Being Meaningless
by Jonathan Kravetz



It should be the object of storytellers to take us on some kind of journey. At the end of that trip we should feel like we've actually gotten somewhere and not spent our precious time spinning wheels in deep sand. If the storyteller's goal isn't to take us on a journey then, at the very least, we should have a damn good time while we sit and listen.

When a film, like a storyteller, does not transport or entertain us, it fails. And it fails in a way that pisses me off. When a film's message seems to be, "hey, we tricked you by pretending to offer something transcendental, when all we are offering is pointless masturbation," I get itchy, like all the scratching in the world won't make it right. Being John Malkovich, the recent film by director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman, made me itchy in this way.

"Craig Schwartz... is as trapped as any character in recent memory."

Films like Being John Malkovich and Happiness represent a trend in recent American cinema: cleverness for its own sake. The films are claustrophobic and give me the feeling of being stuck in an elevator with a man who has a terrible cough. The characters populating this "genre" are dysfunctional, quirky and downright sad. I suppose they are designed to make some of us feel superior and it's clear that the filmmakers feel this way because they offer no way out for their poor trapped eccentrics. We are not even given the option of feeling a little sympathy since the characters are always hopeless and mean. Perhaps the filmmakers think they are performing a public service, pointing out problems in American culture. But it is arrogant and in bad taste to stand at the back of the room pointing, laughing and offering no possible solutions.

Craig Schwartz in Being John Malkovich, played by the likable John Cusak, is as trapped as any character in recent memory. He is a puppeteer (catch the clever irony) who wants more than anything to have sex with Maxine, Catherine Keener (poor Ms. Keener seems to have become the poster child for this film genre). I am not quite sure why he is so obsessed with Maxine. She looks good in a tight dress, but that would usually only get you so far. His wife, Lotte, is played by Cameron Diaz who also looks pretty fine in a slinky outfit. So why the obsession? Craig's love (and he does call it love) for Maxine is never addressed. He is a screwed up character who, unfortunately for us, lacks any motivation for his screwyness. And that lack of motivation turns the rest of the film into a gimmick. There is no reason that Craig needs to enter John Malkovich's head to win Maxine. It's as arbitrary and pointless as... well, life (I'll resist the temptation to fly off on a ranting tangent here and assume that this is NOT Charlie Kaufman's point, even though I suspect it might be). Why not, say, have Craig enter the body of Gary Cooper? Or Cary Grant? Or Mr. Rogers? Or Uma Thurman? You get the feeling that Kaufman could have gone with any of these choices and still made his film.



Events in Being John Malkovich grow out of the unconscious of Craig (let's call this the "Eyes Wide Shut phenomenon"). Things happen because Craig wants them to (really, because Charlie Kaufman wants them to). There is a tunnel in John Malkovich's head. Very clever. Why? Craig takes a stick into the tunnel and, for no apparent reason, it disappears until the end of the film. Why? Maxine is incapable of love. But she is happy to adopt a lesbian lifestyle for her partner at the end of the story. Again, why?

All of this is hollow, because it leaves us scratching our heads: why the heck is any of this happening?

Compare Craig Schwartz to Kevin Spacey's Lester Burnham in American Beauty (American Beauty is the antidote to Being John Malkovich -- it's the giant back scratcher I've been looking for the past couple of years). Lester is screwed up, but ultimately, he is not hopeless. In one of the strangest journeys in contemporary American film, Lester pursues his mad desire: his daughter's lusty cheerleader pal, Angela, played by Mena Suvari. We understand Lester's lust: he's not getting laid at home and so he's looking elsewhere. Lester is finally changed by his inappropriate lust; he discovers himself and is transformed. Craig, in Being John Malkovich, is already dead when the story begins, if only metaphorically. This is no small irony. Lester learns something about life and so has something important to share with us after death. But we wouldn't care what Craig had to say from beyond his grave; he never learned a thing about himself.

"Is it about unrequited love? Obsession? Celebrity worship?..."

I admit that parts of Being John Malkovich made me laugh. The bit of business involving Floris, the receptionist (she believes everyone she talks to has a speech impediment) was inspired. As was the chase scene through Malkovich's subconscious. But all of it made me uneasy until, finally, I wanted to yell out: what is this all about?

So what is Being John Malkovich about? Is it about unrequited love? Obsession? Celebrity worship? All of the above?

The answer is: none of the above. It's about ego: Kaufman's.

In a November 11th interview in Salon, Charlie Kaufman said, "I really don't have any solutions and I don't like movies that do... I hate a movie that will end by telling you that the first thing you should do is learn to love yourself. That is so insulting and condescending, and so meaningless. My characters don't learn to love each other or themselves."

Kaufman, to my way of thinking, is happily admitting here that he is unwilling to help his characters find their way out of misery. He is content to let them (and by proxy, us) suffer. His characters certainly do not learn to love themselves. They do not learn anything. To me, this is insulting and condescending, and so meaningless. Kaufman's arbitrary schtick masquerades as something meaningful, but leaves us unsatisfied.



What, I wonder, is Mr. Kaufman's definition of art? If he isn't at least making an effort to create a film that might take a viewer on a meaningful journey, than why bother? Kaufman as much as admitted he had nothing to say. So why say anything?

Oh -- unless it's about money. And I suspect it is.

It's easier to string together a lot of clever ideas and call it a movie, go to the bank and admire your checking account. That leaves the rest of us -- the viewers -- lighter in the wallet and, if we stop to think, a little sadder.



I admire any film that makes the effort to say something, even an effort as misguided as Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead. And I love entertainment for it's own sake (See: There's Something About Mary). But there is something particularly cynical about a film, like Being John Malkovich, that hints at significance, but bails on any attempt to bring the pieces together in a coherent way; and it lacks the sense of fun to succeed at this bailing out because all the characters are totally unsympathetic.

In short, give me a Jackie Chan movie any day.




please email ducts with your comments.