Being John Malkovich

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:20

    Wishing on A Star Years of following music video did not prepare me for Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich. Music video skeptics might easily have predicted Fight Club, a flashy, incoherent extravaganza?cuz that's all most videos come down to. But Jonze's feature film debut makes him Hollywood's unpredictable Spike. While most critics use the term "music video" cynically and ignorantly to disdain visual stylization (yet fall for Fight Club's vacuous sensationalism), Jonze vindicates the form. He shows its integrity to be an adroitly chosen visual style. This is different from the goosed-up Madison Avenue spectacle that Fight Club's David Fincher specializes in along with Michael Bay (Armageddon) and Simon West (Con Air). Being John Malkovich doesn't look like anyone's idea of a music video except Spike Jonze's. And yet, for two hours, it works like the best music videos: making high-concept philosophies graspable, marvelous and fun. First, understand that Jonze has consistently been a pomo parodist. A music video whiz, but from the Beastie Boys' Sabotage to Bjork's It's Oh So Quiet he's demonstrated a new way of seeing through old ways. Just as Jonze's videos reconceive old tv shows, movie musicals and the home video (Fatboy Slim's Praise You, the video-cam stunt Blair Witch Project should have been), BJM turns conventional Hollywood features like Brainstorm, where characters travel to other dimensions, on their head.

    With screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, Jonze satirizes high concept itself by taking seriously Craig's (John Cusack) desire to express himself artistically. Craig's medium is marionettes, but his playtime drive signals a deep dissatisfaction, a need to be accepted and understood that is not answered by his marriage to Lotte (Cameron Diaz), whose longing matches Craig's. As a pet store worker she sublimates her desire through parenthood, bringing home parrots and chimpanzees. Having blotted each other out of their private lives, Craig seeks his ideal in Maxine (Catherine Keener), a brittle, manipulative co-worker, sharing his discovery of a secret doorway in their office that leads?fantastically?to John Malkovich's head.

    This otherworldly trip is a postmodern, nonreligious version of the afterlife fantasies in movies like Brainstorm and Made in Heaven and Heaven Can Wait and Here Comes Mr. Jordan. The idea carries its own skepticism, but Jonze's humor suggests: maybe... Instead of the afterlife, BJM wishes upon a star (a correction of Camille Paglia's notion that movie stars are pagan gods) to examine how another life might answer Craig and Lotte's dissatisfaction. They seek to assuage their distemper by entering Malkovich's consciousness. It fulfills Craig's puppeteer's desire, and Lotte discovers new sexual fulfillment?along with Maxine, whose use of the real Malkovich for sexual stimulation realizes her narcissism. It's easy to talk about BJM as a satire on identity crisis. But Jonze's typically askew vision sees something more. The film is most poignant on the things about which it is least specific?marriage and celebrity.

    Jonze probes Craig and Lotte's post-slacker emotional vagueness. These young, stringy-haired marginals recall the ex-hippies of Mike Leigh's High Hopes but without political commitment, just frustration. Craig envies a commercial puppeteer who stages The Belle of Amherst to his personal street corner production of Heloise and Abelard. Craig whines, "All I want is the chance to do my work, and they won't have it because I raise issues"?a typical unempowered person's complaint. His lonely puppetry suggests the displaced fantasy life of Tim Burton's most original characters, and the opening scene of Craig's puppet ballet evokes the masturbatory isolation Matthew Broderick sneaked off to in Election (but that Kevin Spacey sardonically trivialized in American Beauty).

    Jonze x-rays this fouled-up marriage when Craig invites Maxine to dinner after Lotte has seen her through Malkovich's eyes. The pitiful triangle of crossed agendas climaxes when both mates pounce on their idealized prey. This double adultery on sofa (like a Twin Peaks outtake) would never have been dared by classic screwball comedies; it bypasses the sanctity of marriage to scoff at the foolishly betrotheds' delusions. Illustrating a new, non-cynical sensibility, the scene reifies Jonze and Kaufman's absurdities, becoming more humane and poignant, yet keeps rollicking. Similarly, when Craig takes a corporate job for his nimble fingers?on the seventh-and-a-half floor of an office building?Jonze crunches white-collar banality into haunting, jokey mythos. (The film's only disappointment is that Lance Acord's photography favors this fluorescent-bulb staleness over more expressive lighting.)

