Saturday, September 4, 2010

Being John Malkovich

I am fascinated by puppetry, which is one thing that attracts me to this movie, despite its flaws, despite its sometimes being just too much. However, it is as engrossing as it is bizarre. I doubt that many people have actually experienced the art of puppetry the way it is portrayed in Being John Malkovich. It can be very unsettling to watch something lifeless become animated in the hands of a puppeteer. It can also be the most natural thing in the world, like in the musical Avenue Q, an ingenious Sesame Street parody. The puppeteer seems to disappear entirely, but they are an inseparable piece of the experience; you somehow read their emotions and transcribe them onto the inanimate object they are maneuvering. A few years ago, I saw a puppetry performance outside the Pompidou in Paris (try saying that five times, fast). I can still remember that thing's eyes, and how woeful it seemed, wandering around in its artificial circle, voiceless. Most of all, I remember that it really seemed to be alive. This was just a street performance, but I can recall it much more vividly than anything I saw once I actually entered the museum. To return to the point, puppeteering is an excellent metaphor for all of the themes in Malkovich, and it acts partially as a metaphor for film making--the director pulling the strings, manipulating the unknowing characters around a set. In this film, when wooden puppets are shown, it is editing, and the raw power of film making that breathe life into the puppets, as with the opening scene depicted above.

Given Charlie Kaufman's other experiments in self-consciousness, I think it's fair to say that a lot of this film is a thinly veiled reference to film making. That would be a yawn and half, except with all of the discussion of identity in this film, it's interesting to think about identity in combination with the experience of film-viewing. Then, you've got some interesting ideas to ruminate over. The act of watching characters on a screen is an act of identification so strong that it can take you over. In a narrative film, the protagonist acts as sort of a mirror for the viewer; the idea is that a viewer sees herself in the larger than life bodies on the screen. A viewer tagging along for the narrative is not unlike entering a portal into the performer's mind, becoming a sort of amalgamation of yourself and the character with which you most strongly identify. I could go farther with these parallels, but I'm more interested in the utter gender entropy created by the portal, which is honestly what the rest of this essay is about.

The most traditionally "masculine" character in the film is actually a woman, the siren-like Maxine (Catherine Keener). She is also the only character in the film who exhibits no desire whatsoever to enter Malkovich's head. Completely content in her own skin (and skin-tight clothing), Maxine seems to have no interest in ever experiencing life as someone else. In addition, throughout much of the film, she displays nearly sociopathic tendencies. Yet, despite her lack of redeemable qualities, both Craig (John Cusack) and Lotte (Cameron Diaz) are inexplicably drawn to her, and led about by their loins wherever she is concerned. Oddly, prior to their initial meeting, Craig already has a puppet that looks remarkably like her (see above). Unlike his puppets, she is completely obdurate, and perhaps, that's what he finds so sexy about her.

I'm very mystified by the character of Maxine, specifically because she never enters Malkovich's mind. She catalyzes the downfall of Craig, Lottie and Malkovich; she is irresistible and deadly. Deflecting the male gaze even as she draws it. She is the feminine object enacting revenge for every worthless, spineless beauty who has ever graced the screen: a post-modern femme fatale, who is allowed to go unpunished, eventually redeeming herself and birthing a child instead. By never entering Malkovich, she truly does become the object of the gaze, but rather than being weakened by it, she uses it to create ruin. Although Maxine never powers Malkovich's body, she is the one pulling the strings.

Also worth thinking about is the sexualization of the mind-entering process. (Or is it more gastrointestinal?) Upon entering this viscous portal, one finds oneself crawling through a dank, mucousy passage. This isn't surprising, since penetrating, if you will, another's mind is such an invasive process, not unlike a kind of rape, which is, naturally, a subject that often comes up alongside the discussion of power. Lottie's experience passing through the Malkovich mind portal is pseudu-orgasmic, resulting in her realization that she might be a transsexual. More likely, she just feels a kind of power that she has never before experienced in her own diminutive body. It also gives her a chance to objectify Maxine through a man's eyes.

Craig is not the most masculine of men, either. Puppeteering is his escapism, a way to play out his fantasies. However, the ability to actually use puppeteering as a means of control does not come to fruition until the discovery of a way to actually manipulate another human body. He exerts control over Malkovich and slowly takes over, using his body to accomplish what he was unable to accomplish as Craig. By subtly changing Malkovich's appearance depending on who is occupying his head, Jonze demonstrates that it is the person inside that really forges an identity into the husk of body that is being hauled around. I think it might have been just as interesting if the characters inside Malkovich's head, so accustomed to being treated exactly like him, slowly lost themselves inside of him. Isn't it partially interaction with the Other that creates identity? But that's my vision, not Charlie Kaufman's.


  1. Having practiced Puppetry for 13 yrs of my life
    I really enjoyed the your perspective on the film. To tell you the truth there is something mystical in the inanimate object coming to life and the relationship between puppet and the puppeteer.
    Inspiring indeed.
    Though am not entirely sure about the nature of Puppetry being feminine.

  2. I found this piece pretty insightful. I love the idea of Maxine as the puppet-master. What do you make of the fact that she's only really attracted to Craig when he's inside Malkovich? Also, Catherine Keener is tha best.