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The Original Piece of Wood I Left in Your Head

Wildcat pop-culture critic Perkus Tooth and Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze met, at Tooth’s insistence, at Yonah Schimmel’s knishery on Houston Street in New York City. A small digital tape recorder was placed between them. After some small talk on a smattering of subjects, including Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, Mark Feeney’s Nixon at the Movies, and the resemblance between Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War” and LCD Soundsystem’s “Yr City’s a Sucker,” their attention turned to the upcoming Criterion reissue of Being John Malkovich. What follows is an unedited transcript of the riveting, albeit abruptly truncated results.

Perkus Tooth: Being John Malkovich is a film that inverse-recapitulates—precapitulates?—its own future concerns to a nearly fractal extent. Not only does the “Heloise” puppet already resemble Catherine Keener before it logically ought to, but at 4:15 John Cusack sits on his couch beside Elijah the chimpanzee, desultorily paging through the New York Post, an edition celebrating New York Yankees pitcher David Cone’s July 18, 1999, perfect game. The front-page headline reads, “Awesome!” while the rear sports page indulges the woeful pun “Conegrats!” “Awesome” and “Conegrats” together can be anagrammatized to “Get across name woe,” “Came onstage worse,” while “Conegrats” by itself translates to “Angst core”—perhaps a tad unsubtle there? David Cone’s special rooting section was known as the Coneheads—derived, of course, from the Dan Aykroyd–Jane Curtin franchise Saturday Night Live sketch—and they often wore the plastic head costumes, thereby in totality conveying the rebus: alien visitor (alienation) plus head plus cone (or funnel, or tunnel) plus Post (delivery, i.e., birth canal). For the more alert viewer, you barely needed carry on with the film beyond that point, its payload had been so satisfactorily conveyed. The rest, I imagine, was merely a matter of following through.

Spike Jonze: Actually, it’s the Daily News. Otherwise, you’re completely on target here. Mea culpa. Do you remember that incident where David Cone was caught masturbating in the New York Mets’ bullpen? Also, was there really an off-Broadway show called Puppetry of the Penis? Or was that a dream I had?

PT: It’s well-known that if you pitch for the Mets, you’ve got a 70 percent chance of throwing a no-hitter for another team later in your career. Whereas the percentage of masturbators who make it to the Great White Way is surely what a statistician would call “vanishingly small.” But back to Being: John Malkovich.

SJ: You pronounced it like there’s a colon in the title. There’s no colon.

PT: Sorry?

SJ: It’s not like a catalog of stuff in some alien survey of Earth— City: New York, Species: Human, Being: John Malkovich. It’s a gerund. Like Being There or Breaking the Waves.

PT: Sure. Or Breaking: Away. Or Eating: Raoul.

SJ: That’s so freaking annoying, I can’t even begin to say.

PT: Ahem. The film develops an extraordinarily intricate series of nestings and inversions on the themes of puppetry, masks, acting, and authenticity, which in turn are made to resonate with notions of one body’s sexual possession of another body—attempted or briefly and tantalizingly achieved. This occurs to such an extent that relatively innocuous language becomes enlisted in an obsessive motif. Catherine Keener analyzes herself as a disjointed assemblage of characteristics, saying, “My voice is probably the least intriguing thing about me.” And when she teases John Cusack that his observation about the “orientation film being bullshit” is just one of “fifty other lines to get into a girl’s pants,” we reflect on the resemblances between hand puppets—which only find animation when someone has, to use the film’s phrase, “gotten into their pants”—and the meat puppetry of the flesh. Similarly, when the cabdriver, guessing at John Malkovich’s so-called real name, comes up with “Mapplethorpe,” one can hardly keep from having brought to mind certain photographs of the human hand and forearm farther up—

SJ: That’s enough of that, I’d say.

PT: Being oneself is simultaneously never remotely enough to satisfy and yet a wearisome and absolute inevitability. Cameron Diaz, on exiting Malkovich the first time, exults incoherently: “Being inside did something to me. I knew who I was.” When Malkovich demands access to his own portal, Cusack attempts to dissuade him, saying, “I’m sure that would pale in comparison to the actual experience.” That’s to say that the so-called experience of being oneself has become eligible to be measured against the experience of playing oneself, which, after Malkovich denounces it as hellish, is defended by Cusack’s surprised remark that “for most people, it’s a rather pleasant experience.” At the same time, Malkovich’s unpersuasive habitation of his own unpopulated real life presents a convergence of his rehearsals into a tape recorder—of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard—and his ordering of new towels and bath mats into a cordless telephone, into which, after discovering that his first color option isn’t available, he says, “I’ll go with the loden”—a line reading that may arguably be the single most enervated and soul-crushing moment in cinema history. Conversely, his greatest performance, and possibly this promising yet failed actor’s own, is as Cusack’s flesh puppet in Craig’s Dance of Despair and Disillusionment. Yet it is one that finds itself entirely preempted by the precredit sequence and upstaged by a creature of wood and string!

SJ: I’m getting the feeling you found the film unnecessary.

PT: Beautifully so. Please don’t take this the wrong way.

SJ: Oh, never. Do you want to talk about some other film? Eating: Raoul? Walking: Tall? Finding: Nemo?

PT: Really, the film’s entirety is nothing more than a dream or nightmare on the part of Derek Matini, the obnoxious rival puppeteer who’s barely glimpsed in the film. Or is that an unfair supposition?

SJ: If by unfair you mean ludicrous.

PT: Think again. The characters in your little puppet show never break through to the quote-unquote real world in the television clip showing Matini’s triumphant mounting of the Emily Dickinson spectacle from the bridge span. That film clip may be our only glimpse of an outside to the theatrical fantasia of your so-called diegesis. This can be proved in the simplest possible way: After the “Eight Months Later” title card (an absurdly short duration, incidentally), John Malkovich, ostensibly, is widely understood to have introduced an era of massively popular serious-art puppetry; Matini’s celebrated and widely televised spectacles are entirely effaced in this self-evident fiction. And, of course, Matini’s own tendencies toward paranoid, self-ratifying fantasies of engulfment by the outside world are inscribed in his choice of the hermetic Emily Dickinson as his subject. Like Elijah the chimpanzee, Dickinson never broke free of the cage of her room. Like Elijah the prophet, Derek Matini declines to appear in a world made ready for him.

SJ: I don’t think I can go on with this.

PT: At the one-hour-and-twenty-minute mark, you give the game away again, with an overt reference to my favorite film—of course, I speak of Hitchcock’s Vertigo—when, after arriving soaking wet at Orson Bean’s door, Cameron Diaz is given something dry to wear: “You look so lovely, my dear, standing here before the fire in my oversized man’s robe.” As with James Stewart’s character in the Hitchcock film, Catherine Keener is in the position of loving not one single person, nor two, but a sort of hologram, a virtual third presented by the impersonation of one by the other. Cued by this reference to the instability and dread of male desire, an instant later the film uncovers the motif of performance anxiety: the difficulty with being John Malkovich is, in effect, the problem of staying in—i.e., the fleeting duration of sexual intercourse. We understand this when Cusack exclaims, to Keener’s great delight: “I figured out how to hang on as long as I want.” This is then immediately intercut with Orson Bean’s explanation of the risks of being diverted into a newborn vessel and of the goal of achieving a conscious rebirth in Malkovich instead. So we understand that to stay in is to be born again; fantasies of male sexual stamina immediately give way to the procreative urgencies of the sexual act. As, indeed, we witness in the arc of Cusack’s consummated relationship, which skips from sexual yearning to pregnancy and cradle with barely a blip of satisfaction between. And the baby isn’t even his—which prefigures the necessity of his eternal return to immaturity-in-reincarnation.

SJ: [Silence]

PT: When I e-mailed my colleague Sophocles Jones to tell her that I’d be discussing the film with you, she wrote back to say she’d be forever haunted by the scene—and I quote—“when Cameron Diaz is fucking that life-size puppet underwater.” I pointed out that no such scene occurs in the film; she then realized that she must have dreamed the scene. I wonder if you’re aware that a film such as yours goes on proliferating in such ways in the collective unconscious—in a sense, like the original piece of wood that Cusack leaves behind in Malkovich’s head, but that in the film he at last retrieves. I’m curious to know whether you feel any responsibility for outcomes like my friend’s—or, to put it another way, does Spike Jonze have the obligation to return to Sophocles Jones’s head and retrieve the piece of wood?

SJ: Please, for God’s sake, stop.

PT: Last thoughts, before I lose the opportunity. At 45:11, what did you intend with the marble sculpture of the bare foot in a sandal on Malkovich’s side table? A reference to Mercury, Achilles, or Dr. Scholl’s? I did appreciate the fact that, at 55:52, Keener picks up the chaldron from the coffee table in his apartment, just after she speaks the line “So, do you enjoy being . . . an actor?” And, again, the unmistakable reference to Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now when Malkovich unveils his shockingly round stomach, a marvelous prosthesis—

SJ: That’s his stomach. It’s the actor’s stomach. It’s not a reference to another stomach.

PT: You’d been notably able to restrain yourself from any bumping-head-on-the-low-ceiling gags until, suddenly, at the one-hour-and-thirty-seven-minute mark, you succumbed. Why? Pressure from the studio?

SJ: [Silence]

Perkus Tooth is the author of Fool’s Gold Mouthpiece and The Hollow Horn: Admixtures of Contemporary Plight (forthcoming). His liner notes appear in Criterion’s editions of Werner Herzog’s Echolalia, Von Tropen Zollner’s The City Is a Maze, and Fritz Lang’s Prelude to a Certain Midnight, among others. He lives in Manhattan.

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