Criterion Corner Review: 'Being John Malkovich' Is Better Than Ever

Criterion Corner Review: 'Being John Malkovich' Is Better Than Ever

May 15, 2012

#611 BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (dir. Spike Jonze) 1999    

THE FILM: For a film so possessed by matters of cyclicality -- death, rebirth, and the transitive properties that bind them together -- perhaps it’s fitting that Being John Malkovich feels like the end of one era of movies, and the beginning of another. I mean, I guess every movie and / or thing that happened in the fall of 1999 felt like a millennial statement of some kind, but Spike Jonze’s first feature collapsed and confounded the world in a way that spoke to our fears of the future, understanding that personal identity can be the most isolating thing there is, especially as the very concept of what it means to be someone continues to evolve and fracture beyond our wildest dreams. 

The genius of Being John Malkovich begins with its title, which feels hyper-literal when the film begins, but sounds like a pure abstraction by the time you’re spit out the other side. When scraggly puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) first discovers a portal into the titular thespian’s mind, his fifteen minutes of brain could hardly be described as “Being” John Malkovich. Schwartz sees out of Malkovich’s eyes, but he can’t assert any control over the actor’s thoughts or functions. The experience is life-changing nevertheless, and Schwartz is hooked on the idea of being someone else -- Malkovich adds a tonally ideal element to the film, but the particulars of his person are ultimately irrelevant (an idea underscored by the fact that no one can remember any of the movies in which he’s starred, referring instead to “That jewel thief movie” or “The one where you played that retard”). 

Schwartz certainly appreciates Malkovich’s higher station in the world, but the real draw is the idea of becoming someone else -- anyone else -- and how that trip just explodes Schwartz’s understanding of the world around him, not to mention his place in it. Being / borrowing / visiting John Malkovich is a human Oz, offering the host a walloping shot of their ultimate desire. If Schwartz lusts for control, his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) uses the portal as a means to feel loved, her visits quickly assuming an erotic element as Schwartz’s sex-obsessed co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener) arranges to get kinky with the actor whenever Maxine is inhabiting him. And then there’s old Doctor Lester (Orson Bean) and his pals, for whom Malkovich represents a reprieve from their own mortality, his body providing a ripe vessel through which they can extend their lives at the expense of their individual identities. (Spoiler alert) When they succeed and permanently become Malkovich, Malkovich himself is completely erased (and to this day I’d argue that good ol’ Doc Lester suppresses his pals and takes full control). “Being” John Malkovich, it seems, means different things to different people, all of whom are united by the isolation that separates us as people. 

Charlie Kaufman’s dizzyingly inventive script, hilarious and then heart-breaking, illustrates those divisions in both modes. Consider Dr. Lester, who loves his secretary but can’t communicate with her because of his crippling speech impediment, which happens to be totally non-existent (in truth, it’s his secretary who can’t properly comprehend words). His self-diagnosis makes for brilliantly silly character moments, but it also speaks to a man who, despite being, an immortal body-hopping spirit, defines himself only in relation to those he loves. Whereas Schwartz is seduced by the idea of expanding his persona in order to satisfy his own ego and shake the world (a drive petrified in the third act by his Malkovich’s hysterically quick rise to global fame as puppeteer), Lester understands that identity is so fluid that it can only acquire significant meaning through others, and by who we are for each other. Lester is a potentially sinister character, but it’s no accident that the film reserves its ultimate sweetness to resolve his love story.  The Craig / Lotte / Maxine triangle ends with an unshakeable bitterness, as our sympathy for Craig has withered and the hero has become the villain, trapped in their radiant daughter as a prisoner of his own selfishness (his fate is a Dante-level nightmare). Lotte and Maxine are happy, but Lester and his wife are perfect.

Even 13 years later it’s still galvanizing to follow Charlie Kaufman’s script as it playfully tackles these things without ever being overwhelmed by its high concept or self-satisfied by its craziness, but it would be a shame to overlook the role of Spike Jonze’s direction in holding this bag of nuts together. Jonze’s music videos could be flashy, but their aesthetics were always motivated by their concepts, and never the other way around. When he set about making Being John Malkovich, he adamantly insisted that the film maintain a hyper-organic look, downplaying the glitzy excess associated with music video directors in favor of dank, claustrophobic interiors from which his characters would have to transcend because they couldn’t escape (props to all-star DP Lance Acord). Jonze’s compositions are simple and direct, and the performances he teased from his actors are eccentric but never campy.  The script required an intense bit of tonal juggling, but Jonze never slipped up -- an awed state of loneliness serves as the story’s North Star, and Carter Burwell’s enchanting score always helps the film to find its way back. 

It all coheres into a film that doesn’t represent a schism between two worlds of filmmaking so much as it does a bridge between them. Being John Malkovich felt like the film that the 1990s had been searching for all along, capitalizing on our collective fear of loneliness and the big tomorrow to reframe the opportunity for us to redefine ourselves as a chance to better see each other.

THE TRANSFER: A glorious HD transfer from the film’s original 35mm master, watching Criterion’s Being John Malkovitch Blu-ray is like seeing a fresh print of the film on opening weekend. Inside the booklet that comes with the disc, there’s a little note from Spike Jonze in which he writes that he wants to tell you about how this transfer captures the true colors of the film in a way that all previous home video editions couldn’t. But trust me, you’ll be able to see it for yourself. Pristine, filmic, and immaculately consistent. 

THE EXTRAS: Being John Malkovich might be a relatively recent film, so far as Criterion’s line-up is concerned, but they’ve treated it with the respect deserving of a classic. The disc is positively loaded with great features. First up is Lance Bangs’ 33-minute production doc All Non-Combatants Please Clear the Set, a hilarious and refreshingly candid glimpse of the cast & crew as they try to shoot the scenes on the 7 1/2 floor without decapitating themselves. There’s a video interview between Malkovich himself and humorist John Hodgman (he’s a PC), which does a pretty good job of communicating how terrifying it must be to interview John Malkovich. You also get the full orientation films as they’re seen in the feature, and an 8-minute Lance Bangs doc on puppeteering that addresses how Jonze and Kaufman were determined to treat the art with the respect it’s usually denied.

THE BEST BIT:  Instead of soliciting Spike Jonze for a commentary track, someone at Criterion had the genius idea of inviting the director’s good friend / arch-nemesis Michel Gondry to narrate the film. Legal shenanigans have reduced the full track to a 57-minute “selected-scene” commentary, but it’s still the best thing that ever has or ever will happen to you. Gondry’s unsparingly honest reactions and completely untethered imagination make this the most hilarious and provocative commentary track in ages. And the places it goes... from stories about how Gondry and Fincher used to commandeer the video sections at Best Buy stores to insisting that Jonze was secretly in love with Catherine Keener, this thing is essential listening. From now on, no Criterion release should be without a Gondry commentary.

For a taste of what I’m talking about, check out the commentary’s 5 best quotes.

THE ARTWORK: Well... it’s definitely unexpected. I guess Criterion was unsatisfied with the motifs established by the film’s rather beloved promo art, because they went back to the drawing board with this trippy, minimalist approach. I’m still not entirely sold on it, but there’s something inclusive and tranquil about it that extends to the interior design of the package. 

THE ARBITRARY SCORE: 93 / 100. One of the year’s best releases, by anyone, for everyone. 


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