20 October 2004
by Professor Don Key
Being John Malkovich
USA Films 1999
Starring John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, Orson Bean, Mary Kay Place, W. Earl Brown, Carlos Jacott, Willie Garson, Byrne Piven, Gregory Sporleder, Charlie Sheen and John Malkovich. Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman. Directed by Spike Jonze.
Dr. Don Key, shown here conducting an experiment in his laboratory, is Professor of Religious Science at the University of Vineland.
Once in a great while, Hollywood comes out with a film that fearlessly addresses philosophical issues. Being John Malkovich is such a film; it invites us to consider such questions as, "Does the soul carry on after the death of the material body?" "Do we reincarnate?" "Why does the departed soul desire to enter another material body?" "Can more than one soul enter a single material body and exert control over it?" "Do animals have souls?" "What is the subconscious?" "When she's not wearing stylish clothes and sexy makeup, does Cameron Diaz really look so dopey?"
For an open-minded intellectual like myself, watching Being John Malkovich was a joy because it didn't preach. It didn't drub my skull with non-negotiable fundamentalist conclusions. It entertained me, it amused me, and along the way, it got me thinking.
John Cusack is Craig Schwartz, an unemployed New York City puppeteer sporting Christlike hair and beard. Believing himself a messiah of the art of manipulating marionettes, he nurses a persecution complex towards a world that does not value his rare talent. Craig's dowdy wife, Lottie (Cameron Diaz), works in a pet shop and keeps a small zoo in their apartment: besides an ordinary house dog, roaming around the place are a tortoise, an iguana, a parrot, and Elijah, a chimpanzee with emotional problems. I could immediately identify with that--sounds like my place!
One day Craig is watching TV with Elijah next to him on the couch. He goes green with envy seeing a news report about his rival, puppeteer Derek Mantini. By doing a performance with a 10-meter tall marionette of Emily Dickenson reciting her poetry, Derek has hit the big time. Craig turns to Elijah and says,
You don't know how lucky you are being a monkey. Because consciousness is a terrible curse.
This scene suggests that puppeteer Craig is conditioned by his nearest and dearest puppet, his own material body. He assumes his consciousness is dependent upon his brain; furthermore he assumes Elijah has no consciousness at all, since he possesses only the brain of a chimp. Craig's faith in such a "scientific" understanding of consciousness is soon to be shattered.
After seeing Mantini on TV, Craig gets fired up and takes his marionette theater out onto the main streets of Manhattan. There he performs "Abelard and Heloise" (calling all highbrows!) but limps home with a black eye, courtesy of a rough and ready lowbrow who found the show offensive. At last resigned that the world is just not ready for his art, Craig follows Lottie's advice and goes looking for a day job. He ends up in the employ of Dr. Lester (Orson Bean), a white-haired, aged eccentric who runs a company on floor 7 and-a-half of Manhattan's Merton-Flemmer Building. That's right, floor 7 and-a-half. Here everyone has to walk stooped over, since the ceiling is too low for anyone except a dwarf to stand erect. The orientation video that Craig is shown on his first day at work explains that this floor was especially designed by old Captain Merton back in the 1800s to be the workplace of dwarves. The good seaman was partial to little folk because he was married to one. So what's the advantage today for companies to be located on floor 7-and-a-half? "Low overhead" (low rent), explains the narrator on the orientation video. In the video room Craig meets the sultry but standoffish Maxine. She curtly informs him that the story the video tells is all rubbish. That means there is a mystery surrounding his new workplace, and that intrigues him. Maxine does too.
A few days later Craig discovers a hidden passageway in the wall of the filing room of Lester Corp. (Lester Corp. can be taken to mean "the body of Lester" as well as the name of Lester's company--a hint for later.) Investigating, he discovers that the passageway is a portal into the body of actor John Malkovich, who lives in a fancy apartment in downtown Manhattan. Craig learns that he can stay in the actor's body for 15 minutes (15 minutes of fame, get it?). There he perceives the world through Malkovich's senses; afterward he is dumped from the portal onto the side of a highway that leads into New York from neighboring New Jersey.
