Viking Night: Being John Malkovich

By Bruce Hall

November 23, 2010

It's really tight in Malkovich, isn't it?

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Most consumers have no problem loving a huge budget blockbuster. Movies that are meant to appeal to the widest possible audience usually do just that. But some films have a narrower vision, or simply contain more complex meaning than meets the eye. They aren't always art, and they aren't always even very successful. But for a devoted and eccentric few, they're the best entertainment money can buy. Once, beginning with Erik the Viking, a group of dedicated irregulars gathered weekly in a dingy dorm room to watch these films and discuss how what pleases the few might also appeal to the many. Time has separated the others in those discussions so that I alone remain to ponder the wider significance of cult cinema. But while the room is cleaner and I no longer have to skip class to do it, I still think of my far off friends whenever I hold Viking Night.

Trying to understand a movie like Being John Malkovich is a little like trying to understand calculus. You’re either going to get it or you’re not, and if you have to break a sweat in order to grasp the fundamentals, there’s a good chance that you never will. I don’t say that to belittle anyone because I can assure you that yours truly does not understand calculus. But while the sorts of movies we discuss here at Viking Night already have narrow appeal, along comes the occasional film that really should have a warning label on it.


Being John Malkovich isn’t violent, or obscene or even particularly offensive in any way. But if brainy, existential movies make you uncomfortable, then I am warning you now that Being John Malkovich is going to make you uncomfortable, and most of what I say next probably will too. This is because while there isn’t a person among us who hasn’t at one point wanted to be someone else, rarely do we stop to consider what that really says about us. If you could really step into someone else’s life, you’d find yourself dealing with the highs and the lows, the good and the bad – just like the life you already have. Chances are what you’d discover is that you didn’t want to be someone else so much as you just wanted to stop being yourself.

But this isn’t exactly Craig Schwarz’s (John Cusack) problem. Craig is an accomplished puppeteer whose street performances are both curious and moving, but never profitable. Each night he returns to his grungy apartment and his frumpy wife, convinced that the world is cheating him out of the fame and fortune he deserves. His wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) is a lovable basket case who works as an animal conservationist and has populated their home with a menagerie of damaged creatures who effectively serve as a prism for her own neurosis. But she’s a devoted spouse, and while she encourages her husband to pursue his dream, she isn’t too myopic to realize that dreams don’t pay the bills.

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