Being John Malkovich: Self Investigation

April 26, 2012

Philosophy of Mind

Original Date: November 29, 2010

The film, Being John Malkovich, investigates the proposition of defining self. There are two recognizable methods used through the movie explaining possible, yet incomplete definitions of self. The obvious method suggests the self is separate from the physicality of bodies. Duality of mind and body is an outdated concept, but its stamina credits to another method that conglomerates the self through extensions of minds. This definition of self remains incomplete because conglomeration defines individual constituents. The complete self has remained a bit of a mystery due to the inability to physically locate it.

The plot begins to take off when Craig Schwartz (Jack Cusack) finds employment with Dr. Lester (Orson Bean) to work in a quirky Manhattan office with low-hanging ceilings. This is encouraging for Craig because his wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz), wanted him to find a regular job instead of waiting for a boom in the puppeteer business. After a movie orientation Craig meets Maxine (Catherine Keener). He becomes completely infatuated with Maxine in a matter of minutes. He consistently attempts to ask her out without any luck until Craig discovers the portal to John Malkovich’s mind. Craig explains that he was able to feel, see and hear what John Malkovich was experiencing. Instead of questioning the plausibility of this experience, Maxine develops a plan to exploit Craig’s discovery. Craig’s infatuation makes him a business partner. The two begin to sell tickets to the portal.

The notion that one self can enter into a separate body while having the same sense of agency seems unlikely. This assumption confines the self to being an invisible entity with no explanation of why or how. If the idea of a self extends beyond our physical world, then there is no way that it could be experienced. If such a portal exists, the probability of Craig’s spirit escaping his pineal gland to crash into John Malkovich’s body is much more unlikely than his body and John’s body to somehow fuse together. A body experiences a sense of self based upon its structure. Different structures are believed to have different senses of self. So either way, if Craig’s invisible self left his body in thin air to enter John Malkovich, or if the physical bodies fused as one; the experience of self would be different as to that no one could truly experience being John Malkovich. Clark and Chalmers point out that change in external feature leads to the possibility of behavior completely altering (Chalmers, 645). Body structures that are dissimilar, such as a short person and a very tall person, may still have the same behaviors but there is no way each self has the same experiences.

Lotte is unable to keep away once she learns of the portal. The idea of being a man fascinates Lotte, and coincidently becomes extremely attracted to Maxine.  Maxine will reciprocate the attraction under the condition that Lotte is inside Malkovich. Maxine’s house-wrecking skills eventually lead to jealousy. Craig was so upset about Lotte and Maxine that he kidnapped Lotte, and then began to control John Malkovich through his puppeteer skills. This displaces the duality theme momentarily. If the mental attributes of Craig  combine together physically with the body of John, then neither self: Craig or John, would exist. A new self would emerge into being. Craig’s self would cease to be what it was prior because his experience would be coupled with the sensations of Malkovich. Through this scenario, the self that is now part of Malkovich’s body would be an extension of both the experiences of Craig and John.
Lotte escapes to learn what has happened between Maxine and Craig. Lotte decides to seek guidance from Dr. Lester who has a room dedicated entirely to the life of John Malkovich. Lotte learns that Dr. Lester has been able to perpetuate his self for many years because he is able to enter different host bodies. He explains that you can only go into the portal at a specific time. Otherwise you may end up doomed to spend the rest of your life watching the world through someone else’s eyes. If Dr. Lester believes his self is able to extend beyond one body to the next, then he is already doomed because his identity is an intangible self with no means of experiencing its own tangible existence.

The film ends with Maxine and Lotte getting together to raise their child, Emily, whom had been conceived while Lotte was inside of Malkovich. Unfortunately, Craig did not hear Dr. Lester’s warning about entering the portal on time so he ended up trapped within Emily.

Works Cited

Being John Malkovich. Dir. Spike Jonze. Perf. John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, John Malkovich. Universal, 1999. Netflix.

“The Extended Mind.” Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings. Comp. David John Chalmers. New York: Oxford UP,     2002. Print.


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