotte and Maxine escape some of Craig’s more blatantly villainous actions, they also end up being more fractured heroes than the out-and-out romantic leads that the end of the film initially suggests. Maxine is right to rebuff Craig’s advances, he’s a creep, but she’s also incredibly willing to sacrifice the autonomy of a stranger for personal and sexual gain. Malkovich never truly gets a say in what happens in his head, and Maxine leads the charge to take a man’s mind from himself. Lotte is the most sympathetic of the group, beaten down by a series of mysterious pet illnesses (Elijah has an ulcer from repressed trauma) and having Craig as a husband. So it feels almost overwhelmingly joyful that she has an awakening from being in Malkovich, from experiencing the world as someone else, and with no doubt coming out as queer women, and still this comes at the expense of someone else’s agency. Kaufman again insists that the gains made by these characters will always come at the price of someone sense actual self.

It’s a mordant thematic conclusion, and one that makes the final moments of the film one of the great ambivalent and ambiguous ends in recent cinema. The combination of Carter Burwell’s melancholic score, the woozy happiness of the girl swimming underwater, and the Lotte and Maxine’s romance is undercut by the knowledge that Craig’s consciousness flows in the child’s mind and a bunch of actor’s will at one point take her body away from her. It’s a beautiful and sad moment, a sequence that illustrates all the complicated emotional hoops humans have to jump through just to come to some sort of satisfying resolution with our own mortality. But no amount of magic portals, acts of true love, or artistic prowess will save you from either yourself or the whims of others.

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All of this seems like it would make Being John Malkovich a drag, but it’s not. All of the existential dread is infused with bundles of gut busting jokes and formal invention from both Kaufman and Jonze. The whole bit with the 7-1/2 floor is not only thematically rich (the characters are literally boxed in and cramped at their workplace) it’s just funny to look at, and the training video to explain the existence of such low ceilings rivals the very best of sketch comedy. Each one of these jokes does double duty of making the audience laugh and further engage with the material of the piece. A hard of hearing secretary gets in some good pun work while also demonstrating the difficulty of communicating in  the modern world, Craig’s puppet dances are humorously unnerving while also demonstrating his legitimate talent as an artist. The list can go on, but it demonstrates how in sync Jonze and Kaufman were when creating a film this daring and complex.

I had slotted Being John Malkovich in with a series of films about rebellion against middle class living (Office Space, Fight Club, and American Beauty being the others) primarily thinking of the many great bits of office based humor present. Instead I found a much deeper film, and one that prettily egregiously exposes many of the flaws of other work. It’s the one that feels brave enough to say that your rebellions , your unrequited love, your get rich quick schemes, and even the ability to be someone else will never truly be enough. That the angst of the time was angst of any era, that without fail, we will die alone.

Odds and Ends

  • Last week I lamented the lack of Fincher films in theaters, this week I’ll bemoan the fact that Jonze has hadn’t a film project in six years. I hope he makes another movie soon.
  • Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York  serves as the perfect post-millennial counterpoint to this work. It’s darker, scarier, and even more moving in moments, and it seems to fully believe the fact that the future will hold nothing for us.
  • Being John Malkovich’s surprise support at the Oscars (with supporting actress, screenplay, and director noms) points to a more interesting and engaged ceremony that never came to pass. But we’ll touch on that more next week.
  • “The elderly have so much to offer, they’re our link to history.”

As always, twitterletterboxd, and I Chews You (the podcast about cooking and eating Pokemon).

Next week: can you believe it’s been 20 years since American Beauty.