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Be All That You Can Be by Being John Malkovich

Identity Crisis and Mortality in the works of Charlie Kaufman

If the most unusual movie had to be picked out of every movie ever produced, the chosen one might well be Spike Jonze’s directorial debut, Being John Malkovich. The film follows a struggling puppeteer, Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), who discovers a portal on floor 7 ½ of an office building that leads quite literally into the head of flamboyant actor, John Malkovich. Although an exceptionally quirky film, Being John Malkovich is genuine and layered, including themes such as marriage, the loss of attraction, and depression. It is, however, identity crisis and mortality—two themes that occur regularly in the writing of Charlie Kaufman—that I will be looking into here, and in two future articles on the Kaufman works: The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Adaptation.

Charlie Kaufman’s unique voice and style has awarded him an unconventional artistic identity in Hollywood. His screenwriting opens an unrestrained world of imagination without the confines of commercialism. Although Kaufman collaborated with such idiosyncratic directors such as Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, his prominence as a screenwriter had challenged the long-established beliefs of ”auteur theory” and authorship in films. As a result, film critics and theorists have often given more credit to his scripts than to the directors’ artistic views. And so Kaufman is considered to be a contemporary auteur.

Kaufman’s films have been characterised as “hyper meta-textual” in that it is thought that many of his characters are based on himself or his ‘self’. Indeed, most of them are not psychologically defined individuals; they are introverted, trapped and alienated artists, who seek to find themselves through the internalisation of their art. So, instead of entering into conflicts within the external world, they use the external world to enter into conflict with their own self. In this context, Kaufman is indeed creating this ‘other’ self in order to show this emotional rivalry.

So how does being John Malkovich sound?

Craig Schwarz peers into the portal into John Malkovichs head
Craig discovers a portal into the mind of John Malkovich

Craig is a talented, but out-of-work puppeteer living with his wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz), and their multitude of animals including their pet chimp, Elijah, who has been seeing a therapist because he has an ulcer caused by childhood trauma. At Lotte’s suggestion (ok, nagging), that he get a job to help his depression, Craig finds work at Lester Corp., a filing company based at the Mertin-Flemmer Building in New York City. Lester Corp. is on floor 7 ½ and is half the height of a regular floor. While at orientation for his new job, Craig finds himself immediately attracted to a co-worker, Maxine Lund (Catherine Keener) and soon asks her out for a drink after work, despite the fact that he is married.

Maxine is very different from Lotte. Dark, sexy, sharply dressed and also a total bitch. She belittles Craig incessantly, but he can’t help but want her anyway. Lotte, on the other hand, is sweet, enduring and quite, quite mad. In a nice way. Maxine has no interest in a grown man who plays with puppets though, that is until one day, while looking for some documents behind a filing cabinet in his office, Craig discovers a portal that leads into the head of the movie star John Malkovich. Because why not?

Craig Schwarz Being John Malkovich

Craig Schwarz as a puppet
Craig Schwarz

At the beginning of the film, a stage curtain opens and a marionette appears from the darkness. The puppet slowly moves towards a mirror in which it sees a reflection; it reaches out its hands to touch the face which it sees in the mirror as if it doesn’t recognise itself. As the puppet and the reflected image on the mirror touch each other, the marionette finally identifies itself. Panicked, it suddenly explodes in anger, breaks the mirror and starts destroying the set of the stage. As it floats disorientedly, it notices the strings in its hands. It looks up and sees Craig, the puppeteer, whom it is identical to. The marionette realises its existence as a puppet, controlled by outside forces. Struggling to unbind itself, it breaks into a fast and furious dance looking up again at his puppeteer. Unable to control its own body, it finally collapses on the floor; fragile and weak.
It starts crying. As the play comes to an end, Craig, clearly overwhelmed, breathes out and takes a sip of his beer.

If the puppet is a reflection of Craig, then Craig is a reflection of the puppet, and the puppet’s actions are mirroring Craig’s thoughts. By rejecting its own reflection, the puppet refuses to accept its identity. Yet, since the puppet is an embodied reflection of Craig, he is refusing to constitute a Self as well—refusing to recognise his existence by means of having an identity.

In effect, Craig, who does not have a ‘self ‘ of his own, has to become someone else. This is a theme that occurs throughout the film, as Craig becomes obsessed with the opportunity of ”being someone”. He feels insufficient in his own body and constantly desires mediums for escape. He relishes the idea of being inside someone else’s skin, assuming their strengths and even their flaws for a while. Craig craves the full depth of human experience, despite barely being able to handle the shallow end of the pool. In the beginning, Craig can only be inside Malkovich for 15 minutes at a time, but it’s not long before he achieves absolute control of Malkovich’s body.

