So…..I am going to try to unpack one of the most trippy, the most twisted, the darkest and most confusing films I have ever seen. It deals with deep and disturbingly real issues in a very Greek fashion. Hopefully I will be able to make some sense out of it, so please enjoy my review of Being John Malkovich.
Basically here’s how this is going to work. I am going to break it down in the following fashion and hopefully that will allow me to fully examine this movie:
- Plot Structure and Narrative Elements
- Philosophical Questions and Morals
- Last Thoughts and Commentary
So with that understanding, lets dig into this ridiculously trippy film 🙂
1. Plot Structure and Narrative Elements
What is the plot? You could say that it is about an apathetic and creepy puppeteer who discovers a door into John Malkovich’s mind, but honestly what does that mean? It comes down to the film being made up of the many stories of an Ensemble cast. Everyone gets a character arc (sort of) and we (the audience) get one heaping mess of confusion.
[SPOILERS] In case you are unaware, the film revolves around the failing relationship of Craig and Lotte, an out of work puppeteer and his wife. Craig gets a job in a very odd building and there meets Maxine, whom I can best describe as a vivacious, foxy little bleep, who leads him (and later Lotte) around on a sexual “Odd-yssey”. Oh, and Craig finds a door into actor John Malkovich’s mind. No big.
From there it gets really weird. Sexual identity questions mingle with philosophical inquiries and time traveling old people? Yeah…it just gets weird. Suffice to say, Craig takes over John Malkovich for a while and has a relationship with Maxine, then gives it up so that he can reunite with Lotte who has been in love with Maxine the whole time. I can’t state it enough, this film is absolutely bizarre. Craig ends up alone with no one to love or to love him and entirely broken mentally. Yes, it is Defeatest but it does so in a classy manner. It just warps your mind.
Let me break it down a bit more and take it back to one of the first dichotomies of how story works. In Greek theatre there were three basic structure for narrative: Comedy, Drama, and the most important for us, Tragedy. I was looking for a good way of expressing what the Tragic structure of story is, and in doing so I found a great quote from the Grand Valley State University in Michigan. Their definition is quoted below:
Tragedy depicts the downfall of a noble hero or heroine, usually through some combination of hubris, fate, and the will of the gods. The tragic hero’s powerful wish to achieve some goal inevitably encounters limits, usually those of human frailty (flaws in reason, hubris, society), the gods (through oracles, prophets, fate), or nature. Aristotle says that the tragic hero should have a flaw and/or make some mistake (hamartia). The hero need not die at the end, but he / she must undergo a change in fortune. In addition, the tragic hero may achieve some revelation or recognition (anagnorisis–“knowing again” or “knowing back” or “knowing throughout” ) about human fate, destiny, and the will of the gods. Aristotle quite nicely terms this sort of recognition “a change from ignorance to awareness of a bond of love or hate.”
This is what came to my mind when I finished watching Being John Malkovich – a film involving the fall of the protagonist from imagined height to actual depth. One can clearly see Craig (John Cussack) as a tragic protagonist: he feels unhappy with his perception of his life, so he strikes out on a ridiculous plan to change everything and actually gets what he wants, until it all comes crashing down. His pride and confusion about what he wants leaves him more destitute and alone than ever before. There will be more on this in the next section.
As I mentioned before, this movie is really a collection of characters in an ensemble. They spend their time dealing with each other – in the context of an insane, backwards situation nonetheless – but ultimately it is about their interactions, desires and damnation. One could point to Craig being the protagonist because he is the character we start and end with. However, good arguments could be made for any and all main cast in the film being the lead because they are so intimately connected.
Everyone is both Hero and Antagonist. Let me explain (No. Is too long. Let me sum up):
- Craig starts off unhappy, gets the chance to have a new life and get what he wants which is recognition and respect. He takes his opportunity, gets conflicted about what he wants, gives up what he has, and finds himself alone.
- Lotte at first is a pushover who is tragically neglected. Once she enters John Malkovich, she has an awakening to what she wants (Maxine) but has to push Craig away to get her. Later she is locked up and kept away from her “love” and watches that relationship fall apart. Ultimately she ends up getting what she wanted but only because she crushes the dreams of her husband.
