eing John Malkovich is about living your life vicariously through other people. Specifically, it’s about living your life through celebrities, or the characters they play.
Just scan the shelves at your local newsagent and you’ll see the proliferation of the celebrity-snoop-magazine-as-daily gospel. More and more people ravenously devour every detail, every piece of minutiae that the “journalists” can drudge up from the lives of this month’s A-list celebs. Did you cry when Princess Diana died? Did you know her? The more details celebrity-worshippers can acquire through journalistic probing, the more complete is the “character” of the celebrities in their mind, and thus the more “complete” they feel as they live their lives by being their chosen celebrities. Those who choose this path reduce themselves to puppets. But even that’s just the tip of the Spielberg.
As with any really intelligent script, Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay is significantly different than what was finally filmed. In the screenplay, Lester (the two-hundred-year-old pervert) has been living in vessel bodies due to a deal he made with the devil—who is represented by a man named Flemmer. Lester and his elderly companions would be granted eternal life (in Malkovich) by entering his portal with Flemmer. Through Malkovich, Flemmer would rule the world, and his followers would be rewarded with immortality. By staying in Malkovich, then, Craig Schwartz is unknowingly keeping the world safe from the devil.
But the story in Kaufman’s script and the story in Being John Malkovich, the film, are entirely different entities. The script continues to move in ever-increasing inwardly concentric circles of madness until the final scene, where Flemmer is literally controlling Derek Mantini (Ned Bellamy as Schwartz’s nemesis—“gimmicky bastard”), and Derek Mantini is controlling Craig Schwartz, in a world where everything is painted grey and the population springs into dance at Flemmer’s wish. It is a world gone quite literally barking mad.
The film’s ending, however, is less dreary, though perhaps equally bleak. Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is stuck forever inside the child vessel, doomed to watch the world through her eyes, ultimately powerless. At the very least this is a strong comment on how the media-infotainment complex can come to take over the majority of your free waking hours.
Already logging in at just over six of your waking sixteen, the collective effect of the various mass media we multitask everyday has this strange magnetic pull: when we aren’t immersed in it, it occupies our mental life so strongly that we can’t wait to quit what we’re doing to get back to its warm and bubbly bath. How many people do you know—yourself, perhaps?—who come home from work only to slump down in front of the TV, with maybe a cinema outing on Friday. And this is not to mention 48 hours of sports, news, and old Westerns over the weekend. Just the way the media wants it. Such a person is watching the world through other people’s eyes.
Ironically, a quote from a British daytime TV show is appropriate here: “Leeeet’s look at the evidence”: We have Lester (Orson Bean) and his chums who are wanting to live forever—and they’ve spent their entire lives waiting for the moment when they can achieve this through Malkovich. Then we have Craig: “All I ask, is that I be allowed to do my work.” His wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) is a typical empty person grasping for something to make her life worthwhile—initially the obsessive collecting of animals, then later the thrill of “being” Malkovich. As for Maxine—I’ll get to her in a minute.
The idea of “being” someone else is part of the attraction of movies, which is why the screenwriter’s first task is to create a character we empathize with. Of course in today’s media-obsessed world this being extends far beyond the actual film to the actor behind the character—not only does the audience want to “be/be with” the battle-hardened samurai warrior (depending on gender and orientation), they also want to “be” Tom Cruise . . . or Tom Cruise’s love interest, or . . . you see? It’s “Death by a Thousand Social Comparisons” as observed by Oliver James in his book Britain on the Couch.
“Nobody’s looking for a puppeteer in today’s wintry economic climate,” bemoans Cusack as Craig Schwartz. But it isn’t that cut-and-dry. People do at least want to have their heartstrings pulled (and interestingly, this is one of the most heartless films I’ve ever seen), and for many part of the joy of a good film is that it gives you examples of how to live, how to find meaning, and how to be happy—which, if the medium is still the message at this late hour, is usually by coming back to the movies each week. Taken to an absurdity, extremists who are so directionless that they try and use film as a blueprint for living could certainly be considered puppets. If you think this is only a fictional possibility, watch the documentary.
So it is no coincidence that Craig is a puppeteer and Malkovich is a celebrity. Surely actually “being” that celebrity is an extension of going to see one of their films, in which you allow yourself to fall into empathy with the character they play for two hours or so.
In essence, Malkovich is himself a puppeteer in a way—not just by making his characters dance and play to his whim, but also the audience, to an extent. Maxine, meanwhile, can be considered the most powerful puppeteer of all—she manipulates Craig, Lotte, and Malkovich through their lust for her, maneuvering them into doing her bidding.
So then, what is this film about? It’s about reversals, as any Robert McKee student (which Charlie Kaufman clearly is) will tell you any film is about. In this case it’s the reversal of puppeteer to puppet and vice-versa. Everyone is either a puppet or a puppeteer, and those who are puppets want nothing more than to be puppeteers. But in achieving this goal, they—seemingly inevitably—must switch those around them from puppeteers to puppets, because there are only so many people who can be pulling the strings in entertainment. If everyone were puppeteers, their power would be meaningless as they would have no audience.
The writers control the actors; the actors manipulate the audience. The audience (or at least 40,000 of them every year) moves out to L.A. to try to become an actor or a writer. Yet at the same time, it is the unpredictable but malleable whims of the audience that determine what will sell, that determine what gets written and what gets produced. So the writers are the puppets of the audience, albeit on a very long string. Being John Malkovich offers little hope for breaking this cycle. None of the characters has a concern for the bigger picture, except perhaps Lester (and Flemmer, in the unproduced version of the script). The rest of them are just desperately seeking a way to turn themselves into puppeteers—even if it’s only for the short term.
Being John Malkovich allows the audience the metaphorical equivalent of our own reversal, from in front of the screen to behind the camera. It’s about the move from filmgoer to filmmaker, from consumer to creator. It’s about trying to escape the high-chair of spoon-fed entertainment and actually learning to think for yourself—even perhaps to evolve some sort of creativity.
Or its cycle into madness might just be an object lesson to prod you to get a life.
Intimate Strangers by Richard Schickel
A Massive Swelling by Cintra Wilson