Secret Cinema and the Reel Deal Present: Being John Malkovich

November 30, 2013 1 Comment

_DSC0736-MThose who attended the Maple Theater’s Secret Cinema on Thursday, November 21 had a wacky Reel-Deal led trip through the portal leading right into the mind of John Malkovich.

“Being John Malkovich” was the film that those who attended had the opportunity to experience on the big screen.  Spike Jonze’s  1999 classic is a film that is complicated to describe to someone who has not seen it:  ” ummm, a cranky puppeteer, married to a pet-store clerk finds a secret portal behind a file cabinet (located in a business on the 7 1/2 floor) that allows anyone to inhabit the mind of actor John Malkovich for exactly 15 minutes before being spit out on the New Jersey Turnpike.”  Make sense?

Actually, this quirky film makes a great deal of sense and deftly explores issues of identity, sexuality, celebrity and trauma.  Charlie Kaufman’s brilliant screenplay works beautifully in the hands of ex-MTV skateboarder Spike Jonze.  John Cusack, Cameron Diaz , Katherine Keener AND( of course) John Malkovich inhabit their roles with genuine emotion, so that the usual ironic spin so prevalent in today’s indie films (“”just kidding” about that, but aren’t I cool for winking at you while I emote?”).

This is a film that benefits from multiple screenings and many of the audience participants had seen it numerous times.  The discussion was rich, raising many questions about the “meaning ” of the film and various film elements:  why the 7 1/2 floor?  why John Malkovich?  Is it moral to inhabit the mind of someone else?  What is the nature of relationships?

Those of us who relish this film have the opportunity to read a paper written on the film by our film philosopher Bruce Russell.  His paper will be posted as a “comment” at the end of this post and will be available for comments.  An additional paper by Marc Rosen, a psychoanalyst, will also be available for reading and commenting.

Jonze’s next film is opening soon.  “Her” is a intriguing story of (no surprise here) the budding relationship between a lonely man and a virtual character (a Sirie type).  Jonze’s other films (Adaptation and Where the Wild Things Are) are wonderful.

See you on the Turnpike (no strings necessary).

Jolyn Wagner



The Philosopher's POV
One Comment to “Secret Cinema and the Reel Deal Present: Being John Malkovich”
  1. Being John Malkovich: A Metaphysical Can of Worms?
    (This is a paper written by Dr. Bruce Russell, a professor of philosophy and cogent writer of philosophical film commentary.)