Craig Schwarz played by John Cusack

To ‘be’ John Malkovich is to experience a new ”Ideal-I”, a new identity, a new past, and a new potential future. As the story continues, he reinvents Malkovich from an actor to a famous puppeteer. In doing so, Craig is now able to identify himself as a renowned puppeteer, while in his ‘previous life’ he was a rather unsuccessful one. However, he is not Malkovich himself—he is wearing his skin—but Craig doesn’t have the experience of being Malkovich, he has the experience of using Malkovich. And not just physically, he uses Malkovich’ s notoriety to get his own career going.

But although Craig wanted to be John Malkovich in order not to be himself, all the efforts of mastering Malkovich result only in self-confinement of his own ‘non-unified’ self. By suppressing Malkovich and allowing his own personality to take over, Craig only ends up reproducing himself. You might not like what you see in the mirror, and you can change it all you want, but you can’t escape from yourself whatever you do.

Later in the film, Craig (as Malkovich) performs the ”Dance of Despair and Disillusionment”, the same dance that the puppet had performed at the beginning of the movie. This time, however, there is no distinction between puppet and puppeteer. Craig is both the puppeteer and the puppet (by being Malkovich), and in the same way that the puppet broke the mirror in the first dance, so does Craig when he sees Malkovich’s reflection in it. Craig couldn’t accept himself, nor can he accept what he’s become.

Lotte Schwarz Being John Malkovich

The puppet of Lotte in Being John Malkovich
Lotte Schwarz

It’s not just Craig that plays at being John Malkovich of course. Lotte, Craig’s wife, has a lot of love to give. She already knows what she wants her identity to be: a mother, but Craig is not ready. So instead, she takes in many animals, putting most of her love and time into her pet chimpanzee, Elijah, who she brought into the family as a kind of stand-in for a baby of her own. Lotte feels trapped in her marriage, though she is a naturally positive person, Craig has dragged her down. His depression and self-loathing has put a strain on their relationship. She works and is the sole provider for them, but feels incredibly dissatisfied with her life.

Things begin to go a different direction than expected for Craig when Lotte also wants to enter Malkovich. After her first experience, she is hooked, as if something new has awakened in her. Entering Malkovich’s head while he’s having sex with Maxine, Lotte becomes so turned on that she considers gender reassignment. The feeling is mutual for Maxine, yet she only feels attracted to Lotte when she’s being Malkovich: “There’s something about that too-prominent brow and the male-pattern baldness.”

Maxine leads both Craig and Lotte on, flirting with them while they all sit together on a sofa drinking red wine

Unlike Craig, being in the body of Malkovich helped Lotte discover herself, and gave her the courage to embrace what she really wanted out of life.

This is too much for Craig to bear. He prides himself on liking women for more than just their bodies and considers himself a ‘new American male’. In reality, he is the opposite. He might like the idea of identifying as that man, but it is not him. He is so self-absorbed that he locks Lotte up in the chimp’s cage. Metaphorically, you could see this as Craig’s jealousy, not only of the fact that Lotte got the woman he wanted, but that she had found her ‘Self’. Putting her back in her cage was his way of controlling her physically and emotionally, in the way that he always had done. He didn’t want Lotte, but he didn’t want her to be happy either. As a Puppeteer, Craig was a man who obsessively wanted to be in control. He tried to pull the strings of his wife, and despite her nagging, she made it easy for him.

Maxine Lund Being John Malkovich

The puppet of Maxine in Being John Malkovich
Maxine Lund

Maxine was a much harder task for Craig, for she was a Puppeteer of sorts too. She is pretty much every guy’s absolute nightmare girl—the kind that gives you no encouragement, is impressed by absolutely nothing but enthralls you so much that every villainous move makes you more and more eager to please. She genuinely seems to enjoy abusing Craig, but only as long as it doesn’t necessitate too much effort, because she doesn’t really even care enough about Craig to get that much pleasure out of his misery—she’s satisfied enough if she can mock his confessions of love on the way back from getting coffee in the morning.

She oozes self-confidence, is so sure of her ‘self’ that she has no real concern for anyone else—other than for what she can get out of them. She propels everything forward in a magnificently hands-off fashion, letting the obsessions of those around her carry her on a wave of success that could have lasted forever…if she hadn’t fallen in love with Lotte. Indeed, it is Maxine who first has the bright and very immoral idea of making a business out of John Malkovich.

After her first experience of being Malkovich, her interest doesn’t lie in being someone else; she’s happy being Maxine. Still, she quickly realises she can exploit other people’s desire to escape themselves. Queues line up thick and fast with people more than willing to pay $200 to have just 15 minutes of fame via Malkovich.

