<![CDATA[Barroco - Vol. 3.3 Verano/Summer 2009]]>Thu, 21 Sep 2017 21:33:00 -0700Weebly<![CDATA[The Inconceivable Universe: The Borgesian Neobaroque in Charlie Kaufman’s "Being John Malkovich"]]>Sat, 11 Jul 2009 00:43:49 GMThttp://revistabarroco.com/9/post/2009/07/the-inconceivable-universe-the-borgesian-neobaroque-in-charlie-kaufmans-being-john-malkovich.htmlAbstract

This essay works toward a definition of neobaroque cinema, focusing on films with screenplays written by Charlie Kaufman, including Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Being John Malkovich.  The author argues that the neobaroque literary techniques of Jorge Luis Borges provide a background and a training ground for contemporary neobaroque filmmakers. He refers in detail to a number of Borges’s ficciones, including “The Aleph,” “The Library of Babel,” and “The Circular Ruins,” to support his analysis of Kaufman’s neobaroque techniques and the films that put them into practice.

 Resumen:

Este ensayo intenta definir las estratégias del cine neobarroco por medio de las películas con guiones de Charlie Kaufman:  El ladrón de las orquídeasEterno resplandor de una mente sin recuerdos y Ser John Malkovich.  El autor propone que las técnicas neobarrocas literarias de Jorge Luis Borges ofrecen un trasfondo y un entrenamiento para los cineastas neobarrocos, contemporáneos. Hace referencia detallada a varias de la ficciones de Borges, entre ellas “El aleph”, “La biblioteca de Babel” y “Las ruinas circulares” para apoyar su análisis de las estratégias neobarrocas de Kaufman y las películas que los ilustran.

 “… I wept, because my eyes had seen that secret, hypothetical object whose name has been usurped by men but which no man has ever truly looked upon: the inconceivable universe.”
―Jorge Luis Borges, “The Aleph,” p. 284

In the introduction to her book Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment, Angela Ndalianis suggests that, “In the last two decades, entertainment media have undergone dramatic transformations” (Ndalianis, 2).  Although her book mostly focuses on the Neobaroque qualities of cross-media and marketing in low-brow popular entertainment (zombie movies, video games, theme parks, Star Wars, etc.), she brings forth a valid point regarding the ever-increasing Neobaroque sensibilities of the film industry in the United States.

With more and more mainstream films influenced by Neobaroque tropes appearing in cinemas, such as Memento, Babel, Stranger Than Fiction, Traffic, and the films of Quentin Tarantino, David Denby takes a look at what he calls “The New Disorder” in a critical piece in The New Yorker.  While Denby is primarily interested in the “topsy-turvy narratives” of films which “jump backward and forward in a scrambling of time frames” (80), most of his conclusions apply just as well to other Neobaroque techniques.  In fact, Denby’s failure to recognize this and to relate these films back to the Baroque affirms just how common these sensibilities have become.  “The cinema … has always created a strong expectation of realistic narrative,” he remarks, yet reminds us that, paradoxically, “As soon as film was invented, experimental film was invented” (82).  From Griffith’s simple close-ups and Eisenstein’s embryonic montage to today’s CGI and green-screen techniques, the cinema has astonished, delighted, and confounded audiences since its inception; hence, “[t]he underlying concern with evoking an aesthetic of astonishment reveals the baroque heritage present in the beginnings of the cinema” (Ndalianis, 28).

Astonishment is not so easy to come by these days, as Denby notes: “[T]hese movies draw on a sophistication about cinema that is now almost universal…. The kind of revelation that was once the possession of a privileged few—that formal play could not only enlarge your notion of art and entertainment but change your life—has moved out into the more volatile region of popular culture” (83).

At the turn of the new millennium, technology and the arts, separately and together, are exploring all sorts of new ways of communicating ideas, and mainstream cinema is struggling to keep up.  Happily, amidst the endless, idea-free sequel franchises, comic book movies and idiot comedies, there are some truly unique minds at work who are—shockingly—making films that challenge and delight the intelligentsia and actually make money for their studios.  Denby asks, “In the past, mainstream audiences notoriously resisted being jolted.  Are moviegoers bringing some new sensibility to these riddling movies” (Denby, 80)?  The only answer is a profound affirmative.  Technologically, twelve-year-old kids can make films at home with sophisticated cameras and editing programs they can download online.  Ideologically, as U.S. fiction long ago lost its panache, readers have turned elsewhere, and as many of the most exciting and challenging contemporary writers can be found in Latin America, one sees more and more the undercurrent of influence on thought and storytelling in the U.S. of such Neobaroque authors as Gabriel García Márquez, Alejo Carpentier, José Donoso and, in particular, Jorge Luis Borges.  Yet experiments, as Denby makes clear (even while focusing on directors), are not only made during the filmmaking process.  Any exploration of new ideas and new storytelling techniques begins with the screenplay.

Charlie Kaufman has written a scant five films so far, and has been nominated for Academy Awards for his three masterpieces: Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, andEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  The above three films, as well as the independent Human Nature, the disappointing Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, his unproduced adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly (famously considered a Baroque science fiction masterwork) and his current film in production, Synecdoche, New York (in which a stage director constructs a replica of New York City in a warehouse), make use of healthy doses of the Neobaroque.

While contending that he does not make intentional references to the works of others, Kaufman admits to the influence of writers such Kafka, Beckett, Stanislaw Lem, Dick, Shirley Jackson, Patricia Highsmith, and Flannery O’Connor (Sragow), and John Mount in Sight & Sound sees clear allusions to filmmakers such as Luis Buñuel and Jan Svankmajer, as well as the defining influence of Borges (Mount, 13).  Below, I will consider the latter influence on Kaufman’s first film, Being John Malkovich, but if indeed these films provide “a series of neo-baroque, labyrinthine passageways that demand that audience members, through interpretation, make order out of the chaos” (Ndalianis, 27), we must first briefly consider what the Neobaroque is and is not.

