Being John Malkovich presents a wholly recursive narrative; it continuously doubles back on its themes to examine them anew and pull us even further into its twisty thought experiment. This makes picking out the likely genesis of the movie, and thus a representative scene, difficult: Did Charlie Kaufman set out to write about the nature of fame? Artistic creation? Consciousness? Personhood? Did he want to write about a puppeteer, suspecting that the “whimsical” occupation was fertile ground for exploring more “serious” themes?
Even now, sitting at my desk and running through the movie in my head, no particular scene jumps out as demanding exegesis, simply because they all do.
Perhaps I’ll pick the silliest scene of a silly movie. About three-quarters of the way through Being John Malkovich, its title character launches into a balletic dance that we’re already familiar with: It’s called “Craig’s Dance of Despair and Disillusionment,” and it’s initially performed by Craig’s puppet doppelganger right at the beginning of the film. Now performed in the intimate setting of a bedroom for Catherine Keener’s Maxine, it opens ominously, with a glance at the mirror followed by a hurled candlestick.
Soon it evolves into a Martha Graham-like assemblage of leaps, dramatic flingings of the arms, and an expert backflip. It’s funny and startling to see John Malkovich [and his professional surrogate] perform such a ridiculous, yet aesthetically polished, dance. And if it doesn’t quite represent an imagined thesis of the film, it certainly represents the complex swirl of identity, consciousness, and creativity that informs it.
For of course, in the world of the film, it’s not John Malkovich dancing. It’s Craig inside John Malkovich’s head, controlling him as a lifesize puppet. Never mind that neither John Malkovich nor Craig would presumably be able to dance like that under typical circumstances—creator and creation have become one in some kind of physical-metaphysical artistic communion. Like the screenwriter who writes himself into his film, Craig has broken the chains of metaphor to inhabit his own artistic identity.
He’s also wrapped in a blanket and wearing makeup. Transgenderism is noted more significantly elsewhere in the film, but it’s worth discussing here for a moment, too. Maxine’s smeared lipstick is visible on John Malkovich’s lips as he pops in the CD of musical accompaniment, and the blanket is tied so as to resemble a company member’s wrap skirt: the discipline of dance has a feminine profile in most of our heads even if it’s always embraced all genders. On the other hand, the dance of the sexes certainly goes both ways. Consider the reason Craig-as-Malkovich is with Maxine in the first place. He’s strictly under her control, having become totally smitten with her at first glance, and Maxine relishes that control. It was enough for her to give up [for the time being] her blossoming love of Lotte and abandon Lotte for a puppet of her own. Thus, her “trans-gender” act is to simply cross the patriarchal line and call the shots in their relationship. By the time Craig completes his performance, her initial teasing curiosity has morphed into astonished approval—in other words, a green light for Craig to take his craft to a wider audience. Surely Maxine is the true master puppeteer in the room.
Art, gender—what else is mixed into the identity milkshake that Being John Malkovich consumes so voraciously? Is this where consciousness comes in? Maybe consciousness is more accurately the blender used to concoct identity. Either way, Charlie Kaufman has his way with it, too. In his view, when we experience someone else’s consciousness, we succumb to tunnel vision, possibly due to lack of access to the victim’s subconscious and memory, but also, of course, because we’re a mere parasite to the unwitting host. [Maxine and Lotte do wind up in John Malkovich’s subconscious, but only by accident.] Moreover, we still hear our own thoughts, so that external consciousness proves to be more or less an echo chamber as well. In Being John Malkovich, experiencing another person’s point of view means experiencing a necessarily dimmer, in many ways more boring view of reality—even though it seems to promise the exact opposite. Another body can only take us so far.
That’s why Craig forces John Malkovich out, so to speak, as long as he can, and uses his body as a vessel to attain new professional heights. While his dance in the bedroom offers a funny confirmation of his total dedication to his craft, don’t forget the candlestick that smashes John Malkovich’s visage in the mirror right at the beginning. We can fight to maintain the lie of a stolen [or assumed] self, but sooner or later, the illusion will shatter.