Being John Malkovich

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Wishing on A Star
Years of following
music video did not prepare me for Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich.
Music video skeptics might easily have predicted Fight Club, a flashy, incoherent
extravaganza–cuz that’s all most videos come down to. But Jonze’s
feature film debut makes him Hollywood’s unpredictable Spike. While most
critics use the term "music video" cynically and ignorantly to disdain
visual stylization (yet fall for Fight Club’s vacuous sensationalism),
Jonze vindicates the form. He shows its integrity to be an adroitly chosen visual
style. This is different from the goosed-up Madison Avenue spectacle that Fight
Club’s David Fincher specializes in along with Michael Bay (Armageddon)
and Simon West (Con Air). Being John Malkovich doesn’t look like anyone’s
idea of a music video except Spike Jonze’s. And yet, for two hours, it
works like the best music videos: making high-concept philosophies graspable,
marvelous and fun.

First, understand that Jonze
has consistently been a pomo parodist. A music video whiz, but from the Beastie
Boys’ Sabotage to Bjork’s It’s Oh So Quiet he’s
demonstrated a new way of seeing through old ways. Just as Jonze’s videos
reconceive old tv shows, movie musicals and the home video (Fatboy Slim’s
Praise You, the video-cam stunt Blair Witch Project should have
been), BJM turns conventional Hollywood features like Brainstorm,
where characters travel to other dimensions, on their head.

With screenwriter Charlie
Kaufman, Jonze satirizes high concept itself by taking seriously Craig’s
(John Cusack) desire to express himself artistically. Craig’s medium is
marionettes, but his playtime drive signals a deep dissatisfaction, a need to
be accepted and understood that is not answered by his marriage to Lotte (Cameron
Diaz), whose longing matches Craig’s. As a pet store worker she sublimates
her desire through parenthood, bringing home parrots and chimpanzees. Having
blotted each other out of their private lives, Craig seeks his ideal in Maxine
(Catherine Keener), a brittle, manipulative co-worker, sharing his discovery
of a secret doorway in their office that leads–fantastically–to John
Malkovich’s head.

This otherworldly trip is
a postmodern, nonreligious version of the afterlife fantasies in movies like
Brainstorm and Made in Heaven and Heaven Can Wait and
Here Comes Mr. Jordan
. The idea carries its own skepticism, but Jonze’s
humor suggests: maybe… Instead of the afterlife, BJM wishes upon a
star (a correction of Camille Paglia’s notion that movie stars are pagan
gods) to examine how another life might answer Craig and Lotte’s dissatisfaction.
They seek to assuage their distemper by entering Malkovich’s consciousness.
It fulfills Craig’s puppeteer’s desire, and Lotte discovers new sexual
fulfillment–along with Maxine, whose use of the real Malkovich for sexual
stimulation realizes her narcissism. It’s easy to talk about BJM
as a satire on identity crisis. But Jonze’s typically askew vision sees
something more. The film is most poignant on the things about which it is least
specific–marriage and celebrity.

Jonze probes Craig and Lotte’s
post-slacker emotional vagueness. These young, stringy-haired marginals recall
the ex-hippies of Mike Leigh’s High Hopes but without political
commitment, just frustration. Craig envies a commercial puppeteer who stages
The Belle of Amherst to his personal street corner production of Heloise
and Abelard
. Craig whines, "All I want is the chance to do my work,
and they won’t have it because I raise issues"–a typical unempowered
person’s complaint. His lonely puppetry suggests the displaced fantasy
life of Tim Burton’s most original characters, and the opening scene of
Craig’s puppet ballet evokes the masturbatory isolation Matthew Broderick
sneaked off to in Election (but that Kevin Spacey sardonically trivialized
in American Beauty).

Jonze x-rays this fouled-up
marriage when Craig invites Maxine to dinner after Lotte has seen her through
Malkovich’s eyes. The pitiful triangle of crossed agendas climaxes when
both mates pounce on their idealized prey. This double adultery on sofa (like
a Twin Peaks outtake) would never have been dared by classic screwball
comedies; it bypasses the sanctity of marriage to scoff at the foolishly betrotheds’
delusions. Illustrating a new, non-cynical sensibility, the scene reifies Jonze
and Kaufman’s absurdities, becoming more humane and poignant, yet keeps
rollicking. Similarly, when Craig takes a corporate job for his nimble fingers–on
the seventh-and-a-half floor of an office building–Jonze crunches white-collar
banality into haunting, jokey mythos. (The film’s only disappointment is
that Lance Acord’s photography favors this fluorescent-bulb staleness over
more expressive lighting.)

