Malkovich through his own eyes

Being John Malkovich (15) | Spike Jonze | 112 mins | Trailer A Clockwork Orange (18); Stanley Kubrick; 136 mins
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The Independent Culture

There currently exists a strain of American filmmaking that I would call "avant-garde lite". While the great majority of Hollywood directors have learnt to content themselves with the lazy cloning of the same half-dozen weary old plot-lines, a handful of adventurous souls have, almost surreptitiously, been mining their way to a vein of new and sometimes surprisingly complex narrative structures. The prototype of the genre, if such it is, was Harold Ramis's Groundhog Day, but also worth mentioning are Ramis's less successful Multiplicity, Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys, Peter Weir's The Truman Show and Gary Ross's Pleasantville.

The latest, and arguably most original, example is Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich. It's a film, indeed, of such jaw-dropping originality that its flaws - and it definitely has some - count for far less than they otherwise would. And since its narrative is so screwy, so very corkscrewy, that the ideal spectator is one with next to no advance knowledge of its twists and turns, I'll confine my synopsis to what is already, so to speak, in the public domain. So: its protagonist is a puppeteer (an unrecognisably hirsute John Cusack) who, in the office where he moonlights as a filing clerk, chances upon a minute, just-about-navigable door behind which is a tunnel leading to the inside of John Malkovich's head. Once in that head, he is permitted to experience exactly a quarter of an hour of life as lived by Malkovich - the Warholian 15 minutes of fame, in short, except that it's someone else's fame - before being ejected on a scrubby wasteland near the New Jersey turnpike. And that's not the half of it.

Yes, the film pays lip service to all the expected modish themes - celebrity, identity, gender, what have you - but that's not why it's so enjoyable. Nor is it because of its mise-en-scene. Jonze is a veteran of rock promos who, although he has thankfully jettisoned all the hyperkinetic stylistics which made his reputation, hasn't yet found a distinctive alternative. He has talent, but nothing as yet that could be termed a real sensibility.

Ultimately, the film has two heroes. The first is its screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman. Normally, when anything goes in a film, nothing goes; yet, manipulating a narrative that isn't just quirky but is nothing but quirks, Kaufman contrives to invest it throughout (or practically throughout) with its own Carrollian logic and consistency. And the other hero is Malkovich himself, who sends up his image with a reckless, possibly imprudent nonchalance - I'm thinking in particular of the amazing scene in which we explore his pants-wetting, panty-sniffing "unconscious" - that will for ever alter our perception of him both as an actor and as a human being.

The reasons for Stanley Kubrick's 30-year suppression of his own A Clockwork Orange have received such wide coverage (by Blake Morrison, notably, in this paper two weeks ago) that no one surely needs reminding of them here. Nor is it easy to be objective about its quality. For me it's one of those meant-to-be films whose refutation of every conceivable criticism has been pre-programmed into the work itself. If I propose that it's a visual eyesore, I'm told that that's what it's meant to be. Its characters are dimensionless sitcom caricatures? Meant to be. And its use of classical music on the soundtrack plumbs hitherto unfathomed depths of crassness and vulgarity? Meant to be, etc. At the same time, I have to acknowledge that others feel very differently.

Whatever one's opinion, however, by far the most interesting fact about the film is how little its shock value has been diminished by the passage of time.

But then, there's a strangely ahistorical quality to cinematic controversy. A few years ago I saw, for the first time, No Orchids for Miss Blandish, a British-made adaptation of James Hadley Chase's notoriously sadistic thriller. In its day - 1948 - it was regarded as the unsurpassable apogee of screen violence and was actually banned for many years. Watched nowadays, it's a joke, except that, since the modern spectator cannot help reinstating it within its own historical context, it does continue, obscurely, to shock - maybe for no better reason than that the victim of its violence is not, say, William H Macy but Sidney James. Similarly, if the so-called pre-Code comedies that Hollywood turned out in the 1930s, before the puritanical Hays Office imposed rigid guidelines on what could or couldn't be shown on the screen, still startle us with their (all very dated) lasciviousness, it's simply because, only two or three years later, it would have been unthinkable for Bette Davis and Myrna Loy to get away with the doubles entendres they mouth so sexily and cheerfully in these films.

Which is what is astonishing about A Clockwork Orange. If it continues to shock, it's not just that we necessarily project ourselves back to the less tolerant period of its original release. I'm no connoisseur, but its scenes of rape, brutality and general thuggishness seem to me as dangerously seductive today as they must have seemed to Kubrick three decades ago. And, because of their ghoulish glamour, they also strike me, as they apparently do Julian Senior, Kubrick's confidant at Warners, as morally repugnant. The difference between us is that that's enough to disqualify the film for me, but not for Senior, who, again in this paper, was quoted on it thus: "The fact that it is morally repugnant doesn't matter because it worked." Ah yes - no doubt the very same words used by Roman impresarios whenever someone ventured to suggest that it might be wrong to feed Christians to the lions. It doesn't matter because it works!

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