Spike Jonze’s “Being John Malkovich”: A Narrative Analysis

I think sharing prior schoolwork is a good idea. I’ll start with my paper on Being John Malkovich. 8 pages, 12-pt Times New Roman, double-spaced.

Spike Jonze’s feature-length directorial debut Being John Malkovich is a truly unique film, one that combines aspects of the Hollywood film with the art-house cinema. The film could be considered a genre hybrid, blending comedy, philosophy, and fantasy. The film is non-classical in the sense of its unusual plot and setting, as well as its character/protagonist set-ups. While there is not any back-story when it comes to the origins of the Malkovich portal, the audience must accept the plot for what it is. When the audience is asked to suspend its disbelief and focus solely on the world within the film and the information it provides, we can take a good look at the film’s narrative structure.

The way the film is constructed is actually quite typical of the Hollywood film, and it conforms nicely to Kristin Thompson’s four-act model: it has a set-up, a complicating action, a development, and a climax/denouement. While the film’s plot and other aspects are unusual and non-classical in numerous ways, the narrative structure and timing is similar to that of a classical Hollywood film. Being John Malkovich is about 106 minutes, right under the usual Hollywood two-hour length. The first three parts are roughly the same in length[1], with the climax/denouement being a little shorter than the previous three acts.

Hollywood is a cinema of redundancy[2], and Being John Malkovich is no exception. For example, puppetry is one of the most important motifs throughout the film on both narrative and stylistic levels. From the very beginning, the audience is cued into equating Craig’s puppetry with his failure. The opening credit sequence is actually one of Craig’s puppet shows, entitled “The Dance of Despair.” This dance is repeated later on, but it is important that the puppetry motif be established early on.

Next, we see Craig watching a local news report, one about a famous puppeteer named Derek Mantini. He scoffs while watching television, calling his fellow puppeteer a “gimmicky bastard,” but the audience is clued into the fact that Craig would much rather be in the rival puppeteer’s shoes than his own. In the next scene, Craig is seen performing a different show while a child looks on. When her father notices what she is actually watching, he is shocked by the erotic nature of the show. As a result, the man punches Craig in the face. It is established that this kind of violence toward Craig has happened before when Lotte comes to his aid, saying, “Not again!”

He also reads the classified ads in the newspaper, and there is nothing listed under “Puppetry.” (Craig, however, finds the ad that leads him to the Mertin Flemmer building.) The puppet motif is used once again, after Craig gets the job at LesterCorp and right before Craig discovers the Malkovich portal. He reworks one of his female puppets (who, curiously, looked a bit like Maxine before she and Craig met) to look more like Maxine. The other female puppet, which looks like Lotte, is filmed hanging alone, and this puppet does not make another appearance until later on in the film. As Craig works in his studio, he uses his puppets—the ones that look like Maxine and himself—to convey his wishes. “Maxine” asks Craig what he loves about puppeteering, and “Craig” answers, “The idea of becoming someone else for a little while.” After he gets the job at LesterCorp, he flirts with Maxine, albeit unsuccessfully. When he relates his desires to Maxine later on, she brushes it aside. Thus, a routine has been established in the film’s set-up, emphasizing and reemphasizing Craig’s failures to accomplish anything with his hobby.

The orientation film about the 7 ½ floor of the Mertin Flemmer building represents a crucial juncture in the film, as it has two functions: it is a turning point in the film, as Craig first sees Maxine while watching it, giving him a new goal to achieve. The second function it serves is providing a dangling cause, as the information in the film—seemingly useless at the time it is given—is indeed essential, and is revealed during the development, when Dr. Lester reveals that he is in fact Captain Mertin. Craig also uses the film as a means of conversing with Maxine. She dismisses it entirely, calling it “bullshit,” and the audience nods in agreement, not yet aware that the information provided in the orientation film will help explain things later on. With failure as a regular part of the routine, the set-up ends and the second act begins with the film’s most crucial plot point: Craig discovering the portal into Malkovich’s head. This discovery is the film’s complicating action and motivates the rest of the film.

In the second act of the film, tensions grow between Craig and Lotte as they both fight for Maxine’s affections. Both Craig and Lotte face obstacles when pursuing Maxine. Craig’s obstacle is that Maxine does not find him attractive and would rather keep their relationship on a professional level. Lotte’s obstacle is the fact that Maxine is attracted to Lotte “only in Malkovich.”

The complicating action ends and the development of the film begins when Craig locks Lotte up in a cage in order to go into the Malkovich portal and be with Maxine for the first time. This is a significant development in the film, as it demonstrates Craig’s desperation in achieving his goal. During this section, Lotte faces yet another obstacle, as Maxine rejects her after Maxine finds out that Craig has been visiting the portal. Maxine is intrigued by the fact that Craig can control Malkovich like a puppet.

The climax begins with the intertitle “Eight Months Later,” and we first see a pregnant Maxine decorating a nursery. Craig (as Malkovich), urges her to watch a television documentary about his puppetry career with him. This documentary continues the motif of thematic and narrative information conveyed through films, broadcasts, and performances. At this point, the audience is asked to equate puppetry with Craig’s success. This would make sense, because it shows that Craig has achieved his two main goals: to become a famous puppeteer, and to be with Maxine.

However, Craig watches the documentary alone, and we see a reemergence of Craig’s Lotte puppet. Maxine has put the puppet in the crib, strokes it lovingly, and whispers, “I’m so sorry” to it. This brief moment gives an indication of Maxine’s true feelings and hints at her main goal—to be with Lotte. In this instance, the puppet symbolizes Craig’s eventual downfall and failure to maintain his goals, while the Lotte puppet foreshadows Maxine’s success in achieving her goal by the end of the film. Craig also attends his Swan Lake performance alone, which is ironic because in achieving one goal (fame as a puppeteer), he has also failed at another (maintaining Maxine’s affections).

Dr. Lester is the crucial supporting character, as he provides the motivating action during the climax: he is responsible for both getting Craig out of the portal, as well as Lotte’s and Maxine’s ending up together. The most important part of the climax is the fact that Dr. Lester and his group have a specific deadline[3] to meet, and they will all die if they do not succeed in this goal. The use of a deadline in this instance is typical of classical Hollywood narrative principals, is it creates suspense and forces characters to take immediate action. The suspense is further drawn out because Lotte is supposed to join Dr. Lester in the portal, but she is unable to. However, Lotte’s life does not depend on whether or not she gets into the Malkovich vessel, unlike the other characters.

The denouement ties up all the loose ends neatly and economically: We find out what happens to the four main characters, as well as the supporting characters. Lotte and Maxine have reached their goal of being with each other, and they are seen with their seven-year-old daughter Emily. Craig has failed to reach his goal, as he missed the deadline that Dr. Lester met, and Craig is forever trapped in Emily’s subconscious and longing for Maxine.

There are a number of other dangling causes throughout the film. For example, when Craig and Lotte first have dinner at Dr. Lester’s house, Lotte finds a room dedicated entirely to Malkovich. This is disconcerting to the audience, as Lotte went through the portal for the first time while on the way to Dr. Lester’s house. However, this information is revisited during the development, after Maxine leaves Lotte for Craig. With nowhere else to go, Lotte visits Dr. Lester. This scene is interesting because it ties up two dangling causes from earlier scenes in the film—the information provided in the Mertin Flemmer orientation film, and the first dinner scene with Craig and Lotte at Dr. Lester’s.

Another scene that seems unimportant in the structure of the film occurs when Maxine sleeps with Malkovich (with Lotte in the portal) for the first time. This scene provides a dangling cause because an important piece of information revealed during the climax: Maxine tells Lotte she is the “father” of her baby, as Maxine got pregnant by Malkovich while Lotte was inside his portal for the fourth time. Maxine also reveals she kept the baby for this reason, and it provides another reason for Lotte and Maxine to stay together.

However, the film is unusual in its protagonist and character structure. The film begins with and maintains a single protagonist (Craig), but he has achieved his goals by the film’s climax. In order for the film to finish in a satisfying manner, characters, goals, and motivations need to shift during this section. Craig and Lotte, while not parallel protagonists during the film, are shown as similar right from the very beginning. They both have hobbies that involve taking care of or playing with human substitutes: Craig has his puppets and Lotte has her animals. Lotte’s chimpanzee Elijah is probably the closest thing she has to a child with Craig, as she expresses her desire to have a baby with him in the very first scene. They are both unkempt in their appearances, as they both have long, scraggly hair and wear inappropriately casual, unflattering clothing. Most importantly, they both have the same goal of winning over Maxine. This last goal can be seen quite explicitly in the scene where Maxine goes over to Craig and Lotte’s apartment for dinner. She sits in the middle of the couch, with Craig and Lotte on either side of her. In the shot/reverse shots of Craig and Lotte, their blocking and facial expressions are similar, as they both lean toward Maxine and grin anxiously. Craig and Lotte make moves on Maxine at the same time, and in this shot all three characters are in the frame, with Craig and Lotte’s blocking mirroring the other one.

Just as Craig and Lotte are set up with certain similarities, Lotte and Maxine are also presented in a parallel fashion. While it is unusual that separate characters (non-protagonists) become parallel protagonists over the course of the film, Lotte and Maxine have been established as opposites throughout the film.[4] Their parallelism is unusual, but they do fit into Thompson’s parallel protagonist guidelines. Lotte’s appearance is frumpy, as she has frizzy hair and wears chunky sweaters. Maxine’s appearance, on the other hand, is sleek and modern. Her hair is straight and flat, and she wears fashionable and slimming clothing in monochromatic colors (usually white, black, or red). They seem disparate at first, but as they grow closer, they are indeed fascinated with one another, even if this fascination is unequal.

By the film’s climax, there are subtle visual cues establishing Lotte and Maxine as similar. For example, both women wear skirts of similar length, an item of white clothing, and cardigans. Lotte’s white turtleneck echoes the outfit Maxine wore when we first saw her, and her cardigan and Maxine’s shirt in this scene are also part of a similar purple and pink color scheme. By the time both women are spit out of the portal, rain pours outside, and both women are caked in mud with messy, matted down hair. Even in their mess, both characters still resemble each other visually.

Lotte and Maxine’s personalities are also opposite one another, at least at first. From the beginning of the film, Lotte is established as being sweet and loving—she is concerned about her husband’s well being, she wants a baby, and she lovingly takes care of her menagerie. She is reserved, and does not confront her husband even after he locks her up. Conversely, Maxine consistently uses the other three main characters simply to give her pleasure and to feed her ego. Her speech and mannerisms are antagonistic, as she insults others and curses with aplomb.

By the film’s climax, their personalities begin to overlap. We do not see any compassion or loving emotions from Maxine until this point, when she decorates the nursery and apologizes to the puppet that looks like Lotte. Lotte also pulls a gun on Maxine and threatens her, and it is the first time in the film that Lotte expresses any real venom or hostility. After the women exit the portal, Lotte confronts Maxine. Rather than fighting back, Maxine acknowledges her misdeeds and the way she has hurt Lotte. By the scene’s end, they have professed their love for one another and make up. Craig meets up with them and declares his love for Maxine, and both women gleefully dismiss him, thus solidifying their overlapping characters.

Hollywood conventions constantly reinvent themselves, and Being John Malkovich is worth analyzing due to its inventive use and reworking of classical and non-classical Hollywood filmmaking techniques, such as narrative structure, protagonist and goal development, and plot twists. Movie-going audiences seek something different yet familiar, and Being John Malkovich achieves this balance in a sophisticated manner.


[1] The first act is 27 minutes long, the second act is 32 minutes long, the third act is 28 minutes long, and the climax/denouement is 18 minutes long.

[2] Kristin Thompson writes, “Hollywood films tend to convey information about deadlines, character traits, and indeed any sort of story factors redundantly” (p. 16). From Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique.

[3] They must get into the Malkovich portal by midnight on the eve of his 44th birthday.

[4] Thompson describes parallel protagonists as such: “[They] are usually strikingly different in their traits, and their lives initially have little or no connection. Yet early on in the action, one develops a fascination with the other and often even spies on him or her” (p. 46).

Published in: on October 3, 2010 at 6:29 PM  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hi Kate,

    This is a beautifully written article and I just finished watching the movie and was looking for an analysis and this was perfect.

    Kudos on a very well written piece.

    -Sridhar

  2. Great analysis. Charlie Kaufman’s unique brilliance is made very clear in this film.


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