Jonze’s next level
analyzes celebrity without the typical media-worship in Woody Allen’s last
film, but as a condition of psychological anxiety. The fantasy of being inside
someone else’s skin (turning the subconscious inside out like a better,
present-day Brazil) is understood in contemporary terms as a sign of
displacement and estranged desire–whether Lotte’s sexual dissatisfaction
or Craig’s fantasies of control and escape. Its symbols are brilliantly
precise: art, acting, puppetry are skills of distance, alienation, lack of direct
touch. And this becomes the basis of Jonze’s wild ride through Malkovich’s
head, the escape from dread marital circumstances through the aura of celebrity.
It’s a bold proposition not to hold celebrity sacrosanct in this era. ("I
thought you were all right in one movie," a cabbie says to the star.) Malkovich
himself is frustrated; an easily manipulated artist whose desire to live forever
completes the film’s circle of suppressed ambitions.

BJM is also about
identity through work. A major contemporary idea, poorly addressed in Fight
and American Beauty but as cogent here and as it was in Mike
Judge’s Office Space. Matching Judge’s incisive satire, Jonze
mocks a job-orientation film, an arts documentary and, in a clever flashback,
what critic Gregory Solman identified as a parody of Peter Gabriel’s Shock
the Monkey
video. Leaping into chimpanzee consciousness and memory, Jonze
limns the absurdity of behavioral regimens, making a joke of his own quasi-scientific
(artistic) occupation. His ace combination of farce and fantasy (a self-conscious
movie about self-consciousness) proves more conversant with celebrity and instant
gratification as aspects of pop culture despondency than almost any other recent
film. The dread side of Jonze’s slapdash, light-fingered brilliance evokes
Poe, just as Craig catching himself being outrageous and asking, "What
have I become? My wife in a cage with a monkey!" suggests a John Collier-like
play with identity and credulity.

Finally, Being John Malkovich
addresses the limitations of the human body and its aspirations–both conveyed
through funny-pathetic details of the human condition. Malkovich turns out to
be the perfect choice for this; he’s creepy but in a way that seems natural,
unaffected, a cosmic accident like Craig, Lotte and Maxine in their mundane
lives. Described by Maxine as having a "too prominent forehead with male-pattern
baldness," Malkovich’s body conveys the movie’s deepest stirrings.
His Lucian Freud corpulence looks aged yet powerful. Doing Craig’s "Dance
of Despair and Disillusionment" Malkovich turns modern-dance leaps and
extensions into some of the film’s most artfully expressive touches. But
none are pretentious. Even Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard gets rude
effect when the lisping Malkovich practices the line, "Fate has tossed
me hither and thither." There are more ideas (and delights and surprises)
in this movie than an introductory review can reveal.

Jonze and Kaufman deal with
so much: age, sex, labor and, of course, love and death relayed through spiritual
transference and emotional projection. You don’t have to think about the
movie this way; it can be enjoyed as a romp, but it’s richer when you do
investigate the filmmakers’ issues. Jonze has made the first American surrealist
screwball comedy–an achievement that probably would be unthinkable in today’s
Hollywood without the artistic insurgency of music video to nurture such an
odd sensibility and prepare the public for off-center visions that go right
to the heart of metaphysics, modern psychology and hipness. No matter how much
Jonze dissembles to interviewers with a skateboard maven’s disingenuousness,
he delivers music video’s essential promise: he’s made a work of art.

Jonze has pulled off one
of the most amazing transitions of the post-postmodern era–from the quasi-fringe
to the mainstream, moving music video’s indefinite position between tv
and cinema closer to the latter. That’s something music video’s other
great directors–Hype Williams, Marcus Nispel, Michel Gondry–have yet
to do. In the music video programs I’ve done for the Film Society of Lincoln
since 1993 (past programs highlighted Jonze, Williams, Nispel and Mark Romanek,
the latter two as in-person dialogues), emphasis was put on the integrity of
music videos in contradistinction to the blandness and inauthenticity of theatrical
films. That’s where most other video directors openly desire to graduate.
But Romanek, another master, already made his feature debut with Static in 1985,
suggesting that features are not necessarily something a filmmaker works up
to but can be another serious form, another choice.

