Constrained by circumstance and haunted by fate ~ Being John Malkovich   3 comments


Our society has become so complex that at one time or another everyone at least once in their life has stated, “I wish I could be that person, celebrity, or even gender because they have it all” as in Being John Malkovich (1999) directed by Spike Jonze.

This film was an unconventional, bizarre yet creative “outside the box” narrative revealing the repercussions of one’s actions. The premise was to jump through a postmodern rabbit hole and find one’s utopia in a magical timeless environment.

It began as a self referential subjective movie that functioned on the theory depicting good versus evil with psychological and philosophical twists, in which one man had power over another, mind, body, and possibly soul. The style of the movie flowed as it’s foundation was not only how the narrative was presented but, the way in which it was expressed through it’s ironic moments. The representation of a utopian lifestyle was out of reach for the main characters as their reality slowly became fragmented. Identity dilemmas were prevalent and rose to the surface as the film unfolded portraying one’s mans own personal history and memories disappearing in an instant as the “other” takes over. John Malkovich ( the actor played himself) became obsolete, or does he?

According to Repass (2002) who described the representation of the heterosexual male actor:

Malkovich fits the film so well because, in part, of the image the public seems to have of him. He is described regularly in reviews with phrases like quasi-reprehensibleness and enigmatic sexual attraction, does not seem quite normal or wholesome, and ambiguity of both intent and sexuality (30).

The film revealed the protagonist Craig, a puppeteer who in the first scene had his male puppet dance and perform “Craig’s Dance of Despair and Disillusionment” symbolic of his profession, life, mental and physical appearance of the character. When the puppet glanced into the mirror (as it was a motif), it was the reflection of this Craig that the audience viewed. He gradually entered an unrealistic fantasy world in which he turned his back on his own morals in order to control and manipulate another human being. He had been exposed to a portal into the unknown recesses of an individual’s mind (Figure 1) behind cabinets in his office, on the 7 ½ floor, specifically built to reach the entrance way. It was described by Bowers (2004) as , “This portal could be described as a “novum” or fictional invention in the terms of science fiction but this does not detract from the magical realist element of the film” (p114).” It was a doorway in which the “other” could escape through it’s symbolic order, as French psychoanalyst Lacan described the theory as being the social world of linguistic communication, intersubjective relations, knowledge of ideological conventions, and the acceptance of the law (also called the “big Other”).[1] Group thinking was symbolic as the public accepted the concept of the absurd as the real world turned surreal. According to Dragunoiu (2001):

Although this so-called “real world” seems too fantastic to represent Lacan’s symbolic order, the seventh-and-a-half floor of theMertin Flemmer Building is another of the film’s comic literalizations of psychoanalytic theory. Its empty world of language and deferred desire is a direct evocation of Lacan’s symbolic order where nothing can be possessed in its fullness because language, the single paradigm of all our psychic and social structures, is an endless process of difference and absence that leads the human subject from one empty signifier to         another.

Once revealed, the gateway infiltrated the famous actor’s brain. The questions then arose regarding John Malkovich’s soul, mind and body that was not his own. This was followed by the capitalist theory as Craig partnered with a female coworker, Maxine as she stated, “Let’s sell tickets.” He fell in love with her resulting in selling rides of fifteen minutes sharing the experiences with the public while profiting. Craig’s realization that the portal was a metaphysical, complex containment of sorts leading to the philosophical mixture of issues called the Ship of Theseus, where

Figure 1 The three main characters peering into the portal, Being John Malkovich (1999): identities in crisis?

two things of the same kind are in the same place at the same time. The theory is compared to a Ship and if one piece is removed at a time, at what point in the deconstruction does the Ship move from existence to non-existence? It brought to light the discourse and concepts of the nature of self, the existence of a soul, will to power/free will, selfhood, valuation of pity/compassion and whether I am really me.

