By Aubrey Beardsley
A review of Being John Malkovich, 1999, Spike Jonze (dir), starring Elijah the Chimpanzee, John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, and Catherine Keener … and John Malkovich.
This week I watched a film that people say is one of the greatest films of all time! Given that I watched Uncle Buck last week, I thought this was a big call. But it really was rather good. I watched Being John Malkovich.
You may think this is a movie about being John Malkovich. But this is really a movie about being animal. It is a movie about animal cognition, ethology, and training, starring Elijah the Chimpanzee.
Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is a puppeteer who is not enjoying as much professional success as he might like. The implication is that this is because his puppet shows are a bit too much about himself and his own unconscious mind, rather than reaching out and entertaining others.
Craig lives with his pet-shop owner wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz), and a large menagerie of animals, including a Chimpanzee, a dog, cats, a snake, fish, and an iguana.
With Craig’s lack of success as a puppeteer, Lotte encourages him to find some alternative employment. Because of his fast hands he takes a job as a filing clerk on Floor 7 ½ of the Mertin Building, working for Lestercorp. At orientation he meets the rather narcissistic Maxine (Catherine Keener), who becomes his unrequited love interest and John Malkovich experience (JM Inc) business partner. One day, when trying to retrieve a file that he has dropped behind a cabinet, he discovers a portal into John Malkovich’s head. So Craig and Maxine start selling tickets … to JM Inc.
The theme of consciousness is introduced early in the film. Craig and Elijah the Chimpanzee are watching television, and a news story about Craig’s very successful puppeteering rival, Derek Mantini, comes on. Craig is upset and he turns to Elijah and says, “You don’t know how lucky you are being a monkey, because consciousness is a terrible curse. I think. I feel. I suffer. And all I ask in return is the opportunity to do my work.” From this passage we know that Craig is the classically unenlightened human being. He thinks humans are exceptional and that animals do not think, do not feel, do not suffer. In fact, when his wife is leaving for work and asks him to check on Elijah, he has to ask, “Which one is Elijah again?” For Craig, all animals are simply lumped together … from Elijah the Chimpanzee to Orrin Hatch the parrot …
The exchange between Elijah and Craig is therefore very important, because it really sums up the whole theme of the movie – the question of consciousness and cognition and the way humans have an obsession with being exceptional, when really they are rather not. And as we go on to find out, this is a question that Craig is obsessed with throughout the film.
Craig’s perspective on animals is significant. As Craig declares, “I’m a puppeteer.” This is obviously a training metaphor for methods based on a problematic disregard of animal cognition. It highlights the obsession in training with trying to dictate behaviour and have dominion over animals, rather than working with animals cooperatively. This metaphor of puppetry is very telling. Craig is the only one who can actually control John Malkovich when he is inside his head. He even describes Malkovich as “just another puppet hanging from my work table.” Craig is the puppeteer. But his puppet hates him. Ironically, when Maxine asks Craig what he likes about puppeteering he says, “being inside another skin, thinking differently, moving differently, feeling differently.” But he does none of these things. He simply tries to get John Malkovich and everyone else to do his bidding. He never manages to achieve any genuine bond or empathy with anyone – humans, chimps, parrots – not anyone. So, through Craig, the film provides insight into debates in training and learning. Even if harsh techniques might make an animal “behave”, sometimes out of lack of choice more than anything else, dictating behaviour doesn’t get the best out of animals. And Craig’s disastrous relationships with humans show that this is something all animals, humans as well, have in common. He even has to put his wife in a cage. Theirs is not a bond of trust.
And Craig’s perspective on animals is in stark contrast to Lotte’s. Lotte has no problem trying to see things from the animal’s perspective. For instance, while Craig dismisses animal consciousness, Lotte says she finds it really interesting that Elijah’s therapist thinks his tummy problems are linked to childhood trauma and feelings of inadequacy as a chimp. That is, she tries to understand Elijah’s problems not in terms of what she wants to see, but in terms of what Elijah sees. But even with Lotte’s best intentions, it seems that Elijah’s lifestyle is not allowing him to be all he can be. He is feeling inadequate as a chimp because he doesn’t have the opportunity to show his natural behaviours.
You see, Elijah is kept in a cage a lot of the time, as are all the other animals. And there are a lot of references to these cages throughout the film: Orrin Hatch escapes from his cage and sits on Craig’s head (“Craig, honey, it’s time to get up”); Orrin Hatch objects to the cage later when they are preparing dinner (“Help! She’s locking me in a cage!”); Lotte is locked in a cage with Elijah; and getting stuck in John Malkovich’s subconscious is depicted graphically as a cage with bars.
But when they discover the portal, all Craig can think about is how it might prove human exceptionalism and consciousness and “the nature of self, the existence of a soul”. He is not interested in what it might be like to be John Malkovich. But Lotte really is: “That’s right! I was John [bleep] Malkovich!” When Craig calls Maxine to tell her about the portal he is fascinated by “the metaphysical can of worms” of consciousness, while Maxine is more interested in selling tickets. After listing all the classic obsessions (I am sure he is about to say “theory of mind” any second), Lotte comes home and greets all the animals and Craig together: “Hello everybody. Cheese for everyone!” What can I say? This scene really spoke to me.
A key moment in the film is towards the end, when Elijah and Lotte are locked in the cage together. Elijah looks at Lotte’s bound hands and has a flashback to his own capture and bondage. The film acknowledges in this scene a range of achievements in the science of animal cognition since the enlightenment of recent decades. First, Elijah has memories, which he can recall as well as utilise to apply earlier skills and experiences to a novel setting. Secondly, he shows intentionality and purposive thinking in solving the problem before him and undoing the ropes to help Lotte escape. Thirdly, he shows trust and kinship with Lotte and demonstrates the importance of that bond as an incentive in itself, without anything else, so much so that he performs a task for which he receives no benefit other than helping his human. Fourthly, his memories of family and social bonding show the significance of social organization and culture in animals.
And finally, during the capture scene, his family calls him Elijah (this information is provided in subtitles that translate the chimp vocalisations). And this isn’t as far-fetched as you might think. There is now evidence of a kind of naming behaviour in lots of different species. And for a long time, science pretended animals were numbers and addressed them as such. But now, they all have names.
I think anthropomorphism is a good thing. It is about time that humans started to think about themselves more like other animals.
Categories: Aubrey's Causeries