Bursting into Maxine's office, Craig tells her:
There's a tiny door in my office, Maxine. It's a portal. It takes you inside John Malkovich. You see the world through John Malkovich's eyes, and then after about 15 minutes you're spit out into a ditch on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. Malkovich is an actor. He's one of the great American actors of the 20th century, He's been in lots of things, that jewel thief movie for example. Anyway, the point is, this is a very odd thing. It's supernatural, for lack of a better word. I mean it raises all sorts of philosophical-type questions, you know? About the nature of self, about the existence of a soul? You know? Am I me? Is Malkovich Malkovich? I had a piece of wood in my hand, Maxine. I don't have it any more. Where is it? Did it disappear? How could that be? Is it still in Malkovich's head? I don't know! Do you see what a metaphysical can of worms this portal is? I don't see how I could go living my life the way I've lived it before.
Maxine's response is to wordlessly gesture toward the window, as if inviting Craig to take a dive. She then walks out of her office, leaving him lonely and bemused.
Later Craig tells Lottie about the portal. As she shows much keener interest than Maxine did, Craig brings her after working hours into the filing room of Lester Corp. so that she can have a peek through John Malkovich's senses. The result is that she decides she is really a man inside a woman's body. Lottie informs Craig she'll be making an appointment with the family doctor to discuss a sex-change operation. Craig talks her out of it by offering to take her into the filing room again for another crack at the portal. Maxine comes to know of all this. While Lottie is in Malkovich a second time, Maxine phones his apartment (she gets his number through a friend in the know) and by speaking very seductively talks Malkovich into meeting her in a restaurant at 8:00 that evening. Lottie, hearing Maxine's voice on the phone through Malkovich's ear, gets strongly attached to her and is determined to be inside Malkovich when he meets this girl. She re-enters the portal at 8:00, sees Maxine through Malkovich's eyes, and falls in love with her.
Maxine proposes to Craig that they form a business partnership: they'll charge 200 dollars a head to people who want to spend 15 minutes inside of John Malkovich. Their new company, JM Corp., operates in the Lester Corp. filing room, but only at night, when there is no other activity on floor 7 and-a-half. The business is an instant success. Each evening a long queue forms in the hall outside. By now Craig is madly in love with Maxine. He is less than thrilled, therefore, to learn that Maxine is having a love affair with Lottie, but only when Lottie is inside John Malkovich.
Back at their flat, Craig ties Lottie up, gags her, and locks her into a cage with Elijah. He then rushes off to keep Lottie's next date (in Malkovich's body) with Maxine. Craig the puppeteer finds that he can do more than just observe the world through Malkovich's cognitive senses (jnanendriyas). He is able to work through the actor's motor senses (karmendriyas).
Craig's takeover of Malkovich's motor functions clues the latter into the fact that someone else is stepping into his inner space. Donning ordinary-looking clothes and a baseball cap, Malkovich secretly follows Maxine to the Merton-Flemmer building. Finding the long queue on floor 7 and-a-half, he barges into the filing room and demands to know from Maxine and Craig what is going on. Hardly believing the story they tell him, Malkovich enters the passageway himself.
Malkovich passes through the portal into Malkovich, which means into a world exclusively centered upon himself. It is a nightmare of the false ego--his false ego. He find himself sitting at a table in a restaurant. There's just one item on the menu card: "Malkovich" listed again and again. Across from him is a woman with his face. The waiter. the customers, the songstress draped over the piano, everybody in the place has his face. Only one word of conversation floats through the air: "Malkovich." Shocked, he tries to demand what all this means, but the only thing he can say is "Malkovich!" Losing it, he shoves his way through the crowd of himself and bursts out the restaurant onto the street. A flood of Brahmajyoti spills over him. Everything goes white. He drops from the sky into the ditch alongside the New Jersey Turnpike, where Craig is waiting.
A horrified Malkovich orders Craig to seal up the passageway forever. Craig refuses. Claiming that he has the right of privacy inside his own body, Malkovich threatens, "I'll see you in court!" Craig replies, "How do you know I won't see you seeing me in court?" Malkovich stalks off to thumb a ride back to NYC.
