By Jim Ridley and Noel Murray
Being John Malkovich
Dir. Spike Jonze
R, 112 mins.
Opens Friday at area theaters
"Being John Malkovich" had me laughing pretty much from the moment Craig Schwartz, a hangdog puppeteer played by John Cusack, flips on the TV and sees his arch-rival’s latest stunt—a production of The Belle of Amherst, starring an Emily Dickinson marionette the size of a Macy’s Underdog float. James Agee excepted, reviewers never sound dorkier than when they’re trying to explain why something’s funny. But there’s something about the deadpan treatment of this oddity that’s staggeringly silly—as if the atmosphere had suddenly switched from oxygen to airplane glue.
For that you can thank Spike Jonze, the wizardly young video director, who has a silent-movie comic’s gift for imagining the absurd in prosaic terms. (He made the amazing Fatboy Slim video in which the world’s most hapless dance troupe traumatizes some real-life onlookers.) He’s ideally suited to Being John Malkovich, a one-of-a-kind, inexplicably hilarious comedy about obsession, celebrity, and the nature of identity.
At one level, Being John Malkovich is the story of a triangle involving puppeteer Cusack, his frumpy wife (an unrecognizable Cameron Diaz), and his malicious dream girl, played with venomous relish by Catherine Keener. Basically, though, it’s a slamming-doors farce—only the slamming doors all lead directly into the brain of actor John Malkovich.
Since a genuinely novel movie idea comes along about as often as Kahoutek, that’s all you should know about the plot—except that it keeps topping its screwball conceits. Underlying Charlie Kaufman’s ingenious script are a number of surprisingly resonant riffs, from celebrities as fantasy vessels to the appeal of virtual reality as an all-purpose painkiller. Only when the movie’s over do you notice how neatly the script has set up puppeteering as a metaphor for obsession, and how slyly it keeps extending that metaphor. And if that doesn’t convince you to buy a ticket, hey—did I mention Orson Bean?
The movie sours briefly when Craig’s obsession spirals out of control; the tone veers close to clammy self-pity. But Cusack and Diaz have scarcely been better, and around every corner some marvelous bit player pops up—like Mary Kay Place as a secretary with a hang-up about speech impediments, or the Real-Life Hollywood Actor who shows up in a very funny self-parody. As for the guest of honor himself, John Malkovich, he’s a great sport, and he fits in perfectly with the movie’s spirit—i.e., he does some of the goofiest things I’ve ever seen on film with a miraculously straight face. You can argue the movie wouldn’t work with an actor who’s more glamorous or notorious. Even so, we can still hold out hope for Being Charlie Sheen.
When Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce was asked recently why she felt the need to make a narrative film about Teena Brandon, whose experience was well-covered in the documentary The Brandon Teena Story, Peirce had a good response. She said she wanted to bring Brandon to life, so that audiences could see him as more than just pictures and transcripts in a police report. But why exactly did noted horror director Wes Craven decide to branch into conventional drama by adapting an Oscar-winning documentary, Small Wonders, into the big-budget feature Music of the Heart? The subject of Small Wonders, music teacher Roberta Guaspari, is fully alive in the original film—so much so that even the great Meryl Streep’s interpretation of her is soft and lifeless by comparison.
What Craven offers, then, with the aid of a screenplay by A Walk on the Moon scribe Pamela Gray, is little more than explanations and motivations—a blueprint for everything about Guaspari that seemed unusual or difficult in Small Wonders. The documentary introduces Guaspari as the instructor for an innovative East Harlem music program that attempts to teach selected students how to play the violin. The story of both films is sparked by a cut in funding for the arts in public education, which leads to a big benefit concert at Carnegie Hall, where violin greats from Itzhak Perlman to Isaac Stern offer support for Roberta’s kids.
I’m sure Craven wanted to adapt Small Wonders because he wanted to bring the stirring story to a wider audience. That’s noble enough, and it is likely that people who haven’t seen the earlier project will be suitably delighted and moved by Music of the Heart, which is fine. But it’s unlikely they’ll feel the connection to their own life experiences that Small Wonders offers.
Small Wonders is mostly about how to get to Carnegie Hall—which is, of course, practice, practice, practice. The documentary doesn’t shy away from showing what a hardcase Guaspari can be, screaming at her students and threatening to drop them (or actually dropping them) from the program, while at same time eliciting the sort of miraculous performances that will spark memories for any eager student who ever had a committed teacher.
