Jealousy, Earned: 'Being John Malkovich'

A message on the disc says that Michel Gondry's commentary had to be shortened for "accuracy, audience interest, and legality," a message that seems equally likely to be true or the product of one of Spike Jonze's stone-faced pranks.

Being John Malkovich

Director: Spike Jonze
Cast: John Cusack, Catherine Keener, Cameron Diaz, John Malkovich, Orson Bean
Distributor: Criterion
Studio: Universal
Release date: 2012-05-15

Fans of Being John Malkovich and its sometimes-elusive director, Spike Jonze, may not be surprised to find out that the commentary track on the new Criterion edition of the film does not actually feature Jonze himself. Instead, Jonze's fellow music video brat turned auteur Michel Gondry begins to speak: "What the fuck? I didn't do this movie."

He didn't quite do a full commentary, either; instead of speaking over the entire film, Gondry's observations are laid over an hour-ish reel of highlights from the two-hour Being John Malkovich, separate from the full movie itself. A message on the disc says that Gondry's commentary had to be shortened for "accuracy, audience interest, and legality," a message that seems equally likely to be true or the product of one of Jonze's stone-faced pranks.

It's not always easy to parse. When Gondry talks about the current of bitter jealousy running through his relationship with Jonze, he sounds sincere -- but even if he's half joking, the observation is sound. Jonze and Gondry to seem to move in parallel, jockeying for the best Kaufman scripts. At first, Jonze was ahead, scoring Being John Malkovich and its triumphant meta-companion Adaptation, while Gondry, as he points out on the commentary, worked with Kaufman on the far less-loved Human Nature.

But a few years later, Gondry and Kaufman shared a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for near-instant classic Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In addition to, you know, actually making Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Even apart from their Kaufman collaborations, Jonze and Gondry have stayed in an odd sort of give-and-take sync: They've done music videos for some of the same artists. They both dabbled in the frustration of big-studio properties: Jonze on Where the Wild Things Are and Gondry with The Green Hornet. Jonze has a more consistent cinematic track record, but Gondry has far more films to his credit. It feels fitting, then, to hear Gondry speak of jealousy as Being John Malkovich shows us Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), unkempt and vaguely resentful as he watches more successful puppeteers on television.

Through Craig Schwartz isn't explicitly Charlie Kaufman -- that would have to wait for Adaptation -- he seems like a self-criticizing stand-in on some level; a frustrated creative type with a needy, neurotic streak. His wife Lottie (Cameron Diaz) pressures him to find actual employment, which brings Craig to LesterCorp, an office on the stunted floor seven-and-a-half; everyone who works on this half-tall floor must walk or stand stooped over.

At the office, Craig finds both an unrequited crush on the dismissive Maxine (Catherine Keener) and a portal that sends entrants into the brain of actor John Malkovich (playing himself) for 15 minutes, before dumping them out on the side of the New Jersey turnpike. This only covers the set-up; the movie also includes a transsexual awakening, human puppeteering, a glimpse into Malkovich's subconscious, and sights that Malkovich himself claims that "no man should see."

This level of strangeness could easily turn smug and affected, but as hilarious as Being John Malkovich is (and it remains, 13 years after its original release, very funny), it never lapses into self-amusement. The movie has its deadpan matter-of-fact style – in another feature on the disc, Jonze can be seen, at the time of filming, talking about his obsession with finding a naturalistic tone – but its characters are far from detached. Their jockeying for control of Malkovich has intense (if misguided) feeling, painted with a drab color palette (given great detail on a new transfer) and carried to its logical, insanely inventive conclusions.

Even a funny cameo from Charlie Sheen, playing himself as Malkovich's best friend, maintains a grim sort of reality following Sheen's real-life decline. In short, Being John Malkovich, though ostensibly more of a comedy, drama, and/or fantasy, works a bit like good science fiction.

This means it has "all sorts of philosophical-type questions about the nature of identity," as the disc's liner notes mention. But this line comes from an "interview" between Jonze and the fabricated Perkus Tooth, a vicious (and often funny) parody of a film studies/pop-culture analyst. Kaufman and especially Jonze have a way of resisting metaphysical seriousness while engaging with those philosophical-type questions, nonetheless.

They also seem to resist the typical ways of looking back on a film, so instead of the usual commentary anecdotes and behind-the-scenes boilerplate, we get Michel Gondry going off-topic, and a 30-minute distillation of home video-like footage that cinematographer Lance Bangs shot on-set. Jonze also appears in another Bangs-shot feature supposedly about his own on-set photography but actually providing his memories of the project's inception and production (Jonze can't resist couching this in a joke; he claims to be looking back from the year 2028 as the movie is being "re-digitized" for a new format).

Criterion also sends humorist John Hodgman to interview Malkovich himself, who Jonze credits as making "everything" – not just the movie, but his and Kaufman's careers (and probably, by extent, the careers of Gondry, Bangs, and others) – happen. In the chat, Malkovich plays into the Kaufman/Jonze prankster reputation, calling them both "savvy" and "cagy", but also undermines Jonze's deadpan exterior, referring to them both as unexpectedly "steely".

Listening to Malkovich talk about how the script reached him, and his early involvement with the film, is fascinating; listening to Malkovich talk in general is fascinating because, as Kaufman and Jonze correctly perceived, there is something weirdly compelling about him. He's used in the film as a stand-in for recognizable but essentially unglamorous celebrity -- it's a running gag that none of the characters appear capable of naming a single Malkovich film even while wanting desperately to occupy his mind and body -- yet the filmmakers do not view him as interchangeable. Malkovich himself reports offering to direct and produce the script if it could be changed to another actor (presumably not wanting to produce and direct a movie about himself); Kaufman refused.

That early stubbornness resulted in one of the best films of the 90s; not quite as moving as Adaptation or Eternal Sunshine but a brilliant execution of a brilliant idea. It sounds simple, but such a process from great script to great film so rarely occurs. Gondry's jealousy -- real, imaginary, or a combination of both -- is earned.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.