What is it like to be John Malkovich?

Postgraduate Journal of Aesthetics 7 (2):10-25 (2010)
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To what extent can film - or individual films - act as a vehicle of or forum for philosophy itself?. Many have responded that films can indeed do philosophy to a substantial degree. Furthermore, it has been claimed that this virtue does not belong solely to ‘art’ films, but that popular cinema too can do philosophy. A case in point is Spike Jonze’s 1999 film Being John Malkovich, the Oscar-winning screenplay of which was written by Charlie Kaufman. The outrageous premise of this comic fantasy is summarised by the film’s protagonist, Craig Schwartz: "There's a tiny door in my office Maxine. It's a portal, and it takes you inside John Malkovich. You see the world through John Malkovich's eyes. And then, after about fifteen minutes, you're spit out into a ditch on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike." The philosophical issues that this scenario raises are manifold. My primary aim in this paper is to follow the film through its exploration of subjectivity, clarifying its insights with the aid of current philosophical work on the topic. Hopefully, this will enhance our understanding both of subjectivity, and of the philosophical relevance of the film. A secondary goal of this enquiry is to provide a clear example of film-as-philosophy, perhaps demonstrating how film contributes something to the philosophical forum that an academic text cannot.

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Tom McClelland
Cambridge University


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