Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, January 15, 2018

Director Report Card: Spike Jonze (1999)

I first discovered Spike Jonze as a director of music videos. Many music video directors endeavor to create little movies but Jonze truly embraced that. He brought wildly imaginative ideas to the format. Some of them were fairly elaborate, like inserting Weezer into "Happy Days" or making the Beastie Boys the stars of an old cop show. Others were seemingly simple, such as having Sofia Coppela perform a gymnastic routine, an extreme close-up of a man on fire, or - in maybe the greatest music video of all time - Christopher Walken dancing through an empty hotel lobby. Sometimes, the song wasn't even the true attraction of the music video, as in the clip for Daft Punk's "Da Funk," which uses the song as the backing track for a short film about a dog-man trying to find love in the city.

So when Jonze made the transition to feature films, he brought that imagination and surreal humor with him. He's only directed four movies so far but each one has become something of a modern classic, showing the director's obvious unique outlook and raw talent. Half of Jonze's films have been collaborations with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who I will be talking about a lot too in the next few days. Despite my completest urges, I am not including Jozne's feature-length skateboard videos, as I have no interest in the sport and no idea where to locate them.

1. Being John Malkovich

I don't know how they did it. Charlie Kaufman was a screenwriter whose only prior credits were a string of failed TV shows. Spike Jonze was highly regarded as a music video director but had never mounted a feature film before. The two came together to create a very strange film, an absurdist comedy about inhabiting the mind of John Malkovich, a well respected character actor that was hardly a box office draw. Not only did they get this bizarre movie made but it went on to become a huge success, making back its budget at the box office and being nominated for three Academy Awards. Nineteen years later, the movie is considered a classic and Kaufman and Jonze are highly regarded filmmakers.

Craig calls himself as a puppeteer but “unemployed” is a more accurate description. His pet shop owner/animal psychologist wife, Lotte, encourages him to find work. He gets a job as a file clerk at an office building, working on the 7½ floor. While attempting to seduce Maxine, a co-worker, he uncovers a small door behind a cabinet. Crawling into the door, Craig suddenly finds himself inhabiting the body of famous actor John Malkovich. A few minutes afterwards, he's spat out in a ditch alongside the New Jersey turnpike, left feeling elated. Craig and Maxine turn this into a business. Things get more complicated from there.

“Being John Malkovich” is, ultimately, a story about taking control. The film begins with one of Craig's puppet, in close-up, performing the Dance of Despair and Disillusionment. Craig is desperate to take control, made obvious by his interest in puppetry. Those skills eventually allows him to take control of Malkovich. He then redirects the actor's entire career towards his dream: Of being the greatest puppeteer in the world. It turns out, another force is conspiring to take control of Malkovich. After traveling inside the actor, Lotte discovers transgender desires. She wants to radically redirect her life. When she falls in love with Maxine, and she is rejected, she becomes violent. Maxine does a lot of underhanded things for fame and fortune. It's after Lotte and Maxine let go of their desire for control, and submit to love, that they find happiness. Craig's desperate need for control, over his own life and everyone else's, is his undoing. He's ultimately left without any control at all.

The film's visual design is also concerned with two aspects of life: Birth and death. Jonze fills the movie with images of doors and tunnels. Doors – the one leading to Malkovich's mind, the elevator doors in the office building – represent an exit from one world into another. The tunnel leading into Malkovich's mind is directly compared to the birth canal. Craig and Lotte's apartment is crowded and dark. Womb-like. So is the room where the secret society has tracked Malkovich's development, which is painted in fleshy reds. The film ends with a pregnancy. “Being John Malkovich” is a movie obsessed with the details of bringing life into the world.

It's also obsessed with how life leaves the world. For all the doors that open in “Being John Malkovich,” they also close. After entering the actor's mind, the door leading to the tunnel closes on its own, with a sense of finality. The first images in the movie are of closed curtains on a stage. Like a curtain call. As in, the end. The cabal responsible for the tunnel into Malkovich's brain have done it all in order to avoid dying, to stay young and live again. All of us are trying to find ways to avoid death, to take control over our lives, tying into the film's ultimate theme of control. 

Wrapped up inside all these heavy themes is a quirky take on celebrity obsession. This is, after all, literally a film about people crawling into a famous person’s body. Oddly, Charlie Kaufman’s script doesn’t really address obsessive fandom very much. The main characters have heard of Malkovich but don’t seem to be big fans of him. Most of the people who pay to crawl inside his head just want to be someone else, not Malkovich specifically. So why did Kaufman pick a moderately well known character actor as the subject of his strange story? Probably because it’s funny. The title, and the premise built around it, is such a specific and absurd notice. It makes for a good joke.

