The 1999 film Being John Malkovich, screenplay written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze, is a highly philosophical film that deals with the ability – or inability – to truly ‘become’ another individual. It follows the story of Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) and his experience of finding a portal that allows the user to ‘become’ the celebrity actor John Horatio Malkovich (played by John Malkovich).
Within this narrative, the film also address ideas relating to cinema theory, especially in response to the appeal of film spectatorship as a mode of escapism through becoming someone else, and therefore the film can be classified as metacinematic. The appeal of cinema to the modern spectator is its ability to work as a distinctly audio-visual device that enables a sense of escapism from the self through the engagement with characters and their narratives in films. The practice of spectatorship of cinema is a popular mode of escapism in modern society.
The actors that star in Hollywood films are idolised as their characters are privileged so that the spectator can emotionally engage with them and partake in this sense of becoming someone else. For this reason, Hollywood films engage with conventions of character that enhance the spectator’s engagement with these characters. The perpetration of such conventions is evidence alone for the importance of the development of a spectator-character engagement within films.
This allure of the capacity to become someone else through participation in such creative devices like cinema, literature and, in Being John Malkovich’s’ case, puppeteering, is addressed early in the film by Craig’s statement “[Puppeteering is] the idea of becoming someone else for a little while. ” Already the narrative of the film is becoming self-reflexive or metacinematic by addressing the appeal of creative devices such as its own medium. William C. Siska defines metacinema or self-reflexiveness in modern cinema as “an attack on our empathy by undercutting the “reality” of the characters and actions within the film.
Formal reflexivity in the modernist film serves as a method of “unmasking” the Hollywood illusion that allows us to identify with fictional characters as if their fate were bound to our own. ” Siska is correctly suggesting here that metacinema creates a break between the spectator and the fictional character, however, his understanding of metacinema does not cover the ability of cinema to reflect on its self through the narrative of the film rather than through the construction of the film.
In other terms Being John Malkovich, as a film, does not present Craig’s narrative as anything other than fictional events but instead presents a reflection on its medium, and indeed other mediums of spectator escapism, through Craig’s experiences with the portal. The film does not break ‘the fourth wall’ (the boundary between spectator and events within the film) by directly addressing its audience or showing the cameras involved in the construction of the film – it makes no attempt to ‘unmask’ its nature as a film.
Instead, it analyses the experience of viewing films through its narrative elements, challenging the spectators understanding of how much they can truly become someone else through their engagement with characters on screen. The most significant of these narrative elements is the experience of the portal into John Malkovich. Martin Kley engages with this idea and describes the portal as “an allegory of the cinema”, he outlines how the nature of this portal is parallel to the nature of a cinema viewing experience by a spectator.
The user of the John Malkovich portal enters through a door into a dark corridor that leads towards a bright light. While they crawl through the space they are pushed forwards by a force, represented by the sound of wind gushing, and finally ‘become’ John Malkovich. This state of ‘being’ John Malkovich is represented by a vignetting that frames the point of view camera shots as if they are eyes. Additionally, there are only ambient sounds of Malkovich’s actions, whether it be drying himself after a shower or on the phone, coupled with the thoughts of the user that has recently entered the portal.
The muffling and echoing effects of these sounds evoke the sense that the user is inside Malkovich’s head. Finally, after the discrete period of 15 minutes the user is ejected from the head and hauled into a ditch next to the New Jersey Turnpike. As Kley suggests, the techniques used to create the experience of the portal in the film are evocative of the film spectator’s experience. The dark, isolating space of the John Malkovich portal is much like that of a cinema theatre. At the end of the corridor there is a bright light signifying the space in which the user can view through Malkovich’s eyes.
Aside from Craig and Dr Lester – where the film begins to complicate the narrative – the user of the portal has a passive experience while inside Malkovich, again aiding the idea that the portal works much like a cinematic experience wherein the viewer cannot affect the action of the film only watch it. Kley accounts the tumbling, gushing wind that drives the person inside the portal towards this light as illustrative of “the phenomenology of movie-going, albiet slightly exaggerated. ” The spectator finds the cinema experience “irresistible” and the user of the Malkovich portal also cannot escape the force pulling them inwards.
Being John Malkovich further engages with the appeal of the spectatorship of cinema as a popular form of escapism later in the film as both Craig and his partner Lottie (Cameron Diaz) are seen going to extreme lengths in order to revisit the portal. Lottie sneaks away from her husband late at night and Craig physically locks Lottie in a cage so he can visit the portal. Moreover, the portal becomes a money-making venture that allows people to pay to have the experience of becoming John Malkovich. The first costumer to enter the portal is a self-proclaimed fat man who longs to become someone else, if only for a short while.