In turn, multifaceted dysfunctional relations between identity and behavior were portrayed as the concept of repressed feelings of transgenderism/lesbianism arose when Lotte, Craig’s wife questioned her own gender and sexuality. American culture tends to believe in the binary system as we are born into our sex either male of female whereas, gender was to be learned. According to Lafont (2003) western culture as well as others perceive women as having repressed feelings and desires, “Moreover, women are subject to repressive beliefs and practices that confine and even suffocate their sexual natures” (p.145). In one scene it was not only Lotte who repressed her feelings but, Craig portrayed these characteristics too as the three individuals sat on the sofa (Maxine in the middle like the center of a cookie, in my opinion). Maxine had commented that “people really have to go for whatever they truly desire” and it at that moment Craig and Lotte went with their own personal desires, wants and needs and grabbed her in a moment of passion.

Power and control appeared in the film as being connected with money and fame. These were the unrealistic expectations which were connected to happiness for Craig as he had been unhappily married, struggled financially, and was considered living in a poor class system compared to the rich John Malkovich. All of these social constructs were shown in the film displaying public performances becoming intertwined with private identities.

This film also raised many philosophical questions which would leave the audience pondering over their own personal existence, morals, religious and ethical values. Kaufman’s screenplay according to Smith (2005),  “…was about people who think they have found the “transformative notion” they need, or who find themselves in circumstances where a possibility of change is suddenly opened to them, sometimes by fantastic means.” To simplify the correlation between a film and the theoretical philosophies Shaw (2006) wrote:

a) a film is (minimally) philosophical if it can fruitfully (and plausibly) be interpreted from a philosophical perspective that can enhance our understanding and appreciation of it; b) a film is more philosophical if it is an explicit (and successful) attempt by a director to illustrate a philosophical theory or concept; and finally c) the most profoundly philosophical films are those that further the conversation of mankind (to use Richard Rorty’s apt phrase) about the topic in question, i.e., those that are capable of making  a real contribution to ongoing philosophical inquiries into that issue. Films can ask genuinely philosophical questions, as well as offering new ways of viewing (and sometimes new answers to) such questions. (112)

One interesting aspect of the film had been the religious connotations compounded as to what makes up the structure of an individual as the past and present meld together. When do the ethical and moral beliefs end of one entity and then begin with another host? We are all born into “vessels” and as Benson (1986) commented, “If we are to cleanse the inner vessel, we must forsake immorality and be clean.” It is through these eyes that the audience viewed Being John Malkovich as a thematically voyeuristic movie from the inside out with the background cliché of being careful of what you wish for, as you just might get it.

As the film progressed, Craig obtained the knowledge of perfect and permanent control of Malkovich as he utilized his physical body to acquire fame as a puppeteer, money, and his love, Maxine. Further insight of the characters exposed the Imaginary and Symbolic theory of Lacan showing the relationships of Craig making no clear distinctions as compared to a child between itself and the external world; when it harbored no definite sense of self and lives symbiotically with the mother’s body. [1] As Dragunoiu (2001) described:

This comes as a surprise to Craig, who, unschooled in the tenets of post-structuralism and Lacanian psychoanalysis, subscribes to a Cartesian notion of selfhood, and, in consequence, believes himself to be his own master… So the signifying chain becomes a vicious circle, and the story of the norm itself, of the Symbolic Order, is not that of a “happy end,” but rather of a perpetual alienation. (3)

It was through the structural aspect of the film, the twisting of the final outcome that it became apparent that Lacan’s definitions explained pleasure of the Other at the expense of the subject’s own. This had been seen as Malkovich’s mind and body had become a vessel of service to the public for two hundred dollars/fifteen minutes. As Tyson (2006) mentioned that, “…an object becomes a commodity only when it has exchange value or sign exchange.” (p.62). Not only greed had been the motivations of the characters but, it ranged from fear to love, healthy to unhealthy, isolation to inclusion and violent to compassionate. As seen by Craig locking Lotte up in a cage where her chimp compassionately set her free or the manipulation for greed, and the portrayal of a loving family unit representing the final utopia.

