Being John Malkovich: Criterion Collection
May 17, 2012
Being John Malkovich (1999) heralded the arrival of not one but two unique voices in cinema: screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze. Both came from fairly modest origins, the former cutting his teeth writing for several television sitcoms and the latter from working on skateboarding magazines to making innovative music videos. This did little to hint at the brilliance that would be on display with their feature film debut. It features a story that examines the notions of identity and self-expression.
Craig Schwartz (Cusack) is a struggling puppeteer working on a heavily autobiographical production as he perfects his “craft.” He is also bitterly jealous of a more popular rival who appears on T.V. while he stages his puppet plays on the street. Craig’s wife Lotte (Diaz) works at a pet store and literally takes her work home as they have a menagerie of animals. Faced with an artform that isn’t very lucrative, Craig gets a job as a file clerk at Lester Corp. located on the 7 1/2 floor. The hallways are literally halved forcing everyone to crouch. The office secret-er, executive liaison (Place) misinterprets everything he says and Dr. Lester (Bean) thinks he has a speech impediment.
With his dexterous puppeteering skills, Craig is a natural for the filing job. During orientation he meets Maxine (Keener), a blunt, no-nonsense woman who works at another business on the same floor. Craig yearns to be someone else and puppeteering offers him a form of escape. One day, while filing, he discovers a panel in a wall behind a filing cabinet. There’s a door that leads Craig into the mind of actor John Malkovich. The puppeteer sees the world through the man’s eyes for 15 minutes before being unceremoniously dumped into a ditch on the side of the Jersey Turnpike. Naturally, this blows Craig’s mind. He, Maxine and Lotte begin to exploit their access to Malkovich’s mind and get caught up in a twisted relationship with each other that goes off into some dark places, especially when Malkovich goes into his own mind.
Being John Malkovich features fascinating casting against type with John Cusack playing a schlubby sad-sack and Cameron Diaz as his mousy, wallflower wife. Normally good-looking actors, they display very little vanity grunging themselves down as the play unhappy people. Cusack and Diaz look and act quite unlike any other role they’ve done before or since for that matter. John Malkovich gamely plays a version of himself as perceived by others. This raises an interesting point – what do we really know about others except for what we perceive? The only way to truly know them is by being them and it is this notion that Being John Malkovich explores in fascinating detail.
Charlie Kaufman would go on to explore the notion of the creative process with Spike Jonze in Adaptation (2002) and one’s identity and how we are perceived in perhaps his greatest accomplishment, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), but it all came from Being John Malkovich, which established the themes he would examine in subsequent works.
The Blu-Ray transfer of Being John Malkovich is quite good, preserving the rather drab colors of the film and is certainly an upgrade from the DVD. The film had been previously released on DVD in 2000 with a decent collection of extras. The good news is that for this new edition, courtesy of the folks at the Criterion Collection, they have all been carried over with some new ones included exclusively for this version.
New to this set is a selected-scene commentary by director Michel Gondry that runs just over 57 minutes. He talks about when he first heard of and then met Spike Jonze. Gondry gives his first impressions of the fellow director. He talks about his reaction to the film, which was jealousy. Gondry had read Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay first and compares his impressions of it versus the actual film. This is an unusual commentary befitting an equally bizarre film.
Also new to this set is “All Noncombatants Please Clear the Set,” a 33-minute making of documentary by Lance Bangs. The entire production was documented and so we see things like the 7 1/2 floor being built. The cast and crew complain about having to work bending over for hours on end. Bangs mixes talking head soundbites with fly-on-the-wall footage.
“John Malkovich and John Hodgman” features a conversation between the two men. Malkovich talks about working on the film. He starts off by explaining how he got involved and his initial impressions of the script. He didn’t want to do it and eventually Francis Ford Coppola arranged for him to meet with Jonze and the actor agreed to do the film if they could get the money.
“Spike’s Photos” see Jonze taking us through a collection of behind the scenes photographs as he recalls experiences of making the film.
“71/2 Floor Orientation” is the short film that Craig watches after getting the job at Lester Corp.
“American Arts and Culture Presents John Horatio Malkovich: Dance of Despair and Disillusionment” is the hilarious puff piece portrait of the man seen in the film where he adopts the profession of puppeteering to the admiration of his peers, like Sean Penn (?!) while academics (one played by director David Fincher) pontificate about what it all means.
“An Intimate Portrait of the Art of Puppeteering” takes a look at the profession with the man that did the puppeteering in the film.
Also included are four T.V. spots and a theatrical trailer.