Although it hearkens back to the European Baroque of the 1600s, it is not purely a modern-day re-creation.  Ndalianis explains that“[t]he neo-baroque articulates the spatial, the visual, and the sensorial in ways that parallel the dynamism of seventeenth-century baroque form, but that dynamism is expressed in guises that are technologically different from those of the seventeenth-century form” (17).  Lois Parkinson Zamora adds the final distinguishing factor when she explains that in contrast to the traditional Baroque, the Neobaroque is “a self-conscious postcolonial ideology aimed at disrupting entrenched power structures and perceptual categories” (Zamora, xvi).

Sadly, all twentieth-century forms of artistic and intellectual expression after modernism tend to be lumped together as “postmodern,” an inherently unuseful catchall term frequently applied both to Kaufman and Borges.  “With its decentering strategies and ironic perspectives, the Neobaroque has been considered by some critics as a Latin American postmodernism, but the resemblance is misleading” (Zamora, xvi).  Later, she elucidates further:

[T]he Neobaroque is countermodern, not postmodern, in its critical reception and reinterpretation of Western modernity…. In their self-conscious recovery of depreciated cultural materials, Neobaroque writers challenge the ahistoricism and elitism of European modernism, and in their critical reassessment of those materials, they challenge postmodernism’s pessimism about the possibility of meaning (294).

The Neobaroque, however, like the Baroque, is all-encompassing.  In the same way that “[the] baroque embraces the classical, integrating its features into its own complex system” (Ndalianis, 5), the overlap of the Neobaroque and the postmodern is evidenced in the current films which provide us with “a specifically neo-baroque poetics embedded within the postmodern” (Ndalianis, 16).

“‘Confusion’ is my favorite word.’”
―Charlie Kaufman to Michael Sragow, “Being Charlie Kaufman”

Before remarking on affinities between Borges and Kaufman, let us first consider Zamora’s successful establishment of the affinities between Borges and the Baroque.  In the preface to her book The Inordinate Eye: New World Baroque and Latin American Fiction, Zamora summarizes the Borgesian Neobaroque:

“Despite Borges’s early disavowal of the Baroque, and despite his limpid style, his work has important affinities to Baroque iconographies and rhetorical strategies.  It is Neobaroque in its self-conscious engagement of Baroque structures of visual perception and spatial extension; the mirror, the labyrinth, the dream, the trompe l’oeil, and the mise en abîme serve his greatest theme, the illusory nature of all knowledge….  Furthermore, his devotion to artifice and allegory is Baroque in nature, as is his emblematic strategy of encoding the whole universe in a few of its parts” (Zamora, xvii).

Later, she reminds us that “works not characterized by spatial extension or stylistic ornamentation or exagerrated emotionalism may also be Baroque …” (236).  Borges, she points out, “is of the syllogistic branch, the cerebral, logical side of the Baroque” (235).

“Spatial extension,” indeed—most of Borges’s ficciones fall between three and fifteen pages in length, although they often provide “the illusion of infinity in a tightly contained narrative space” (Zamora, 259).  Identity, eternity, creation, reality: “Borges’s miniature narratives accommodate vast thematic concerns …” (237)—“his subject is not what is real and unreal, but the paradoxical possibilities of the real” (244).

“Optical illusion fascinated Borges, and his favorite devices are intended to call into question visual perception—the mirror, the labyrinth, the dream, the trompe l’oeil, the embedded structures of mise en abîme and regressus ad infinitum” (Zamora, 241). Unsurprisingly, there is a natural rapport between Borges and the cinema.  Not only was he an incisive film critic and writer, but many of his stories have been adapted (though none with any particular success or notoriety), probably due to his stunning descriptive imagery.  But aside from outright adaptation or blatant borrowing, Borges’s closest affinity with film has come with the advent of Charlie Kaufman’s career.  Before turning to Being John Malkovich, let us briefly visit two significant Borges stories to see what they may share in common with the Kaufman film: “The Circular Ruins” and “The Aleph.”

“Consciousness is a terrible curse.”
―Charlie Kaufman, Being John Malkovich

In “The Circular Ruins,” “[a] man dreams a son who becomes ‘real’; at length this man, who has believed himself to be ‘real,’ discovers that he has been dreamt by another” (Zamora, 269).  A magician with no past appears in the ruins of a sacred temple and painstakingly creates a man through his dreams.  “Almost immediately, he dreamt of a beating heart” (Borges, Labyrinths, 47).  He instructs and molds the boy (“He also redid the right shoulder, which was perhaps deficient” [49]) until he believes he is ready, and sends him to the nearest temple ruins to begin a life there.  Borges tells us that “[a]t times, [the magician] was troubled by the impression that all this had happened before…”(49).  Indeed it has, as the magician comes to realize that it happened to him: “With relief, with humiliation, with terror, he understood that he too was a mere appearance, dreamt by another” (50).

The story “puts in doubt the notion of an autonomous individuality” (Bell-Villada, 221).  Indeed, “[a] central intuition presented in Borges’ work is that of the illusory nature of the personal self” (Jaén, 45).  The story also explores the fine line between what is real and what is creation, with an open ending that could imply an eternal repetition of the events it tells, hence the circularity of these particular ruins.

The question of reality, eternity and the individual, we shall soon see, are extremely pertinent to Being John Malkovich, but there are even more striking coincidences.  One is the epigram from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Carroll’s Alice having gone down a rabbit hole in a previous book to a world where things are not what we experience in the everyday like Kaufman’s characters go into the Malkovich portal.  Another is the omnipresent idea of creation: the magician creates a son and makes him into a “real boy,” just like Pinocchio, who happens to be a marionette similar to those created by Malkovich’s protagonist to experience what he himself cannot.

