Term Paper: Pulp Fiction, by Director Quentin

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[. . .] The film's narration is told primarily from the point-of-view of Craig, a down and out "artiste" of the puppet world, forced to get a day job by his washed-out veterinarian wife, Lotte. He ends up as file clerk in a bizarre company due to the agility of his hands. When a file falls behind a cabinet, he makes a plot-point discovery. The cabinet hides a door to a portal, that when entered, transports the person inside the head of John Malkovich, a stage actor. After fifteen minutes of literally seeing what John Malkovich sees and feeling what John Malkovich feels, the portal unceremoniously dumps the person on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. Driven by this premise, "Being John Malkovich," is a movie that can be seen as "about" many things, including "society's celebrity addiction... good old voyeurism.... our urge to manipulate other people; and... our desire to be someone else, if only for 15 minutes" (Baltake). To build the story world of the film, Jonez utilizes a surreal narratorial style that verges on stream of consciousness, a mise-en-scene with both ironic and humorous aspects, razor-edge editing, and a dark, surreal cinematographic feel that plays into the overall themes of the film.

Surreal is defined as "having the intense irrational reality of a dream" and surrealism as "the principle of... producing fantastic or incongruous imagery or effects... By means of unnatural juxtaposition and combinations" (Webster, 1164). These definitions precisely describe the techniques utilized by Kaufman when putting together the dialogue and other aspects of narration for this movie. The viewer is literally buffeted by bizarre effect after bizarre effect, realizing very quickly the world of "Being John Malkovich" has its own rules of logic. For example, as Craig enters the filing office for his job interview, the secretary simply cannot understand what he is saying and mistakes his name and every comment that he makes. Craig attempts to correct her, but fails miserably. During his interview, Craig learns that the secretary's distorted hearing is considered truth, as the boss believes he has a speech impediment based on his secretary's misperception. That is simply the way the world is. As illogic after illogic piles up, the sum total is a dream world, one that certainly comes close to a nightmare for Craig, who represents the viewer's point-of-view.

These aspects of the film are pushed even further by the use of surreal mise-en-scene as well. The movie opens with an excellent example of this, the puppet play of Craig (as the marionette and the puppeteer) raging in a dance against despair and disillusionment. The juxtaposition of a marionette battling against his strings sets up a primary theme of the movie: control. A second good example of a surreal mise-en-scene is the location of Craig's new office on the 7 1/2 floor of the building, where the ceilings are only half a floor high. Supposedly build by the loving husband of a midget, to give her one place where her "cursed form" can be comfortable, the floor now houses offices that need to keep a "low overhead." Jokes aside, this setting forces everyone to stoop, visually emphasizing the low self-esteem of Craig, Lotte, and the other customers who line up to spend fifteen minutes as John. This bizarre office space is home to a further example of surreal mise-en-scene -- the portal. A long, birth-like tunnel that is compared to a vagina by Lotte, it is organically damp and deposits a type of mucus on the persons who use it. That such a primally symbolic place should exist behind an office cabinet, and it should lead to John Malkovich's head, is a central surrealist aspect of the film.

An additional telling aspect of the film is its use for tight, dark spaces and low lighting for almost every scene. This lends a highly claustrophobic feel for much of the movie, an appropriate result for a film about being "inside" someone else's head. For example, Craig and Lotte live in a basement apartment and the scattering of lamps cannot come close to making the cluttered, animal-filled, neighbor-breathing-down-their-necks home appear comfortable or welcoming. The realist grime of the film pervades the hair, make-up, and costumes of both Craig and Lotte, contrasting with the cool outward indifference of Maxine and, to a certain extent, John Malkovich. Much of the film takes place at night, logically because the business of the portal cannot be run during the day, but the constant dark and damp of the portal users layers itself over the oppressed and rather tight view of the movie. The use of so many closed spaces, such as Craig and Lotte's apartment and the fisheye-narrowed perspective out of John Malkovich's head, gives a very narrow view to the visual images of this movie.

A further factor that contributes to the surrealist feel of the film is the film's editing. The majority of the scenes are cut to the quick, stopping the dialogue the minute that the point of the scene is reached, sometimes even before. This makes the early scenes between Craig and Lotte feel like much is left unsaid, and is a testament to the lack of communication in their marriage. The tight editing also provides a time lapse feel to some of the scenes, particularly in the early part of the film. This contributes to the lack of an overall strong linear story line and provides a slightly random character to the scene sequences, intensifying the surreal feel of the entire film. Thus, to most strongly express the off-kilter story world of "Being John Malkovich," and to keep the film moving quickly, editing is used to jump the viewer from situation to situation, heightening the dreamlike quality of the film.

All of these characteristics ultimately combine to provide Jonez with a method of making social comments. It pokes fun at society's reverence of celebrity, even for second layer actors, who people can not even remember what films they were in. The movie comments upon the desire to watch others and how much people will pay to be outside their own bodies, even for fifteen minutes. Further, in Craig's puppeteering, using puppets, his wife, or John Malkovich, all makes a statement about the effect of control on relationships. Ultimately, this movie can be seen as a fable without a moral, however, because none of these issues are resolved by any of the characters in the movie -- except maybe for Elijah the chimpanzee, who does come to grips with the childhood trauma of his capture. But even without any answers, "Being John Malkovich" is an interesting film that utilizes a surrealist narratorial style, a number of surreal aspects in the mise-en-scene, dark, tight spaces, and sharp editing techniques, to provides a story world that symbolically has something to say about control, celebrity, voyeurism, and the desire to be someone else, anyone else -- even John Malkovich.


Ebert, Robert. "The Secrets of Pulp Fiction (5/95)." God Among Directors Web Site. 10 Dec. 2002. http://www.godamongdirectors.com/tarantino/faq/secrets.html.

Elliot, Peter. "Funny disturbing fable has off-beat premise." Anglican Journal. Dec. 1999. 10 Dec. 2002. http://www.anglicanjournal.com/125/10/af08.html.

Hassler-Forest, Dan. "Multiple Narratives Structures in Contemporary Cinema." 10 Dec. 2002. http://www.euronet.nl/users/mcbeijer/dan/mns/.

Jonze, Spike, dir. Being John Malkovich. John Cusak, perf. 1999. DVD. USA Entertainment. 2001.

LaFrance, J.D.P. "The Originality of Quentin Tarantino." God Among Directors Web Site. 10 Dec. 2002. http://www.godamongdirectors.com/tarantino/originality.html.

O'Brien, Harvey. "Being John Malcovich (1999)." 10 Dec. 2002. http://indigo.ie/~obrienh/bjm.htm.

O'Hier, Andrew. "Being John Malcovich. Director Spike Jonze Puts His Brilliantly Offbeat Twist On The '15 Minutes of Fame' Theory." Salon.com Arts & Entertainment. Oct. 29, 1999. 10 Dec. 2002. http://www.salon.com/ent/movies/review/1999/10/29/malkovich/index.html.

Sragow, Michael. "Being Charlie Kaufman." Salon.com Arts & Entertainment. Nov. 1, 1999. 10 Dec. 2002. http://www.salon.com/ent/col/srag/1999/11/11/kaufman/.

Surreal." Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary. 1981.

Surrealism." Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary. 1981.

Tarantino, Quentin, dir. Pulp Fiction. 1994. DVD. Miramax, 1998.

Tatara, Paul. "Being John Malcovich -- reality bitten." CNN.com Entertainment. http://www.cnn.com/SHOWBIZ/Movies/9911/03/review.malkovich/.

Villella, Fiona. "Circular Narratives: Highlights of Popular Cinema in the 90s." Senses of Cinema Web Site. 10 Dec. 2002. http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/00/3/circular.html. [END OF PREVIEW]

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