Remembering: Being John Malkovich (and Reflections on the COVID Crisis)

Surely I don’t need to justify the lack of new Snooty Film Critiques this year – 2020 to date has been more turbulent and less predictable than a season of Game of Thrones (that’s pre-Season 6 Game of Thrones, mind… before the dark times… before the plot armor and anachronistic Starbucks cups). Seriously, if everything headlining CNN these days played out on HBO, critics would dismiss the narrative twists and turns as unrealistic to the point of absurdity – the initial arc centering on the Coronavirus pandemic was sidelined by the sadistic murder of George Floyd and the descent of major US cities into anarchy; the threat of the killer hornets was introduced as a potentially major plot point in episode 3 and then swiftly abandoned (though it may yet be revisited in the inevitable Christmas Special); and now Kanye West has announced his bid for the presidency, because ratings have dipped and the desperate writers needed a flashy guest star to bolster their viewership.  

Silly Kanye – if the writers follow the Game of Thrones model, it’s obvious that the presidency will be thrust upon some dopey college kid who spent the entire season passively watching events unfold from his dorm room while making existential non-sequiturs.

(Oops – spoilers… but who cares, right?)

At the onset of the crisis, I realized that the mass lockdowns and quarantines would either draw out the best from human behavior or the absolute worst from it. I myself determined early on to capitalize on the sudden free time supplied by the crisis to better myself by eliminating some lingering nasty habits and establishing some good ones. Since March, I’m happy to report that I’ve (almost) completely quit smoking, cleaned up my diet, taken up yoga, started dating actual women (albeit via Zoom), climbed three mountains, and doubled down on all those books I’d always meant to read but never had the time for (one book into the Wheel of Time series, I concluded that Robert Jordan’s prose leaves much to be desired). More dramatically, I managed to mitigate my excessive booze intake for the first time since university and incorporate some fibre and honest-to-god water into my diet, and the results have been amazing.

I’m especially partial to Dan Akroyd’s Crystal Head Water

Four months later, I find myself happier, healthier, and marginally less caustic towards things I don’t like – the Game of Thrones finale notwithstanding.

Not that I would never be so ignorant as to boast about having benefited from something as terrible as the COVID-19 crisis when most of the world has suffered through it – everywhere I look, lives and livelihoods alike have been lost and the future of the world is uncertain even with Phase 3 immanent. Believe me, I’m not claiming that this horrible situation worked out in my favor, I only mean to highlight my own personal triumphs over the past few months in order to illustrate how I saw an opportunity to become a different person and I seized it. Honestly, I feel like I’ve found some way to inhabit an entirely new body, and I can’t say I’m interested in ever giving it up.

Kind of like John Cusack’s character in Being John Malkovich.

(Be forewarned… oh hell, I spoiled a major Game of Thrones plot point four paragraphs ago, so I probably won’t tiptoe around spoilers for a film that was released prior to the Y2K scare).

Being John Malkovich is one of my favourite films, one that I was pleased to introduce to some friends during the crisis. It’s a delightfully oddball comedy that’s memorable both for its absurdism as well as its ideas, which root the film firmly in the annals of speculative fiction history – an admittedly broad ‘what-if’ genre that arguably began with Robert A. Heinlein in the 1940’s and led to Black Mirror in the modern age. Directed by Spike Jonze in his directorial debut, the film stars John Cusack as a schlubby, unemployed, self-absorbed puppeteer named Craig Schwartz, who looks about as good in long hair as I did back in ninth grade during my bizarre Captain Jack Sparrow faze. Schwartz is the dictionary definition of a schmuck – he refuses to find a job on the grounds that nobody in New York is hiring a good puppeteer these days and he manages to be discontent despite being married to Cameron freaking Diaz. After getting socked in the jaw (again) during an erotic street performance, Schwartz finally relents and peruses the trusty ol’ classifieds section for gainful employment. His search leads him to the seventh-and-a-half floor of the Martin-Flemmer building, where he eventually discovers a mystical portal concealed behind a filing cabinet that leads into the mind of famed thespian John Malkovich.

