The year 1999 was a strange one. The dot-com bubble was going strong, and the economy was booming. Yet there was the whole “millennial fever” thing happening, and a major undercurrent of paranoia was palpable. This manifested itself in two instant film classics. Oddly enough, both featured Brad Pitt – as one of the stars of Fight Club and during a cameo in Being John Malkovich. Both movies are certainly worthy of receiving the Criterion Collection treatment, but Being John Malkovich beat Fight Club to the punch, as it were.
Being John Malkovich is so layered, it holds up to multiple viewings. I have seen it at least six times, and pick up something new every time. The obvious interpretation is that we are all puppets of one sort of another. First-time director Spike Jonze sets this up immediately with the puppet dance that opens the film. We then see how pretentious the puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is, as he complains to his wife’s pet chimp that “Consciousness is a terrible curse. I think, I feel, I suffer. And all I ask in return is the opportunity to do my work.”
Charlie Kaufman crafted one of the most creative scripts ever with this one. Since our protagonist is unable to make any money with his puppet-busking on the street, he is asked by wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) to find a real job. The filing gig he applies for is on the seven-and-a-half floor of a building. The odd space is about four feet high. “Low overhead” is the reason they use it, explains his new boss, Dr. Lester (Orson Bean). Craig discovers a portal behind one of the filing cabinets that literally leads directly into the head of actor John Malkovich. The trip lasts for 15-minutes, before one is unceremoniously dropped on the New Jersey turnpike.
Besides being a pretentious (though talented) puppeteer, Craig is a total dick as a husband, and openly lusts after co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener). When she proposes a plan to make money off of the Malkovich experience, he jumps at it. Things become quite complicated after this, as his wife is also attracted to Maxine. The catch is, Maxine is attracted both – but only when one or the other is inhabiting the body of Malkovich. For her, it was really about control.
This is one of the reasons the film so perfectly fit the zeitgeist of the late-nineties. The internet was still a new, and possibly (to some) dangerous development. There was also the whole “Y2K bug,” which was a complete joke, but sold a hell of a lot of survival supplies. My point is that there was a very real fear going on in our society of who was actually in control. Being John Malkovich deftly spoke to those worries in the most original way imaginable.
There was much more to the film of course, for one thing there were some absolutely hilarious bits. My favorites are small, but telling. The cruel treatment of Malkovich himself is one. There is a scene where his subconscious is explored, and featured all sorts of awful childhood scenes. He is shown watching his parents making love at one point, and in another he pisses his pants on the school bus, to the derision of his fellow schoolmates.
Then there is the segment that brilliantly sends up Hollywood bandwagon-jumping. When Craig takes over Malkovich’s body, and uses him as a puppet to pursue his own puppeteer career, the art form of puppetry suddenly becomes the hippest thing in town. There is a hilarious moment when Sean Penn discusses his “lifelong” love of puppetry. Possibly the funniest bit in the film happens after John Malkovich himself takes the trip into his own head, and is dropped on the turnpike. Some punks in a car toss a beer can at his head and yell, “Hey Malkovich, think fast!” He just grabs his skull in utter frustration and screams out “Fuck!” as if there were no escape.
Indeed, there is no escape from the hall of mirrors Being John Malkovich holds up to society. One can only speculate as to why Kaufman chose Malkovich as his subject, but one thing is certain. The people who become him do not engage in any sort of glamorous activities. He is shown doing the most mundane things imaginable. When Craig lands in his body, Malkovich is eating toast. At another point, he is combing his hair. Being Brad Pitt for example, simply would not have worked. Pitt’s cameo, by the way, is standing in line at a celebrity-packed puppet performance of Swan Lake.
Subsequent events have also made the casting of Charlie Sheen as Malkovich’s best friend a prescient choice. The final scene of a balding Sheen many years later being invited by Malkovich to become immortal through the magic of the portal takes on a whole new meaning after Sheen’s Two and a Half Men breakdown.
Being John Malkovich prefigured the era we now live in of instant internet and American Idol stardom, which as we have seen, practically dominates our culture. In 1999, that world did not yet exist.
Besides selected scene commentary during the film itself, the Criterion Collection edition of Being John Malkovich includes an entire second DVD of supplemental material. The pieces include a half-hour documentary by Lance Bangs on the shoot itself, where everyone complains about having to hunch over in the four-foot office scenes. This is followed by a 27-minute interview with John Malkovich discussing the film with actor John Hodgman, which was recorded in November 2011.
”Spike’s Photos” is self-explanatory, as Spike Jonze humorously shows candid shots he took on the set, which runs for 15-minutes. “7 ½ Floor Orientation” repeats the two-minute “documentary” of the creation of the 7 ½ floor “where the overhead is quite low.” Another great bit from the film is the PBS-like “American Arts & Culture Presents: John Horatio Malkovich “Dance of Despair and Disillusionment,” which is Craig Schwartz’s “masterpiece” as performed by himself as Malkovich. This segment runs around four-minutes. Besides some TV spots and the film’s trailer, the final extra is “An Intimate Portrait of the Art of Puppeteering.” This is a straight piece which actually does treat the artwork behind the form of puppetry with respect, and is quite interesting. The segment lasts about seven minutes.
As for the accompanying booklet, Criterion generally features one or two essays relating to the film, and its impact on society, written by noted film scholars. In the case of Being John Malkovich, they have chosen a different route. “Wildcat pop-culture critic Perkus Tooth” (as he is described) sat down with Spike Jonze for a recorded conversation, and the transcript of it makes up the booklet’s essay. I have to say that the results are pretty disappointing. Perkus Tooth does practically all of the talking, and his “wildcat” observations bored me.
Having said that, Criterion have done an otherwise outstanding job with this classic film, and if it has been a while since you have seen it, by all means it is worth another look. From the script, to the performances, to what it still has to say to our society, Being John Malkovich remains a remarkable achievement.