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Revisiting 'Being John Malkovich': Puppets, portals and the perverse chaos of life

'Being John Malkovich' - Spike Jonze

In recent years, Charlie Kaufman has established himself as one of the most original artistic voices in the American film industry with cult classics like Synecdoche, New York as well as fascinating new projects including I’m Thinking of Ending Things. To anyone who is familiar with Kaufman’s directorial work, the literary nature of his sensibilities becomes immediately apparent due to his origins as a screenwriter. Although Kaufman’s screenplays are always delightfully bizarre and endlessly inventive, none of them have surpassed the brilliant metaphysical examinations of Being John Malkovich.

Directed by Spike Jonze, Being John Malkovich stars John Cusack as Craig – a pathetic puppeteer who has delusions of grandeur but is virtually unknown. He lives in a cramped apartment with his wife Lotte (played by Cameron Diaz) and a tiny zoo full of various screeching animals, ranging from a chimp named Elijah to an annoying parrot. All these moving parts contribute to the visual and auditory overstimulation of the audience, creating an overwhelming cinematic experience.

Kaufman has developed a reputation for surreal imagery, but nothing comes close to his screenplay for Being John Malkovich, most of which was cut out from the final draft. Craig works as a filer in a very tiny area between the seventh and the eighth floors of a building, an allegory for the modern corporate wasteland where everyone walks with their heads down. He has to listen to the sexual fantasies of his 105-year-old boss, who thinks he has a speech impediment because his secretary (or executive liaison as he insists) cannot hear properly. Somewhere in that building, there’s a hole in the wall to the consciousness of celebrated actor John Malkovich.

If all of this sounds like too much, it is, and it is intended to be that way. Kaufman is a master of constructing atmospheric suffocation, making us confront the dreary mediocrity of our own existence and our fundamental frustrations with life. Like many of Kaufman’s works, including his latest novel AntkindBeing John Malkovich is semi-autobiographical. Just like Craig controls different kinds of puppets, Kaufman controls his characters and makes them utter lines that he wants them to speak. The film is a metafictional masterpiece that serves as a surprisingly insightful commentary on the self-reflexive playground of a narcissistic psyche.

While reflecting on how such an ambitious project came about, Kaufman said: “I wrote Being John Malkovich while I was waiting for [the next sitcom] hiring season. My idea was that I would write a script and use it to get work. I had this idea that someone finds a portal into someone’s head, and I had another idea that somebody has a story about someone having an affair with a co-worker. And neither one was going anywhere, so I just decided to combine them.”

Even though Kaufman is notorious for his densely packed material, the premise of Being John Malkovich is simple enough. A puppeteer discovers a portal to the brain of John Malkovich and commercialises it with his partner/femme-fatale Maxine (Catherine Keener) by selling tickets to it like John Malkovich is an amusement park. He then embarks on an emasculating spiral through the depths of human depravity until he ends up trapped inside the brain of a seven-year-old girl, forced to watch his ex-wife and his lover Maxine enjoy their lives through the eyes of their child. If that sounds complicated, watching the film will confuse you further.

Usually, that confusion signifies terrible screenwriting, but it actually forms the essence of Being John Malkovich. It mirrors the impenetrability of the mysteries of the universe, raising questions about ancient issues like the ontology of human experience as well as more recent ones about virtual reality and the problem of replacing our physical world with simulated ones. Just like the characters invade the mind of John Malkovich, Kaufman takes us along on an incursion into the dusty recesses of our own brains only to show us that there is nothing there.

“Why John Malkovich?” Kaufman asked. “That’s the question, I should probably think of a joke or something, but I don’t have one. I don’t like to answer questions about what my work anyway, it’s not important for me to tell. I like that people have their own experience. And it’s not like it’s about anything. Like it’s about the dangers of being…I would hate to think that something can be reduced to that. I was interested in the characters, I was interested in the struggle of the characters and their desperation and their unhappiness and all the other stuff that came with it.”

Along with Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Face of AnotherBeing John Malkovich is one of the greatest films ever made about self-identity. Kaufman’s opus is a subversive indictment of societal expectations, conformity, gender roles as well as human morality. When it premiered at the Venice Film Festival, Kaufman didn’t even get an invitation. The film was criminally neglected at the Academy Awards as well despite being the finest cinematic masterpiece of 1999 by far. However, none of it matters because Kaufman received the only reward that counts – being remembered as one of the most fiercely creative artists of our generation.