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150 Films #11: Being John Malkovich (1999)

I can tell you exactly why the year 1999 changed my life, using the popular listicle format:

  • Magnolia
  • Three Kings
  • Election
  • The Matrix
  • The Blair Witch Project
  • October Sky
  • American Beauty
  • Bowfinger
  • Dick
  • Topsy-Turvy
  • The Iron Giant
  • South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut
  • The Talented Mr. Ripley
  • Office Space
  • Go
  • Galaxy Quest
  • Dogma
  • Bringing Out the Dead
  • Man on the Moon
  • The Green Mile
  • The Red Violin
  • Rushmore (I’m grandfathering this in from 1998 releases, because it was barely released until 1999 and falls under the category of life-altering films I saw during this period)

Even movies I didn’t particularly like at the time—Fight Club and The Sixth Sense come to mind—sent the same messages: movies can do anything. Movies can be about anything. And this is just the list of movies that stick out from seeing during 1999 and the early part of 2000. I’ve certainly seen other 1999 movies that I’ve loved (The Insider and Summer of Sam, for example), but I saw them much later. The purpose of this list is to show the sheer number of strange, unique, inventive, “deep” movies released during this year, and how their cumulative impact put me on a new trajectory.

I struggled in high school for two reasons: (1) I hated the actual school part, and (2) I was lazy. My parents spent most of my academic career on my case to get better grades so I could get into college—preferably with an academic scholarship to make it affordable—but I didn’t fucking care about my future. I didn’t care about working hard, especially on things other people forced me to do, and I had no real belief I had real talent for the creative things I enjoyed doing and did work hard at. Like many creative people, I’ve always been my own worst critic, and especially in the dark days of no self-esteem, I assumed I sucked at writing because I’d look back at something after a few weeks and not like it, I sucked at the guitar because I was sloppy and couldn’t shred with any kind of technical perfection, I sucked at singing because I couldn’t belt it like my sister (who had taken voice lessons for years), I sucked at both because I couldn’t play and sing at the same time, and I sucked at performing because I was painfully shy and expended so much energy just to get up in front of people that I had nothing left to charm or entertain.

I still felt driven to write stories and play music, but I was never thinking about why, or about turning it into a career. I was too young to think that far ahead. Sure, I wanted to grow up to be seen as the lovechild of Stephen King and Kurt Cobain (I guess that would be Joe Hill?), but I put no thought into how that might happen. I just hoped it would, someday.

During my freshman year, I started to worry. I had to do certain activities to fulfill school requirements, so I just followed my sister’s path and joined the choir and the theatre’s tech crew. I didn’t have much interest in either, I didn’t work hard at either, and especially when compared to my sister, I was viewed as a disappointment. That scared me, but it also motivated me. If I didn’t give a shit about anything but writing and music, I needed to figure out how to be good—maybe even try to be the best—at something.

I entered high school assuming I could only get an academic scholarship or an athletic scholarship. I always sucked at sports, and I just didn’t give a shit about school. I liked learning but hated—hated—being told what to do, especially by people I didn’t respect, which included most teachers and school administrators. It seemed hopeless until I learned about fine arts scholarships. I could get a scholarship for writing or music. There was just one problem: I thought I sucked. It was a hobby I loved and wanted to be good at, but I just wasn’t.

Since I lacked anything resembling self-esteem, I had to rely on the saving grace of others’ esteem. The other guys in choir told me I had a good voice and could sing in tune. Maybe I could get good—if only I wasn’t so timid that I couldn’t even practice at home, for fear my family would hear me and judge; I needed a 200-person choir drowning me out in order to sing at all—but I wanted to write more than I wanted to sing. So, I took a chance and gave a story I wrote to an English teacher. He liked it and gave it to another English teacher, who was relaunching a creative writing club, and they invited me to join. And so, I had a small group of other people—including teachers I liked—telling me I was good and should keep at it.