- Maxine just wants to have fun, and thats what she gets. That is, until she has to choose between her two playthings and hurt one of them. She makes the “wrong decision” and then has to crush Craig to get what she wants. In the end she has her desired life, but remember how long it took her to become unhappy with Craig’s Malkovich and want something else. Just saying.
- Lotte comes between Maxine and Craig
- Craig comes between Maxine and Lotte
- Maxine won’t love Craig or Lotte unless they are in Malkovich
- Malkovich just wants to be left alone.
Being John Malkovich borders on the Shakespearian in its ensemble-nature and character interactions. Just make Craig “Hamlet” and then watch as the “something rotten in the state of Denmark” romps around until everyone connected is dead in some form or fashion.
Just a few final points about the technical side of the film before I move on to the more serious philosophical and moral questions of BJM. I must give credit to the filmmakers because it is a stunning bit of cinema. The cinematography is phenomoninal, particularly in showing what it would be like to be inside the mind of another person. The POV’s were incredible and the use of high and low angles solidly builds our understanding of how the characters relate to one another.
The music is…meh. It is musically complex and engaging, but it does become a little leading. The songs informed me of which emotion I am to feel at a given moment, which I always dislike. I would rather find how I feel on my own, thanks.
A few other quick thoughts: The puppetry was masterful and (quite purposefully) took on a character of it’s own. Another thing, for me, was that the film seemed to lose focus after Malkovich himself enters his own mind. Everything involving him becomes subplot, as did the romances, and most prominently the random old people trying to continue their pattern of living forever. It just seemed to get jumbled after that moment and it never fully recovered.
Finally, the film displayed the incredible ranges of all the actors involved and had a few great cameo roles (Charlie Sheen, Brad Pitt, Sean Penn). On a side note to that, I want to point out that the only resolved character in the whole thing is the monkey. Just thought you aught to know.
[Insert Coraline joke here] and that is about it for the plot of Being John Malkovich. I found the plot as confusing and as depressing as it is supposed to be. I can’t fully say that I enjoyed the storyline(s) of the film but in the next section you will see what I do find in it to be quite fantastic.
2. Philosophical Questions and Morals
As I hinted at earlier, Being John Malkovich takes a particularly Greek fashion of looking at things. I have already spoken of how it adopts the Greek Tragedy formula but now I want to turn to some of the philosophical implications and messages of the film. Watching this film felt more like taking in a visual dissertation – it of itself was not particularly appealing to me but the truths to which it was speaking were.
First and foremost I want to list what I think are the three main questions the film is addressing:
- What are the ethics of controlling another person’s life?
- Would being someone else solve all of my problems?
- Is it possible to comprehend one’s mind and soul to the depth at which these characters do?
Each of these is complex and difficult to briefly discuss, so instead I will try to share what I think connects each of them. In a Humanities class I took last year we discussed the main tenants of Greek philosophy and one of the most prominent ones to me was the concept of “xenia”. Xenia is the mindset and acquirable trait of possessing good hospitality towards your fellow man. In the Greek Epics, Homer demonstrates the necessity of having good Xenia by showing those who share it being blessed and those who withhold it punished.
What then does Homer have to do with Spike Jonze? Each of his characters participate in varying levels of Xenia towards the others. For example, Craig starts off with just passable xenia towards his wife and when he discovers his dreams within reach, he pushes all others aside and practices very bad Xenia. Thus in the end he is brought to utter ruin. On the other hand, Lotte at the beginning has nothing but xenia towards her husband. Her years of selfless giving and service are rewarded in the end by her getting what she wants.
However, we do get a sort of “negotiated read” on the concept of xenia with Maxine. She very blatantly practices appalling xenia towards Craig, Lotte, Malkovich, and everyone else she encounters. However, in the end she gets what she wants? I think the point the filmmakers are trying to make here is that sometimes life simply doesn’t work according to the so-called laws of karma – sometimes the bad guys win. Again, however, I postulate that the Lotte-Maxine relationship is doomed to failure once the latter recovers her wandering spirit and her desire for the new toy.
