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A Question of Being
Keri Withington

USA Films

USA Films

For virtually as long as people have existed and kept records, they have returned to a single question. What does it mean to be human? Moreover, what does it mean to be an unique individual with self-awareness, gender, and a sexual identity? First theater, with the opportunity to portray fictional characters, tackled this question, most famously in Shakespeare’s “To be, or not to be” speech. Film inherited this legacy of philosophical questioning and psychoanalytic introspection. Of all art forms, film is uniquely capable of capturing the human experience and what it means to be human. American film, in particular, has a history of questioning the human experience. Being John Malkovich (1999) explores these questions of being and identity through the use of non-human characters, especially Elijah the chimp.

Being John Malkovich has such an incredible cast and interesting assortment of characters that discussions are usually and understandably focused on the human characters of the film, but the animals—particularly Lotte’s pet chimp—are also thematically important to the film. At first, the pets seem to be meant as simply props. As such, they are an extension of Lotte (Cameron Diaz). After all, she makes it clear that she wants children, and she has surrounded herself with a menagerie of pets as a sort of replacement. She tends carefully to her animals, and leaves careful instructions for their care when she leaves for work. Her husband Craig (John Cusack), on the other hand, makes excuses to avoid starting a family with her, and can’t even remember the pets’ names. In this sense, the animals are important in what they reveal about the humans.

Additionally, all of the pets make the set for their home seem even smaller and more claustrophobic. The idea of confinement/captivity runs throughout the film. The animals have cages, one of which is eventually used by Craig to trap Lotte. Malkovich (John Malkovich) is trapped inside his own mind while his body is controlled, puppet-like, by Craig. Craig eventually becomes trapped in the “immature vessel,” Emily (Kelly Teacher). Many of the sets are claustrophobic and enhance this feeling of being confined. When Craig does get “a real job,” it is at LesterCorp. This ambiguous company is located on the 7 ½ floor, which has only four foot ceilings. Cusack is actually over six feet tall, and so the miniature looking set would have looked child-sized next to him. Because he physically does not fit into the offices, Craig is constantly hunched over and uncomfortable looking. Although the ceilings at his home are higher, they are still fairly low (probably seven feet). Despite being able to stand up on this set, Cusack still incorporates the hunch into his performance. He walks around with his shoulders rolled down, looking at the floor. Just as Craig is forced physically hunch over because he is unable to stand, he is uncomfortable in his own identity and unable to fully actualize. Their home seems very full with furniture, props, and the animals that seem to spend most of their time out of their cages.

One of the animals is more than a living prop. The chimp Elijah is an important, although minor, character, with a unique backstory. Lottie mentions several times that the chimp is in therapy, and they are shown as affectionate to each other. When Craig locks Lotte in the cage with Elijah, it is worth noting that no additional information is provided about Lotte. Instead, there’s a short scene providing Elijah’s backstory. The camera moves from Lotte to zoom in on Elijah, and then cuts to his memory. In most of the movie, the camera work is fairly tame and very stable. This is one of the only scenes in the movie with hand-held camera work that is constantly moving and shaking. The audience is seeing the scene from Elijah’s point of view, as is made clear in point of view shots, such as when the camera swivels as Elijah looks around. The colors seem to be washed in a dull green, and it generally lacks a crispness. The filming seems grainy. This whole scene has the feel of a home movie, or—as is the case here—a memory. It is a violent memory in which Elijah’s parents are captured. When he fails to untie them, he is captured as well. The scene starts with a free chimp, but ends in confinement.

The sound contributes to the feeling of impending doom. The scene is fairly loud. Although the sound includes the screaming of chimps and of humans, the humans’ shouting is indistinct. The chimps’ calls are subtitled so that their conversation is understandable to the audience. In the chimps’ interaction, Elijah’s captured parents ask him to untie and save them. He can’t do it. It can be assumed that Elijah’s psychological and health problems originate here.   The film provides more backstory about Elijah than any of the human characters. No background information is provided for Lotte or Craig. The movie does not explain how they met or how long they have been married. Malkovich plays a version of himself, and so the film seems to assume that the audience already has sufficient information about him. There is a brief scene in which Lotte discovers Dr. Lester’s Malkovich room, but even that only really consists of pictures that are probably available on the internet. Virtually nothing is known about Maxine (Catherine Keener). Yet Elijah is well-explained. Even though he is a chimp, this scene creates sympathy and identification with the chimp. He has current problems and interests, and an emotional backstory.

This scene, with Elijah’s flashback to his parents’ capture, is crucial to understanding the relative humanity of the chimps. The use of memory—particularly to evoke pathos from the audience—has a bigger impact than superficially human traits, such as language usage. The actual words are less important—indeed the audience is provided with a subtitled interpretation of the chimps’ interaction—than the feeling of the scene. The little chimp is devastated, but the film does not dwell on that despair. Instead, there is a hard cut back to Elijah in film present-time, locked in the cage with Lotte. Once again, Elijah is offered the opportunity to save his family (in this case, mother-substitute Lotte), and he unties Lotte. She immediately rewards him with praise and kisses. Unlike most of the human characters in Being John Malkovich, Elijah achieves redemption. The chimp is almost definitely the kindest character in the film; in many ways, Elijah is the most human character.