Erroll: Can I be anyone I want?

Maxine: You can be John Malkovich.

Erroll: Well that’s perfect. My second choice. Ah, this is wonderful. Too good to be true! You see, I’m a sad man. Sad and fat and alone. Oh, I’ve tried all the diets, my friends. Lived for a year on nothing but imitation mayonnaise. Did it work? You be the judge. But Malkovich! King of New York! Man about town! Most eligible bachelor! Bon Vivant! The Schopenhauer of the 20th century! Thin man extraordinaire!

However, there are unexpected consequences for Maxine. Little did she imagine that she’d fall in love with Lotte while Lotte was taking a ride in Malkovich’s consciousness. Despite Maxine’s feelings for her, greed wins out. While Lotte is locked up, Craig jumps into John Malkovich, and using his puppetry skills, learns to stay in his head indefinitely, controlling his moves. He tricks Maxine into sex with him by letting her believe that Lotte is in control when they are together.

With the help of Elijah the chimp (who despite being emotionally stunted, has more humanity than most of the people in this story), Lotte escapes the cage and tracks down Maxine. Lotte then tells her the truth of what Craig has done. Maxine is initially annoyed but brushes it off as she enjoyed the sex. Flash forward several months, and she’s even married to Craig (through Malkovich) now and carrying his child. It appears she has benefitted the most from this bizarre opportunity, but that’s not the reality. She is desperately unhappy in the relationship.

Maxine joins a plot with Lotte and Mr Lester (the boss of Lester Corp. who is entirely aware of the portal into Malkovich’s head) and his many friends, to fake her kidnapping. They call Craig and threaten to kill her if he does not leave Malkovich. Lotte loses hope and attempts to kill Maxine, but they fall through the portal and into Malkovich’s shame-ridden subconscious. Both are ejected at the New Jersey turnpike, where Maxine reveals that the baby she’s carrying was conceived when Lotte was inside Malkovich’s body, and she kept the child because it is “theirs”. The revelation cements their love for each other.

The view of Maxine and Lotte in love from Emily's eyes
The view of Craig’s two wives from the eyes of their child (and Craig)

Craig believes he loves Maxine enough that in an attempt to save her, he does leave Malkovich’s body. But upon the heartbreaking (for him) realisation that she does not love him and wants to be with Lotte, he decides to dive right back in, not knowing that the portal no longer leads to Malkovich. Consequently, Craig has to leave Malkovich’ s body, but without returning to his own. Since he has denounced his own ‘self ‘, he is condemned to live a life in the search for a reflection that would be suitable for him. In the final scene of the movie, Craig is trapped inside the mind and body of a little girl, Emily—the daughter of both of his wives. His rejection of his original ‘Ideal-Ego’ resulted in an endless pursuit of other ‘Ideal-Egos’. Leaving him imprisoned in a child who won’t look away from her doting mothers and forcing Craig to watch the two women in his life live happily ever after without him.

John Malkovich Being John Malkovich

Malkovich inside his own head sees a curvaceous woman and a waiter with his face
Malkovich, Malkovich. Malkovich.

Kaufman explores ideas of identity and celebrity by creating the portal which goes straight into Malkovich’s consciousness. Being John Malkovich vaguely falls into the sub-genre of ‘body-swap’ movie. There’s the mother/daughter swap in Freaky Friday (1976), and the father/son swap in Big (1988). These movies use magic to create the exchange. A lightning strike facilitates it in The Change-up (2011), and a mysterious potion allows the father and son to swap in Like Father Like Son (1987).

The characters in these movies gain a new understanding by seeing the world from another person’s perspective. Kaufman goes past this simple theme and explores more complex questions related to the actual swap. In the script, we see how agitated Craig becomes when he starts thinking about the implications that a portal into Malkovich’s mind presents:

…philosophical questions about the nature of self, about the existence of the soul. Am I me? Is Malkovich Malkovich? Was the Buddha right, is duality an illusion? Do you see what a can of worms this portal is?

Craig knows the portal opens up ‘profound’ questions about the “Illusory nature of existence!”, and feels he should do something memorable, so he says to Maxine:

“I don’t think I can go on living my life as I have lived it. There’s only one thing to do. Let’s get married right away”

But Maxine totally ignores this and immediately starts thinking about how best to capitalise on the discovery financially. And the following conversation takes place:

Maxine: Is this Malkovich fellow appealing?

Craig:  Yes, of course. He’s a celebrity.

Maxine: Good. We’ll sell tickets.

Craig:  Tickets to Malkovich?

