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.
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Being John Malkovich (Criterion), a devastatingly funny portrait of unhappiness, desperation, desire, and the vicious things we do for love, catapulted Spike Jonze from music video wunderkind to visionary director and Charlie Kaufman from sitcom scribe to brilliant screenwriter. In 1999 it was fresh and daring and inventive, and more than ten years later, in the age of reality TV and celebrity obsession gone viral, it is as timely and topical as ever, and just as inventive, surprising, devastating, and compassionate.
John Cusack stars as a shaggy, self-important only marionette artist who takes a break from the angst-ridden wish fulfillment fantasies of his puppet theater to get a paying job and becomes obsessed with an acerbic woman (Catherine Keener) in the office next door. The fact that he’s married (to an improbably dowdy Cameron Diaz in a dowdy frizz) doesn’t phase his flailing attempts at seduction.
The mundane and the miraculous exist side by side in “Being John Malkovich.” The half-scale size of the 7 ½ floor is groaner of a pun (“low overhead,” get it?) turned deadpan surreal sight gag, and when Cusack stumbles into the weirdly organic portal that sends him into the mind of John Malkovich (played with exceedingly good humor by John Malkovich), the metaphysical implication pale beside the business opportunities.
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War, Inc., the satire of American foreign policy in Iraq and the politics of outsourcing the waging of war co-written and co-produced by star John Cusack, expands its release from New York and Los Angeles to cities across the country. I spoke with Cusack by phone a couple of weeks ago in anticipation of the film’s release in Seattle and the interview is up on GreenCine. Here are a few excerpts:
How much would you say War, Inc. exaggerates what corporate America is really up to in Iraq and how much would you say is simply a reflection through the lens of satire?
Well, it’s interesting, because the basis for a lot of the criticism and praise for the movie is what the perspective is. If you go on MySpace – we have a big space on MySpace, check it out – we have some of the heaviest people I know who have written about Iraq, from chief foreign news correspondents for 60 Minutes to Naomi Klein, who spent a lot of time there, to Jeremy Scahill, who’s been there a bunch, to artists and writers like Damian Hirst and Gore Vidal, comedian Sarah Silverman, we have a bunch of people who all think the movie is prescient and they all get what the movie’s about.
Then you have some people who say the tone of it is way over the top or it’s five years too late or it’s five years too early or you can’t mix all these tones and styles together and it’s a failure. So you have this chasm between movie critics and people who write about the world from a different perspective and the chasm is pretty extraordinary. So we have plenty of supporters out there for it, but we’ve also had people who have said the movie goes soft and it’s a happy ending. And I think, “Are you even watching the same film?” If that’s a happy ending…
You’re a writer and producer on the project. Was it hard to get it made in this climate?
It was tricky because people were buying all the lies that came out of the Bush administration. It would be like, “What time is it?,” and they would just start to lie and everybody just let them get away with it for so long. They were even saying things like, “Everybody better watch what they say, you guys better watch what you say.” And it was really at the height, you know, when the statue had fallen, and so we figured that it better be time to not watch what you say. So getting a movie made is hard but getting a movie made that takes on the military corporate complex and how it’s mutated into this kind of privatized war machine – it was not an easy sell.
You said that there were people telling you that the film was too early or too late. In fact, it’s coming out before the presidential elections, which seems to me the perfect time to get a political message out. Was that part of the plan, or is that a lucky break on your part?
A little bit of both. I think the climate has changed for the movie. At first people were saying things like, “We won’t even show it,” you know? And then they were saying things like, “It’s anti-American,” and then they started to say things like, “Well, there are some good ideas in it,” and then they started saying it was funny and then people started to say, “It’s great.” All that happened in about six months, so I think the climate has changed in the country really drastically in the last year. The movie hasn’t changed much but I think people’s reaction to it has changed drastically. It’s actually doing very well in the theaters at the moment. Crazy.
Read the complete interview on GreenCine here.