Here’s the problem with English in high school, though: it’s not focused on creative writing, and even in the electives that do focus on creative writing, there’s too much structure. Do I want someone to tell me to read The Martian Chronicles and then write a short story set on Mars? Do I want someone to tell me to read nonfiction and classic books and then write essays and research papers about them? For fuck’s sake, no. So even in my hypothetical best subject, I struggled to maintain any grade above a C; in fact, even in the one official Creative Writing class offered by my school, I only (barely) got a B- by abusing an extra credit loophole, submitting a shitload of “outside writing” to make up for the assignments I either didn’t do or half-assed. I was an undeniably prolific writer; I just felt compelled to rebel against anything resembling assigned work.

At the same time, I started working on choir. During the summer between freshman and sophomore year, I started taking voice lessons, and the effect was immediate, in part because the voice teacher saw talent and believed in me. The choir director, on the other hand…didn’t. And for whatever it’s worth, the only thing I rebel against more than someone telling me what to do is someone telling me they don’t think I can do something. I never quite figured out if our choir director was a master of reverse psychology or just kinda grudgingly put up with me because I worked my ass off, I was loud enough to serve as a one-man tenor section, and I put up with everything he dished out (since I had no self-esteem and thus, no reason to tell him to shove it).

So by the time junior year rolled around and college decisions needed to be made, I was on track for a music scholarship—and I wanted it badly, and I got it. After two and a half years of anxiety about my college prospects, I had it in the bag by second semester of junior year. This happened to coincide with 1999: the year of movies.

I always loved movies, and I kept writing, and I kept thinking, “I want to write movies.” The more movies I saw in 1999, the more I thought, “I can do this. I’m weird, I have weird ideas, but look at these movies.” (For those who have never read this blog, you should know that I eventually bailed on my music scholarship and enrolled in film school.)

No 1999 film represented the boldness and originality of what cinema could do—and what Hollywood would let it do—than Being John Malkovich. If asked in 1999, I would have said that was my favorite movie of the year (just like Roger Ebert did!), if not of all time. It had a profound impact on what I wanted to do with my writing, an impact that I must admit stays with me to this day. Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay combines a penchant for absolute absurdity with a grounding in real emotions, and Spike Jonze made a perfect decision in going for naturalism over goofiness. Anyone who’s read the screenplay knows the third act originally went completely off the rails and, in the hands of someone like Barry Sonnenfeld, could have turned into something overblown and wacky. No matter how weird Being John Malkovich gets, it still somehow feels like it takes place in the real world and could really happen.

There’s only one problem, though. Looking at the film with fresh eyes—I don’t think I’ve seen it since college—Being John Malkovich is not a good screenplay. Kaufman has written maybe the best long con in all of cinema, a movie whose narrative innovations and general weirdness serve as a very, very good distraction from the screenplay’s deficiencies.

How dare I say this, right? Where do I, an unsold screenwriter and unpublished author who therefore must in all ways be inferior to Charlie Kaufman, get the stones to piss on an almost universally beloved, bonkers story about a portal into John Malkovich?

Here’s why: John Malkovich is window dressing. It’s the story of a love triangle between unhappily married Craig and Lotte Schwartz (John Cusack and Cameron Diaz) and Maxine (Catherine Keener), who bewitches both of them. Ultimately, Maxine’s effect pits the couple against each other, Maxine falls for Lotte, but Craig manipulates Maxine into an unhappy marriage. Turn Lotte into Craig’s brother, and this could be the plot of half the Victorian novels out there.

That’s not to chide Kaufman for being “unoriginal.” Being John Malkovich is highly original and inventive, and I’d actually call it a masterstroke to bury a familiar story beneath layer upon layer of uniqueness. There’s a reason why a love triangle story like this has endured; using that to ground weird flights of fancy is a brilliant maneuver, and I learned more from it than perhaps from any other piece of writing. That’s really important, but…

Who are these characters? We learn, early on, that Craig is a frustrated, failed puppeteer who seethes with jealousy at the successful, gimmicky Derek Mantini. We also learn he’s unhappy in his marriage. Why? Because Lotte seems to collect every injured animal in the world? I will agree, the animals are a nuisance, but what else do we learn about Lotte? Aside from the fact that both characters are unhappy and uncomfortable in their own skin, there’s nothing to either of them.

