Being John Malkovich
Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze, 1999
#1, 1999 Skandies

Maybe the 2000s really do just suck. Number of '90s films I had to watch in order to find a movie that surpassed every '00s film I've seen: one.

Of course, I'd seen this one when it came out and enjoyed it. I think at the time I gave it what I would today call a 6: worth a mention on the longish "favorite films" list I threw together around ten years ago, but not a masterpiece. My fear was that on this viewing I would end up having to drop it into the "I guess that was pretty good" category that comprised the best films I'd seen from the 2000s. Instead I came away thinking that my earlier "not a masterpiece" assessment may have been too harsh.

Here's an indication of how good this movie is. Recently I have wondered whether I should bother watching movies at all, given that there are aspects of the medium that I pretty much invariably dislike. For instance, I almost always hate film scores. So much so that I've stopped complaining about them on the theory that by now you all are taking the "and I hated the way the obtrusive violins kept telling me what to feel" part as read. The list of scores I've actively enjoyed basically begins and ends with The Sweet Hereafter... or at least it did until now. Not only is the score to Being John Malkovich hauntingly lovely, but it's also very effective in establishing tone: yes, this may be one of the funniest movies ever made, but ultimately it could hardly be more melancholy.

First, the comedy. I remembered the verbal flair — after all, the longest-lasting effect of my first viewing of this movie back in '99 is that not a week has gone by since that I haven't used the phrase "wintry economic climate." I also remembered Kaufman's ethic of copiousness, so much at odds with the traditional screenwriting mantra, "Do we need that?": Lestercorp didn't need to be on a floor with 5'-high ceilings, the receptionist didn't need to mishear everything, but Kaufman tosses it all in anyway. This not only keeps the entertainment level high from moment to moment (and allows less successful bits like the aforementioned receptionist to be absorbed in the general hilarity) but also establishes a baseline of ongoing absurdity that makes the central gimmick of the film that much easier to accept when we eventually reach it.

I also remembered that Catherine Keener's character (like all Catherine Keener characters?) was very unpleasant. What I hadn't remembered are the exchanges that establish her character, how she demonstrates the ability to slice someone to ribbons with first a line, then a word, then a sound, then a gesture (and the scene with the gesture is a fuckin' all-timer). She just murders the main character in scene after scene. Again, this is one of the funniest movies I've ever seen, but it's also possibly the cruelest. It reminded me of the Rolling Stone interview in which Maureen Dowd asked Jon Stewart about "really sad things" that happened in his childhood and Stewart replied, "Is this one of those are-you-crying-on-the-inside questions? [...] People always seem to view comedy as an affliction as opposed to an ability." That might be because it's not too uncommon for comedy to serve as a vehicle for conveying a worldview too pitch-black and despairing to be palatable any other way. Being John Malkovich is a story in which the protagonist gets physically and emotionally beaten up for an hour and a half and then is essentially sent to hell for eighty or ninety years. And it's complex enough to convey that horror through beautiful shots of an innocent little girl swimming.

On to theme. This movie does one of the things I love best: it takes on big questions through a metaphor that is simultaneously concrete and flexible. By "concrete" I mean that, paradoxically, the more detailed a high concept is — the less it seems like a metaphor for something else — the better it works as a metaphor. "There's a tiny door in my office, Maxine, it's a portal and it takes you inside John Malkovich. You see the world through John Malkovich's eyes, and then after about fifteen minutes, you're spit out into a ditch on the side of the New Jersey turnpike." The specificity of John Malkovich and the New Jersey turnpike totally sell the scenario. What's especially interesting to me is that John Malkovich and the New Jersey turnpike are both funny for the same reasons: they're neither too famous nor too obscure, they're both sort of weird-looking and immediately identifiable, and even the words "New Jersey turnpike" and "John Malkovich" have the same sort of comedic rhythm to them. (And of course you need both of them for the immortal "think fast" bit to work.) Then by "flexible" I mean that the metaphor isn't a facile one-to-one correspondence. What makes the idea behind the movie so powerful is that it can represent all of the following:

  • Dysphoria. "Ever want to be someone else?" is the tagline for JM Inc. And a lot of people do.

  • Celebrity worship. This is one of the more obvious takes on the idea: the notion that the media has created a class of people whose lives are the only ones seen as worth living, such that people would rather be famous for the stupidest of reasons than be accomplished but not on television.

  • Jealousy. Those who have sought love and wound up picking the unrequited variety can undoubtedly relate to the fantasy of somehow being able to take the place of that @#$%& who actually does get to experience those affections and intimacies and carnal delights so maddeningly unobtainable to you.

  • More subtly, there's the lengths we go to in order to make ourselves more appealing to those we desire. If you've ever faked an interest in your crush's favorite band — or if you've ever been afraid that your lover will drop you cold if you don't behave just so at all times — this movie will speak to you. And compare it to something like The Shape of Things, which addresses the same theme. In that film the icy lust-object forced the protagonist to lose weight, cut his hair, get a nose job. In Being John Malkovich, the icy lust-object tells Cameron Diaz's character that she's smitten with her — but only so long as she magically inhabits the body of the star of Making Mr. Right. The genius of the film is its recognition that the bugfuck version is much more powerful than what is ostensibly the more realistic one.

  • And one more parallel I'd throw in is the same one that makes Dollhouse interesting to me. The protagonist says that what draws him to puppeteering — and that's another sign that this is a high-quality production, that the filmmakers actually bother to make the puppet shows genuinely good — is "the idea of being inside someone else's skin, and seeing what they see and feeling what they feel." How different is that from writing a character? Above I posted that Onion link as a joke, but now that I think about it, gee, how much time have I spent over the past couple of years mentally inhabiting a seven-year-old girl, i.e., writing Wendy Mackaye? Why would I have devoted so much of my life to this project if, in addition to wanting to get this book out the door, I didn't also simply love being Wendy for a while, and being Alley Dawson, and being all the new characters who aren't in the IF version? And for that matter, isn't interactive fiction in large part a way to let the audience in on the sort of pleasure that is normally reserved for the author? Aren't my "Best Player Character" medals sitting in a drawer back in San Leandro a testament to the fact that at least a few people out there have enjoyed Being Tracy Valencia and Being Primo Varicella? The line of customers stretching out the door of JM Inc. is partly a joke, but isn't it also exactly what would in fact happen?

So, anyway: 1999 was already my favorite year in general, but it's looking like it's going to be my favorite Skandie list as well. A few days ago I was lamenting that I hadn't found a movie in the 2000s that I'd given more than a 61 to on Criticker. I just popped over to Criticker and rated this one a 77. And Criticker thought that I had become so cranky that I'd only give it a 38!

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