Craig and Maxine hatch a new scheme after she realizes that a future with Craig-as-Malkovich will be much more profitable than one with Lottie-as-Malkovich. Craig enters Malkovich's body and assumes full control, becoming so much the puppet-master that he no longer has to leave the actor after 15 minutes. As Malkovich, he goes with Maxine to Malkovich's agent and announces that he and Maxine are getting married, and that he is giving up acting to become a puppeteer. Without a moment's hesitation the agent agrees. Craig is an expert with marionettes, so using the already famous body of Malkovich he knocks the entertainment industry out with new direction he takes in showbiz. Engaging Maxine as his manager, he soars to the top.
On the night that Malkovich ported into Malkovich, Lottie escaped her cage with Elijah's help. The film shows that Elijah was most certainly a conscious being. The melancholy chimp empathized with Lottie's plight and even figured out how to untie her bonds.
Previously, Dr. Lester had hosted Lottie and the newly-hired Craig at his home for dinner. Some time after getting free of the cage, Lottie turns up at the door of her husband's boss. The odd but charming Dr. Lester, who shares a gorgeous mansion with a big group of men and women all about the same age as he, is pleased to see Lottie. He kindly gives her shelter. As the days pass she becomes one of the family. She gets up the nerve to ask about Lester's connection to John Malkovich. Lottie lets him know that the first time she visited Lester's home, when she and Craig came for dinner, she stumbled into a room that was some sort of shrine to Malkovich, with photos on display of the actor's life since birth. And of course there's the portal in the Lester Corp. office that passes into Malkovich's mind.
It turns out that Lester knows all about the portal on floor 7 and-a-half. Moreover, he is Captain Merton reincarnated! But he reincarnated according to a plan of his own, not according to the natural process that applies to most living entities. He shows Lottie an old book that teaches how a particular human being can be targeted as a vessel of rebirth. When the vessel-body is ripe, the soul of another person--or even a group of such souls--may enter that target human being through the portal and thus assume total control over the vessel body. Lester reveals to Lottie that the target is actor John Malkovich.
Malkovich's time of ripening, Lester lets her know, is fast approaching--midnight on his forty-fourth birthday! The old friends gathered at Lester's mansion will then follow him through the portal to enjoy a rejuvenated life in the actor's body by occupying his conscious mind; Malkovich's own soul will remain but will be active only in the actor's subconscious.
In other words, Lester is actually the vessel-body that was taken over by Captain Merton almost a century earlier. Now that the Lester-vessel is wearing out, it is time for the soul of the old Captain to leap to the next vessel. But he cannot leap to just anyone's body--each successive vessel-body must be cultivated from conception. Malkovich is really Lester's son, you see. And Maxine, Malkovich's wife, is carrying the seed of the next vessel, the one Merton/Lester will leap to from the old Malkovich vessel. Lester tells Lottie that if he misses the moment of the Malkovich ripening and enters the portal too late, he will pass into the next vessel, the foetus of Malkovich's child. There his soul will "be absorbed", i.e. be engaged by the developing body in some organic function with no chance to assume the identity of the body. (As Prabhupada confirmed, each of the cells of the body is animated by an individual spirit soul, but there is no scope for such souls to become the one conscious self of the body as a whole.)
Lottie lets Dr. Lester know that Craig has already taken over the Malkovich vessel. (Again, he was able to do this--even though the vessel wasn't ripe--because of his extraordinary puppeteering skills.) Lester is alarmed. With Craig sitting in the driver's seat, he and his friends will not be able to assume control. Even if they enter the portal, they'll pass into Malkovich's subconscious.
Lottie, Lester and his friends watch a TV news report that recounts Malkovich's shift from acting to puppeteering. His clean-shaven look is gone; his hair and beard look a lot like Craig's. Critics laud him as "a protean figure of our time." Following Malkovich's lead, the rest of the entertainment world has gone gaga for puppets. Sean Penn tells the camera he's about to make the switch. There's a great scene showing Malkovich's Puppetry Master Class at Julliard. "What are you doing?" he berates a student. "I'm making the puppet weep, John," the young man replies. "You're making him weep but you yourself are not weeping! Until the puppet becomes an extension of you, it's a novelty act. It's Topo Gigio." Say, isn't that that Benicio Del Toro among Malkovich's students?
