Being John Malkovich, a mindgame of a bizarre fantasy ostensibly about a marionette puppeteer who discovers a hidden tunnel that carries spelunkers into the mind of actor John Malkovich (played by John Malkovich) where they vicariously enjoy his life for their alotted 15 minutes, was released in 1999, at a time when our obsession with celebrity was mainly fed by gossip magazines and entertainment programs and the new paradigm of reality TV had was just about to explode. Over a decade later, as intrusions into the private lives of entertainment stars has reached new depths thanks to portable video devices and hackers targeting celebrity cell phones, and a longer reach thanks to a proliferations of bottom-feeding websites, it is as timely and topical as ever.
Because Being John Malkovich, the debut feature from both director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, takes identity theft to an existential level (forget hacking into cell phones, they’re hacking into someone’s mind!), but it is not really about celebrity stalking, or obsession, or even envy. It has been called quirky, clever, funny, and satirical, and it is all that, but behind all of the madcap invention and creative playfulness is a terrible sadness, a portrait of people so miserable in their own skins that they will do almost anything to become someone else. That it presents them with such humor and imagination and, yes, even empathy makes it all the more devastating portrait of the human condition. What better way to explore the vicious things we do for love than through laughter?
John Cusack’s sad-sack marionette Craig Schwartz could be the poster boy for the self-absorbed artist, shaggy and self-important and unemployed, defiantly creating chamber dramas and performance art pieces in his miniature stages. They are at once rarified expressions of angst (his performances are as much modern dance as puppet plays) and wish fulfillment fantasies: tortured art from the tortured artist acting out the life he’s unable to live. Kaufman’s subsequent films are filled with simulacra of lives, from the fading memories of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to the elaborate theatrical recreations nestled one within another of Synecdoche, New York, and characters who, unable to control their own lives, resort to obsessively revisiting their past and fix it, erase it, or simply observe. It all springs from here.