Any jokes about celebrity status are strictly at the expense of Mr. Malkovich himself. Even by agreeing to star in this movie, John Malkovich showed that he had a good sense of humor about himself. Yet the script delights in tearing down his public persona as an intellectual performer. He’s friends with Charlie Sheen and the two talk about being high all the time. He uses his fame to have sex with strange women. He bitches about towels and is constantly assumed to have started in a jewel thief movie. One comedic highlight has a beer can being tossed at his head. Malkovich, the character, is ultimately brutalized by the story, loosing his very soul over and over again. Perhaps there’s some irony in the most famous person in the film’s universe being the one with the least control. Malkovich, the actor, shows zero ego as he totally takes the piss out of himself, playing a slightly manic and tormented (and presumably exaggerated) version of himself.

The movie’s absurdist sense of humor peaks during three phenomenal moments, honestly three of the funniest scenes I’ve seen in any movie. What happens when John Malkovich crawls into his own head? The actor’s ego completely overtakes the world, spilling into a hilarious, surreal nightmare of mirrors within mirrors. Later, we see the opposite of Malkovich’s self-obsessed inner-universe. Maxine and Lotte chase each other through Malkovich’s subculture, the character’s repressed memories playing out in the background. This makes really dark memories – the Primal Scene, humiliated at school, humiliated by lovers, moments of debased self-agony – comedic contrasts to the story’s climax. Lastly, there’s a flashback told from a chimp’s perspective, a moment hilarious strictly because of how unexpected and how oddly sincere it is.

Yet despite being really, really funny, “Being John Malkovich” is ultimately revealed as a deeply sad movie. The characters are deeply human, consumed by flaws and making many mistakes. A sense of melancholy floats over the film as it approaches its ending, human lives falling apart due to selfishness. The film makes sure to root its villain’s motivations in understandable failings. “Being John Malkovich” even becomes a thriller of sorts, guns being fired and characters’ lives being endangered. All of these tonal shifts mix together successfully, Jonze and Kaufman’s film managing to be about many different things all at the same time.

Beyond Malkovich himself, a really talented cast is assembled. John Cusack covers himself in stubble, becoming almost unrecognizable. Craig begins the film as a pathetic anti-hero. He seeks romance with a woman woefully out of his league. He’s a dreamer, hopelessly attempting to be taken seriously in an art form mostly confined to children’s entertainment. Yet, the moment he gets a ounce of power, Craig transforms into a scumbag. He immediately uses the Malkovich door as a way to win over Maxine. Soon, he’s threatening his wife, locking her up, and tormenting her. What he does to Malkovich amounts to psychic rape. He is punished accordingly. Cusack understands this aspect of the character but maintains a certain level of vulnerability.

“Being John Malkovich” was a surprising film upon its release in 1999. Another surprising aspect of the film was Cameron Diaz’ performance. Diaz, at the time and still really, was mostly confined to comedic roles as bubble-headed blondes. As Lotte, she plumes her abilities and gives a fantastic performance. (She also uglies up, playing into a well-known technique for glamorous actresses to get critical attention.) She’s funny in a really sincere way, never laughing at Lotte’s changing desires or understandings. The character eventually becomes the unlikely hero of the movie, despite a short-lived veer towards the homicidal.

One of the film’s most critically acclaimed performances, the only one to receive an Oscar nomination, is one of its most inscrutable. Catherine Keener is hilarious as Maxine, a deeply sardonic woman that can cut anyone down to size with a few words. She has no time for Craig’s bullshit, at least at first. Yet the character’s willingness to go along with his scheme, once he takes over Malkovich, is a harder to read. As is her eventual redemption. I guess that Keener’s performance is still so strong, despite the character getting the rockiest characterization, is a testament to her skills.

What a fantastic surprise that “Being John Malkovich” would become a critical and box office success. A movie this fucking weird, I figured this would’ve been confined to strictly cult status going forward. Instead, the movie was rightly recognized as an innovative masterpiece and became a widely loved classic of sorts. It’s director and screenwriter weren’t dismissed as one-off weirdoes, but instead rightfully received as mad geniuses. In short, it’s a really good movie that I like a lot. Malkovich! [Grade: A]

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