“Do you see what a metaphysical can of worms this portal is?”
―Charlie Kaufman, Being John Malkovich

If Borges’s stories are “Baroque exercises in balance, counterbalance, contradiction, and sustained ambiguity” (Zamora, 239), then “The Aleph” might be the quintessential Borges tale.  The nominal protagonist, “Borges,” makes occasional visits to Carlos Argentino Daneri, the cousin of his deceased love Beatriz Viterbo, a talentless writer who “proposed to versify the entire planet” (Borges, “Aleph,” 277).  His worldly knowledge, it turns out, comes from a strange object in the basement of his house called the “Aleph,” “one of the points in space that contains all points” (280).  “Borges” skeptically goes to see it and discovers that it is indeed a “place where, without admixture or confusion, all the places of the world, seen from every angle, coexist” (281).

“He offers a partial list of what he has seen in the Aleph … the list [is] … a synecdoche whose parts stand for the absent whole, for the unrepresented cosmos” (Zamora, 280).  In this synecdoche we find “a moment of astounding poetical radiance and beauty, easily one of Borges’s loveliest prose passages” (Bell-Villada, 220).  But in Borges, nothing is this simple; one reason why the passage is so stirring, especially upon rereading the story, is the context in which it appears. 

The humor of the petty grievances, arrogance and one-up-manship of the main characters does not prepare the reader for the sublime event that climaxes the tale, which in turn does not prepare one for the ultimate, pervasive sadness that is not only resumed but intensified after the event.  After “a few sleepless nights,” things are back to normal for “Borges,” with one exception: “I feared there was nothing that had the power to surprise or astonish me anymore, I feared that I would never again be without a sense of déjà vu”  (Borges, “Aleph,” 284).

The universe-shaking experiences, the mystical objects leading to other planes of existence, and the pathos are all shared by the Borges story and the Kaufman film, but the most illuminating similarity between the two is the overall silliness of them both.  As with the portal in Being John Malkovich, which will be considered in detail below, for the Aleph, “the style of Carlos Argentino Daneri, the circumstances, and the purpose of the revelation degrade the concentrated vision of the planet, making it absurdly comical” (Barrenechea, 84).

“The microcosm of the alchemists and Kabbalists our proverbial friend the multum in parvo made flesh!”
―Jorge Luis Borges, “The Aleph,” p. 282

In discussing director Spike Jonze in his review of Being John Malkovich, Michael Chang mentions how Jonze “brings to each of his projects an unmistakable love for the visually illogical” and commends this “freedom to be illogical, to put the wrong things in places where they somehow become more than right …” (6).  (It is interesting to note that responses to Being John Malkovich give most of the creative credit to Jonze; only after a few more brilliant scripts do writers begin to acknowledge Kaufman as the primary source of his films’ originality—that old, misunderstood auteur theory still has a powerful hold.)

The logicality of illogic, an ever-present trope in Borges’s fiction, had an immediate effect on filmgoers upon the release of Being John Malkovich.  This was 1999, a year in which the American film was suffering from rigor mortis (it still is), and audiences were willing to be seduced by “the slyness of its slinky-toy narrative” (Sragow).  John Mount, prefacing his newspaper interview with Kaufman at the time of BJM’s release, declined to summarize the film, instead calling it “a dark, surreal comedy with Borgesian plot twists that get more and more confounding”.  He continues: “What begins as a Warholian parable on the nature of celebrity, obsessive fandom and artistic failure mutates into a fantasy about immortality and body snatching” (12).  And where Dana Dragunoiu sees a “clash of conceptions and discourses” (1), Chang finds a story that is “paradoxically cerebral and patently ridiculous” (6)—a description to fit Borges if ever there was one.  After all, “The Neobaroque idea is to include everything and then construct an intellectual or artistic edifice that will accommodate (however ironically) the contradictions—an Aleph, a garden of forking paths, a Library of Babel” (Zamora, 263-4).  You can add to this list portals and vessels, puppets, and office buildings with tiny floors.

Daniel Shaw, in his brilliant exploration of BJM as a philosophical work, states that “Being John Malkovich is unarguably one of the most inventive films of the last decade and as such it defies easy summary” (114).  Shaw attempts it anyway;  I am not as brave, so in lieu of a synopsis, I have structured my discussion of some of the film’s primary Baroque and/or Borgesian themes alongside its ever-evolving plot.  I will, therefore, begin at the beginning, but I make no promises not to skip around.

“He dreamt a complete man …”
―Jorge Luis Borges, “The Circular Ruins,” p. 48

The film opens on the conventional image of a dark blue velvet curtain accompanied by the sound of an audience’s applause.  The curtain opens to reveal a pony-tailed marionette that looks remarkably like actor John Cusack.  As the marionette performs what we later learn is called Craig’s Dance of Disillusionment and Despair, the camera pans upward to show Cusack himself operating the marionette.  The dance, and the puppet, are spectacular and surprisingly beautiful.  Then, “[r]aging against its mirror image, the puppet discovers its dependence on the man who pulls its strings, a puppeteer whom it strikingly resembles in name and physical appearance” (Dragunoiu, 1).  As we prepare ourselves for a study on the metaphor of humanity as puppets with no free will, we receive our first surprise.  Cusack is not in a theatre; he is in the first of the movie’s many confined spaces, a cramped workroom in his crowded New York City apartment, the applause issuing from a tape.  We have been warned: in this movie, nothing will be as it seems.

Cusack plays Craig Schwartz, an unsuccessful and unemployed puppeteer living in a small apartment with his wife Lotte (played by Cameron Díaz, uncharacteristically frumpy in a frizzy fright wig) and her menagerie of adopted animals, including a chimpanzee named Elijah who suffers from a childhood trauma.  Watching television with Elijah, Craig sees a news story about his idol, renowned puppeteer Derek Mantini, performing The Belle of Amherst with a sixty-foot marionette of Emily Dickinson—the first of many seemingly random literary allusions.  Craig, unable to make a living with his puppets, tries performing on the city streets.  His production of Abelard and Heloise: A Love Story, however, is so erotic he gets punched in the face by an irate father.  “True art transgresses the pedestrian; and the pedestrian strikes back” (Chang, 6).  (“Honey, not again!” Lotte exclaims when she sees the bruise [Kaufman, BJM].)

Craig says that he loves puppeteering for the sensation it provides of “being inside someone else’s skin, seeing what they see, feeling what they feel” (Kaufman, BJM), although Scott Repass points out in his perceptive review that, later in the film, “when Craig actually does get inside someone else’s skin, he only feels his own feelings” (32).  Repass also describes the visual representation of the puppets: “The puppets are generally shown in extreme close-up, often in shots where only the puppet-theater sets can be seen in the background.  Therefore, on screen, the puppets are scaled to their world, as are the humans” (31).  (The human scale, however, is not always appropriate, as we shall see.)  I will return to puppets below—meanwhile, Craig has found a job using his dextrous fingers as a file clerk.

“Anyone may enter.”
―Jorge Luis Borges, “The House of Asterion,” p. 138

“LesterCorp … is located on the seventh-and-a-half floor of the Martin Flemmer Building, an extraordinary place where the ceilings are so low that everyone is forced to walk with a perpetual stoop, and where language has experienced a series of comic dislocations” (Dragunoiu, 4).  In a space even more confined than his workroom, Craig meets Floris (Mary Kay Place), who is apparently quite deaf and has convinced her perfectly intelligible boss, the 105-year-old Dr. Lester (Orson Bean), that he has a terrible speech impediment.  As if in his own Library of Babel, Craig discovers the quite literal impossibility of being understood (fig. 1).

This is exacerbated when he becomes smitten with his no-nonsense, and extremely uninterested, co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener).  Maxine is repulsed by Craig’s puppeteering and humiliatingly deflates his every attempt to communicate with her, but this only fascinates Craig more, and he winds up remaking his Heloise marionette in Maxine’s image so she can play love scenes with his Craig/Abelard puppet while the marionette Lotte hangs, lifeless, on the wall (fig. 3).  This is only after he is able to win an inauspicious date with her by guessing her name through a series of sub-verbal permutations transcribed amusingly by Repass as

Buuuhhppaahhhhnnn … Muhhhahhhhh … Mahhhnnnaaa … nolltuuukkkaaaaralllll … tashabararasssss … suuuuusaaaaaaannnnnnn-aaaaaannnnnnnnncccccceeeeeee … Mwaaaaaa … Mahhhhhkkkkk … sssseeeeeen.  Maxine (34)

This is dialogue worthy of the creator of axaxaxas mlö.

“[LesterCorp’s] empty world of language and deferred desire is a direct evocation of Lacan’s symbolic order where nothing can be possessed in its fullness because language, the single paradigm of all our psychic and social structures, is an endless process of difference and absence that leads the human subject from one empty signifier to another” (Dragunoiu, 4).  This may be a bit much, but our inability to communicate properly with each other is as strong an ongoing, underlying theme in Kaufman as it is in Borges.  And although Michael Sragow complains of the film’s “visual monotony,” he misses the point, at least from a Baroque point of view.  The labyrinthine hallways, like Craig’s marionettes (though not Mantini’s), represent a kind of grandiosity in miniature, a confined and confining vision of the universe—and it’s about to get smaller.

“When Schwartz accidentally discovers a hidden passageway behind a large filing cabinet, things go completely Borgesian” (Chang, 6).  It seems that Craig has found a tiny door hidden behind a filing cabinet in his office that opens onto a strange tunnel right out of Lewis Carroll (fig. 4).  Upon entering the tunnel, Craig is suddenly sucked into the mind of actor John Malkovich, playing, sort of, himself.  I will let Daniel Shaw explain.

When one enters the portal, he or she has temporary access to John’s sensory stream, seeing the world through what appears to be a set of goggles.  For that brief period of time, the lucky individual gets to experience the world through Malkovich’s senses, overhearing his utterances from within (so to speak), enjoying his pleasures, and undergoing his pains.  Then the subjects are physically ejected out into a ditch adjacent to the New Jersey turnpike (114).

“It sounds convoluted, but it is only the tip of a labyrinthine iceberg” (Chang, 6).  Maxine immediately decides to form a company with Craig, JM Inc., to sell tickets to Malkovich—the company’s motto for Malkovich’s “metaphysical exploitation”: “Be all that someone else can be” (Kaufman, BJMfig. 2).

“Instinctively, he had already become proficient in the habit of simulating that he was someone, so that others would not discover his condition as no one; [then] he found the profession to which he was predestined, that of the actor ….”
―Jorge Luis Borges, “Everything and Nothing,” p. 248

In 1976, John Malkovich joined Chicago’s fledgling Steppenwolf Theatre Company, beginning a career in theatre that culminated with a legendary performance opposite Joan Allen in Lanford Wilson’s Burn This on Broadway in 1987.  Among many other accolades, he won an Emmy for Death of a Salesman in 1985 and has been nominated for two Academy Awards.  This is relatively highbrow stuff, which explains why everyone knows who he is but, as the characters in BJM make clear, not everyone is sure why or where they have seen him.  “Malkovich is saddled with celebrity status even though no one in the film can seem to think of a single movie he has made” (Repass, 33).

As Dragunoiu points out, “JM Inc.’s customers do not much care who they can be, as long as they can be someone else” (12).  Nevertheless, Malkovich’s memorable name and face are enough to lure customers to Craig and Maxine’s new enterprise, and “the man who pays $200 to be Malkovich while he orders a bathmat is thrilled by his experience” (ibid.).  One client explains his desire to experience another life with a simple statement: “I am a fat man” (Kaufman, BJM); therefore “ … being John Malkovich, though not his first choice, will be entirely sufficient” (Dragunoiu, 12).

When Lotte goes on “the Malkovich ride,” she is transformed.  “I knew who I was,” she says.  Craig responds, “You weren’t you, you were John Malkovich.”  “I was, wasn’t I?” she answers.  “I was John fucking Malkovich” (Kaufman, BJM)!  But, as Repass points out, “‘Being’ John Malkovich, or having any identity at all, for that matter, is a complicated issue in this film” (29).  In fact, Lotte so enjoys her time in Malkovich that she comes to believe (for a time) that she is a transsexual.  There will be much more on Lotte below but, for this discussion, her (mis?)understanding of her experience represents what happens to each of Craig and Maxine’s customers.

Shaw asks, “Can these individuals accurately be described as having enjoyed being John Malkovich?  And, if so, in what sense of the term” (114)?  Referring to the fat man, Repass answers definitively: “The character has not become Malkovich, however, he is just taking a ride in Malkovich” (35).  The fat man and Lotte, however, might disagree.  Although still unfulfilled like Borges after seeing the Aleph, they have seen a world of new possibilities.  Of course, no one ever stops to think about poor Malkovich in all this.  To them, he is just the “vessel.”  “In Being John Malkovich, the body is gone and identity is essentially meaningless.  Kaufman and Jonze remove physical bodies from the screen and replace them with a black hole through which the world is experienced.  It is a world in which humans are hollow, are nothing more than … puppets” (Repass, 36).

Malkovich does become a kind of puppet when Craig discovers that, due to his puppeteering expertise, he can control Malkovich when inside his mind, but Malkovich eventually discovers the truth behind the portal and goes into it himself.  “What happens when a man goes through his own portal?” Craig muses aloud.  Maxine’s calm response: “We’ll see” (Kaufman, BJM).  What happens there is one of the more memorable sequences in all of film, “an actor’s narcissism taken to the furthest extreme” (Repass, 34).  Malkovich enters a world in which all people, men and women, are Malkovich, where all language is the repeated word “Malkovich” (fig. 5).  He is in a restaurant, and the menu offers only Malkovich, reminiscent of the book in “The Library of Babel” that is “made up of the letters MCV, perversely repeated from the first line to the last” (Borges, Labyrinths, 53; see fig. 6).  Furious and more than a little discombobulated, Malkovich demands that Craig and Maxine close their business and the portal, but Craig (and, as it turns out, Dr. Lester) has different ideas.

“He sought a soul which would merit participation in the universe.”
―Jorge Luis Borges, “The Circular Ruins,” p. 46

Before Malkovich’s discovery of his exploitation, we learn that Maxine and Lotte have begun an unusual affair.  Lotte is as taken with Maxine as Craig is, but Maxine only responds to Lotte romantically when she is “in” Malkovich.  Thus begins the affair that inspires Craig’s greatest puppeteering feat: he goes inside Malkovich and takes him over so completely that he is able to remain beyond the usual fifteen minutes.  After the discovery by Malkovich, Craig goes back in for a long-term stay and uses Malkovich’s celebrity to advance his own puppeteering career, and Maxine is so impressed she abandons Lotte for married life with Craig/Malkovich.

This overhaul of all the principals’ lives is reflected by a general change in the tone of the film.  According to Repass, what is essentially the disappearance of the person John Malkovich is represented visually: “Once Craig takes control of Malkovich’s body, we are no longer given constant access to the internal point of view shot.  Craig is no longer simply riding in Malkovich, he has actually become Malkovich” (35).  (In fact, Malkovich appears thinner and has grown a pony tail like Craig’s, allowing Craig/Malkovich to continue using the Craig marionette in his shows.)  The change is even more convolutedly shown in the performance of Malkovich himself, who is now required to play John Malkovich playing John Cusack playing Craig Schwartz playing John Malkovich (fig. 7).  (Acting as another kind of labyrinth?)

The most telling moment, however, comes as Craig uses the Malkovich vessel to perform “Craig’s Dance of Despair and Disillusionment,” the puppet spectacle that opened the film.  Malkovich, like the original Craig puppet, “rages against [his] mirror image” (Dragunoiu, 1)—this time with a twist, since the image no longer matches.  In his book Genius, Harold Bloom reminds us that “Mirrors, like labyrinths, abound in Borges: they are answering metaphors to the riddle of the Theban sphinx: What is Man” (683)?  Aside from the hilarity elicited by Malkovich (and his double) performing the dance (brilliantly), the scene provides the key to the film and its complex exploration of identity and loss of the same.  “The dance is referred to specifically as “Craig’s Dance,” highlighting the fact that the puppet and Malkovich contribute nothing other than the physical body for the act” (Repass, 32).  The usually blasé and calculating Maxine is completely won over: “It isn’t just playing with dolls.  My God, it’s playing with people” (Kaufman, BJM)!  And finally, Craig’s success allows him to build a life-size puppet for a performance of Swan Lake—now the human world is accurately scaled.

“The child I have engendered awaits me and will not exist if I do not go to him.”
―Jorge Luis Borges, “The Circular Ruins,” p. 49

Meanwhile, it seems that Dr. Lester is really Martin Flemmer, the owner of the building that houses LesterCorp, who has discovered a way to live forever by jumping from one body to another through portals such as the one in Malkovich.  “Lester has used the portal before to somehow transfer his consciousness out of his previous bodies (as they wore out) into more youthful vessels, hence achieving a kind of serial immortality” (Shaw, 114).  “Suffice to say the film posits the concept of Being John Malkovich as an entry point to the eternal” (Chang, 7).  Although John Martin considers ‘Truth revealed by Time’ as “one of the classic themes of Baroque art” (15), Lester seems determined to outrun Truth—and the film implies that he might even succeed.

Interestingly, when Craig is interviewing with Dr. Lester for the file clerk position,  Lester holds up a card with an “R” on it and another with a nonsense mark that resembles an upright infinity symbol (∞) with a line through it.  Craig correctly identifies the latter as “not a letter” and is immediately hired.  I cannot help but note the irony of the infinity symbol and its resemblance in meaning to the aleph.  Let us consider the aleph, symbolized as such: א.  Here follows a definition:

The first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, with a numerical value of one … the aleph in Cabbalistic belief is considered the foremost Hebrew letter, a symbol of all the other letters and thus, by extension, of the universe itself.  One of the many interpretations of the Aleph is that its symmetrical shape symbolizes the concept that everything in the lower world is a reflection of its archetypal form in the world above.  In mathematics it indicates a higher power of infinity than integer numbers or numbers that are on a straight line.  This allows for the concept of a plurality of alephs, or infinities (Fishburn, 9).

Borges’s Aleph “itself, needless to say, is an instance of the pure sublime, yet everything connected with it is questionable, even ridiculous,” Bell-Villada suggests (221).  As far as affinities go, couldn’t one say the same thing about Kaufman’s portal?

We learn from Lester that one can only be permanently secured in the new body when the portal matures on its owner’s forty-fourth birthday—Malkovich in the film is forty-three.  Lester is lonely and has decided to take others with him to live inside Malkovich, including Lotte, but first they must get Craig out.  On the eve of the momentous day, Lester and his crew kidnap the now-pregnant Maxine as an incentive to make Craig leave Malkovich, although they cannot really kill her as she is carrying their future vessel—a child with Malkovich’s special gene.  Maxine tries to escape into the portal and Lotte follows, only for them both to be pushed by Craig down below Malkovich’s conscious mind.  In “the obligatory chase scene at gun-point through Malkovich’s unconscious” (Dragunoiu, 10), a revealing precursor to Kaufman’s later screenplay for Eternal Sunshine, Maxine reveals that she became pregnant during a tryst with Malkovich while Lotte was inside him, and that she still loves Lotte: “It’s your baby, okay? … I kept it because I knew you were the father” (Kaufman, BJM).  Fifteen minutes later, they are ejected, and Craig also decides to leave Malkovich.

The film flashes forward seven years: Maxine and Lotte are together raising Maxine’s daughter Emily while Lester and company are happily installed in Malkovich until the vessel that is Emily is ripe.  We then see Maxine through Emily’s adoring eyes, but we hear Craig’s voice imploring her in vain to “look away”.  Earlier, Lester explained to Lotte what would happen if one were to enter the portal after midnight; he tells her that one would “be absorbed … trapped—held prisoner, if you like, in the host’s brain—unable to control anything, forever doomed to watch the world through someone else’s eyes” (ibid.).  Shaw explains,

After exiting Malkovich and giving him up to Dr. Lester and his geriatric crew, Craig resolves to reenter the portal and wrest control of the Malkovich vessel.  Doing so after midnight, he instead enters into Emily (the newborn love child of his wife Lotte … and business partner Maxine …, who is destined to become Lester’s next target) ….  Having migrated into a larval vessel, he is destined to be a powerless observer for the rest of his life (115).

In other words, “Craig is trapped in Emily, but he is not Emily” (Repass, 35).  Now unable to control his new puppet, Craig’s identity has disappeared as thoroughly as Malkovich’s, although both of their identities, one would assume, continue to exist.

“Why does it disturb us that Don Quixote be a reader of the Quixote and Hamlet a spectator of Hamlet?  I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious.”
―Jorge Luis Borges, “Partial Magic in the Quixote,” p. 196

John Martin in his study of Baroque art writes about the trompe-l’oeil devices employed by artists to dissolve the barrier imposed by the picture plane between the real space of the observer and the perspective space of the painting” (14).  He explains that “Far from being merely a form of clever theatrical trickery, Baroque illusionism has a persuasive purpose—that of transferring the mind of the viewer from material to eternal things” (ibid.)  There is a lot of trompe l’oeil in Borges, from Hladik’s “Secret Miracle,” the compass and cone in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” and his ubiquitous “fussy little footnotes” (Zamora, 258), to his fictional stories and parables about Shakespeare, Cervantes, and, of course, Borges.  In Kaufman, the effect (particularly in BJM and Adaptation) is achieved by including undeniably real people in his storylines, and rarely in a roman à clef fashion as Borges sometimes does (Daneri for Neruda in “The Aleph,” for example).  As explication, Zamora tells us that

the aim of trompe l’oeil fictions, whether painted or printed, is more than to simply undermine realistic representation; it is also to amplify the viewer’s or reader’s experience of the real by pointing to orders of being that are impossible to represent realistically (244).

For Dragunoiu, “Being John Malkovich is, in the end, all about being a film.  As a comic, self-reflexive exposé of the processes of its own production and reception, it investigates the nature, the limits, and the possibilities of film narrative as a system of representation” (16).  Once again, a film writer unknowingly evokes the Baroque for, as Zamora explains,

…Baroque illusionism [calls] attention to its artifice, to its perspectival manipulations, and thus to the problematic nature of referentiality as such …. [C]entral to all trompe l’oeil images is this debate of art with itself—this spectacle of realism engaged in an assault on its own realistic claims (243).

Repass, again discussing director Jonze, comments on “[the] ability to blend several layers of intertextuality seamlessly, to condense various fictional and nonfictional aspects into a single presentation” (29).  This ties in with Ndalianis’s ideas of the contemporary uses of the Neobaroque: “[Neo]-baroque form relies on the active engagement of audience members, who are invited to participate in a self-reflexive game involving the work’s artifice” (25).

Like Borges, Kaufman likes to blend real people and events into his fictive narratives.  The film is replete with literary and historical references, often, like those of Borges, seemingly random.  In addition to self-mocking appearances by Charlie Sheen and Sean Penn, one finds allusions to The Cherry OrchardRichard III, The Belle of Amherst, The Adventures of Pinocchio, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and the story of Abélard and Héloïse.  One suspects that there is something to this—Amherst’s Emily Dickinson later provides the name for Maxine’s daughter, and Craig’s use of puppets for romantic encounters explains the Abélard theme.  The Alice and Pinocchio referents are even clearer, but what is one to make of the fact that Kaufman chose to have Malkovich in rehearsal for a production of Richard III because “I liked the idea that Malkovich would have to rehearse in a hump” (Sragow),

Unlike Borges, Kaufman does not say much about his creative process, but when an artist makes art about art, the viewer can read into it what he or she likes.  One of the most appealing aspects of Kaufman’s work is that his creativity always unrestrained, possibly because he refuses to write for the mainstream and therefore has no expectations for success.  “When he wrote Being John Malkovich… he never even expected it to get produced—at a round table press junket for the film last month, one journalist asked him, ‘Then why did you write it?’  Kaufman’s answer: ‘Because I’m a writer’” (A. Kaufman).  He is even more evasive on the most important question of all: “Why John Malkovich?  That’s the question; I should probably think of a joke or something, but I don’t have one."

When one of the protagonists in a screenwriter’s work is an actual, living person, played by himself, the blending of reality and fantasy is even more ubiquitous although, interestingly, John Malkovich is not listed as playing “Himself,” but as playing “John Horatio Malkovich.”  “That this Malkovich is fictional is stressed by the fact that he is, in the movie, John Horatio Malkovich, whereas in real life his middle name is Gavin” (Repass, 30).  Is John Malkovich even friends with Charlie Sheen?  Certainly he doesn’t have a portal, and all the other characters are fictional ones, played by recognizable Hollywood types.  I think that it’s fair to say that nothing in the film truly represents the real John Malkovich; the work’s blending of illusion and reality, a definitive hallmark of the Borges type of Neobaroque art, makes us think of who John Malkovich is, or who we think he is, and therefore who anyone actually is.  So even if, as Dragunoiu says, “the film finishes by underscoring its self-awareness as an artistic product …” (3), we must explore what the ending of Being John Malkovich has to say about the nature of identity.

“Not to be a man, to be the projection of another man’s dream, what a feeling of humiliation, of vertigo!”
―Jorge Luis Borges, “The Circular Ruins,” p. 50

Daniel Shaw’s discussion of the philosophy of BJM focuses at length on this problem of identity.  Introducing the topic, Shaw states that

… when Dr. Lester takes over even more completely than Craig ever could, I thought the answer to the puzzle was clear: the key to being John Malkovich was to be the will behind the actions of the Malkovich vessel.  It would actually be a kind of existential theory of personal identity: we are what we do, and the real identity of Malkovich is defined by what he does … (115).

But this, he concedes, does not really work.  For one thing, where has Malkovich’s consciousness gone?  Not to mention, what will happen to Craig when the Emily vessel matures?  Shaw considers further:

Admittedly, neither Nietzsche, nor the makers of Being John Malkovich, offer us much help in accounting for which drive or which personality becomes dominant in the struggle to act.  Yet both the philosopher and the filmmakers lead us along some novel paths in thinking about the enigma of personal identity (117).

After all, there is now a large number of people living inside of Malkovich (the exact number is never given).  How do they function as a group?  “Once others who themselves capable of taking over Malkovich’s body, our concerns shift from what it is like to be John Malkovich to who this strangely amalgamated creature truly is in the end” (Shaw, 116).

The taciturn Kaufman does tell us where one idea came from.  “ … [W]hat would happen if Lotte went through the portal and liked the idea of being a man” (Mount, 13)?  Turning for a moment from philosophy to psychology, Dragunoiu considers “Lotte’s extravagant identification with Malkovich” (8).  A consideration of Lotte is still to come, but for now let it suffice that nearly all of our characters are searching for something that is missing in their lives.  Lotte finds it in her ability to reach Maxine, Craig in the temporary success of his career, Lester in his longevity.  Maxine, however, knows who she is, and hence never (except for her escape attempt) goes into the portal—she doesn’t need to.  Shaw sees Maxine as the only self-fulfilled character in the movie, but finds no particular answers there.

He sees the film as a puzzle (as I do), but a puzzle with many question marks in the final picture.  Fair enough, but with Kaufman, as with Borges, one must ultimately accept that the greatest understanding possible will never include easy answers to the questions he raises.  Is anyone in this film ever actually John Malkovich?  Are the characters being him?  And is this even John Malkovich, or a fictional character with the name, face, and history of John Malkovich?  An infinite eternity of possibilities may exist, but in the film (if not in real life), it no longer matters, as Malkovich is now a plurality.  In fact, “If nobody succeeded in truly being John Malkovich, it might also be said that, by the end of the film, John Malkovich has effectively (in the literal sense of the term) ceased to be” (Shaw, 117).

“[I] saw the coils and springs of love and the alterations of death ….”
―Jorge Luis Borges, “The Aleph,” p. 283

Before concluding a discussion of Being John Malkovich and its similarities to ideas and themes in the works of Borges, it is important to consider in what ways Kaufman’s work differs from that of Borges.  An obvious place to start would be in the length of the film.  A true Borgesian miniature in film would be a short about three minutes long.  The film itself, however, is filled with miniatures, from the foreshortened halls of LesterCorp. to Craig’s puppets.  A more important divergence is Kaufman’s inclusion of women as principal participants in (and even drivers of) the narrative.  One of the rare instances of a significant female presence in Borges is found in “The Aleph,” where the death of one Beatriz Viterbo is the catalyst for all that follows.  What is striking, though, about Kaufman’s females is the non-Borgesian use of the Baroque to explore the romantic and passionate aspects of their lives, what Martin calls “the Baroque sensualization of experience” (73).  (Even Beatriz is dead before the story begins, “after an imperious confrontation with her illness in which she had never for an instant stooped to either sentimentality or fear …” [Borges, Labyrinths, 274].)

Kaufman claims that his “‘characters don’t learn to love each other or themselves” (Sragow), but this is not entirely true.  Craig and Dr. Lester certainly fail at this, and Malkovich’s presence is erased by the end of the film, but Maxine and Lotte actually do form a functional and loving family unit with “their” daughter Emily.  Perhaps Kaufman is only considering his protagonists who, when not literally based on himself (like Nicolas Cage in Adaptation), tend to resemble him if not physically, then in their personality and outlook (not only Cage and Cusack but also Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine).  Kaufman’s women fare much better, learning about themselves and opening up to possibilities (think of Meryl Streep in Adaptation. and Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine).

Lotte in particular undergoes a transformative, even transcendent, ordeal:

When Lotte sees Malkovich drying himself after a shower and when she (mis)recognizes herself in the mirror as a “sexy” man, her sexual excitement suggests a regressive return to the pre-Oedipal phallic phase of her development …, and a corresponding return to narcissistic omnipotence … (Dragunoiu, 8).

Indeed, after her second ride in Malkovich (and her first sexual encounter with Maxine), she lands alongside the Turnpike and lies looking upward, serene and enchanted, in ecstasy (fig. 8).  This reminds us that, in Baroque painting and sculpture, “many representations of ecstatic visions contain more than a suggestion of sublimated erotic experience” (Martin, 102).  Streep and Winslet also have transcendent moments in their respective films, helping to create images that evoke the European Baroque and its original masters, like the numerous Magdalenes and Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa, which represents “the mystic’s sense of withdrawal from the world, the alternating states of pleasure and pain, the expansion of the self that comes through union with the divine” (Martin, 104).  In some ways, this could serve as a description of an addict, which Lotte becomes for a time as she demands repeated access to the portal.

Lotte sees her own sort of divinity in Malkovich, whom she sees in transsexual terms too, comparing the portal to a vagina (“Like he has a penis and a vagina” [Kaufman, BJM]!).  But it is the seeming completeness of the doubling of sexes that Lotte reveres rather than its kinkiness, reclaiming a kind of Baroque spirituality in which “the self seeks to be released from human limitations and to be absorbed in the infinite” (Martin, 13).  Lotte and Maxine’s eventual lesbianism is also treated with a welcome absence of salaciousness; it seems intended merely as Craig’s final humiliation, his exclusion from the lives of both women.  They do name their daughter Emily, after all, as in Emily Dickinson, the sixty-foot marionette in Craig’s rival’s Belle of Amherst show. Could this be the ultimate betrayal?  Maybe Kaufman only envies women, at least his fictional ones, who do learn to give and receive love (think of Streep again) and who are allowed moments of clarity he withholds from his male characters.  I will leave it to someone else to decide if this envy is merely an extreme form of sexism, but the departure from the cerebral that occurs only in Kaufman’s females is a departure as unheard of in Borges as is the prominence of such women.  Yet it is a favorite subject of the Baroque.

“The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings.”
―Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel,” p. 51

Daniel Shaw says that his “understanding of the problem of personal identity was deepened and enhanced because the filmmakers mapped out existentialist pathways of thought, ones that seem to be fascinating Hollywood more and more recently” (Shaw, 117).  Kaufman clearly had no idea that he would be setting a trend toward the Neobaroque in American film—no less that films inspired by his use of the Neobaroque, conscious or not, would move deeper and deeper into the mainstream, with popular comedy stars like Jim Carrey and Will Ferrell helping them reach an even wider audience than that of Malkovich.  (“What would be funny is if the movie stays this ‘hot’—and that everyone starts to want something like Being John Malkovich, a film that took five years to get made.  That would be like an episode of The Twilight Zone,” he told Michael Sragow in a 1999 interview.)  For John Mount, filmmakers like Kaufman and director Jonze “have discovered the alchemy of Buñuel’s late films with Jean-Claude Carrière and updated it to appeal to their contemporaries: the mass audience of Generation X and Y cinemagoers ….  Film critics love [these films], obviously, and so do audiences” (Mount, 12).

In his New Yorker article cited above, Denby suggests that “[s]ome of the [current Neobaroque filmmakers] may be just playing with us…. But others may be trying to jolt us into a new understanding of art, or even a new understanding of life” (Denby, 80).  As playful as Kaufman’s films are, I think it is safe to assume that Kaufman has only the most serious intentions.  On the release of Being John Malkovich, he told Anthony Kaufman,

… [I]f I can’t see what the risk is or danger is or how it could fail miserably, then I can’t do it.  Because I feel like that’s cheating and it’s not worth anything.  You’re not giving anybody anything.  You’re not doing anything.  And I want to do something.  I want to put something interesting, as interesting as I can be, into the world (A. Kaufman).

Even more than their inherent interest, his films fascinate because of their shockingly broad appeal.  Here I must agree with Denby: “[Godard and Resnais] served a knowing audience, for whom experimentation was almost a norm, or at least something expected.  By contrast, the recent examples of cinéma désordonné are meant for a mainstream audience.  Suddenly life has become more interesting” (83).

]]>