David Reviews Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich [Criterion Blu-Ray Review]

Back in May, when Criterion expanded its collection to the point where a sub-niche of “puppet-themed films” including Double Suicide and Fanny and Alexander  (are there others?) was created by the addition of Being John Malkovich, one of the major questions that many of us had to wrestle with was whether the new release is sufficiently necessary to warrant another purchase of a film that we’d already seen and owned years earlier on DVD? Whether we paid full retail when it first became available, received it as a gift or picked it up from a discount overstock rack or website somewhere along the way, the long-available Universal/USA Home Entertainment Special Edition package functions as an attractive and sufficiently loaded showcase for one of the most unique and fondly remembered films of the late 1990s. Though it had been a few years since I last watched Being John Malkovich, I took comfort knowing that not only did I own a decent quality transfer of the film itself, but that whenever the urge came upon me to delve deeper into its strange realm of manipulative obsession, high gravity self-absorption and fry-brained whimsy, all I had to do was jump over to the impressive array of supplemental features that served as alternative portals to the world dreamed up by director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Sure, I have to admit that in my case, as a confirmed Criterion completist, it was just a matter of time before spine number 611 took its place on my shelf… but not everyone reading this article is likely to draw the same conclusion, especially if there are other Criterion offerings yet to be acquired (or other necessities of life, for that matter!) that compete for your dollars.

So my purpose here is not so much to offer an in-depth discussion of the movie itself as it is to just give a few impressions of what you’ll find on the new-ish Criterion version in comparison to Being John Malkovich‘s original release, now more widely available than ever, at substantial discount off the MSRP due to a recent increase in the availability of used DVDs on the secondary market, since, oh, the middle of May, sometime around there.

But first, let me say just a few things about the movie, for those who haven’t gotten around to seeing it or saw it sometime over the past dozen years or so and (inexplicably)  need a refresher. The gist of the story involves Craig Schwartz, a tormented, under-appreciated artist (medium of choice: puppetry) , grappling with the unavoidable acceptance of an inevitable lifetime of mediocrity, whose accidental destiny leads him to stumble upon a hidden portal, concealed behind a filing cabinet in an architecturally unique NYC office building. Crawling into an ominous muck-filled tunnel leads him directly into the consciousness of esteemed American actor John Malkovich, where he and any other visitors to the portal are granted a 15-minute pass to physically experience whatever Malkovich happens to be doing at that moment in time, before they are involuntarily ejected into a ditch alongside the New Jersey turnpike. At first content to simply exploit his discovery for the opening it creates for Craig to score with his enticing co-worker Maxine, he eventually becomes both an addict and an abuser of his privilege, progressing from pimping turns to enter Malkovich’s mind to finally taking up semi-permanent occupancy in the portal as his megalomania swells to over-blown proportions. Interwoven with Craig’s exploration of Malkovich’s world are entangled strands of warped riffing on the nature of thought and perception, mundane marital/relational strife, remote control sexuality, frustrated artistic ambitions and the illusory seductions of fame and celebrity. Sideways jabs at corporate serfdom, conglomerate entertainment media and even the animal rights movement are tossed in with casual frivolity. Combine that with Jonze’s gloriously low-tech but eye-dazzling visual effects, great acting all around, especially from Catherine Keener, Cameron Diaz (yes, her!) and of course John Malkovich himself, the resulting is a wonderfully entertaining concoction for those who enjoy this kind of intelligently unhinged indulgence.


So having established Being John Malkovich as an alt-pop masterpiece of recent times (at least to my own satisfaction), let’s return to the question: what are we getting here that we don’t already have on the old DVD? For starters, the punchier soundtrack is always a safe bet with just about any blu-grade, and this one is no exception. Carter Burwell’s gently entrancing score comes through clearly, bringing more emotive sweep into the marionette scenes in particular, where the music plays such an important role in conveying the puppets’ anguish. The subtle differentiation between Malkovich’s voice and that of his “inhabitant” also stands out as a playful bonus. However, if you’re thinking that the modern era pedigree of the film should result in a bright, crisp visual image, don’t get your hopes up. Jonze and Director of Photography Lance Acord intentionally went for a worn down, dimly lit, somewhat beaten up look to the film. The inclusion of faded video elements and the production’s micro-budget circumstances also weigh against making this the blu-ray of choice to show off your home theater to its fullest capacity. A side by side comparison on my 46″ screen shows the blu-ray image does come through a little more richly, but unless you’re watching on a substantially bigger monitor or really staring intently from close proximity, I don’t think you’re likely to see a significant improvement from the DVD.