Kley claims that this man “can represent a regular moviegoer who projects his desire onto a movie star with whom he can feel identical for about two hours with the help of the illusionistic cinematic apparatus. ” There are lines of these customers, all willingly paying $200 for a short period of escapism in which they can feel they have become someone else. In this way, the film is addressing the importance of spectatorship and escapism that cinema provides. The portal into John Malkovich is an exaggerated metaphor for the cinema viewing experience and so the film is self-reflexively exploring its own appeal to a popular audience.
Being John Malkovich is also metacinematic in the casting of its lead character – the film stars a film star and deals with his celebrity status. The significance of casting a celebrity as a lead further complements the idea of cinematic spectatorship and escapism. A movie star is in many ways a vessel for this escapism, they are able to take on many performed identities and at the same time their split between public and private leaves a sense of the enigmatic that allows them to take on the desires of the spectators that admire them.
This is heavily explored through the construction of the character of John Horatio Malkovich in the film. Even in the name of this character there is a distinct split between the real actor John Malkovich and his film persona John Horatio Malkovich. In this way screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is not trying to trick the audience into believing the film is in some way giving the spectator privileged access to the celebrity, but rather capturing what is so appealing about celebrity movie stars to spectators through a fictional character.
In this sense, the film is metacinematic, as it is not the actor John Malkovich that is explored but rather the fictional John Horatio Malkovich who allows some insight into the appeal of cinema to spectators. John Horatio Malkovich is presented as a character who has celebrity status but whom in no way lives the presumed celebrity lifestyle in his everyday life. When he is occupied by various other characters he is not walking the red carpet or even filming a new blockbuster but rather experiencing the mundane such as checking for out-of-date food in the fridge.
It is simply his name; his star status that makes him appealing. No one in the film can tell you what John Malkovich is famous for – just that he is famous. He exists both as enigmatic and defined by celebrity status allowing the users of the portal to project their fantasies of what he can represent onto him. For Craig this is a way to further his puppeteering career, for Lottie this is a way to explore her new sexuality and for Maxine this is a way to make money and fame.
Malkovich himself is easily dismissed and instead represents the blank canvas with which spectators can achieve their desires. In “The Perverse Cosmos of Being John Malkovich: Forms and Transformations of Narcissism in Celebrity Culture”, Lisa Weinstein and Banu Seckin go as far as to suggest “in the state of celebrity, Malkovich is an ideal container into which to project an imagined self. ” Kley concurs by stating “the star is a blank that can be filled with any given purpose or desire.
Furthermore, the film exaggerates the longing of the spectator to project their desires and dream onto the celebrity vessel through Craig’s long term occupation of Malkovich, in which he is able to not only see through Malkovich’s eyes but also control his actions as if he is “a really expensive suit. ” In this period Craig is quite literally able to make his dreams come true through his occupation of Malkovich – he creates a successful puppeteering career and achieves fame.
The film reiterates the importance of celebrity star status in allowing desires to be achieved in the scene with Craig inside Malkovich telling his manager he wants a career change, “ I would like to redirect my career so that from now on the name John Malkovich will be synonymous with puppets” to which his manager simply replies “Sure. No problemo. Poof, you’re a puppeteer. ” The following scenes are a montage to the success of this venture exaggerating the ideal way spectatorship of film and film stars allows the audience to project their desires and achieve an escapism.
While Craig in in Malkovich, Malkovich’s physical appearance and mannerism warps to those of Craig’s. He grows longer, greasy hair and a belly in addition to slouching further and adopting Craig’s careless mannerisms. The fusing of Malkovich and Craig’s identities can symbolise the way that spectator, represented by Craig, and actor, obviously represented by Malkovich, are joined together in the cinematic experience of the portal.
Finally, “Craig’s Dance of Disillusionment and Despair”, performed twice in the film, is fundamental to understanding Craig’s motivations as a character and therefore a metacinematic reflection if we take Craig to be representative of spectators in the film. It is first performed as the opening of the film, a puppet, who looks similar to Craig, sees himself in the mirror, looks up to reveal the human Craig pulling his strings and then destructively dances about the room until he is exhausted.
This initial scene draws upon ideas of ideas of self-reflexiveness, authorship and identity that continue through the films narrative and help to construct the metacinematic reading. Craig’s puppet is cogitating upon his own nature as a creation of Craig, its identity is as an empty shell merely breathed to life by Craig – revealed by the way Craig too is physically exhausted in his process of creating the puppet’s movements.
Again the spectator is projecting their ideas and desires onto the blank vessel, which in this case is the puppet. In conclusion, Being John Malkovich is a metafictional film because of the way it deals with ideas of spectatorship and the appeal of escapism through the narrative of the film involving a cinematic style portal and a celebrity film star vessel.