On the evening of Malkovich's forty-fourth birthday, Dr. Lester and his friends kidnap the visibly pregnant Maxine and hold her captive in the filing room of Lester Corp. He phones Malkovich, threatening to kill her unless Craig leaves the vessel. Craig/Malkovich is too stunned to reply. Lester hangs up, worried. "He's called our bluff." Since the kidnapping, Lottie has been gazing longingly at Maxine all night. Finally she becomes unglued. She pulls a pistol from her purse. "If I can't have you," she cries, "nobody can!" and fires off a shot. Maxine bolts through the little doorway that leads into the portal with Lottie in hot pursuit. Lester shouts at Lottie that Maxine must not be killed because she is carrying Malkovich's seed. Lottie doesn't care. The two women burst out the other end of the portal into Malkovich's subconscious.
As Lottie chases Maxine through various crawl spaces and cubbyholes in Malkovich's id, we get glimpses of buried memories, traumas and repressed desires (e.g. Malkovich in a laundry room sniffing underwear). Finally Maxine and Lottie are dumped out of the portal into the NJ Turnpike ditch. It's night-time and pouring with rain. Maxine reveals that the child she carries was conceived while Lottie was inside Malkovich's mind--so in a very real sense, the child is Lottie's too. They renew their love and decide to raise the baby together as a Lesbian couple.
Just then Craig drops from the portal into the ditch. His love for Maxine impelled him to surrender to Dr. Lester. We see a cut of Malkovich gazing at himself in a mirror as he realizes that at last he is free of the puppeteer's control. But at this instant--midnight on Malkovich's forty-fourth birthday--Lester and his friends are passing through the portal into the actor's mind. Suddenly, once again, Malkovich loses himself.
Craig declares his love for Maxine. The two women tell him to get lost, crawl out of the rain-soaked ditch onto the roadside, and stop a car. Craig is left alone in the downpour, brokenhearted.
Years later a gray-haired John Malkovich welcomes his balding actor-buddy Charlie Sheen to his mansion--the same one that Dr. Lester used to live in. He speaks mysteriously about cheating death, about how he and Charlie and their friends might continue their pleasant association without end. Charlie can't figure out what John is trying to tell him. so Malkovich ushers him into a room--the same one that once featured so many photos of Malkovich himself--which is now a shrine to a little girl named Emily: the next vessel, the daughter of Maxine and Lottie.
We cut to a public swimming pool. Maxine, Lottie and little Emily are there, enjoying a sunny outing. Emily gazes lovingly at her two mothers. We see Maxine and Lottie through her eyes...and we hear Craig's voice echoing from somwhere in the back of Emily's mind. "O Maxine, I love you!" Maxine is obviously happy with Lottie, and this Craig cannot bear to see. "Look away!" he command Emily. But she keeps looking. What has happened is that Craig's soul has been absorbed into Emily's psychophysical constitution. Apparently after being abandoned by Maxine he went back to the Merton-Flemmer building and entered the portal. Craig did not know that once Lester and his friends were inside the ripened vessel of Malkovich, once the magic moment of midnight on Malovich's forty-fourth birthday had passed, he would be transferred to the new vessel if he dared to go into the portal. There his soul was incorporated into Emily's developing body. He could now experience all that Emily experienced but he had no control over her activities.
Being John Malkovich is a great, intellectually-stimulating movie. My only reservation is that it tends to make light of Maxine and Lottie's relationship. These women are shown to be very confused souls, acting as they did because of being bewildered by their desires rather than because of taking control of their destinies. People of my generation fought hard to create more possibilities for women and gay people to take charge of their lives in our society. I think films have a sacred reponsibility to uphold the ideals of self-determination and identity-assertion rather than portray people as being basically confused about everything going on inside them and around them. But I acknowledge that director Spike Jonze is of the new generation and is therefore an advocate of postmodernism rather than the activism of my youth. To postmodernists, nothing is sacred, not even the liberalism that I represent. Well, I've got to get back to my experiments. Thanks for dropping in and I hope you enjoyed my film review.