Tag Archives: Academy Awards

21. Being John Malkovich

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Right now I’m looking at myself in the bathroom mirror, which is spotty and needs to be cleaned.  Instead of whipping out the Windex, I look past the water spots and examine my hairline, which, by the way, is receding way too quickly.  At least, in my opinion it is.  I look at my nose.  I look at my ears.  I look at my probably unhealthy skin, and at the wrinkles on my forehead and around my eyes…  Fuck…  My gaze then fixes upon my gaze.  My eyes are looking at my eyes.  And I wonder, “am I me?”  Is the voice inside my head legitimately mine?  Or does it belong to a shifty, morose puppeteer pulling at my strings somewhere from within?  If so, how did he get there?  And more importantly, how the fuck do I get him out?  Shit.  Is God a morose puppeteer?  No.  Stop it.  It can’t be.  I’m in control.  I am.

I think I am?

These uncertain philosophical questions regarding the nature of self is what Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999) is essentially about.  Take the mind/body problem, for example.  How can the mind— invisible formless matter— be confined and relegated to a single body, a physical, tangible, touchable thing?  Why doesn’t the mind simply just float away?  Does it float away?  Can it float away?  Or is it truly bound to the physical body?  … Is there a physical body?  Look, what I’m trying to ask is this— is the mind a result of the body or is the body a result of the mind?

Perhaps offering an answer to these unanswerable questions, through a sort of hypothetical, bizarre trial and error system, Being John Malkovich demonstrates that the body is indeed the result of the mind.  Or, in other words, you are who you are, despite the physical body in which you reside.  Even if you could crawl through a portal on the seventh-and-a-half floor and into John Malkovich’s body, that wouldn’t change who you quintessentially are.  The body, in time, would simply change to reflect that mind (just as John Malkovich’s body does in this movie).

Deep metaphysical questions aside, what this movie also does is it examines our “15-minutes-of-fame,” reality-TV-obsessed culture.  Why, for example, would someone, anyone, want to change bodies?  I presume it has something to do with looking into the mirror and not liking what you see reflected back at you.  This feeling of inadequacy is inflicted by a superficial, manipulative society that places too much importance on physical appearance, rather than inner appearance (the mind), which as I discussed earlier, is actually what is relevant to who you are.

Speaking of manipulation, one of the more intriguing characters in Being John Malkovich is Catherine Keener’s Maxine, the one character who seems to be in total control the entire time.  She, unlike the others, seems to always get what she wants, either through manipulation or otherwise.  Ironically enough, she is also the only character who doesn’t desire to crawl through the portal and into John Malkovich.  In this way, she is the master puppeteer.  Not in a cynical way necessarily, but because she is the most confident.  She knows who she is, and she accepts it, thusly allowing herself to be open to following through on her instincts.

Now, I’ve spoken a lot so far about metaphysics and strange ethereal ideas, but I should also say this movie is damn funny.  It’s smart as hell, for sure, but more importantly, it’s funny.  It’s funny when John Malkovich crawls into his own portal and is confronted by a world populated by only John Malkovich’s.  “Malkovich, Malkovich?”  “Malkovich.”  It’s funny how Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) takes his profession as a puppeteer so damn seriously.  It’s funny that there is a seventh-and-a-half floor.  It’s funny that one gets spat out onto the New Jersey turnpike once your 15 minutes of being John Malkovich are up.  It’s funny, it’s funny, it’s funny, and who knew philosophy was so full of hilarity?

Well, apparently Charlie Kaufman knew, who, I get the feeling, was making it all up as he went along.  As if he thought of this incredible concept and just dove head first to see where it took him.  This is an admirable, bold way to tackle a screenplay, and while the result is a somewhat uneven journey, it’s also one that is full of laughter, surprises, distinctiveness, wit, and it ultimately leaves you in an unsuspecting place you never expected to be when you first began the journey.  For that, I’m thankful.

Oh.  And disregard that thing I said at the outset about my receding hairline.  I’m actually having a FABULOUS hair-day today.

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14. Annie Hall

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This girl once asked me what my favorite movies were.  I wasn’t prepared at the time to give a substantial list of movies; so instead, I chose to rattle off a bunch of directors’ names that have influenced me.  Truffaut.  Kubrick.  Anderson.  Tarantino.  Lynch.  Jarmusch.  Linklater.  Apatow.  Bergman.  Godard.  Kieslowski.  I’m not sure exactly what names I spouted at the time or if they were impressive, but we ended up talking about Woody Allen.  And in particular, we started talking about Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977).  And I remember she asked me, in a very straightforward way: “why do you like it?”  I was completely taken aback by the pointedness of this question, and I hadn’t seen the movie in some time, so I struggled mightily to formulate a satisfying response.  If I were to be asked that same question now, on September 24, 2012, some thirty-five years after the initial release, I would say this:

I like Annie Hall because even after all of those years, and after all the rip offs and imitations, this romantic comedy still somehow comes across as surprisingly fresh, wickedly smart, and extremely experimental.  The disjointed structure and the breaking of the fourth wall, reflects all of those qualities, and more importantly, allows the story to stay fresh no matter how many viewings.  Speaking of fresh, the dialogue is witty almost beyond belief, resulting in too many one-liners to keep track of.  One-liners like, “Hey, don’t knock masturbation – it’s sex with someone I love!”  Or, “My grammy never gave gifts.  She was too busy getting raped by Cossacks.”  Or, “That sex was the most fun I’ve ever had without laughing.”

