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Reviewing Movies Like it’s 1999: BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and BRINGING OUT THE DEAD

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Ooof- apologies dear readers because I’ve decidedly been slacking on my Reviewing Movies like it’s 1999 column for the month of October.  Reason being that it’s spooky season so I’ve dedicated some hours and brain matter to doing my annual 31 days of horror movie watching, which if you’re inclined you can read/ catch up on at the 4/20 Massacre fbook page.  But don’t fret, because I did manage to carve out some time to watch a couple ‘99 releases. The weirder than weird Being John Malkovich (released October 29, ’99) and the Scorsese/ Cage/ Schrader gritty and grim Bringing out the Dead (which dropped into cinemas October 22nd).

Being John Malkovich is the type of movie that movie pundits say is hard to imagine would get made today and one of the reasons why ’99 is considered such a banner year for “real cinema”.  It’s a decently budgeted art house film with movie stars and an original script full of big ideas and a decidedly downbeat ending.  This wacked out idea came from the mind of Charlie Kaufman, who would continue to pen strikingly creative mind melts in the years to come like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synecdoche, New York.  But a lot of the credit for the film can be bestowed on director, Spike Jonze. Who was having a hell of a ’99 turning out a stand out performance in front of the camera for the subversive war meets heist film Three Kings (which we discussed last month).  Malkovich marked Jonze’s directorial debut after making a name for himself directing some well regarded music videos for the likes of Daft Punk and The Beastie Boys.  This was at a juncture when MTV was at its peak cultural influence and was the key purveyor of cutting edge artistic expression in music and film- and Jonze was one of its most exciting creators.  In fact, I would argue that the Jonze directed The Beastie Boys video for Sabotage is the most iconic example of the format outside of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. 


The concept of a music video/ commercial director “graduating” to big budget studio feature films reached something of an echelon in ’99.  For a while this method of plucking hot young directors from the “short format” world was somewhat rare and looked down upon.  But it was eventually legitimized by the producer duo of Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson who had hired advertising and commercial specialist Tony Scott to direct Top Gun (which marked one of the first films to embrace the so-called “MTV look”).  About ten years later, the producers recruited another commercial director to inject some energy in a by-the-numbers buddy cop script.  Among other things, this filmmaker helmed a TV ad which created such a huge cultural footprint that it entered into our everyday lexicon (not seen since probably “Where’s the Beef?”). It was the “Got Milk?” Aaron Burr spot and the director was Michael Bay, who is the most known and monetarily successful music-video-turned-feature-film director of all time.  So leading up ’99, studios were mostly getting these commercial/ music video guys to add some extra flair to the waning 80s action flick.  Then in the “best year in movies” two of these directors did more to blow people’s minds instead of blowing stuff up.  Spike Jonze and David Fincher (who made Fight Club which- don’t worry- we’ll talk about soon enough) were visually daring craftsmen that were taking “out there” ideas/ concepts/ methods and making movies that were all at once unique and controversial.  In short, ’99 represented an evolution of the music-video-turned-feature-film director from making “flashy mindless junk” to something approaching high art.

Being John Malkovich is one of the key films of ’99 that has been attributed to “cubicle cinema“- a theme reflected in other exemplary films from that year which include Office Space (discussed February), The Matrix (covered in March) and Fight Club (review coming soon).  Each of these films have a protagonist that begins the story as a disaffected “everyman” (read: white male) and the film deals with these sad sacks struggling with their perception of dwindling importance, vitality, and purpose.  And so their place of work (soulless and repressive buildings herding people into cubicle work pens) becomes a metaphor for stripping them of their worth and individuality in the name of “productivity”.  In Malkovich, the office ceiling is absurdly pushing down on these workers to “cut overhead” thus physically repressing and forcing them to hunch over to make their way through life.  The result is that the “everyman” doesn’t find fulfillment or identity from their job- so they attempt to fill that void through the accumulation of material goods.  Or as best paraphrased in Fight Club; “Working a job you hate- to buy shit you don’t need”.


The point is that “white guys” in general were angry (and still are) because despite the late 90s (retrospectively) being a time of peace and prosperity there was a palpable atmosphere of anger- fear- and an identity crisis which was manifested in these “cubicle movies”.  But it was also being expressed in music of the era (Gangsta/ Shock Rap, Marilyn Manson, Korn, Limp Bizkit, etc.).  And in ’99, this underlying angst and reflection in popular entertainment would collide in two shocking events.  The Columbine mass shooting was perpetrated by two kids who were said to be fans of violent movies (Matrix), music (Marilyn Manson) and video games (Doom).  Woodstock ’99 devolved into a series of sexual assaults and violence perpetrated by (mostly) white guys who were rocking out to Limp Bizkit and other similar acts who performed during the music festival of “love and peace”.  And for the most part these movies/ entertainers were used as scapegoats for these horrific events rather than being seen as emblematic of something “very rotten in Denmark” (i.e. America).


On one hand it can be said that we (white dudes) don’t really have anything to complain about.  But there’s something to be said of a society where directionless males are spoon fed a certain image and concept of success without having the emotional tools and means to accept or deal when life doesn’t work out the way it’s “supposed to”.  And I think it’s the fault with human nature (which is universal for any sex/ gender/ culture) that when people are disatisfied with themselves they blame and/ or lash out at others for their predictament.  The issue with “angry white guy violence” now that we’ve had years of mass shootings and the imbalance of our very democracy is that when the “everyman” decides to snap it’s particularly destructive.  Because I guess the point is to make a statement- to get attention- and to be seen and heard. 

