Craig’s Dance of Despair and Dissolution
(On Being John Malkovich)
By Janiv Paulsberg
It is not coincidental that after watching the film Being John Malkovich, one is left confused as to what message the movie is attempting to convey. This is because, in essence, the plot of the movie is secondary, open-ended, ambiguous, and at times absurd, all in order to prepare the viewer to fully understand the film’s premise – Craig’s dance of despair and dissolution. Contrary to its title, Being John Malkovich is not primarily a movie that deals with the experience of being someone else, a problematic concept that is unnecessary for the actual development of the plot. Rather, the film bypasses the difficulties that would be inherent in understanding this idea, had it been adopted as the main theme and, instead, uses the absurdities that arise out of this problematic situation to lead the movie in a completely different direction, which is not the desire or the act of being someone else, but the difficulty in being oneself.
To what extent is Being John Malkovich a movie that deals with the experience of being someone else? Before answering this question, one must understand the problematic nature of the idea behind it. It is necessary to clarify what we mean when we say “being” someone else in order to imagine such a possibility. We need to ask ourselves whether it is possible to be someone else’s Self. Consider the following situation: if a child wears their father’s clothing and adopts his speech patterns and mannerisms, in what sense can we speak of this child as “being” their father? It is clear that the child has not become their father’s Self, but has merely attempted to imitate him. One might be inclined to say that the child tried to be like his / her father by taking on his role.
Similarly, one can imagine a futuristic situation in which technological advancements have enabled others to access our mental data: sensory perceptions, thought, etc. If the aforementioned child lived in such an environment and could “logon” to their father’s Self by a simple click on a computer, would that qualify as the child “being” his / her father? One might think that in such a case it would be more difficult to determine whether this constitutes being someone else or experiencing, as a foreign entity, what it is like to be that other person. In both cases, it is evident that the child has not discarded his / her “Self” in exchange for their father’s “Self”. In the same way that when we engage in watching a film we do not become the camera lens through which we view that film – we remain a separate, individual.
Let us take the situation a step further and say that the child was able to control his / her father’s thoughts and actions. In such a case, the child could cause his / her father to think and act as they are thinking and acting, but the father remains himself, as does the child. This entire range of examples shows that no matter how in-depth the child may experience being his / her father, at no point does s/he shed their original Self. In the same sense, those characters in the film who enter the portal into John Malkovich’s mind do not actually become him, neither do they forfeit their original selves. Even in Lotte’s extreme case, when she wishes to have a sex change operation after her experience inside Malkovich, we sense that she has not experienced what it is actually like to be a man, rather she has experienced what it is like for her, Lotte, as a woman, to experience being him, Malkovich, as a man.
In the original script, p. 28, there is a minor attempt to try and develop the audience’s awareness of the problematic nature of being someone else. When Craig enters into Malkovich for the first time, he says to himself:
“Holy shit! It’s that actor guy. Shit! What’s his name? That actor guy? What’s happening? Am I inside him? Am I in his brain? Am I him? Is he me? Does he know I’m here? My brain is reeling! Is his brain reeling?”
The film’s director, Spike Jonze, chose not to include this scene or any other scene that makes a viable effort to understand this problem, which would seem out of place and half-assed. He demonstrates his unwillingness to incorporate this element into the film, in a brief scene where Craig attempts to delve into the complexities of what they (he and Maxine) have uncovered, when he says to Maxine:
“The point is that this is a very odd thing, supernatural, for lack of a better word. It raises all sorts of philosophical questions about the nature of self, about the existence of the soul. Am I me? Is Malkovich Malkovich? Do you see what a can of worms this portal is? I don't think I can go on living my life as I have lived it.”
Maxine responds apathetically by pointing in the direction of the window, implying, who cares, why don’t you jump out of the window then? With this issue swept aside, the movie ceases to make any further rational attempt to tackle the problematic nature of this concept.