Adding to the brilliant script is the gritty cinematography offered by the master of darkness, Gordon Willis.  The simple rawness, and the graininess of the film print comments perfectly on the messiness of relationships as well as the setting in which the story takes place (New York).  And while the photography comes off as simple and straightforward, there is actually a lot of movement and some really beautiful, breathtaking compositions.  The fact that this does not intrude on the story or bring too much attention to itself, demonstrates exactly how great a director of photography Gordon Willis actually is.  I often wonder why more comedies don’t aspire to this kind of higher level, photographically speaking.  I’m sure there are many logistical reasons for this, including budgetary restraints, but I would be really interested to see a Judd Apatow-type movie shot by, say, Roger Deakins.

Another timeless, ever-lasting element of Annie Hall is the sizzling chemistry between Woody Allen and Diane Keaton.  They seem perfect for each other.  This palpable energy creates the impression that these two characters are a real couple that has shared real memories.  This, in turn, compliments the way the story unfolds in its hyperactive disjointed manner, which conjures the tone of a casual conversation between two former lovers commiserating about the past.  And just like in real life, these conversations don’t unfold in chronological order, but in chunks of random memories, that remind you of other chunks of memories, that remind you still of other memories.  And despite this disjointedness, I never felt lost, and actually found it rather easy to follow along, which speaks almost entirely to the strength of the transitions between scenes.

But alas, this is a romantic comedy, and therefore it is about love.  In particular, it’s about an island of a character (Alvy Singer), a person who typically shuts himself off from others, but because of this amazing woman (Annie Hall), he is finally able to start to open up, and he even gets a glimpse of true love.  Problem is, it’s too late.  The feeling isn’t mutual.  In this way, I admire how Annie Hall is different from most other romantic comedies.  In most, the love is obvious.  It’s a special feeling one gets when in the presence of their soul mate.  It’s a golden light that emanates, and it’s just a matter of time before they both realize it.  And maybe this “true love” sensation exists in real life, but I think that that’s actually something else.  It’s lust.  Good chemistry.  Kindred spirits, perhaps.  But true love, true love as shown in this movie, is born out of time.  Out of ups and downs.  It happens gradually and it isn’t a specific feeling, it’s something that dawn’s upon you over time.  And most importantly, it’s not guaranteed.  It’s never ever guaranteed.

With that, I’ll go ahead and wrap my impression of the entire movie up with one metaphor.  If Annie Hall were a cupcake, I’d say its foundation would be misanthropy, comedy would be the icing, and sentimentality would be the sprinkles on top.  I have to say, it makes for one hell of an original confection.


11. American Beauty

Smiley Rating:

How are you?

In your best Tony-the-Tiger impression, you exclaim: “I’m grrrreat!”  And maybe you really are great, maybe you’re not, maybe you’re somewhere in between, or maybe you’re none of the above.  Either way, the answer to this question is basically your own personal commercial for how “normal” you are, even though you know you are anything but.  And it is this disciplined way of masking our genuine selves that American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999) is essentially about— how there is an “entire life behind things.”  All things.  Even dancing plastic bags.  And that there is no such thing as ordinary.  Everything, everything, everything… is far from ordinary.  Like you.  Like me.  Like life itself.

But because we are disciplined, structured, well-adjusted citizens, we instinctively give a politically correct answer.  Like, “I’m good.”  Or, “I’m okay.”  If you don’t give such an answer, you risk being fired, or sent to a mental hospital, or put on drugs, or yelled at, or questioned, or judged.  So, instead, we suppress our true feelings and go about our daily lives in a sedated manner, constantly enabling the forces behind the status quo, “masking our contempt for the assholes in charge.”  This anaesthetized way of life might be preferred for a complacent society, but the danger is, this kind of lifestyle will fester behind the white picket fences until it blows up and causes a mid-life crises.  Or divorce.  Or plastic surgery.  Or murder.

Which brings me to the most important, most haunting line of dialogue in American Beauty“Never underestimate the power of denial.”  This pointed warning is accentuated in all of the character’s, from Allison Janney’s devastating portrayal of a shell of a human to Kevin Spacey’s nuanced portrayal of a married man going through a mid-life crises.  From Annette Bening’s failing real estate agent to Chris Cooper’s homophobic colonel.  All are living in varying degrees of denial.  This heavy specter hangs over the entire film like the red motif that appears throughout, and lingers in the mind far after the conclusion due to the tragic climax.

Technically speaking, American Beauty masterfully walks the line between a biting, smart dark comedy and a phenomenally executed tragic melodrama.  This adroit combination led to five Academy Awards and a film that really struck a chord with the zeitgeist at the time.  And perhaps it struck such a chord with audiences because, in a way, the movie acts as a grand therapeutic session.  Along the way, as these deeply flawed characters hide themselves, reveal themselves, revolt, throw tantrums, breakdown and cry, we too go through a similar journey, and by the end we feel like we’ve gotten something off our own chests.  We feel relieved.  More importantly, we feel grateful for life.

Considering this, I can’t help but think that all of these characters could have been helped if they only had a therapist.  They just needed to talk to someone.  They just needed to be asked, “How are you?”