Pop Culture Diary: Being John Malkovich

I don’t really want to write a review today of Being John Malkovich, for a couple reasons:

1) If you’re interested at all in film, you’ve probably already seen it. And:

2) I’m still not sure what the Hell I just saw.

Number two, from my experience, is par for the course from a Charlie Kaufman movie. I have long-wanted to see “Being John Malkovich”, if only for reading the premise once upon a time: “A puppeteer discovers a portal that leads literally into the head of the movie star, John Malkovich.”

Then, I saw “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” on a friend’s request, a friend that cited it as one of his favorite movies of all-time. It was my first Kaufman movie, I had passed on “Adaptation” and “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”. In the public opinion, “Eternal Sunshine” is his best, if its spot at #51 in IMDB’s Top 250 is to be taken seriously. The 94% mark at Rotten Tomatoes ain’t bad, either.

I, however, thought it was a mess. Winslet was dazzling, as usual, and Jim Carrey unpredictably managed to keep pace for most of it. And while Kaufman was good-intentioned in trying to bring his style into a direct love story, I found it way too convoluted to be worthwhile. It was too much work.

This scared me out of “Being John Malkovich” for years. I never bothered with it, I assumed this was Kaufman. But with nothing on the slate on a lonely Sunday, I bit the bullet. And I’m glad I did, because now I know I should blame my problems with “Eternal Sunshine” on director and co-writer Michel Gondry, and not Kaufman. Seeing that Gondry’s resume has nothing else to back it up, and Kaufman’s is loaded with well-regarded movies, it’s not hard to pick out who ruined “Eternal Sunshine”.

If “Eternal Sunshine” is Kaufman on love, “Being John Malkovich” is Kaufman on lust. It’s a story about the desire to live through other’s eyes, the desire to live forever, and the desire to have that person you crave at any cost. It’s science fiction in the most real and most horrifying way. And, in the end, you don’t know whether to call it a Greek tragedy or a romance.

Or, of course, a comedy. The amazing thing about this movie, I think, is contemplating how the different actors must have approached their roles. John Malkovich, of course, would have approached it as a comic role, 100%. John Cusack, by contrast, would have approached it as if he were the lead in a Shakspearean tragedy.

Kaufman plays with our minds in terms of genre, he plays with our minds in terms of character, he plays with our minds in terms of plot. He balances a ridiculous story with a real message. He writes, unlike with “Eternal Sunshine”, a complete film.

So, now, rather than avoid Kaufman and wince at the prospects of his directorial debut (“Synecdoche, New York”), I’ll catch up with “Adaptation” and “Confessions…” while I wait for a Kaufman-Keener reunion, with the brilliance of Philip Seymour Hoffman thrown in for good measure.


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