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BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999)


PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: Personal identity

CHARACTERS: Craig (John Cusack, puppeteer), John Malkovich (John Malkovich), Lottie (Cameron Diaz, Craig’s wife), Maxine (Craig’s romantic interest), Dr. Lester (business man)

OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR SPIKE JONZE: Jackass: the Movie (2002), Adaptation (2002)

SYNOPSIS: Unhappy with his marriage and unsuccessful as a career puppeteer, Craig takes a job filing documents in a Manhattan office. He meets and falls in love with office worker Maxine, who cares nothing for him. One day Craig finds a tunnel in a wall behind a filing cabinet. He climbs through it, and at the end he can see through the eyes of actor John Malkovich. Craig and Maxine embark on a business venture, charging people to crawl through the Malkovich portal. To woo Maxine, Craig stays within Malkovich, and redirects Malkovich’s career from acting to puppetry. But, Maxine loses interest in Craig, and has a lesbian relationship with Craig’s wife, Lottie. Craig is trapped forever in another portal. The film received Academy Awards nominations for best director, best original screenplay, and best actress (Catherine Keener).

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

1. At the outset of the movie, Craig states to his wife’s pet chimp “consciousnesses is a terrible curse: I think, I feel, I suffer.” Do you agree?

2. Craig states that he likes puppetry because it gives him an opportunity to get inside someone else’s skin, to think differently, move differently and feel differently. This is evidently the same pleasure that people get when experiencing John Malkovich’s life. It is also behind John Malkovich’s enjoyment of being an actor, and Lottie’s empathy with animals. In each of these cases, though, the vehicle is just as miserable as the spectator (think of how Craig’s puppet characters were all tormented, and the psychological ailments that Lottie’s animals had). How, then, could such an experience be a source of comfort?

3. One of Craig’s puppet skits shows a man and woman separated by a wall. In fact, every major character in the movie is isolated from others in some major respect. Does the movie offer any solution to the problem of human isolation?

4. Craig states that the portal is a metaphysical can of worms and raises philosophical perplexing questions such as the nature of self, the existence of a soul, and whether I am me. Does the movie offer a solution to any of these questions?

5. Suppose that you didn’t see the scene in which John Malkovich goes through his own portal. If you were then asked to speculate about what would happen in such an event, what would you say?

6. What is the symbolism behind the physical structure of floor 7 1/2?

REVIEWS

In this movie, a puppeteer named Craig takes his profession to the unrealistic next level of actually being able to control another human being. Having discovered a portal into actor John Malkovich, he goes into business with a coworker with whom he is secretly in love, selling fifteen-minute "rides" in Malkovich's head. In the meantime, Craig learns more and more how to obtain a more perfect control of Malkovich, being able to exercise more control for longer periods of time. Eventually, he is able to live inside Malkovich and use his fame to his own advantage. This movie explores quite a few interesting philosophical questions. For example, what defines the self? While Craig is in Malkovich, who is he? Is he Craig or is he Malkovich? This question is along the same lines as the Ship of Theseus problem. Also, there are many questions as to how someone could be considered morally responsible if they were being controlled by some intangible force. Probably the only problem that wasn't really clearly addressed in this movie was the irresistible question of what would happen if Malkovich jumped inside his own head. It was not adequately addressed what would even happen to Malkovich, even though the movie did tackle the question. Instead, the answer came as a comedic scene where Malkovich was trapped in one of his own memories and could not distinguish anyone's face from his very own, nor anyone's words from the repetition of his own last name over and over. -- Godboy


 
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