Thus by the selfish or self-less nature of the character is determined their fate, and the beginnings of the answers for the three big questions. On the ethics of controlling another the film clearly speaks about self-control and care not only for the puppeteer but also for the puppet. The second question is obviously addressed, but not obviously concluded. Craig did get everything he wanted when he took over Malkovich but I simply ask whether his problems were solved or not? He still has a failing relationship, a conflicted soul about what he wants, and just unhappiness in general. The other characters (other than the weird old people) ultimately make the decision that being themselves is the best option, so I think the best conclusion to draw is that in the end being someone else, John Malkovich or not, is not the best way for us to be.
Now the final question of the three is of course the most difficult to reconcile with the concept of xenia and the most complex ethically. While I think it obvious that none of us will actually ever enter the mind of another person as…physically as John Cussack and Cameron Diaz do, the question of emotionally and mentally doing so still remains. On that I think the movie shows that the proper way of understanding others is to respect them as someone totally separate from yourself and to show them proper Xenia. Again to point out how weird this movie is the only solidly obvious example of this I can come up with is how the Monkey, remembering things of his own past, is able to connect emotionally with Lotte when they are locked up together and is thus able to help her.
Obviously a lot is said by Being John Malkovich towards the psychological and philosophical nature of humankind….and I haven’t EVEN gotten to the SEX yet!!!! One of the more disturbingly prominent parts of the film is the sexual atmosphere in which the whole thing happens. Not trying to be crude, but it is inescapable that one consider John Malkovich as the largest Condom in the history of the planet. Also not to mention the odd LGBT relationships that sporadically pop up throughout the film.
I think ultimately Being John Malkovich makes great commentary on the life that is lived for and about sexuality, and this is the main issue I have with the world today. We focus so much on “defining our sexuality” and pigeon-holing it into the most minute category possible. The film shows the lives of three people who allow themselves to be define foremost and almost only by their sexual desires and it clearly shows how that for the most part ends up in ruin. “Money, Stuff, and Sex is the Goal” right? Well not at ALL according to Mr. Malkovich 🙂
I will conclude this segment about the philosophy and ethics of this bizarre film with two of my favorite quotes from the movie. I think they perfectly capture the questions asked by the movie and the attitudes it takes in answering them:
“You don’t know how lucky you are to be a monkey…because consciousness is a terrible curse. I think, I feel, I suffer and all I ask in return is the opportunity to do my work. And they won’t allow it because I raise issues.”
“I took my fill of my wretched pleasures in you and this was the sum total of my love.”
3. Last Thoughts and Commentary
Ultimately I found this film to be deeply disturbing, emotionally taxing, and mentally stimulating. There is obvious brilliance in this project; it is just hard to get past the muck of the depressing ideology and the incredibly dislikable characters. The plot is convoluted and ultimately suffers at the hands of what the film really is about: providing intellectually engaging and morally unsure questions about the nature of Humankind in general. And while I love a good “thinker” upon occasion, I found myself seriously bogged down trying to keep all of the elements in check in my head (let alone in Malkovich’s). Between the ridiculously complex and overly dramatized sexualities competing within the lead characters, the metaphysical conundrums of the possibilities of a door into someone’s soul, and the ethical quandaries put forth by doing so, I found myself spinning so much that even 4 weeks after viewing it I still am ambiguous in my feelings toward it.
I think the best way I can sum up my opinion of Being John Malkovich is to say that I feel towards it as I feel towards The Departed or Donnie Darko: I don’t particularly love it for itself but I recognize that it is a good movie. In other words, I love the questions it raises and the truths it speaks to the human condition, but I just don’t really like how it does it. Just like a textbook or dissertation, I recommend that you force yourself through it so that you can receive what it has to give you. Technically it is fantastic, the acting is really excellent from all parties, and again I cannot deny that a serious amount of brilliance exist here. If you are feeling up to it some night to have your brain and soul rocked a little, give Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich a try.
Overall Rating: 8//10
Well there you have it!!!! Took my 4 long weeks to complete this review and thus far it was the hardest to complete yet. BUT don’t go away! I will be putting up another review VERY soon and I am really excited about it. Not to spoil anything but suffice to say that I don’t know man from toaster anymore 🙂 Thanks for sticking around and please feel free to leave your thoughts below. I would love to hear what you think of this movie (maybe you actually GET it). And tune back in for another review coming up real soon. Bye, Y’all!