Romanek’s little-seen
idiosyncratic comedy shares a satirical/metaphysical interest with Being
John Malkovich
. Static’s script wasn’t as nimble but Romanek
similarly explored a young man’s excitement about the afterlife via a television
tuned in to the beyond–in other words, it looked at how media affects the
psyche. In a commanding opening shot–an absorbing single take that should
be to the music video age what The Conversation’s opening was to
the Watergate age–Romanek sought to make imagery speak past the surface.
That’s every good music video director’s ambition, linked to film
artistry rather than crass tv commercials. Jonze’s prankishness fashions
images less meticulously than his peers, but still just as seriously.

Several music video directors
have achieved cinema-like expressiveness in three to four minutes, but few have
brought that skill to the big screen. Add ’em up: Fincher, Mark Pellington
(Arlington Road), F. Gary Gray (Set It Off, The Negotiator),
Matt Mahurin (MugShot), Antoine Fuqua (The Replacement Killers),
Brett Ratner (Rush Hour), Hype Williams (Belly), Jake Scott (Plunkett
& Macleane
). So many small-screen splashes and big-screen blunders.
(It’s a blessing Nispel walked off Schwarzenegger’s End of Days,
but tragic that that project kept him from the dream assignment of doing every
TLC Fan Mail video; they might have rivaled A Hard Day’s Night.)
Neophytes like Sam Mendes lack video directors’ skill, yet it’s certain
that skill isn’t enough; it takes a feel for visual conception like Jonze
brings to sketch comedy that makes BJM join Election as the year’s
great comedies.

Images that convey meaning
more than scream for attention have always distinguished good music videos from
slick commercials. Jonze’s ability to achieve a variegated "look"
is part of his content-dictates-form esthetic. That’s less obviously true
of Williams, Nispel, Gondry and Romanek–wild visionaries proud of cinema’s
spectacular, kinetic tradition. Jonze eschews that in ways that have given him
hip cache without always understanding the real nature of his relatively simple,
chameleon technique. To compare Jonze’s Buddy Holly, The Sweater
, Feel the Pain, It’s All About the Benjamins (Remix),
It’s Oh So Quiet, Sabotage, the only stylistic thread is
attitude–mocking, low-tech. But Jonze’s admirers don’t appreciate
that the downplayed technical savvy is, in fact, extremely sophisticated. His
seeming rejection of "style" is, in fact, a style (you only have to
look at other low-tech, avant-novice videos to appreciate Jonze’s esthetic
integrity). That’s his secret affinity with grandiose video directors (a
more substantive bridge than the crossover music of Jonze’s hiphop parody
for Notorious B.I.G.’s "Sky’s the Limit").

Jonze’s restraint–his
distrust–of showbiz convention makes sense for Francis Ford Coppola’s
son-in-law. An heir of the Spiegel catalog fortune (born Adam Spiegel), Jonze
married Sofia Coppola last spring after a friendship that included media-making
with her brother Roman Coppola. There’s scion-prodigy arrogance in his
refusal of showbiz tradition. It was most apparent in the demi-crescendo of
It’s All About the Benjamins (Remix) when Lil’ Kim walks dazedly
onstage in a pink prom dress, then strips down to s&m leather. Jonze let
the moment carry its own jolt rather than hype its drama. His true climax came
later, interrupting the prom chaos with a non-diegetic montage of high school
yearbook photos, cooling down the incendiary fantasy to promote a nostalgic,
low-tech universality. He audaciously indicated what Being John Malkovich
confirms: this slacker manque can do what’s required.

the Big Black Sun. W.T. Morgan’s 1986 X: The Unheard Music (airing
on the Sundance Channel Oct. 26, 30 & 31) is my nominee for the best pop
music documentary. Morgan blends kitsch with reporting to evoke L.A. history
and combines live performances and interviews with impressionistic song sequences.
Kitschy, ingenious, profane yet religious, it’s sort of a series of music
videos but more art-conscious and memorable than most: the title song set to
a house being moved through the streets of nighttime L.A.; "Because I Do"
as a perfect silent movie pastiche; a fiery performance of "Johnny Hit
and Run Pauline," and never too much of that gifted, exciting band–smiling
Billy Zoom, erudite D.J. Bonebrake, soulful John Doe and punk siren Exene. She
comments, "I’ve been able to go back and listen to all the music that’s
been around forever. You know, just the old country guys Hank Williams, Loretta
Lynn and then the blues guys like Leadbelly, Howlin’ Wolf, all that stuff…
I think the best kind of influences you can have are the original sources. Led
Zeppelin doing Robert Johnson isn’t a good influence I don’t think;
Robert Johnson is." Then she pays poetic tribute to Percy Mayfield. Forget
Nirvana. I miss X’s intelligence and passion.