    There is a little door behind a filing cabinet on the 7.5 floor of the Mertin Flemmer Building in NY that leads to a portal that leads to John Malkovich’s head. If you crawl through that door and fall down the rabbit hole, you will see the world from John Malkovich’s perspective: you will feel what he feels, see what he sees, hear what he hears, etc. But at least at first, you will not be able to control his body.
    Craige Schwartz (John Cusak) is a puppeteer married to Lotte (Cameron Diaz), a 1960s hippie kind of girl who has lots of exotic animals including a chimp named Elijah (Elijah). Craig is out of work and depressed. He answers an ad seeking someone with fast fingers for filing; Dr. Lester (Orson Bean), owner of Lester Corp, hires him. He meets Maxine (Catherine Keener) at orientation where a film is shown telling the story of Captin Mertin which gives the reason why the 7.5 floor has such low ceilings (he built it that way to make his wife who was a dwarf feel comfortable). Craig is immediately smitten by the sexy white rabbit named Maxine (she is dressed all in white with contrasting dark hair, red lipstick, and lots of skin).
    Craig discovers the door leading to the portal when he accidentally drops some files behind the cabinet that sits in front of the door and hides it. He opens the door, crawls down the hole, and then falls into John Malkovich. After fifteen minutes, he is dumped from the sky onto the side of a New Jersey turnpike. After his experiences, Craig tells Maxine,
    It raises all sorts of philosophical type questions, you know. About the nature of self, about the existence of the soul. Am I me? Is Malkovich, Malkovich? I had a piece of wood in my hands. I don’t have it anymore. Where is it? Did it disappear? How could that be? Is it still in Malkovich’s head? I don’t know. Do you see what a metaphysical can of worms this portal is?
    These lines, spoken by Craig to Maxine, are, I believe, the key to understanding the film. First, what does the film say about the nature of the self? Well, we are sexual beings. Craig and John Malkovich are sexually attracted to Maxine, and so is Lotte after the sexual pleasure she feels when she is inside John Malkovich while he is having sex with Maxine. Maxine is sexually attracted to Lotte when she is inside Malkovich (indicating that what is sexually attractive to us is often the “whole package,” personality and body, neither by itself). Second, we have a subconscious that consists of memories of lots of traumatic experiences. When Lotte pursues Maxine down the portal, they fall through Malkovich’s subconscious that shows him watching his parents have sex, rocking back and forth in a little rocking chair repeating again and again that he is bad, being made fun of on a school bus because he wet his pants, being laughed at in a locker room, being told he is “creepy” by a date, smelling a woman’s underwear, etc. No wonder we have a subconscious because even our ancestors, the chimps, have one, which is portrayed in a scene where Elijah is captured while trying to free his parents who are desperately begging him to set them free after having already been captured by animal trappers. Third, we are agents. We want to control our own bodies and the world through controlling our bodies. The film makes this point by showing how those who enter Malkovich’s body wish to control it. And Maxine wants to control both Malkovich and Craig when he is in Malkovich’s body. Lotte would like to control Maxine’s feelings directly but, since she can’t, would like to control Malkovich so she can control Maxine’s feelings through Malkovich. Fourth, we would like immortality, or at least much more living than we get. In the film this is shown by Dr. Lester’s wanting to enter Malkovich’s body with his friends so that they can continue to live through Malkovich. Sexuality, agency, subconscious, immortality (SASI) are essential aspects of the human self.
    But according to the film there is another essential feature of us: we are immaterial souls. In the film, when people enter Malkovich their material, physical bodies disappear but they continue to exist inside a different body. When Malkovich enters the portal, presumably his body disappears, too. But then there is no body for him to enter. What would it be like to be just an immaterial soul not attached to any body? What we see in the film is a restaurant with every person in the restaurant having Malkovich’s face: customer, waiter, sexy woman date, dwarf, sexy woman singer, piano player, etc. Without a body, an immaterial soul would be locked in itself, would lead a solipsistic existence. Even if we are immortal immaterial souls, who would want to exist that way? We’d all cry out, “Give me a body!”
    That we are immaterial souls can also explain how, in the film, many different people can be in one body one after another or even at the same time, and how people can “hop” from body to body without losing their identity. That it is not desirable to be just an immaterial soul is supported by what happens to Malkovich when he enters his own portal, and that it is not desirable to be locked in a body with no control over it is supported by what happens to Craig at the end when he is locked in the body of Maxine’s child, Emily, condemned to the role of a spectator seeing the world through Emily’s eyes but not being able to affect it.
    So what does Being John Malkovich suggest is the nature of the human self? The answer is: we are SASI beings (sexual agents with a subconscious who seek immortality) who have immaterial souls but who need bodies we can control in order to have a life worth living.
    What remains a mystery in the film? It remains a mystery as to how physical bodies, whether made of flesh or wood, can go out of existence and then come back into existence as material beings. How could an immaterial soul exist free of matter and then become attached to some “clump” of matter? In addition, we know how a puppeteer can manipulate a wooden figure with physical strings, but how could an immaterial soul manipulate a human body? This is Descartes’ mind-body problem, and no one has yet given a good answer to it. The insolubility of the problem leads many philosophers to deny that we are immaterial souls. These remaining mysteries are what makes Being John Malkovich a “metaphysical can of worms,” though I think the film offers a coherent view about the nature of the human self and its relation to having an immaterial soul.
    Those who offer a psychological interpretation of the film can claim that what I have called the SASI conception of the human self is a psychological view of that self. They will have to interpret the metaphysical parts of the film involving people going into Malkovich, and Malkovich’s experiences when he enters his own portal, metaphorically. We sometimes talk of our mothers or fathers or ex-lovers as being “in us,” or as being “a part of us.” But taken literally that just means that they have had a deep influence on us or that we have personality or character traits like theirs. In the film, the people in Malkovich have been strangers to him and so they have not had a big influence on him. A film like this one that made the psychological point about how important people in our lives have influenced us would be one where, say, Malkovich’s grandparents or parents or ex-lovers are trying to get inside his head.
    The psychological interpretation also has to see Malkovich’s experiences when he goes down his own portal as suggesting that we are all narcissistic. But that idea would have been better portrayed if Malkovich had been delighted to see all those manifestations of himself, had wanted to have sex with his buxom self, had flirted with his sexy singer self, etc., rather than being frightened by the whole scene. In short, the psychological interpretation would imply that the film was defective because it could have been made in ways that would better support the psychological view of the nature of the self.
    Further, the psychological interpretation fails to take account of the quote I gave above where Craig says how the situation raises “all sorts of philosophical questions…about the nature of the self and the existence of the soul.” The philosophical interpretation of the film I offered takes that quote as central to understanding the film. At the same time, it can accept the psychological view about the nature of the self and explain the scene where Malkovich goes down his own portal and the existence of strangers in his head without implying that the film could have made its point better if it had been made differently. The philosophical interpretation of the film implies that it could not have been made better if it had been made differently; in fact, it would have been worse if made differently. Because the philosophical interpretation of the film explains all that the psychological interpretation explains and more, and does not do that while at the same time implying that the film has flaws, it is the better interpretation of the film. In film interpretation as in science, we should accept the best explanation of the relevant data, which in film are all the scenes we see and what we hear (including music). So we should accept the philosophical over the psychological interpretation of Being John Malkovich.

    Bruce Russell
    Department of Philosophy
    Wayne State University
    Detroit, MI 48201

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