On ‘Being John Malkovich’

“You know something scary,” my English professor once told me. “Edgar Allan Poe was inside your head.”

I never really thought of it that way before, but I supposed that was true. We were reading a collection of Poe’s short stories in class — from “The Black Cat” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” to “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Each word was once carefully crafted by Poe — leaving the temporary recesses of his mind and inhabiting a more permanent home of ink on paper.

When we read an author’s work or watch a director’s film, we get a glimpse into his or her mind. That’s one of the reason’s we consume media. It’s a form of escapism, a portal inside someone’s else’s vision — allowing us a chance to become someone else, if only for a moment.

That’s the privilege director Spike Jonze’s and screenplay writer Charlie Kaufman’s wonderfully metaphysical 112-minute film, “Being John Malkovich” (1999), gives us: a chance to explore someone else’s consciousnesses.

The ingeniously inventive script’s centers on drab and depressing puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack). He thinks consciousness is a curse. “I think. I feel. I suffer,” he says. Suffering defines his entire existence that his only reprieve is puppeteering. The appeal?

“Perhaps the idea of becoming someone else for a little while,” he says. “Being inside another skin — thinking differently, moving differently, feeling differently.”

He gets the chance to literally become someone else when he discovers a portal into actor John Malkovich’s head, allowing him to see, think and experience the world through Malkovich’s eyes (at 15 minute intervals though).

When Craig tells his love interest Maxine (played by the sexy and seductive Catherine Keener), she decides to turn his discovery into a lucrative business — charging people $200 bucks to see the world through the famed actor’s eyes.

Although “Being John Malkovich” is Jonze’s debut feature film, he and Kaufman are master puppeteers. They’re magicians — sucking you in with their engrossing and absurd story, even luring John Malkovich to play a version of himself.

It’s fascinating to see the manufactured world through a celebrity’s eyes — even when he’s doing mundane tasks like rehearsing lines, sitting in a New York City taxi or reading “The Wall Street Journal” while eating toast. It’s strangely intimate to belong in John Malkovich’s head — even though we know we’re not actually inside John Malkovich.

Like Craig, we’ve all felt insignificant and insecure at some point in our lives. Perhaps we’ve dreamed we were somebody else. “Being John Malkovich” allows us to think and feel like someone else (who happens to be successful). By watching, we’re vicariously living — escaping from our depressing humdrum lives into that of someone else’s — even if it’s only for a moment.

“Being John Malkovich” was directed by Spike Jonze and written by Charlie Kaufman. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards including Best Actress, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. 

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