Craven, Gray, and Streep give us the scary side of Roberta too, but they soften it with plenty of smiles and lots of backstory. They show us Guaspari’s tough divorce, and the hardships of subsequent single motherhood. More gallingly, they give Roberta an unnecessary foil—an officious, condescending fellow music teacher whose blatantly dull methods are supposed to accentuate how brilliant Guaspari is. Except that nothing Guaspari does in the classroom is inherently exceptional. She’s merely a hard taskmaster who understands that in music, discipline leads to harmony, which leads to a feeling of accomplishment for her students. It’s as simple, and as difficult, as that.
Band of outsiders
Two weeks ago, I spent a morning with Sam Schulz, a Hillsboro High School student who shows extraordinary promise both in creative writing and criticism. I asked her what her favorite movie was at the moment, expecting to hear, I don’t know, American Beauty or something. Instead, she said Pierrot le Fou, Jean-Luc Godard’s breathless 1965 musing on movies, Vietnam, and the intrusiveness of technology and advertising, among other topics.
Pierrot le Fou! Not two days earlier I’d come across a mid-1980s essay by Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman, in which he whined that Godard’s groundbreaking works of the mid-1960s, among them Pierrot le Fou and La Chinoise, were essentially meaningless to a young, contemporary audience. I felt like slapping Sam a high five.
If Gleiberman had said these films weren’t accessible to a young audience then, he might’ve had a point. Take it from a tapeslinger who worked through college in a video store—access to those movies was indeed difficult, except on primitive early VHS in mutilated form. Now that improved, letterboxed video and DVD versions of his movies are surfacing, though, teenage viewers can at least experience them first-hand. And it turns out that these prankish, exciting, dense, bewildering works still seem urgent and relevant—especially to a young audience that will likely see video and the Internet put an end to film as we know it.
For that reason, it’s pretty ironic that Alphaville, Godard’s 1965 meditation on the alienating impact of accelerated technology, is being screened Friday night at the Watkins Film School—on a video-projection system. (If only the same thing would happen with Histoire(s) du cinema, Godard’s post-film video project of the 1990s.) A wild, associative jumble of sci-fi, Mickey Spillane, film noir, movie criticism, and political satire, Alphaville takes place in an emotionless future; it’s portrayed not with special effects, but with the most dehumanized aspects of urban life circa 1965—forbidding high rises, desolate interstates, omnipresent computers. See, no relation to contemporary times at all.
Eddie Constantine, a trench-coated tough guy with a Chester Gould mug, reprises his role from several trashy European spy thrillers as Lemmy Caution, secret agent. Here Lemmy is dispatched to the alternate world of Alphaville—you get there by crossing a bridge, in a Ford Galaxie—to either retrieve or kill a scientist (Howard Vernon) code-named Nosferatu. Once there, Lemmy falls for the scientist’s daughter, played by the bewitching Anna Karina. But romance is out of the question in Alphaville, where all women are prostitutes and the word “love” has been deleted by the ruling computer, Alpha 60.
Ideas from this have turned up in many subsequent movies, among them THX-1138 and especially Blade Runner. But Godard’s punning wit, peculiar rhythms, and recombinant intelligence are unique. One of the young Nouvelle Vague directors (including François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivette) who embraced filmmaking as the ultimate extension of movie criticism, Godard fills the screen with coded, interconnected imagery: neon signs, blinking lights, references to post-nuke pop science (Von Braun, Fermi, Einstein) and pop culture (Kiss Me Deadly, Dick Tracy, Heckle & Jeckle). The result admittedly makes for difficult viewing—there’s still a lot I don’t fully comprehend.
But what I get makes me want to keep digging. And Watkins is screening Alpha-ville as part of a free film series that will allow viewers to do their own detective work. Last week’s movie was F.W. Murnau’s expressionist classic Nosferatu—a hip programming choice, since Alphaville is in part a detailed response to German expressionism. (The idea’s developed in Jonathan Rosenbaum’s illuminating review collection Placing Movies.) And Watkins will soon show Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore, a filmmaking satire starring (who else?) Eddie Constantine.
Will more than five people show up for these, let alone care about them? I don’t know, but I’m betting teenage movie fans have more curiosity than a lot of supposedly knowing adults, especially reviewers. (It’ll be interesting to see how many Watkins film students turn out for these.) If there are more Sam Schulzes out there with a genuine interest in film art but few resources, I encourage them to check out some of these screenings. And if we bump into each other, the popcorn’s on me.
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