    Jonze's next level analyzes celebrity without the typical media-worship in Woody Allen's last film, but as a condition of psychological anxiety. The fantasy of being inside someone else's skin (turning the subconscious inside out like a better, present-day Brazil) is understood in contemporary terms as a sign of displacement and estranged desire?whether Lotte's sexual dissatisfaction or Craig's fantasies of control and escape. Its symbols are brilliantly precise: art, acting, puppetry are skills of distance, alienation, lack of direct touch. And this becomes the basis of Jonze's wild ride through Malkovich's head, the escape from dread marital circumstances through the aura of celebrity. It's a bold proposition not to hold celebrity sacrosanct in this era. ("I thought you were all right in one movie," a cabbie says to the star.) Malkovich himself is frustrated; an easily manipulated artist whose desire to live forever completes the film's circle of suppressed ambitions.

    BJM is also about identity through work. A major contemporary idea, poorly addressed in Fight Club and American Beauty but as cogent here and as it was in Mike Judge's Office Space. Matching Judge's incisive satire, Jonze mocks a job-orientation film, an arts documentary and, in a clever flashback, what critic Gregory Solman identified as a parody of Peter Gabriel's Shock the Monkey video. Leaping into chimpanzee consciousness and memory, Jonze limns the absurdity of behavioral regimens, making a joke of his own quasi-scientific (artistic) occupation. His ace combination of farce and fantasy (a self-conscious movie about self-consciousness) proves more conversant with celebrity and instant gratification as aspects of pop culture despondency than almost any other recent film. The dread side of Jonze's slapdash, light-fingered brilliance evokes Poe, just as Craig catching himself being outrageous and asking, "What have I become? My wife in a cage with a monkey!" suggests a John Collier-like play with identity and credulity.

    Finally, Being John Malkovich addresses the limitations of the human body and its aspirations?both conveyed through funny-pathetic details of the human condition. Malkovich turns out to be the perfect choice for this; he's creepy but in a way that seems natural, unaffected, a cosmic accident like Craig, Lotte and Maxine in their mundane lives. Described by Maxine as having a "too prominent forehead with male-pattern baldness," Malkovich's body conveys the movie's deepest stirrings. His Lucian Freud corpulence looks aged yet powerful. Doing Craig's "Dance of Despair and Disillusionment" Malkovich turns modern-dance leaps and extensions into some of the film's most artfully expressive touches. But none are pretentious. Even Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard gets rude effect when the lisping Malkovich practices the line, "Fate has tossed me hither and thither." There are more ideas (and delights and surprises) in this movie than an introductory review can reveal.

    Jonze and Kaufman deal with so much: age, sex, labor and, of course, love and death relayed through spiritual transference and emotional projection. You don't have to think about the movie this way; it can be enjoyed as a romp, but it's richer when you do investigate the filmmakers' issues. Jonze has made the first American surrealist screwball comedy?an achievement that probably would be unthinkable in today's Hollywood without the artistic insurgency of music video to nurture such an odd sensibility and prepare the public for off-center visions that go right to the heart of metaphysics, modern psychology and hipness. No matter how much Jonze dissembles to interviewers with a skateboard maven's disingenuousness, he delivers music video's essential promise: he's made a work of art.

    Jonze has pulled off one of the most amazing transitions of the post-postmodern era?from the quasi-fringe to the mainstream, moving music video's indefinite position between tv and cinema closer to the latter. That's something music video's other great directors?Hype Williams, Marcus Nispel, Michel Gondry?have yet to do. In the music video programs I've done for the Film Society of Lincoln since 1993 (past programs highlighted Jonze, Williams, Nispel and Mark Romanek, the latter two as in-person dialogues), emphasis was put on the integrity of music videos in contradistinction to the blandness and inauthenticity of theatrical films. That's where most other video directors openly desire to graduate. But Romanek, another master, already made his feature debut with Static in 1985, suggesting that features are not necessarily something a filmmaker works up to but can be another serious form, another choice.

