I decided to satiate my recent hankering, and watch Being John Malkovich. Mrs H agreed to watch it too, on the understanding that she would be allowed to read the Tesco catalogue for the duration. A shaky compromise was thus forged.
Let us be clear: this is an amazing film. If you’ve not seen it, do so immediately. I mean it. Don’t even read the rest of this post. We’ll wait for you to come back.
OK. That’s them gone. Let’s not wait for them.
To start out, this film is fairly light-hearted and whimsical in tone. It is peppered with throwaway gags like those found in the Naked Gun. But it also explores a whole load of interesting philosophical issues too.
The film explores the notion of dualism, as set out by Descartes. Dualism is the view that there is a non-physical entity (e.g. the mind) that can control the physical body, whilst being separate from it. Think of it as a ‘ghost in the machine’, or a little (non-physical) person who sits inside you making all your decisions and piloting your body. It’s a bit of an odd notion, but lots of people subscribe to it. As an example, we all talk about ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ illnesses and have a good idea of what we mean by these, but are also implying that the mind and body are separate.
BJM raises the possibility that a mind could somehow be disconnected from its own body, and could inhabit someone else’s. Craig Schwartz, a struggling puppeteer, finds himself catapaulted into the body of John Malkovich, played by John Malkovich (inspired casting, that). Once inside, he can experience the world through Malkovich’s senses. Essentially, he has discovered a way for his mind to ‘ride’ in the body of another person. Later, he is able to draw upon his experience as a puppeteer to actually control Malkovich’s physical movements as well. Does this mean that he is truly Being John Malkovich?
Naturally, Malkovich has an inkling that he is not quite himself, and tracks down the doorway into his own body, located in Craig’s place of work. When he discovers that Craig and Maxine (Catherine Keener) are selling tickets for the ‘Malkovich ride’, he is understandably embittered and demands that they stop. But the door is not his property, nor is it on his property. Does he have any rights to say who can and can’t crawl through it?
What does it mean to have a mind? And can we be sure that others have one similar to ours, and that they experience things in a similar way to us? Or, as the film suggests, do we just have to ‘take their word’? And what of animals? A quick look around the menagerie in the Schwartz household reveals birds that talk. Do they have minds? Craig tells a chimp that ‘consciousness is a terrible curse’, but perhaps the chimp knows this only too well. He’s in therapy, after all.
I can only scratch the surface here, but must heartily recommend that you watch this film as soon as possible. In fact, I think I mentioned this at the beginning. Why are you still here?