The real difference maker between the two editions of BJM, all Criterion-collecting considerations aside, is the significant expansion of bonus features on the new release. That’s to be expected, as the passage of time has allowed greater perspective to develop on the film’s significance. And of course, more bonus goodies are a fundamental part of the deal with most Criterion offerings. The most essential nuggets from the Universal DVD are ported over – the two documentary films within a film (“The 7 1/2 Floor”, an orientation to the Mertin-Flemmer Building, and “John Horatio Malkovich – Dance of Despair and Disillusionment,” a vintage PBS style middlebrow behiund-the-scenes feature) are shown full-screen and without interruption. Also, a short “Intimate Portrait of the Art of Puppeteering” gives some screen time to Phillip Huber, a true master of his craft whose name was unfortunately left out of the film’s main credit listing. When will the puppeteers get the respect they deserve?!?  Anyway, if you’re as impressed as I was with Huber’s work, you may be pleased to know that it will be featured in next year’s Oz the Great and Powerful which looks like an origin story of sorts for the wonderful wizard himself. Here’s hoping that Disney doesn’t screw it up!

All that, plus the usual trailer and TV spots are included. What doesn’t survive the transfer from the old DVD is more than adequately replaced, or I should say expanded upon, by the Criterion  treatment. The original single-fold insert becomes a standard issue booklet, featuring the transcript of a bizarre conversation with Jonze by the fictive/reclusive culture critic Perkus Tooth that picks up not all that far from where the DVD’s “Interview with Spike Jonze” ended in a splash of roadside vomit. The director’s menu-driven photo album from the DVD transforms into a short video narrated by Jonze in the year 2028 as part of BJM‘s “30 year retrospective,” where he divulges some crucial details that shed precious light on how the final product came to be. “All Non-combatants Leave The Set” is a funny and fascinating collection of snippets shot by Jonze associate Lance Bangs, capturing hilarious antics from the set of BJM as it was being made, with a lot of evidence on how some of the film’s most striking visuals were created.  The only featurettes we lose are the one-off “Page With Nothing On It,” a masturbatory in-joke that couldn’t possibly survive a repeat telling, and the snapshot “Cast and Crew Biographies and Filmographies” which offer an nostalgic glimpse of where the main players were at in their careers back at the turn of the millennium. But we have IMDb for the most current info in that regard.

Perhaps of greatest interest to some is the inclusion of a rambling optional audio track by Jonze’s friend/rival/saboteur Michel Gondry, who offers supposedly “scene-specific” commentary that for the most part has little to do with what’s happening on screen most of the time we hear his voice. Sometimes the visual image serves as a springboard for some mental recollection or flight of fancy, at other times, it feels like he’s being coerced to speak at knife point, he’s so detached from the film itself. Finally he resorts to calling Spike Jonze on the phone, so we do get an impromptu director’s commentary, for what it’s worth (which will probably vary in the eye of different beholders.)

Each of the new and augmented supplements offered by Criterion share a common tone of snarky, self-aware, ironic hipsterism, quite befitting the overall attitude of the film and the audience it sought to reach. But what impresses me more than the steady flourishes of smug, insider repartee (which, admittedly, could be rather grating to some, depending on the mood of the moment or a general disenchantment with one’s current lot in life insofar as it resembles Craig’s plight in particular) is what happens when the sincere fondness felt for the project by Jonze, by Malkovich (who also gives a brief interview) and even the jealous Gondry leaks through their obligatory smart-aleck facade. Though Malkovich had already established himself as a notably successful actor by the late 90s, his courageously uninhibited  performance in a film bearing his name lifted his reputation to a whole new level. For Jonze and Kaufman, the film succeeded well beyond expectations, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Director and opening doors for Kaufman as a highly-sought after screenwriter in the early 2000s. Given the blazing start to their feature film careers, as they went on to find relative success in titles like Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synechdoche NY and Where the Wild Things Are, their recent lack of productivity over the past couple of years does raise questions of whether they’ve passed their peak already. We’ll leave them to resolve whatever doubts may have arisen. But for many of us, Being John Malkovich remains a singular cinematic event that enlarged our idea of what a movie could achieve. Criterion has created a solid tribute to a film that transcends the ephemeral silliness of its absurd central premise by giving us the new perspective on life that comes from contemplating some navel other  than our own.

(And by the way, I’m not selling my old DVD…)

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David Blakeslee

David hosts the Criterion Reflections podcast, a series that reviews the films of the Criterion Collection in their chronological order of release. The series began in 2009 and those essays (covering the years 1921-1967) can be found via the website link provided below. In March 2016, the blog transferred to this site, and in August 2017, the blog changed over to a podcast format. David also contributes to other reviews and podcasts on this site. He lives near Grand Rapids, Michigan and works in social services. Twitter / Criterion Reflections

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