Being John Malkovich
is that blip on the film-world’s sonar (15 years ago now), pinging louder like an incoming torpedo, when one writer became an emerging threat. Charlie Kaufman alone, launching strike after strike in five years—following BJM
with screenplays for Adaptation
, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
, and two more—seemed to set off David Morris Kipen’s “Schreiber theory” in 2006, which attacks the director-centred “auteur theory” by positing the screenwriter as a film’s main author.Kaufman brought the thrill of a sharply self-aware meta-storyness to his first script, all about impersonation, substitution and manipulation. In its first five minutes, after curtains part for its first scene, Being John Malkovich
offers obsessives’ child-substitutes—frowzy Craig Schwartz’s marionettes and plain Lotte Schwartz’s pets—and whimsical allusions: a giant Emily Dickinson puppet, a curbside re-enactment of Heloise and Abelard’s medieval romance. The mixture of Schwartz’s (John Cusack) pathetic artistic struggle (to be “inside someone else’s skin and see what they see”) and stretched-out absurdities (a 7½th floor, imagined speech impediments) merges in one rebirth-canal. It’s a behind-a-filing-cabinet tunnel-ride into John Horatio Malkovich’s consciousness, followed by ejection onto a grassy bank by the New Jersey Turnpike. The story also drops us into a Bermuda love-triangle.There’s something fantastically proto-Internet about this romantic-dramedy of flop-sweat desperation, role-playing, simulation and eccentric, niche-culture behaviour—a world of virtual-reality escapes, alter egos, sexual fetishes and rabbit-hole trips. Both self-parodies—Kaufman’s mockery of egomaniacal, pretentious high-artistry and Malkovich’s existence on the margins of celebrity—seem seriously prescient of 21st-century cyberculture, too. The actor’s voyage into his own head leads to a funhouse-mirrorland of multiple Malkoviches. Director Spike Jonze eyes this story of wormholing self-obsessions with a dingy, cramped up-close-ness (Jonze’s man-in-love-with-his-operating-system Her
, just released, seems like BJM
‘s post-Steve Jobs soulmate).
Kaufman’s script still impresses with its self-possession, its poised, sure-handed oddness, striking a distinctive tone—scruffy, melancholic absurdity. (The real triangle here seems to be Python-Pynchon-Beckett.) And Lottie’s (Cameron Diaz) pursuit of Maxine (Catherine Keener) through Malkovich’s subconscious epitomizes the silly yet serious story-building that Kaufman’s accomplished. Because the lasting thrill of Being John Malkovich is its warped, wild ride along the circuits and currents of a deviously plotting mind.