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Being John Malkovich, Directed by Spike Jonze

Gramercy Pictures, September 2, 1999 (US)

Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman

Starring: John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, Mary Kay Place, Orson Bean, and John Malkovich

True story: I was standing on the EL platform at the Davis Street stop in Evanston when some woman comes up to me and screams in delight, “You’re John Malkovich!”

Maxine Lund (Catherine Keener): Sounds great! Who the fuck is John Malkovich?

I smiled (maybe even giggled) before revealing the disappointing news. No, I was not John Malkovich. The end.

Not so fast there, Sugar. Nope. She was sure of it. Absolutely certain, perturbed at my refusal to acknowledge the secret of my identity, she assured me, “Yes you are.” Victorious and smug, the wretch had revealed the real me.

Craig Schwartz (John Cusack): It raises all sorts of philosophical questions about the nature of self, about the existence of the soul. Am I me?

I guess I could be coaxed into agreeing that, back then so many pounds ago, in a brain cell far away, there might have been a distant resemblance between the actor and that version of me, but certainly not enough for a stranger to swear by. And yet, there I was, outside of myself, exposed as a fraud, a liar. For a fleeting and rather bizarre moment, I was suddenly forced into the persona of actor who apparently did not want to be outed in public. I guess I didn’t want the commotion. Maybe I didn’t want to sign an autograph. It was strange. Not only was I no longer myself (as she insisted) but there I also was, flat out refusing to admit who I really was (John Malkovich).

It was many years later that a funny little film about getting in the head of John Malkovich would come out, and years later still, I would come upon a tangent again—this world of strange dimensions and mistaken identities—as I watched John Malkovich play the real life Alan Conway, who as it was, duped people into thinking that he was the reclusive film director, Stanley Kubrick.

But I digress.

What fascinates me about the film Being John Malkovich is not how it reminds me of my own few seconds of fame, but rather, the mistaken identity of the film itself. On the surface, it is a comedy. Theatre d’absurd. Life on floor 7 1/2. A portal to John Malkovich’s brain. And yet, it is not a comedy. There is sadness to these characters that permeates the sheer madness of it all.

The obsession of need is alive inside of us. The need can make us do funny things including exploiting others for our own gain. Perhaps greed and self-centeredness are simply inherent to human nature. Even if we do not act does not mean the qualities do not exist. We are all capable of good and not so good, and since our own true identities are often hidden from even ourselves, who’s to really know when we will give in or just what it will take to tip the scales?

Craig: You don’t know how lucky you are being a monkey. Because consciousness is a terrible curse. I think. I feel. I suffer. And all I ask in return is the opportunity to do my work. And they won’t allow it …

To watch Schwartz live out his fantasies inside the world of puppets is, on the surface, comedic and fun, even magical in a screwball kind of way. But it’s incredibly sad as well. We witness a man abandoning his dreams. The colorful, delicious absurdity of the Charlie Kaufman world can mask the deep pain of abandoned hope for only so long. And here, inside the sadness, the film within a film bobs to the surface time and time again, showing us the tragedy inside the comedy.

Maxine: I think the world is divided into those who go after what they want and those who don’t. The passionate ones, the ones who go after what they want, they may not get what they want but at least they remain vital, you know? So when they lie on their deathbeds, they have few regrets.

The portal into John Malkovich’s head is a fascinating plot device. But it isn’t just the skull of John Malkovich that we are penetrating.

John Malkovich (John Malkovich): Did you call me Lotte?

Maxine: Yeah, do you mind?

John: No, not really.

As the fun seekers are left muddied in a ditch next to the New Jersey turnpike, self-discoveries are revealed. We are locked in an unbreakable death grip of what it feels like at the very moment obsession steals the soul. We need love. We need to be loved. Some crave fame or power. For others still, fill in the blanks. There is an invisible pull that renders each and every one of us helpless as we line up in droves, put on blinders, and slip into black holes, ready to sacrifice nothing short of ourselves.

Maxine: Meet you in Malkovich in one hour.