Film debuts don’t come much better than Being John Malkovich, which saw music video director Spike Jonze team up with TV writer Charlie Kaufman to create one of the most funny, disturbing and thought-provoking American movies of the last twenty years. The duo went on to collaborate again on the superior Adaptation - one of my all time favourite films – but all the ingenuity, metatextual commentary and black comedy that underpins that later work can also be seen here.
On a plot level, Being John Malkovich is about a struggling artist, puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), forced to take a crummy office job on floor 7 1/2 of a New York office building working for a bizarre and sexually frank old man (Orson Bean). Whilst working there he meets and falls in love with an aloof, cynical colleague, Maxine (Catherine Keener), who rebuffs his advances and generally makes him feel pathetic. One day Craig is working late when he finds a small door behind a filing cabinet and discovers it’s a portal that gives you 15 minutes inside the mind of actor John Malkovich (who plays a pompous, fictionalised version of himself) before throwing you out into a ditch next to the New Jersey Turnpike. He tells Maxine about it in order to impress her and together they rent out time in the actor’s mind to anyone who will pay.
Craig’s animal-obsessed girlfriend Lotte (Cameron Diaz) is one customer, becoming addicted to experiencing life through the eyes of John Malkovich. One thing leads to another and she soon starts cheating on Craig with the girl of his dreams: Maxine. Via Malkovich, naturally. The scheme is soon exposed however, with the actor increasingly aware people are messing with his mind. As a puppeteer Schwartz comes to think he can permanently inhabit and control the actor. Meanwhile, that strange old man I mentioned also has his own creepy part to play in events – culminating in one of the most disturbing final shots ever committed to film. Intellectually disturbing, of course, rather than unpleasant to behold.
An amusing cameo from Charlie Sheen almost steals the show, with the troubled star here cast as himself and an unlikely best friend of Malkovich (“Malkatraz!”), whilst brief appearances from Sean Penn and Brad Pitt also aid the film’s commentary on the conflict between pretension, celebrity and genuine artistry.
That’s best thing about Being John Malkovich – and it’s something very typical of Kaufman’s subsequent work, from Human Nature to Synecdoche, New York: you can go as deep with it as you want to. On the surface it’s a very odd comedy film with some pretty dark ideas. It’s appealing and very funny taken on these terms alone. However, there is far more going on here than all that. One theme that can be found in all of his scripts to date is that of identity and of how we see ourselves. Craig would be happier expressing his art, manipulating marionettes, under a spotlight through Malkovich than he would be doing it by the side of the street as himself.
Schwartz is set up as a true suffering, soulful artist: living through his need to express his raw feelings through his puppets. However, he’s also a phoney, contradicting many of his principals throughout the film with his behaviour. He is – like Nicolas Cage in Adaptation or Philip Seymour Hoffman in Synecdoche – an extension of the writer, as he struggles with his own fragile ego. It’s a very personal neurosis that we bear witness to in these films even if the ideas on screen often seem very grand and complicated. Kaufman constructs elaborate and endlessly rewarding screenplays, with Being John Malkovich the one that announced his oblique style.
It’s a sorry state of affairs in terms of extras, though you get the feeling the filmmakers want to keep it that way. After all, isn’t the film about people’s destructive desire to delve into the mind of an artist and a feeling of entitlement to possess creative talent? None of the features are HD, with all the material having a deliberate low-fi, handheld camera aesthetic. All of the extras are straight off the original DVD release, whilst a number of the old features (trailers, TV spots, stills) are actually absent here.
Of the “documentaries” carried over from the DVD, two are extended versions of spoofs seen in the film, which run at a combined six minutes: the 71/2 Floor Orientation video (a parody of corporate induction videos) and American Arts & Culture Presents: John Horatio Malkovich, Dance of Despair and Disillusionment (a pitch-perfect satire of shows like Behind the Music and Inside the Actors Studio). Both are very funny and worth seeing in full, representing the highlight of the extras.
The other features include an “interview” with Spike Jonze. It’s two minutes long and mostly consists of the director sweating and clearing his throat whilst listing everyone he worked with on the movie, from the DP to the key grip. It ends with him running off and vomiting in the street. It’s clearly an unsettling and odd joke, given the Jonze’s style and track record – and besides, if it were a legitimate documentary they probably wouldn’t have included it on the disc.
Two others follow in a similar vein, shot by the same filmmaker: Lance Bangs. These are 7 minute-ish “docs”, one ostensibly interviewing a real life puppeteer about his craft and the other following a “background driver”: an extra apparently employed to drive her car up and down the New Jersey Turnpike for 12 hours for the background of one of the roadside scenes. It’s open to debate how much of either is staged, but at the very best even if they are sincere the documentary is not.
The net result is that these features are often funny but unfulfilling. There is no truth here at all. Nothing about the creative process is shared and we learn nothing about Being John Malkovich. As I said at the top: I get the strong feeling the filmmakers want to keep it that way and let the feature speak for itself. I understand this and even empathise with it, but this doesn’t detract from the fact that it’s practically a worthless disc in terms of extras.
Overall these features add up to just over 20 minutes of content and it’s another Universal back catalogue title that seems to have been ripped straight from the earlier HD-DVD, released in 2007. As a result the picture and sound quality also pales in comparison to that of more recent Blu-rays, whilst the menus are the same vanilla monstrosities that afflict the entire Universal range.
Being John Malkovich is released on Blu-ray from Monday.
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