Being John Malkovich turns the ideas of screen theory into a narrative in order to draw criticism on spectatorship, and break down concepts such as the male gaze and the cinematic apparatus.
In the beginning of the film, Craig is living in the Imaginary, spending hours with his art. Lotte suggests to him that he should go out and find a real job, which he does at Lester Corp. But the Imaginary that Craig lives in is stable compared to the “real” world, or the Symbolic, where everything is seemingly off or strange. His apartment is filled with animals; the office where he works is on the 7 ½ floor, situated between the 7th and 8th floors with low ceilings; the people that he is surrounded by are all a little off, but perceive themselves as normal. When he enters into the portal, he once again enters into the Imaginary, finding that he prefers the stability and order of the Imaginary to the Symbolic. This is symbolic of films and the pleasure of going to see films. The real world that we live in is chaotic and strange, causing people to feel out of place. When we step into the cinema (through the “portal”) we enter into the Imaginary created by films. There is a pleasurable aspect in going to the movies, in the escapism of believing that the Imaginary is more “real” than the real world.
Malkovich is a stand-in for the cinematic apparatus, and also for the object of fetishization. Casting an actor to play himself was a choice made by the filmmakers that plays into the self-aware nature of the film. It would have been simple to allow the portal to go into any average person, but since the film is an attempt to form a narrative around screen theory, it was necessary to cast someone like John Malkovich. The portal itself is symbolic of the camera, as it transports us to the imaginary world that we see. The theater is recreated inside of Malkovich’s mind. It is dark, the spectator is virtually immobile and what Malkovich sees is symbolic of the screen. Like we would during a film, we see things happening on the “screen”, which creates a believable reality for the spectators. Lastly, we have the spectators who are inside Malkovich, watching his daily routine. The portal would be useless without someone to travel through it into the imaginary.
Malkovich is also the object of fetish for the people who visit Malkovich. When people look through Malkovich’s eyes, they often only see parts of him, usually his hands and arms, sometimes his legs or torso. When Lotte goes through the portal, she watches Malkovich in the shower, finding pleasure in watching his naked form. It makes sense that Malkovich is the object of fetish instead of Maxine, even though both Craig and Lotte desire her. As Lotte describes Malkovich and his portal after having dinner at Lester’s house, she says that it is Malkovich’s vagina. It is...