Indeed, after praising Elijah, Lotte immediately calls the woman she loves: Maxine. Sitting on the floor in the dark room, her frizzy hair covering her face and baggy clothes hiding her body, Lotte hardly even looks human. Only her white teeth care clearly visible as Lotte sits on the dirty floor near the cage. Seen from above, she looks more animalistic than the chimp. Critics like Molloy have argued that part of the effectiveness of the film is the blurring of boundaries between human and animal. The contemplation of self and formation of identity are not restricted to just the human characters. What distinguishes people from animals? Language and awareness of self are often argued as the boundary, but Being John Malkovich blurs those distinctions through Elijah’s character.

While the chimp is emotionally attached to Lotte, he actually serves as a doppelgänger for Craig. Doubling is visually appealing. More importantly, this technique gives films another way to challenge societal gender norms, especially in the context of marriage. This commonly takes place in horror films by creating a hero and a monster who mirror each other in complex—and sometimes changing—ways. As with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the monster or monstrous is often a reflection of the hero. While Being John Malkovich is not a horror film—or indeed easily defined in any genre—it does play with this form of doubling. In one scene, Craig actually speaks to Elijah about consciousness. (It would perhaps be more accurate to say that he monologues in front of Elijah about consciousness as he clearly does not believe that Elijah can understand him.) He tells the chimp that he is lucky, and declares, “consciousness is a terrible curse. I think. I feel. I suffer.” This scene, which takes place only about three minutes into the film, touches on philosophical treatises on humanity. Craig is thinking about what it means to be human, and identifying his doubles. He has self-consciously styled his own puppet counterpart, and will see himself as “wearing” Malkovich. Yet he mis-recognizes himself as well by failing to see the chimp as a double for himself.

Although the camera is focused on Craig during his monologue, the interaction from Elijah is evident. When Craig addresses Elijah, the chimp is briefly shown. Once Craig really starts speaking, Elijah is not shown. He is, however, still sitting on the sofa next to him, and can be heard. Although his noises are not translatable into human speech, they do have inflections and timing that mirror human conversation. This is obviously an interaction, even if Craig does not admit or even realize it. The chimp seems to be listening and sympathizing. Craig, on the other hand, wipes his nose with his hand, adjusts his glasses, and generally seems to groom himself in an unattractive, animalistic way. Even with Craig’s Shakespearean monologue of existential angst, it is ultimately Elijah who seems to be the more humane, if not human, character.

Perhaps this is why the ending for an earlier version of the screenplay included Lotte finally proclaiming her love not for Craig or Maxine, but for Elijah. (Faraci has written about this ending in Badass Digest, explaining that this earlier draft made it clearer that Elijah the chimp was a “better man” than Craig.) This alternate ending would have necessitated an even larger role for Elijah, and blurred even further the line between the animal and human. Other than the external, physical characteristics, what is it that makes Elijah—who is clearly capable of sentimentality, moral agency, and love—an animal, and Craig—who shows himself capable of locking his wife in a cage and hijacking Malkovich’s life—a person?

A philosophical reading of Being John Malkovich is fair as the film explicitly draws attention to philosophical questions. Multiple philosophies can be applied to identity in the film. Two are “same-soul theories [which] identify individuals by the presence of a spiritual consciousness unique to them alone” and “physical continuity theories ground personal identity in material substance…what makes us the same identifiable person on this view is our continuing physical presence over time” (quotes from Shaw’s “On Being Philosophical and ‘Being John Malkovich’” 114). These theories define self as the unique and conscious spirit, or the mental life of a person, and physicality, or our bodies. Elijah has a combined identity of these two. Most of the human characters are busy trying to be John Malkovich, or rather to use Malkovich to achieve their own desired identity. Craig, for example, is not satisfied just to control Malkovich like a puppet. He adds another dimension and makes Malkovich a puppeteer. Lotte thinks that she is queer because she wants to be male through Malkovich. It is only Elijah who seems to be completely comfortable with his own identity. The chimp has his own mental life, as evidenced by his memory sequence. That scene also makes it clear that he has a sense of self and identity in relation to others.

The chimp’s performance strengthens this sense of personality and individual identity. While locked in the cage, for example, Elijah looks down. His face twitches above his eyes, and the emotion of the upcoming scene is shown through his face. Elijah also seems connected to his own body. It is mentioned several times that he is suffering from health problems, but that they have a psychological cause. His identity can be determined in more than one way.

This clear sense of self contrasts with the actual people. Craig himself asks, “Is Malkovich Malkovich?” The lines of identity are crossed, redrawn, and erased during the film. This ambiguity shows that identity is an evolving idea. The film’s writer, Charlie Kaufman, faced some of this uncertainty. In the introduction to the film, he asks, “Is it possible for one person to impart any transformative notion to another person?” He then calls himself “presumptuous” for even attempting it. Being John Malkovich raises more questions than it answers. The film does not answer how identity should be defined, or give a clear definition of people versus animals. It does encourage critical thought about these types of concerns.

Through the relatively small character of Elijah, the movie reveals more about Lotte and Craig, creates emotional resonance, and builds sympathy. The audience feels sympathy for the chimp. The script and themes of the film are concerned with identity, but these themes are developed through the technical aspects of the film, such as camera work and costuming.

Keri Withington is an assistant professor at Pellissippi State Community College. In addition to researching film and gender, Withington is a screener for the Scruffy City Film Festival. Her creative and critical writings have previously appeared in numerous journals, including Whale Road Review, JOSSR, and Blue Fifth Review. Withington lives near Knox-Vegas with her partner, kids, and assorted fur babies.