The 1999 cult classic Being John Malkovich has a very fitting opening sequence: Puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), looming god-like over his wooden creation made exactly in his own image, stages a truly creepy performance. The show opens with a close up of the curtains covering Schwartz's puppet stage, highly reminiscent of another cult classic, David Lynch's Blue Velvet. Blue, which appears throughout the film, is a most curious color in and of itself. According to the thirty-third degree Freemason Manly P. Hall, blue is the color of consciousness itself.
"Consciousness, intelligence, and force are fittingly symbolized by the colors blue, yellow, and red. The therapeutic effects of the colors, moreover, are in harmony with this concept, for blue is a fine, soothing, electrical color...
"The ancients conceived the spirit of man to correspond with the color blue, the mind with yellow, and the body with red. The fiery condition of the inferno merely symbolizes the nature of the sphere or plane of force of which it is composed. In the Greek Mysteries the irrational sphere was always considered as red, for it represented the condition in which the consciousness is enslaved by the lusts and passions of the lower nature. In India certain of the gods --usually attributes of Vishnu --are depicted with blue skin to signify their divine and supermundane constitution. According to esoteric philosophy, blue is the true and sacred color of the sun. The apparent orange-yellow shade of this orb is the result of its rays being immersed in the substances of the illusionary world."
(The Secret Teachings of All Ages, pgs. 146-147)
Obviously then blue is a most fitting color for a film that deals heavily with the nature of consciousness and reality itself. As the film opens, the blue curtain is parted and a puppet version of Schwartz breaks into a solemn dance at the behalf of his creator's fingers. The puppet appears and acts so life-like that the viewer may think that they are viewing snippets of a forgotten Harryhausen film at first. Schwartz looms above the whole scene, an eerie expression upon his face. For a film that revolves around control of various kinds, especially the control of consciousness, this is a most apt beginning.
|Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) with his creations|
|Lotte (top), Maxine (middle), and Malkovich (bottom)|
Craig shares this discovery with both Lotte and Maxine. Lotte has a life changing experience in which she begins to rethink her sexuality and gender, and ultimately falling in love with Maxine. Maxine, who never actually ventures into the Malkovich portal until the final minutes of the film, immediately devises a way to exploit the portal for financial gain and kinky lesbian-sex-by-way-of-Malkovich with Lotte (much to Charlie Sheen's delight).
Now that that's out of the way, let us briefly consider the two chief creative forces behind the film, director Spike Jonze and scribe Charlie Kaufman. Malkovich was the first major film either was involved in. Previously Jonze had mainly worked in music videos, famously directing the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" video, among others. Malkovich scored Jonze mondo accolades and hipster cred, setting him up to direct other critically received films, such as the vastly overrated Adaptation (which Kaufman also wrote) and the more recent Where the Wild Things Are. He would also take on the occasional acting gig, such as the role of the hapless Conrad Vig in Three Kings, as well as lowering the nation's collective IQ by co-creating and producing the MTV series Jackass.
Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is a far more interesting figure. In the late 1990s and early 00s Kaufman would briefly make surreal, heady art films such as Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which won him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay) commercially viable before 'mainstream' sensibilities once again prevailed. Aside from Malkovich, Adaptation, and Mind, Kaufman also wrote Human Nature, the CIA mind control epic that is Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (which marked the directorial debut of George Clooney), as well as Synecdoche, New York (which Kaufman also directed) before going on hiatus.
Kaufman's work is highly surreal and symbolic. The nature of reality and mind control are reoccurring themes in many of the scripts he's worked on. Curiously, apes appear constantly in his films as well. In Malkovich Lotte has a pet chimp named Elijah who frees her at a crucial moment. This is a curious combination as Elijah was the name of one of the chief prophets of the Old Testament while Satan has been described as the 'Ape of God' due to his ability to only mimic God (as opposed to creating original works), as apes mimic humans.
|Malkovich's Elijah (top) and the prophet Elijah (bottom)|
The name Lotte is also an interesting choice. Lotte is the name of the object of Werther's affection in the notorious The Sorrows of Young Werther by Faust author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The novel, first published in 1774, would become infamous for a slew of suicides inspired by it.
"Sociologists studying the media and the cultural contagion of suicidal behaviors were the first to recognize the copycat effect. In 1974, University of California at San Diego sociologist David P. Phillips coined the phrase Werther effect to describe the copycat phenomenon. The name Werther comes from the 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe... In the story, the youthful character Werther falls in love with a woman who is promised to another. Always melodramatic, Werther decides that his life cannot go on and that his love is lost. He then dresses in boots, a blue coat, and a yellow vest, sits at his desk with an open book, and, literally at the eleventh hour, shoots himself. In the years that followed, throughout Europe, so many young men shot themselves while dressed as Werther and seated at their writing desks with an open copy of The Sorrows of Young Werther in front of them that the book was banned in Italy, Germany, and Denmark."
(The Copycat Effect, Loren Coleman, pg. 2)
|Werther and Lotte|
While we're playing the name game, we have to address the Maxine character, whose last name is Lund. Maxine is the feminine version of Max, which originally was an abbreviation for Maximilian. Maximilian was in turn an adaption of Maximus, a Roman name meaning greatest or largest. It was at times applied to religious functions, such as the Pontifex Maximus, the high priest of ancient Rome.
Lund, by contrast, is an Old Norse word meaning grove. In the ancient world, sacred groves were among oldest temples known to humanity, and were typically centered around goddess worship. Even as the modern era set in groves were still used by the witch cults of Europe for their rituals as well by various indigenous peoples.
"...the Ancient Greeks and Romans dedicated woods, rather than wood, to different deities, and they symbolized the mysterious abode of the godhead. Each god had his special wood and if he inspired reverential dread there, it was also a place where he was offered worship and prayer. The Romans could neither cut nor prune the trees in a sacred wood without preliminary and expiatory sacrifice. Forests and sacred groves were centres of life, reservoirs of refreshment, water, warmth, like a kind of womb, and hence were yet one more maternal symbol. They were sources of regeneration, often occurring in dreams with this significance and revealing the longing for security and renewal. They are a very forcible expression of the unconscious. Underwoods and deep forests of tall trees have also been compared with caverns and grottoes and this resemblance comes out in so many landscape paintings. All of which serves to confirm the symbolism of a vast and inexhaustible reservoir of life and mysterious knowledge. Even today the tradition of sacred groves, the preserve of initiation-societies, remains alive in many regions of Black Africa."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pg. 1124)
Taken together, Maxine's name implies 'greatest grove,' which has a rather religious and witchy ring to it. Maxine is presented as a rather witch-like figure --She has an almost supernatural sexual appeal to both men and women for much of the film, giving her almost unlimited control over others. Even Malkovich falls under her spell, despite her calling him Lotte during coitus. Maxine is referred to directly as a witch by Malkovich during a conversation with Charlie Sheen (also playing himself) in one of the film's funniest exchanges:
Malkovich: Charlie, I don't know anything about the girl, man! She could be like a fucking witch or something!
Charlie: That's even better! Hot lesbian witches! Think about it! It's fucking genius!
|Sheen as himself in Malkovich|
Maxine and Lotte are ultimately highly archetypal characters, displaying numerous associations with the Great Mother of antiquity. Lotte displays many of the maternal aspects, as well as her constant association with animals --One guise of the Great Mother was Potnia Theron, the 'Mistress of Animals.' Maxine by contrast displays the unrestrained sexuality of matriarchy, with the two principal male characters, Craig and Malkovich, serving has her consorts. Both Lotte and Maxine share ample characteristics with both the maiden and mother/nymph, but the Great Mother was a Threefold Goddess.
"This goddess of earthly nature, this Great Mother had many names in the different languages of her people, some of these names were eventually assimilated into Greek. She could be known, for example, as Persephone, a fearful name that suggested 'Destruction and Slaughter' by a false etymology, as if the name was Greek. And this Great Mother was, in fact, a goddess of death, but not just of death. Death as birth, and birth as rebirth. Death as the source of life. Another of her names was Deo, the Mother, which was assimilated into Greek as Demeter, whom the Romans called Ceres. The ceral grains that are nourished by the fertile rotting remains of life were her gift. Still another of her names was Hekate, the witch, the one who, again by a false etymology, always 'got her will,' the Willful One. The three belonged together, inseparable, pacing the three aspects of a woman's experience, as maiden Persephone, mother Demeter, and the postmenopausal crone, Hekate. The Great Mother had always these three aspects, seen also in the phases of the moon, whose lunar periods, waxing, full, and waning, mirrored the fertility of a woman's menstrual cycles."
(The World of Classical Myth, Carl Ruck and Danny Staples, pg. 22)
|Hecate in her triple form|
Robert Graves refers to the mother stage of the Threefold Goddess as the nymph at times during his epic The White Goddess. This stems from the fact that the chaste mother image of the middle stage of femininity was a later addition. Originally the female aristocracy of matriarchies had relations with multiple consorts when trying to become pregnant, making the paternity of their children ambiguous at best.
"...the cult of the Great Mother was degraded and the primal goddess became the whore, and, in the curious language of the ancients carried over by Crowley, virgin to all (Pan). This means that she received all comers and could not identify the father of her children; hence they were the fatherless, the bastards of Bast.
"The Scarlet Woman, Babalon, was the outcome of this change in primitive sociology."Lotte and Maxine are seemingly symbolic of this change. Despite displaying numerous aspects of the Threefold Goddess, they are reduced to the Christian duality of the female: Madonna or whore. Initially Lotte and Maxine fit neatly into this two categories, Lotte the dutiful wife who supports her delusional husband through thick and thin, Maxine as the scarlet temptress that threatens to tear apart their union. But as the film progresses Lotte and Maxine both break out of these narrow roles to assume more and more aspects of the Triple Goddess. Maxine ultimately becomes impregnated via multiple lovers, as will be examined later.
(The Magical Revival, Kenneth Grant, pgs. 62-63)
By contrast, the men are barely even worth considering. The allegedly far right-wing John Malkovich is largely a parody of himself, and essentially a stand in for the notion of celebrity. The main male character, Craig Schwartz, is totally enslaved to Maxine throughout the film. Even after he devises a way to control Malkovich and remain permanently in his mind, and thus fulfill Maxine's fantasy of regular coitus with two souls at once, he cannot maintain her interest for more than a few months. Ultimately he cedes control of Malkovich to his boss, Dr. Lester, to rescue Maxine, who he believes was kidnapped by Lester. In reality Maxine simply left Craig/Malkovich for her true love, Lotte, and promptly rejects Craig even after he relinquishes Malkovich on her behalf. Craig is ultimately nothing more than a postmodern cuckold.
Even the mysterious Dr. Lester is rather pitiful in the grand scheme of things. As the film unfolds the viewer learns that Dr. Lester is in fact Captain Merton, the builder of the Merton Flemming Building. Merton discovered that a portal to another's mind existed within the building, and built the 7 1/2 floor to have a doorway to it. Merton took control of Dr. Lester and now Merton-as-Lester plans to take control of Malkovich, this time with other geezers whose consciousness he wants to preserve with him inside Malkovich. Craig puts this plan in jeopardy, which Merton impotently tries to stop, all the way obsessing over his speech-challenged secretary. Ultimately it falls upon Lotte and Maxine to defeat Craig, which they do by traveling inside Malkovich's mind together.
|Dr. Lester (Orson Bean)|
Captain Merton's name seems to be an allusion to Merlin, the legendary wizard of the Authrian cycle. Like Merlin, Merton ages in reverse, growing younger eventually when he takes over another vessel. But this is about the extent of Merton's magic. Otherwise, he's confined to rambling, satirical accounts of Crowleyian sex magick, where he speaks of becoming Eros and of his semen being manna from heaven. Apparently Dr. Lester/Captain Merton and his merry band were a kind of Satanic cult in the original draft of the script bent on taking over the world. I'm glad that Kaufman opted to go the goddess route. Malkovich is far more subversive this way.
So much for Malkovich's principal characters. I'm going to wrap things up at this point. In the next installment we shall examine the interesting use of numbers in Malkovich and begin breaking down several of the major themes. Stay tuned.