The origin of the portal is never fully revealed (thank God), but it works something like this – upon entering it, you’re transported inside Malkovich’s mind for about fifteen minutes, during which time you see everything he sees and hear everything he hears and feel everything he feels; once your time is up, you’re abruptly ejected onto the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. Pretty straightforward as far as cerebral invasions go, right? The experience proves to be a powerful, addictive trip, one that seems to awaken the deepest desires of all who would dare to be John Malkovich. For Schwartz, the portal is an opportunity to achieve the success and fame he craves as a puppeteer; for his homely wife Lotte (Diaz), it’s a liberating revelation of her transgender desires; for Schwartz’ beautiful coworker Maxine (Catherine Keener), it’s a golden egg. Soon, people are lining up in droves and paying cold, hard cash to experience the thrill of being John Malkovich, who plays himself in the same way that Paul Giamatti plays a subdued version of himself in Cold Souls. This sparks an obsessive tug-of-war for supremacy of John Malkovich’s mind, which is certainly curious in and of itself because there’s very little that’s special about John Horatio Malkovich – at least, according to the world of the film. Those sharing his mind observe him engaging in such riveting enterprises as memorizing lines, riding in a cab, and ordering bath towels from a magazine. He’s not skydiving or zip-lining or tightrope-walking or cliff-jumping or waterskiing on the backs of great white sharks or even acting. This made the film a fairly tough sell – apparently, when it was being pitched, a skeptical executive at New Line Cinema asked, “Why the f*** can’t it be Being Tom Cruise?”

Because all he does all day is rewatch Risky Business on endless repeat, the poor bastard

Part of the magic of Being John Malkovich is that there’s really no thrill in actually being John Malkovich besides the novelty of becoming someone else for a change. Those who shill out two hundred clams to crawl down the mysterious tunnel do so for the temporary deliverance from the problems, cares, worries, and insecurities that assail them on a daily basis. For many, the sheer mundanity of being John Malkovich is preferable to the chaos of being themselves. At least, that’s how Craig Schwartz certainly sees it. His lust for recognition (not to mention Maxine) eventually leads him to gaining full control over Malkovich’s body. After a time, the thought of returning to being himself isn’t even a consideration – not even when the rightful owner of the portal wants it back.

As the film progresses, the battle for dominance of Malkovich’s mind is paralleled by the jockeying for control of the narrative by the film’s major players – Schwartz’s literal puppeteering of Malkovich transitions to Lotte’s yearning to be romantically involved with Maxine through Malkovich’s body, which transitions to Maxine’s own manipulation of Schwartz and Lotte by dating Malkovich, which transitions to Malkovich’s own investigation of what the hell’s going on inside his head (his own excursion through the portal leads to one of the most surreal sequences in all of cinema). All this culminates in an unexpected flash forward, where fates are justifiably (and sometimes tragically) sealed and the true intent behind the portal takes center stage (I won’t give it away, but I would wager that it served to inspire Jordan Peele’s own body-takeover film Get Out).

Overall, Being John Malkovich is a strange, riveting, and totally erratic piece of Indie theater. Its absence of a conventional plot structure means that its story is propelled forward by the actions and reactions of its characters, who are embodied by performers as talented and dedicated as Malkovich himself. Cusack is endearingly pathetic even when he’s desperately trying to commit adultery, Diaz is barely recognizable under her flaxen hair and bad complexion, Keener is positively magnetic as the bona-fide shit-disturber Maxine, and Malkovich himself braves ridicule as an aloof, stodgy version of himself, who seems to glide through his own life with serene detachment until it’s threatened to be wrested from him by foreign minds. Equally noteworthy are the supporting characters, particularly the sexually-frustrated eccentric Dr. Lester and his obstinately uncomprehending secretary Floris. Charlie Sheen even clocks several cameos that are surprisingly self-aware considering he was nearer to his Chuck Lorre-era persona than his actually credible Oliver Stone one at the time of shooting.

The dialogue is sharp and quotable and the journey Jonze takes us on is as enchanting and it is poignant, with Craig Schwartz serving as an excellent object lesson because he’s such a self-serving putz. He’s a classic example of a protagonist whose dissatisfaction with what he has leads him to greater and greater transgressions until his doom is all but inevitable. While it’s natural for a protagonist to yearn to be further along in life, Schwartz isn’t interesting in paying his dues or even staying loyal to the woman he’s married to. Instead of endeavoring to better himself and his situation honestly, he attempts to take what someone else has already accomplished for his own (Marxism, anyone?). It’s therefore appropriate that he’s the ultimate author of his own destruction because at the end of the day, we’re all responsible for our own lives and the decisions we make. We can strive to improve ourselves realistically with the resources we have available to us, or we can see ourselves destroyed through inaction and complacency (Schwartz at the beginning of the film) or the jealous pursuit of things we were never meant to have (Schwartz by the end). For instance, I now know I’m never going to be the next Roger Ebert, but I have it in my power to become the next me.

(I borrowed that idealistic platitude from a drunken sorority girl I met once at a club… yes, she also briefly wanted to be the next Roger Ebert…)

While few of us will any be presented with the opportunity to become John Malkovich, hopefully we can find the strength and drive to reach our potential and become better versions of ourselves, whoever that may be. Until that day, check out Being John Malkovich.


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