Maxine: Exactly. Two hundred dollars a pop.

So the theme of celebrity comes up straight away. Even though Maxine doesn’t know who Malkovich is, and Craig mistakenly thinks he was in some jewel heist movie, they both recognise that being famous is appealing. So this portal is not just a body swap with a celebrity; it is an exploration of vapid celebrity culture. The characters in Malkovich don’t learn empathy by seeing the world through his eyes. They just get a taste of everything they’re missing from their lives and want more. They want the fame, recognition, and everything that comes with it. They want these things, but that desire is toxic. Seeing the world through Malkovich’s eyes makes them worse people. It brings out their hidden greed and shallowness.

John Malkovich controlled by Craig dances and smashes his mirror
The fractured identity of John Malkovich

One of the most surreal parts of the film happens when John Malkovich himself wants to see what all the fuss is about and jumps inside the portal to his own ‘self’, with truly bizarre results. Everyone that Malkovich sees looks just like him. The only word they speak is “Malkovich”.

“I have seen a world that NO man should see!” – John Malkovich

The only person who can truly be Malkovich is Malkovich. He is, as everyone is, at the centre of their own universe. This is an abstract way of showing that you cannot escape yourself. Alternatively, you could see it as each ego only truly caring about itself. So no matter what you are doing, who you are talking to, who you are engaging with, you are only ever really thinking of yourself. Even if you put yourself into the shoes of someone else, you can’t ever really know what they are thinking.

Mortality and Rebirth

the larval vessels diagram

The evolution of each of the main characters revolves around their experience with John Malkovich. Each time they enter his body, they have 15 minutes to experience what it’s like to be him until they are spat out on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. This may represent rebirth, as they come out covered in some strange fluid. Lotte is awakened by her experience, Craig realises his dream and unfortunately enhances his ego, and Maxine finds love in the form of Lotte inside of Malkovich.

Then there is Dr Lester. He’s 105 years old, so he tells Craig. And it turns out that he is actually Captain Mertin; a sea captain who discovered how to enter human beings and take over their body as a vessel for his own pleasure. Each time he finds a new vessel, he is able to take them over on their 44th birthday. He welcomes Lotte into his secret society and helps her to get Craig to relinquish Malkovich’s body.

Captain Mertin has been prolonging his life by becoming someone else each time his new host is ripe. The human body cannot exist for too long, but the mind could go on forever, or at least we assume it could. But would it deteriorate? Is it only because it is encapsulated within an aging brain that it starts to fail?

Lotte, Elijah, Captain Mertin and The Elders

Lester and his elder friends, who want to colonise Malkovich’s mind, can be interpreted in the context of the Jungian concept of collective unconsciousness. According to this theory, everyone possesses basic unconscious ideas (archetypes), which are inherited from our ancestors and enables them, as you might metaphorically say, to ‘live forever’ in our thoughts. Still, Kaufman depicts it as something that deprives us of our freedom—especially when the elders try to use Malkovich as a ‘vessel’, an instrument for making them immortal.
Having your own portal is obviously a fantastic concept but I think we can interpret it as a metaphor of contemporary mass-culture. People like Malkovich are seen as public property, and it seems that everybody could have access to their private life (even if it is an illusion). There are fragile limits for our curiosity—we can see or speculate how celebrities live, eat, entertain, have affair(s)… Of course, this interest also influences celebrities themselves. How much room is there for who they really are and what they want? Surely, sometimes those boundaries are narrow, forcing them to do something unauthentic. Or, as we may observe at the end of the movie, what others think takes full control over them.
the Craig puppet dances with human ballerinas
Are we puppets? Or are we dancers?
After watching Kaufman’s film, could we easily answer who is John Malkovich? In the beginning, the answer may have been obvious, but now many issues have been raised. Which Puppeteer is he controlled by now—Craig, Maxine, Lotte or Lester and friends? It leads us to wonder what about us? Are we subjects or objects? Puppeteers or puppets? Aren’t we controlled by everyday influences—other people, pop-culture, information and gossips? Or maybe we are only ‘vessels’ for thoughts already invented, ideas created by others? Factors, which weakens our strong belief in our independent self and subjectivity, are multiplied in modern culture. Being John Malkovich leaves us with many uncomfortable questions without an easy answer. The best cinema always does.
Laura Stewart

Written by Laura Stewart

Laura is the Editor-In-Chief at 25YL and she runs the Music Department. She has been part of the team since May 2017 when she began writing about her favourite TV show of all time: Twin Peaks. 25YL is her passion project and is constantly delighted at how big and beautiful it has grown.

Laura lives by the sea in Gower, Wales, with her husband and a very special little boy.

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