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Sceneplay: Being John Malkovitch

by Hilary Aked

In a film directed by Spike Jonze with a flawless screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, you learn to expect some truly strange and comic moments, but this one takes the biscuit. One scene from Being John Malkovich, which flies gloriously out of leftfield-nowhere, takes place directly after a superficially sentimental moment between pathetic loser Craig (John Cusack) and his wife, Lottie (Cameron Diaz). He realises he has become the husband from hell – "What have I become? My wife’s in a cage with a monkey". Indeed she is, yet she reassures him that he is "not a monster, just a very confused man". Husband and wife say they love each other, and he walks over to the cage.

Rather than releasing her from her imprisonment however, he makes a phone call, forcing Lottie, at gun-point, to talk to his colleague Maxine, with whom they are both infatuated. A meet-up is arranged, incidentally, through a portal leading to John Malkovich’s brain. Weird and wonderful, it’s also flaunting the absurdity of the characters’ behaviour and situation.

Hints have been occasionally dropped that Lottie’s pet chimpanzee, Elijah, suffers from "suppressed childhood trauma" of an unspecified nature. He is seeing a psychotherapist, we gather, but these allusions are too minor to warrant the title ‘subplot’. However, everything we weren’t really wondering is revealed to us when Elijah watches his beloved owner struggling to free herself from the ropes which bind her wrists. Suddenly, the camera begins to zoom in on Elijah. His eyes are narrowed; his moment of glory has arrived. Piano music surges and is then superseded by – what else? – bongo drums. We are in his memory, in a verdant jungle; the picture is blurry and overexposed. Looking at the world from Elijah’s point of view, from high up in a tree, the camera lurches about in a frenzy, witnessing the capture of two other monkeys by poachers: Elijah’s parents. We hear frantic monkey noises, panting, the sound of feet running, and men shouting. Elijah approaches his captive parents, and subtitles translate their fearful, squealed message: "Son, untie your father and me…quickly! Before they return!" We see a small pair of chimp hands enter into the frame and struggle to untie the ropes, but to no avail. Enlightened as to the special resonance of the challenge ahead, we cut back to the apartment where Elijah shakes off the memory and determinedly sets to work on Lottie’s bonds, freeing her to a backdrop of poignant strings.

The flashback itself lasts less than a minute, but it’s a priceless interruption. An abrupt, violent and potentially disturbing scene, hilariously undercut by the subtitles and context. Although totally superfluous to the main plot, it if far from an unnecessary throwaway scene; brilliantly bizarre moments like this make the movie.

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