When we realize that the film has ceased to deal with the “being” of being someone else in any coherent form, it is then that we can begin to appreciate the comical elements that arise from the absurd secondary plots. Dr. Lester is probably the most ambiguous, detached, alienated, and absurd character in the film. One possible explanation for the circumstances that have led to his condition is the fact that Dr. Lester is himself a vessel occupied by Captain Mertin, in an attempt to prolong his existence. Perhaps it is the fact that he has been living under such ‘unnatural’ conditions for a prolonged period of time that has contributed to his extreme eccentricity. Dr. Lester is mistakenly convinced that he has a speech impediment, a metaphor for his inability to connect with others and to be understood. Although this is indeed a critical point, the manner in which it is conveyed remains absurd; Dr. Lester’s belief that his words make no sense, even when they do, render him nonsensical, and his tendency to act upon his belief only serves to emphasize this nonsensical attribute within him.
This situation parallels an extreme philosophical approach to the nature of language. In this approach, it has been argued that language has no meaning and is therefore reduced to a series of behavioral acts that have no semantic value. Those who believe in these theories cannot explain our ability to communicate with one another and claim that in essence there is no actual communication between us, only a series of meaningless speech acts. This conclusion seems absurd in comparison with what we perceive from reality; our inability to explain how language functions causes us to acquire the belief that it does not function, despite the obvious evidence that it does. The same holds true for Dr. Lester. The absurdity of his situation is only heightened by the presence of his secretary, Florence, who serves to validate the falsity of his self-assessments as a result of her “real” inability to decipher speech. She believes that what she understands and produces makes sense, while it does not, and he believes that what he understands and produces does not make sense, though it does, thus resulting in a complete misrepresentation of reality:
Floris: “Welcome to LesterCorp. [How] may we meet your filing needs?”
Craig: “No, uh, my name is Craig Schwartz. I have an interview with Mr. Lester.”
Floris: “Please have a seat, Mr. Juarez…”
Floris: “I’m sorry, I’m afraid I have no idea what you’re saying right now.”
Craig: “My name is Schwartz.”
Floris: “Money, Miss Warts?”
Craig: “Forget it.”
Floris: “Fork ah did?”
The intercom buzzes. Floris picks it up.
Floris (to Craig): “Mr Juarez?”
Craig: “I said yes.”
Floris: “You suggest what? I have no time for piddling suggestions from mumbling job applicants, my good man. Besides, Dr. Lester will see you now. I think that’s what he said.”
Craig stands, opens Lester’s door, and enters.
Lester: “Come in Mr. Juarez. I’d stand, but well, you know.”
Craig (extending his hand): “ Actually, my name is Craig Schwartz, Dr. Lester.”
Lester flips the intercom switch.
Craig: “ No, it’s ok sir. Just a mixup with your secretary.”
Lester: “She’s not my secretary. She’s what they call an executive liaison, and I’m not banging her, if that’s what you’re implying.”
Craig: “Not at all, Dr. Lester. I simply misspoke.”
Lester flips intercom switch.
Lester: “Floris, get Guinness on the phone.”
Floris: “Gehginnis ondah foam?”
Lester: “Forget it.”
Floris: “Fork ah did?”
Lester flips off switch.
Lester: “Fine woman, Floris. I don’t know how she puts up with this damn speech impediment of mine.”
Craig: “You don’t have a speech impediment, Dr. Lester.”
Lester: “Flattery will get you everywhere my boy. But, I’m afraid I have to trust Floris on this one. You see, she has her doctorate in speech Impedimentology from Case Western. Perhaps you’ve read her memoirs, “I can’t understand a word you’re saying”.
Lester: “Pity, it tells it like it is. That’s why the Eastern, read Jewish, publishing establishment won’t touch it…I apologize if you can’t understand a word I’m saying Dr. Schwartz.”
Craig: “No, I understand perfectly.”
Lester: “Thank you for being kind enough to lie. You see, I’ve been very lonely in my isolated tower of indecipherable speech. You’re hired. Any questions?”