    Romanek's little-seen idiosyncratic comedy shares a satirical/metaphysical interest with Being John Malkovich. Static's script wasn't as nimble but Romanek similarly explored a young man's excitement about the afterlife via a television tuned in to the beyond?in other words, it looked at how media affects the psyche. In a commanding opening shot?an absorbing single take that should be to the music video age what The Conversation's opening was to the Watergate age?Romanek sought to make imagery speak past the surface. That's every good music video director's ambition, linked to film artistry rather than crass tv commercials. Jonze's prankishness fashions images less meticulously than his peers, but still just as seriously.

    Several music video directors have achieved cinema-like expressiveness in three to four minutes, but few have brought that skill to the big screen. Add 'em up: Fincher, Mark Pellington (Arlington Road), F. Gary Gray (Set It Off, The Negotiator), Matt Mahurin (MugShot), Antoine Fuqua (The Replacement Killers), Brett Ratner (Rush Hour), Hype Williams (Belly), Jake Scott (Plunkett & Macleane). So many small-screen splashes and big-screen blunders. (It's a blessing Nispel walked off Schwarzenegger's End of Days, but tragic that that project kept him from the dream assignment of doing every TLC Fan Mail video; they might have rivaled A Hard Day's Night.) Neophytes like Sam Mendes lack video directors' skill, yet it's certain that skill isn't enough; it takes a feel for visual conception like Jonze brings to sketch comedy that makes BJM join Election as the year's great comedies.

    Images that convey meaning more than scream for attention have always distinguished good music videos from slick commercials. Jonze's ability to achieve a variegated "look" is part of his content-dictates-form esthetic. That's less obviously true of Williams, Nispel, Gondry and Romanek?wild visionaries proud of cinema's spectacular, kinetic tradition. Jonze eschews that in ways that have given him hip cache without always understanding the real nature of his relatively simple, chameleon technique. To compare Jonze's Buddy Holly, The Sweater Song, Feel the Pain, It's All About the Benjamins (Remix), It's Oh So Quiet, Sabotage, the only stylistic thread is attitude?mocking, low-tech. But Jonze's admirers don't appreciate that the downplayed technical savvy is, in fact, extremely sophisticated. His seeming rejection of "style" is, in fact, a style (you only have to look at other low-tech, avant-novice videos to appreciate Jonze's esthetic integrity). That's his secret affinity with grandiose video directors (a more substantive bridge than the crossover music of Jonze's hiphop parody for Notorious B.I.G.'s "Sky's the Limit").

    Jonze's restraint?his distrust?of showbiz convention makes sense for Francis Ford Coppola's son-in-law. An heir of the Spiegel catalog fortune (born Adam Spiegel), Jonze married Sofia Coppola last spring after a friendship that included media-making with her brother Roman Coppola. There's scion-prodigy arrogance in his refusal of showbiz tradition. It was most apparent in the demi-crescendo of It's All About the Benjamins (Remix) when Lil' Kim walks dazedly onstage in a pink prom dress, then strips down to s&m leather. Jonze let the moment carry its own jolt rather than hype its drama. His true climax came later, interrupting the prom chaos with a non-diegetic montage of high school yearbook photos, cooling down the incendiary fantasy to promote a nostalgic, low-tech universality. He audaciously indicated what Being John Malkovich confirms: this slacker manque can do what's required.

    Clipped Under the Big Black Sun. W.T. Morgan's 1986 X: The Unheard Music (airing on the Sundance Channel Oct. 26, 30 & 31) is my nominee for the best pop music documentary. Morgan blends kitsch with reporting to evoke L.A. history and combines live performances and interviews with impressionistic song sequences. Kitschy, ingenious, profane yet religious, it's sort of a series of music videos but more art-conscious and memorable than most: the title song set to a house being moved through the streets of nighttime L.A.; "Because I Do" as a perfect silent movie pastiche; a fiery performance of "Johnny Hit and Run Pauline," and never too much of that gifted, exciting band?smiling Billy Zoom, erudite D.J. Bonebrake, soulful John Doe and punk siren Exene. She comments, "I've been able to go back and listen to all the music that's been around forever. You know, just the old country guys Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn and then the blues guys like Leadbelly, Howlin' Wolf, all that stuff? I think the best kind of influences you can have are the original sources. Led Zeppelin doing Robert Johnson isn't a good influence I don't think; Robert Johnson is." Then she pays poetic tribute to Percy Mayfield. Forget Nirvana. I miss X's intelligence and passion.