At any rate, the film at hand for today’s post is Being John Malkovich, which it somehow took me an inexcusable fourteen years to catch up with. I’m a pretty big fan of John Cusack, and I think Malkovich is brilliant. And as time goes by and I’m learning to appreciate more and more the screenwriters and directors whose work behind the scenes brings just as much to the flicks I enjoy as the actors in front of the camera, I’ve come to really respect guys like Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze as well. All of which makes Being John Malkovich a perfect storm of a movie in terms of bringing multiple wonderfully weird talents and visions together.
One of these days I’m probably (maybe) going to get over it, but I’m always intrigued by sci-fi and fantasy works that transcend the genre ghetto to find mass, broad-based appeal. For a long, long time I thought there were two kinds of people in the world: those who immersed themselves in the fairly insular worlds of non-realistic entertainment, and those who did not. And there could be very little crossover between the two, because if-and-only-if you grew up on a steady diet of comic books and trashy paperbacks and midnight movies and so on, then you could understand and appreciate the tropes of alien cultures and psychic powers and magical subraces &c. and easily suspend disbelief and follow along when a new example came your way. Otherwise, you’d be left glassy-eyed and shrugging at something you perceived as incomprehensible nonsense. Not that sci-fi/fantasy is any better or worse inherently than more grounded stories, just that a certain cultivated taste and familiarity with the common rules of sci-fi/fantasy goes a long way to overcoming what might otherwise be opaquely off-putting.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that the concept of a consciousness portal strikes me at first glance as too bizarre to build a movie around, at least a movie with broad-based appeal. In my mind, there are stories which take place in the real world and which anyone can understand and relate to, and then there are stories which are slightly removed from reality but still well within familiar, established frameworks (The Hunger Games, everyone understands the basic concept of a future dystopia; Harry Potter, everyone understands what wizards are), and THEN there are stories which are unreal to an unrecognizable degree. And the vast majority of people are biased to prefer movies in the first category, possibly go either way on the second category, and reject out of hand the third category. But, as it turns out, that’s really more my bias about other people than it is other people’s bias about speculative fiction. Not only is Being John Malkovich almost universally praised, but the thing people tend to highlight in said praise is how original it is.
And arguably the most incredible thing about Being John Malkovich is that it doesn’t get bogged down in explanations (which, now that I think about it, may be the true root cause of hardcore sci-fi/fantasy not reaching out beyond a limited audience). How does the portal into John Malkovich work? Where does a person’s body go when they’re inside him? Why do they come out in mid-air in New Jersey exactly fifteen minutes later? Some writers might very well have tasked themselves with answering these questions, coming up with a cohesive and comprehensible explanatory mythology for all these phenomena, and then forced themselves to abide by playing fair with the arbitrary results throughout the narrative. But fortunately Being John Malkovich doesn’t do that. The movie may be remembered for being the one about some people who find a tiny doorway in an office that leads to a tunnel that lets someone into the head of John Malkovich temporarily, but that isn’t really what the movie is about at all. It’s about love and loneliness. It’s about the way we see ourselves and the way other people see us, and how we have to grapple with those things along the way toward trying to be happy. It’s about feeling trapped in the wrong life and figuring out if there’s any escape.
The Malkovich portal defies explanation (and wouldn’t necessarily make a lot of sense even if it were explained in more detail), but it’s hard to argue with the way it brings to light the movie’s inner ideas. And you could say the same thing about Floor 7 ½, or a street corner marionette rendition of Heloise and Abelard, or psychotherapy for chimpanzees. But to accuse Bring John Malkovich of being unrealistic would be to miss the point by a mile. There’s no shortage of pure craziness in the film, but there’s a message underneath it all. Or possibly many messages, one for everyone who sees it and takes it to heart. Fortunately it’s such an exuberant celebration of its own inexplicable excess that it’s not hard to open up to it.