This, then, begs the larger question: why Maxine? From moment one, Maxine is, for lack of a better word, a sociopath. And like Craig and Lotte, we learn basically nothing about her beyond the fact that her sociopathy leads her to want to control and manipulate for personal gain. In a weird way, Craig and Lotte (and Malkovich) falling for such a brazenly unpleasant person would have come off better in the candy-coated world of Barry Sonnenfeld. She is a comedic exaggeration plunked down in a world that’s supposed to feel real. She can work in Jonze’s “real world”—particularly since it’s a real world that involves Malkovich portals—she can work as the hypotenuse of this love triangle if we know enough about Craig and Lotte to understand (1) why they would take her abuse and continue to fawn over her and (2) why this couple would first end up with each other instead of another brutal, oppressive relationship. It’s not that these kinds of things don’t happen or these kinds of people don’t exist; Kaufman, Jonze, and the actors simply don’t make it believable.

Malkovich’s presence only amplifies the love triangle miscalculation. He emerges as the story’s most richly textured character, and that’s only partially thanks to the bravura chase sequence through his subconscious. He’s not just the puppet of Craig in the film’s third act; Malkovich is also Maxine’s puppet, and the effect she has on him takes him on a palpable emotional journey. At least their relationship makes some sense: a spooky chick throwing herself at a single man probably won’t get turned down, no matter how spooky, no matter if she calls him “Lotte” during sex. It’s when Craig, inside the Malkovich portal, realizes he can control the man that Malkovich grows increasingly terrified. Why does he feel possessed? Is Lotte some sort of ghost? Is Maxine a witch?

Malkovich finds out about the business and the portal, which leads to the film’s best sequence (“What happens when a man goes into his own portal?”), but before Malkovich can do anything, Craig turns him into his puppet for the long haul. It’s telling that the most poignant moment, in a film where he is essentially a love triangle’s MacGuffin, belongs to Malkovich himself: when he looks in a mirror, released from Craig’s control, and says, “I’m free.”

The problem is, the film expects us to care more about Craig, Lotte, and Maxine. Maybe Kaufman’s original third act would have worked better in light of this problem. In the screenplay, we don’t really have to care. Jonze wanted to focus more on the characters and the love triangle, to which I can only ask: who cares? Who cares that Maxine is miserable with Craig-in-Malkovich because she yearns for Lotte? Who cares that Maxine kept “his” baby because she “knows” she was impregnated while Lotte was in Malkovich? Who cares that Craig-in-Malkovich is torn between his career as a puppeteer and his “love” for Maxine, or that he “choose” Maxine? Who cares that Maxine choose Lotte and abandons Craig? Who cares that Craig gets permanently trapped in their daughter?

What are we supposed to feel in that last scene? Happy that Lotte and Maxine have a loving relationship? Sad that Craig pleads for the little girl to look away from his beloved Maxine? Heartened that “love conquers all” by transforming Maxine from a bitchy sociopath to a normal, cute mom? Darkly amused at the layers of irony? I find all of this very problematic because, now that I’m in my 30s instead of my late teens, I don’t buy these characters, so I don’t feel anything for them. Worse than that, I don’t even understand what I’m intended to feel. I can’t even take a step back and try to understand the artistic intent before deciding whether or not it works objectively (even if I subjectively don’t like it).

It’s a bewildering mess, watchable for the performance, production design, and invention… But Being John Malkovich, in retrospect, feels like an early relationship. What I learned from it has more significance than the experience itself. That has elevated its importance in my mind, but on reflection, I can’t call it especially meaningful. I can’t even call it especially good.

(And if anyone’s looking at the list above and wondering how I dare besmirch the good name of Being John Malkovich in comparison, here is a list of the movies that haven’t aged well for me: The Matrix, The Blair Witch Project, American Beauty, Bowfinger, The Iron Giant, South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, Dogma, Bringing Out the Dead, and Man on the Moon. All of these movies were huge for me at the time, all influenced me in different ways (large and small), but in my estimation they all range from passable (Bowfinger) to unwatchable (American Beauty).)

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Up Next: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

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