Being John Malkovich was nominated for 3 Oscars at the Academy Awards while earninganother 45 wins plus 48 world wide nominations as it addressed the film appeal of stardom. Solondz (1999) commented on the several other complexities of the film:

Being John Malkovich, the debut feature from Spike Jonze, is as paradoxically cerebral and patently ridiculous as its title implies… Jonze, a director who cut his teeth on the world of music video and TV commercials (is there a distinction?), is an artist who revels in the cult of offbeat aura. He also brings to each of his projects an unmistakable love for the visually illogical… And what, pray tell, is he placing where? Why, other minds into the head of John Malkovich. (The title, as it were, is more than literal.)… The beauty of the film is the way it elevates John Malkovich from an actor to an axiom. It immediately begs the question: Out of all the possible subjects that could have been placed in the title role, why Malkovich? The choice is as perfect as it is ineffable… Remarkable indeed. But there you have it. And obviously, in this case, what remains most interesting is not so much the concept of an audience that wants to see him, but the existence of a writer and director collaborating to place him in a role where all of the aforementioned antithetical forces come into such strong play. The bottom line, in the film’s version of reality, is that Malkovich is neither more nor less than any of the anonymous humans that pass through life without the benefit of limelight incandescence.

Craig’s Dance of Despair and Disillusionment portrayed alienation and questioned the existence of self while opening one’s eyes to the “other” and touching on societal as well as cultural issues of the era. Whereas, Maxine and Lotte’s daughter, Emily now represented the portal in which the climatic moments led to Craig being absorbed into her unconscious viewing life eternally through her eyes, once again alienated. His feelings of immoral thoughts lay dormant now… for his/her mother? As Dragunoiu (2001) concluded, “Craig’s presence in Emily’s unconscious and his lust for her mother set up the Oedipal complex that anticipates Emily’s imminent entry into the symbolic order from which her same-sex parents seem to have escaped” (p.10).

By creating a surreal world, we believed in the characters, their motives and their lives. The connections and winding roads of philosophy/psychology, society/culture, gender/sexuality and even the premise of the yin and yang theory balanced the natural elements represented in this film. Being John Malkovich  explored universal questions and went far beyond human beings, far beyond human nature and far beyond our wildest dreams in search of answers to questions that will remain a mystery to us all…through out eternity beginning with…Who am I?


And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you…Friedrich Nietzsche


Benson, E. T. (1986). Cleansing the Inner Vessel. Ensign. Retrieved June 24, 2010,            0417b010VgnVCM1000004d82620a____&vgnextoid=2354fccf2b7db010VgnVC            M1000004d82620aRCRD

Bowers, M. A. (2004). Magic(al) realism.New York: Routledge. Retrieved June 30, 2010, from            uFpzIh7ln0C&pg=PA6&lpg=PA6&dq=postcolonial+being+john+malkovich&source=bl&ots=Xs2J-7gLd-&sig=FqRoNsK7g811NzsnUxMM2MyF2M0&hl=en&ei=7t8qTNicHIP78Aa-nuHSCA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=7&ved=0CCsQ6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=john%20malkovich&f=false

Dragunoiu, D. (2001). Psychoanalysis, film theory, and the case of Being John  Malkovich. Film Criticism. Retrieved June 29, 2010, from    ;col1

Jameson, F. (1977). Imaginary and Symbolic in Lacan: Marxism, Psychoanalytic Criticism, and the Problem of the Subject.  Literature and Psychoanalysis. The Question ofReading: Otherwise, 55/56, 338-395. Retrieved June 28, 2010, from

Lafont, S. (2003). Constructing Sexualities-Reading in Sexuality, Gender, and Culture. UpperSaddleRiver: Prentice Hall.

Repass, S. (2002). Reviews Being John Malkovich. Film Quarterly, 56 (1) 29-36. Retrieved June 29, 2010, from

Shaw, D. (2006). On Being Philosophical and Being John Malkovich. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 64 (1), 111–118. Retrieved June 25, 2010, from

Smith, D. L. (2005). Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the Question of Transcendence. The Journal of Religion and Film, 9 (1). Retrieved June 28, 2010, from

Tyson, L. (2006). Critical Theory today.New York: Routledge.

[1] 370



3 responses to “Constrained by circumstance and haunted by fate ~ Being John Malkovich

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