But going back to “cubicle cinema”, Being John Malkovich is unique amongst these ’99 movies because in some ways it is forward thinking and more honest with its depiction of the “everyman”.  In Office Space, the protagonist ultimately “sticks it to the man” and finds meaning/ purpose with blue collar construction work.  In The Matrix, Neo sheds the societal restraints imposed on him to rise above and become literal Kung Fu Jesus.  Fight Club is more critical of “toxic masculinity” but there’s a certain degree of wish fulfillment and it’s generally regarded that the larger point was missed by many audiences.  However in Malkovich, the main character played by John Cusack may not think he’s a “bad guy” and generally appears to be sympathetic as presented in the narrative.  But “actions speak louder than words” because he leeches off his wife (Cameron Diaz doing the “ugly because she has frazzled hair and wears glasses” thing) represses her desires and at one point locks her in a cage so that he can get what he wants- which ends ups amounting to rape.  It is the one film of ’99 “cubicle cinema” that makes the case that the “everyman” getting what he wants over everyone else is an unfair and a self absorbed motivation.  Even when the “everyman” gets what they want it doesn’t necessarily improve themselves or the people around them, it just tips the scales in their favor.  But in the end they are just as hollow and unfulfilled as they were before.


Which brings up another theme of the film, which is also rather depressingly predictive of our current state of affairs, the idea of using someone as a vessel to live the life we want or feel that we deserve.  The characters in the film find a doorway in which they are able to enter the body of character actor John Malkovich (and btw his participation in this film has got to be one of the best “good sport” performances ever along with an extended cameo from Charlie Sheen playing himself and nearly stealing the show).  And so our desire to live “someone else’s life” via avatars points to an extreme dissatisfaction within ourselves.  And now that social media has allowed us to more or less “be John Malkovich” it feels as if we have supercharged this internal vulnerability.  It has always been there, but now it seems like we are living some varied version of ourselves everyday.  So I think what Being John Malkovich is ultimately saying is that we need to find happiness within ourselves and not be selfish in our pursuit of it…  Or maybe it’s just weird.

As it’s been said ’99 was absolutely filthy with interesting and groundbreaking films from up and coming filmmakers like Jonze/Fincher/the Wachowskis etc.  But the “old guard” (i.e. legendary directors that made names for themselves in the 70/ 80s) were also in the mix producing interesting and worthy efforts.  These are films that may not make many people’s “Top 5” lists but they can be argued to be underrated/ overlooked on their respective directors’ filmographies.  Spike Lee‘s Summer of Sam (discussed in July)- The Straight Story the most non Lynchian movie David Lynch ever made (released by Disney!)- Oliver Stone‘s decadent football melodrama Any Given Sunday (which I’m hoping to get to in December)- and the film under discussion for today- Martin Scorsese‘s Bringing Out the Dead.


Bringing out the Dead reunited Scorsese with screenwriter Paul Schrader and many saw the film as something of a spiritual sequel to their other collaboration Taxi Driver.  Both are set in New York City, take place mostly at night, with neon lights reflecting off the rain soaked and grimy streets, and everything is overrun by drugs, poverty, prostitution, and human desperation.  Both films’ are character studies that deal with “a driver” navigating through this Hell and details their gradual mental deterioration.  They try to crawl out of the darkness, but mostly just get sucked further in.

This marked Nicolas Cage‘s second “super dark and depressing film” of the year following 8MM (which we discussed back in February and apparently he turned down the Clooney part in Three Kings to do this film instead).  Here Cage plays a Paramedic that faces nothing but death every night.  He’s distressed that he doesn’t save more lives and begins seeing these “ghosts” of the people he couldn’t help.  This trauma mixed with sleep deprivation and stress are beginning to take their toll on his psyche.  But eventually Cage finds a path for redemption through a grieving woman (Patricia Arquette) who is effectively waiting for her father to die, a man that Cage “saved”.  Meanwhile the film presents the varied paths Cage’s character could take via the different partner he drives with each shift.  John Goodman approaches it as a blue collar job where you punch in and out and don’t get emotionally involved.  Ving Rhames finds spiritual meaning amongst all the chaos.  And Tom Sizmore represents the worst case scenario as a self destructive sociopath.  By the end, Cage seems to accept that his role as a Paramedic is to not necessarily “save lives” but guide people to their deaths.  Or as said in the film, to “witness” their passing for their loved ones and society.

So first off, it’s friggin’ Scorsese so I’m not going to try and criticize one of the undisputed “masters of cinema” who has turned in true blue classics both before and after this film.  But suffice to say Bringing Out the Dead is a “lesser” Scorsese (for me).  The schizophrenic editing/ music selections make the movie feel like the last cocaine induced act of Goodfellas but in this case it reaches levels of distraction.  But I think Patricia Arquette’s casting might be the biggest drawback.  Now I love Arquette and think she’s a fantastic actor.  But it seems the role is written for a character to be a more fragile/ lost “recovering drug addict” that Cage should want to try and rescue.  But I think Arquette comes across as too much of a strong/ stabilizing person.  So I’m not sure what the choice/ decision was with that role but the movie seems to be lacking the “love story redemption” aspect and therefore it doesn’t make the rest of the film quite click into place for me.  That said, even a “lesser Scorsese” is infinitely fascinating and worthy of exploration and interpretation.  


Thanks for reading.  We’re getting into the home stretch with these ’99 Reviews and I’m going to have to make some tough decisions- but we’ll definitely talk about Fight Club and maybe one other film next time.

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