Being John Malkovich

Being John Malkovich

Happiness Is a Warm Portal

On being a tour through the history of philosophy.

::: Tom C Smith

Give their project extra credit: Charlie Kaufman (screenwriter) and Spike Jonze (director) have concocted a cinematic answer to one of the biggest questions in Western philosophy, namely: what is being? With Being John Malkovich, Kaufman and Jonze address the big question from the point of view of thinkers ranging from from Thales (585 BC) to Plato (400 BC) to Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) to the guy in the street. But in trying to please all, the dynamic duo ends up empty handed. That said, Malkovich is a magnificent effort.

From the start, Malkovich flexes its metaphysical muscles both visually and verbally. The movie opens with a wooden puppet bearing the likeness of Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) performing “Craig’s dance of despair and disillusion.” Craig’s depression is reinforced as he says to his wife’s pet chimpanzee, “You don’t know how lucky you are being a monkey. Because consciousness is a terrible curse.”

It’s Arche-typical!

Being, in the title. Being, in the first extended dialogue. If it’s not obvious, being is the focus of this film. You’ve heard of an action thriller with heart? This is a psychological thriller with brain. Thales (the first philosopher) defined “Being” as that which “is” (Bill Clinton, call your office). It’s that which exists and endures. It’s that which springs forth from arche. Arche is a Greek work for “the beginning,” or “source.” (Thales proposed that water was the true arche when he said “All is water.”) “Becoming” is the means by which beings are produced from arche. Everything in the world exists in the realm of Being and Becoming. Things come into Being and then they pass away. But how does something that endures become, or change?

Shortly after his conversation with the chimp, Craig gets a file-sorting job on the 7½ floor of the Menton Fleming building. The 7½ floor is an oddity, but it’s a comic red herring (“low overhead”). The real idiosyncrasy about this building is the portal Craig finds hidden behind a file cabinet that leads into the mind of John Malkovich. For fifteen minutes this portal allows you to be John Malkovich! Initially, being only means experiencing the world as a witness through Malkovich’s senses.

I wanna get metaphysical . . .

Being can be a verb or a noun. Experiencing fifteen minutes of Malkovich is an example of Being as a verb. Being in the term “human being” is an example of Being as a noun. And the question of what a human being is, is the starting point for one of the most fascinating and difficult philosophical works of the twentieth century: Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time.

In order to start with a clean slate, Heidegger calls human beings Daseins. As his title indicates, our sense of identity is intrinsically wrapped up in time—not in the Newtonian sense of the word but in an extremely subjective sense of time wherein our interactions with the world around us—our individual histories—somehow tie in with global history.

To avoid plowing through the extremely dense Being and Time, a much easier alternative is watching Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, which offers an easy introduction to the whole Dasein/time deal in James Cole’s trials in time travel.

Intertextual dalliance

At one point in Twelve Monkeys, Cole and Kathryn Railly (Cole’s would-be psychiatrist) end up watching the scene in Hitchcock’s Vertigo where Kim Novak and James Stewart examine a cross-section of an ancient redwood tree. Novak points to one of the outermost rings, explaining that this is where and when she was born. This scene is more than a homage to Hitchcock: Gilliam is directing the viewer to a movie (Vertigo) that pursues another key concept of Heidegger’s, authenticity.

For Heidegger, authenticity is your genuine self, not just yourself as seen by others. What’s the difference? In Vertigo, Hitchcock offers a great answer to this question in the plight of Judy Barton (Kim Novak). Judy plays a relatively innocent part in a hoax whereby Scottie (James Stewart) is duped into believing that she’s Madeline, a rich man’s wife gone mad. The hoax is to convince Scottie, and the police, that Madeline has committed suicide. Part of the plan calls for Scottie to fall in love with Madeline. And Scottie does fall for Madeline—so hard that when he meets Judy in her real identity he wants her to dress up like Madeline, not realizing that she is the “real” Madeline that he knows. Judy, in turn, loves Scottie so much that she’s willing to go through this charade a second time! But as far as Scottie is concerned, Judy is the authentic Madeline. Or is she? After all, she looks and feels exactly like Madeline. What’s the difference? Vertigo shows us as Hitchcock portrays Madeline for us through both Judy’s and Scotty’s eyes.

And now, back to our program

The fifteen minutes whereby Craig and others slide down the portal and become Malkovich offers another situation that begs the question: What is authenticity? There are several visual clues that Kaufman and Jonze are referring to Heidegger. The most consistent of these are the concepts fallen and thrown. To enter Malkovich, you fall down through a tunnel. Once your fifteen minutes are up, you are thrown back into the real world (just before Exit 13 off the Jersey Turnpike). Heidegger says that when we’re born, we’re “thrown” into the world; we are involuntary recipients of the environment into which we fall. Family, culture, and nationality—you name it—it’s now ours. “Fallen” means that we rest in the “place” where we have landed.

Did you fall? Or were you pushed?

The concept of fallen is crucial both to Heidegger’s authenticity and Malkovich’s plot. In Heidegger’s understanding, we can never be authentic if we remain in the fallen state. If we just go with the flow of the opinions of those around us, we’ll never realize our genuine selves. For example, by dressing up like Madeline in Vertigo, Judy is among the fallen; she complies with Scotty’s requests. And in Malkovich, visitors into Malkovich’s vessel (the movie’s term for the body of someone we inhabit) go along for the ride.

It’s a crude comparison, but the phrase “going along for the ride” could be used to define reincarnation. Plato was a firm believer in both Being (his forms) and reincarnation (some say he picked this up from Pythagoras). Malkovich imparts a new spin, as with everything else, on the concept of journeying through multiple lives. That spin is to have multiple people join in on the next life. In fact, at one point in the movie we have a whole roomful of seniors waiting in line for the opportunity to fall down the portal into the younger Malkovich. This is a hysterical scene but it obfuscates any attempt to work authenticity into the portal picture. It’s tough enough for one spirit/soul/what-have-you to be authentic; what can you say about a dozen spirits occupying a single vessel?  

John Malkovich
It's my head!

Funny as is the scene with the retirees waiting for the Malkovich ship to sail, it doesn’t hold a candle to the one where Malkovich falls into his own portal. Even if Charlie Kaufman never writes another line, he’ll deserve lasting glory for that scene. On landing, Malkovich ends up in the Land of Malkovich. Everything and everyone, from the items on the menu, to the waiters, to the lounge singer at the piano is Malkovich, and all they can utter, in wild variations of intonation and gesture, is “Malkovich!” It’s a shame George Berkeley (“The chair exists because I am perceiving it . . .”) isn’t alive to see this movie.

See me after class

“Authenticity,” “fallen,” “thrown”—all of these would’ve more than satisfied the requirements for an excellent film that really helps the audience come to grips with some truly intimidating concepts. Unfortunately, Kaufman and Jonze didn’t stop there. Malkovich plows right on through to reincarnation and solipsism. And for this, one part of me wants to smack them upside the head, but the other just wants to applaud them loudly. The former is my philosopher self, while the latter is my entertained spectator self. One of these selves is authentic. One of them is a puppet on a string. One is being, the other is becoming.

Tom C Smith writes from New Jersey.

Posted by: editor on Mar 31, 2004 | 3:46 pm

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