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Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute & Society

Being John Malkovich, or "How can I be Two People at Once When I'm Not Anyone at All?"

By Marc Rosen

“Being John Malkovich” is a film much like a dream—the ordinary and surreal, bizarre and mundane, all condensed into one story. It even ends as dreams often end, with a confused, ambiguous resolution to a weird, convoluted story. It’s easy for the viewer to get lost in the zany images, ideas, puns, drama and trauma that gave rise to the story.

Craig, the dreamer who dreams this story, is the model of a man who falls defeated in his ambitions. He’s a bitter, aspiring artist, envious of the success of others but unable to assert his artistic energy sufficiently to succeed himself. He can only assert himself through hiding and deceit. Maxine’s every word to Craig is delivered with a sharp tongue aimed at cutting him down. The film offers numerous allusions and images to depict Craig as diminished and castrated—tiny people in the guise of puppets and dwarfs, the shortened ceiling at Lestercorp, even his hunched posture that reduces his stature. Craig’s relationship to his wife is void of passion. He demurs from impregnating her, and their relationship has the cast of an adolescent embraced by a hovering mother.

Craig consummates his passion only when he inhabits the body of a celebrity. To achieve this, he evokes the image of a man dwarfed in relation to a large membranous canal. In displaying his work on the streets of New York, he manages to get himself beat up, not for the first time. And what is he is performing in that play? The story of Abelard and Heloise. Abelard was a French logician and theologian who, in the twelfth century, fell in love with his student Heloise. He impregnated her and they secretly wed. He was then hunted down and castrated by Heloise’s uncles at the behest of her father who had sought revenge. As such, allusions to actual castration and symbols of castration abound and offer a rich venue for psychoanalytic interpretation.

What propels Craig’s castration anxiety? A clue appears in the abundant representations of the primal scene throughout the film. Primal scene, of course, refers to the actual viewing, or some argue, fantasizing, by the child of parents’ sexual play. If a child is overwhelmed or overstimulated, he or she is likely as an adult to show signs of the trauma in thought, action or fantasy. The film suggests a connection between primal scene representations and castration themes. In essence, we can surmise that Craig’s diminutive self represents his painful infantile experience of the primal scene and its persistent elaborations in his adult life.

As one example of primal scene imagery, Craig performs the Abelard and Heloise play before a small child. She is transfixed and excitedly calls her father over. As such, Craig is exposing a child to compelling and mysterious adult eroticism, which gets him punished. The very act of quietly sneaking into the brain of a celebrity to spy on his private activities has the quality of a child sneaking around to discover what the adults are doing. Craig’s first visit into Malkovich has these qualities, though in a sort of dream reversal. Here, Craig is hidden in Malkovich’s brain where it is serene and mundane only to be expelled onto the chaos of the New Jersey Turnpike. One might speculate that what’s reversed is the image of a child expelled from the noisy chaos of the parents’ bedroom into the quiet outside. Of course, birth trauma is also a compelling allusion here, but we rarely find a womb with a view.

The most direct representation of primal scene witnessing comes when Lottie and Maxine chase one another though Malkovich’s mind. We see a tour of his memory (memory portrayed as direct veridical events, not hazy screens or symbolizations) that starts with a primal scene depiction. It continues with images of a boy struggling with feelings of inadequacy, and subject to repeated humiliation, who becomes a man whose celebrity is a thin consolation for the pain of humiliation and rejection. As such, Malkovich’s celebrity represents what Craig bitterly has rejected but secretly has longed to have. Craig, like Malkovich as a boy and a young man, also suffers from being the outsider, watching others having all the fun. Malkovich, however, achieves celebrity while Craig remains an envious, bitter street puppeteer.

Ironically, the very act of watching a movie—seeing without being seen, looking without prohibition—is central to our enjoyment of film. Boundaries that separate the audience from the performers are suspended. This is analogous to the primal scene experience. It exemplifies how art, especially the performing arts, is a socially acceptable sublimation of what we can surmise is a universal curiosity.

An additional psychoanalytic spin on the story concerns the bisexual, transgendered transformations of the characters. Melanie Klein proposed that primal scene represents to a child a single entity comprised of two genders. Others have illustrated the influence of primal scene on fantasies of bisexuality, especially during the phallic period of development. (The girl viewing Abelard and Heloise seemed approximately that age.) The primal scene, then, can offer an imprint of a primary fantasy around which a bisexual identification is solidified. Such a view recalls Irene Fast’s model of gender identity, which suggests that, developmentally, the child refines his or her gender identity by an often painful disavowal of aspects of the other gender. Thus the film portrays a fantasy of a bi-gendered existence in which the painful recognition of biological limitations of gender and of mortality is playfully denied. The film concludes with the fantasy that you can have it all: immortality, celebrity and a bi-gendered existence.