Although not as poignant of an example, the character Lotte, played by Cameron Diaz, adds another element of absurdity as a secondary plot. In real life, we recognize Cameron Diaz as a beautiful, desired, Hollywood celebrity. Disguised as the homely Lotte however, she has been denied by her husband, locked in a cage, and rescued by a monkey. In the original script, Lotte and the monkey even fall in love with one another and set out to rescue the world from the devil, though this was not included in the film.
Lotte’s denial by her husband, and his favor for another woman, instill her with an obsessive desire to escape herself by changing identities. So much so, that even when she is not “inside” John Malkovich, she still refers to herself in the masculine during an argument with Craig, when she shouts at him “suck my dick!”
The final scene depicts Craig locked in the body of Lotte and Maxine’s daughter (by way of Malkovich). He is condemned to watch Maxine as a passive observer, not being able to express his feelings for her. This scene differs drastically from the final plot in the original script, where Craig is a puppet who is being controlled by the Great Mantini (his professional rival), who is, himself, controlled by the devil, Flemmer. The film’s twist from the original script serves to emphasize the alternate direction that the director had in mind for the film.
In the original script, we learn that the portal was given by the devil to Mertin/Lester, as a means of controlling the world. With the people as the devil’s puppets, all our acts are not our own and merely serve to amuse the devil. If the original script focuses on criticizing our social tendency to be dominated by others or by some sort of external, higher power the film chooses to explore, on an internal level, our own inability to dominate our selves or to take control of our own actions. This is particularly applicable to Craig and his dance of despair and dissolution, which as I have argued is the main premise of the film. The director chose to open the film with Craig’s dance in order to foreshadow its primary role in the film’s development. In this dance, we see Craig (the puppet) walking around, looking at his reflection in the mirror, which leads him to discover his strings (i.e.- limitations). He then looks upward at his master, (Craig the person) pulling his strings, making him aware of the fact that he is never in control of himself. He tries to move against his master’s wishes, though these movements themselves also originate from the master’s will. The way in which Craig struggles in the movie is a metaphor for the way in which the puppet struggles to rebel against his master. He wants to be with Maxine, but she rejects him on the basis of who he is. Realizing this, he engages in a losing battle, denying himself of who he is, in a way that is similar to the puppet who struggles against his master, from whom he knows that he can never be free. The master is the puppet, in the sense that they are both Craig. Although Craig enters Malkovich to please Maxine, he remains Craig and can never be anyone else.
As the puppet in Craig’s dance feels more despair at each second of his realization, his movements become more exaggerated and unrealistic. So the movie becomes more exaggerated and unrealistic when Craig enters Malkovich’s body in order to achieve the impossible, to become someone else.
Craig’s situation tumbles in a downward spiral; his internal Self projects onto the outward Malkovich and he’s back to square one, being a loser. Realizing that he cannot be free of his master, himself, the puppet ceases to resist. His moment of realization hits while he is drunk and destitute at a bar. An innocent fan approaches and says, “Hey, you’re that Malkovich guy, aren’t you?” With the weight of this question already bearing so heavily on his mind, he strikes out in a fit of rage shouting “I’m not Malkovich, I’m not Malkovich!!!” All hope is gone and the truth is hard to accept. He must now take responsibility for himself and give up his struggle for Maxine’s affections. Her rejection forces him to look at himself in the same way that the puppet looked at itself in the mirror, yet he fails to accept the grim truth that is set before him, namely that Maxine will not accept him for who he is, but more importantly, that he will not accept himself for who he is and he cannot be anyone else.
In this desperate frame of mind, he returns to the portal for what is to be his final attempt. His regression into escape illustrates his failure to accept, leaving him in a state of psychological limbo. In the final scene, we understand that Craig has sentenced himself to a life of imprisonment helplessly trapped in the body of Maxine and Lotte’s daughter. This is the film’s way of expressing the significance of Craig’s dance of despair and dissolution, in which he leads himself into a vicious circle of unacceptance and self denial; he is rejected by himself, Maxine and the reality that will never allow him to be someone else.
BEING JOHN MALKOVICH A Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman