blunt essays with sharp points

Being John Malkovich: A Review

by Scrvpvlvs
Nov 15, 1999 8:57 PM–I just had fun acting like an asshole.
—John Malkovich1

SCRVPVLVS left the catacombs for an evening’s outing to see Being John Malkovich. A critic by nature, S. cannot bear to spare you, Gentle Reader, the fallout.

Dark Tantrik Allegory

Ask yourself: have you ever wanted to control and prolong your sexual pleasure indefinitely? Have you ever desired someone, wanted to manipulate and finally dominate that person? Yes? Want to be really good at this? Think about becoming a Dark Tantrik. Dark Tantra is a time-tested Eastern magical practice which teaches these skills to people who are willing to trade love for pleasure and friendships for power.

What does this have to do with Being John Malkovich, you ask? Why, everything. The film is Tantric allegory, symbolic of the unfettered desire, ultimate rape, perfect manipulation, complete domination, and unbounded gratification possible through Dark Tantra.

Consider what “being” someone amounts to. Maxine Lund (Catherine Keener) hints at it when she remarks that the Malkovich (John Malkovich) portal is his vagina, his feminine side. The film depicts possession of a host body by inserting one’s own body into a dark, slimy portal leading to the host. An untrained novice can’t stay in for more than 15 minutes. However, with practice one can extend the time indefinitely and also learn to take full control of the host body. Possession of Malkovich is symbolic of the Dark Tantrik’s abilities to prolong sexual pleasure and dominate others. It depicts, in fact, the ultimate rape.

Consider the character of Dr. Lester (Orson Bean). Obsessed with sex, he dominates one host body after another to prolong his life indefinitely. Lester depicts a gifted and accomplished Dark Tantric master.

Consider the character of Maxine. Manipulating others to meet the needs of her unbounded sensuality and desire for domination, she also depicts a Dark Tantric master. Recognizing the other characters’ potentials to meet her needs, she seduces and dominates them. She controls Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) through his insecurities, and awakens his power for her own reasons by consummating the relationship only at times when he is “being” Malkovich. Lotte Schwartz’s (Cameron Diaz) “being” experiences lead her to become infatuated with Maxine, radically revise her own sexual identity (predictable from the film’s premise but very well executed), and willingly use Malkovich as a tool to express this identity, even fathering a child by Maxine. Maxine in turn is manipulated by Dr. Lester, who co-opts the unholy child to create the next host body.

There are more hints in the character names chosen by the screenwriter.

  • Lester means “From Leicester,” and the name of this life-prolonging magician refers to the sacred springs in that locale, veritable fountains of youth which cured wasting disease and other illness, where the ancient Celt tribe of the Corieltauvi worshipped the water goddess Arnemetia.
  • Maxine is Latin for “great woman.”
  • Schwartz means “The Dark One” or “Child of the Black Man.” Craig is Celtic for “crag dweller.” In Western terms, the Black Man is the devil, and crags are the abode of witches, worshipers of the Black Man. Dark Tantra is a well known influence upon modern Satanism. In Tantric terms, the crag refers to Vulture Peak, the bird-shaped crag where the Buddha preached the sacred Lotus Sutra, intimately connected to the spirits of the dead.2
  • Remember Floris (Mary Kay Place), Dr. Lester’s assistant?3 Her name means “flower,” alluding to the Lotus Sutra. Remember all the sexually charged confusion which blooms around her.
  • Lotte (a nickname for Charlotte) means “little and womanly,” a suitable label for the sweet, ineffectual animal lover.4

You say the film is not intended as allegory? All this is sheer cooincidence? Right, and do you know that Herman Melville insisted all his life that Moby Dick was just a book about a whale?

Annoying bits

I was instantly annoyed by the unexplained notion, suddenly introduced late in the story, that each host is replaced exactly at age 44 and anyone possessing the new host at an early age will be trapped forever in its unconscious. This screamed “plot device,” telegraphing the end of the film to the audience. The screenwriter should have used a less artificial device: suggest some definite connection between the corruption of the host personality and the ability to possess it (for example, suggest it is made possible by manipulation of layers of anxiety and denial which build up in people over the years), but say nothing about the innocence of children. If this device had been used, the end would not have been anticipated; we would have discovered Craig’s mistake right along with him. The pool scene would have become much more terrifying as we became aware of the disintegration of Craig’s sanity in response to his helpless condition.

Every character but Charlie Sheen (Charlie Sheen) was unbelievably credulous. Everyone believed in the portal when first told about it. Kids, be honest. Is this how you reacted the first time someone told you something so bizarre, such as how babies were made?

Favorite bits

The puppetry. The 7½ floor of the Mertin-Fiemmer building. The New Jersey Turnpike. Lost in Malkovich’s unconscious. The pool scene.

Especially the pool scene.

Random thoughts

The bird has the best lines. Leslie Nielsen was not cast as Dr. Lester … maybe there is a God. And where do the bodies go?

Additional credits

Charlie Kaufman (screenplay); Lance Acord (cinematography); Phil Huber (puppets); Carter Burwell (music); K. K. Barrett (sets); Eric Zumbrunnen (editing); Brad Pitt and Sean Penn (cameos); Michael Stipe, Sandy Stern (production).


S. gives this movie a big three “thumbs” up.


submitted by () on Thursday, November 11, 1999 at 22:44:28

It WAS a whale …

It is a book.

it was just a fucking whale

Heard you the first time, you bar steward. Specifically it is a book about a fucking Sperm Whale. Think it’s cooincidence that the whale’s Christian name, Moby, is now slang for “immense” or “impressive” and its surname, Dick, is now slang for “penis?” S. advises that anyone who is not following this discussion quit bashing the bishop and look up the hard words in a dictionary. You might even discover creative expletives such as bally, blinking, and bloody. Bobs your uncle!


1. Malkovich quoted in Entertainment Weekly - Fall Movie Preview - Being John Malkovich - 8/13/99, (go Wayback). S. admits to envying the actor John Malkovich. Nobody pays S. to write like an asshole. (S.’s proof that bullshit is right, good and true: Six Billion Assholes Can’t Be Wrong.)

2. Additionally, Bob Schwartz, Tantra authority and author of The One Hour Orgasm (see Bibliography: S) or Craig Schwartz, Tantra Kriya Yoga teacher (see Turning The Feather Home (go Wayback) or Turning The Feather Home (go Wayback)) may have been known to the screenwriter.

3. SCRVPVLVS read a few critic’s reviews to prepare for this piece, the stupidest being the Cinephiles review by Yazmin Ghonaim (see Being John Malkovich: Cinephiles Movie Review). Besides missing the essential evil of the film (while babbling about “the literal invasion of one identity over another as a fictional phenomenon” and “existentialist metacomment about human existence as a unique experience preceded by and terminating in nothingness”), Ghonaim claims that “the secretary has a speech impediment and does not know it”. In truth, this hilarious running gag has the secretary failing to recognize her own hearing impediment, instead attributing the problem to speech impediments in everyone around her. S. wonders if Ghonaim based this review upon navel contemplation and remarks overheard in passing.

4. Let’s not leave out the name of the director, Spike Jonze—a contrived name alluding to Lindley “Spike” Jones (leader of the “City Slickers”, a novelty band in the mid-20th century). The director was born Adam Spiegel (“man mirror”). Or was he? Stare long at that name and you find only … yourself. Who really directed this film?

11/15/99 (revised 7/28/00, 5/10/02)

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