Hailed as one of the most unique screen plays ever written, Charlie Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich tells the story of what might transpire if a portal into another man’s conscious experience were discovered. In the story, the talented but bizarre puppet master Craig Schwartz serendipitously discovers a miniature door that somehow transports him into the consciousness of the Hollywood actor, John Malkovich. After eight minutes of being Mr. Malkovich, Schwartz is spat out into a roadside field on the outskirts of town. Realizing the appeal of the opportunity to exist as someone else for a short period of time, Schwarz decides to sell a view of the insides of Malkovich’s head for $200 to any adventurous buyers. The film’s widespread appeal likely stems from a common curiosity concerning what it would be like to be someone else, and Kaufman skillfully addresses many of the issues associated with identity, self-awareness and control, and the apparent dichotomy between mind and body.
The film also poses a challenging question concerning the possibility that anybody ever could be anybody else. For example, it is revealed during the film that different tourists of Malkovich’s mind have differing abilities to manifest their personalities over his. For some, the experience is limited to viewing the world through his eyes, and hearing his thoughts, while others are able to take control of Malkovich’s body as a puppeteer, executing speech and actions as they please. This highlights the fact that tourists of Malkovich’s mind never actually become him – they are simply themselves in control of someone else’s body. Our current understanding of the brain suggests that disembodiment of this kind is impossible, and that in order to be in control of someone else’s body, your entire nervous system would have to be transplanted or interfaced with it. In principle, the right technologies could make such a transplant feasible, and there are already devices which have allowed researchers to puppet mice using remote control. Researchers at the University of Washington have even begun testing such systems on humans.
Another question that the film raises is whether or not being someone else would mean that the other person’s thoughts, feelings and cognitive processes would no longer be inaccessible. Perhaps they would become one’s own thoughts, feelings and cognitive processes. Your mode of existence would no longer consist of the habits and thought patterns that are constitutive of you – they would be someone else’s.But there is a problem with this. Presumably, if everything that is constitutive of you were replaced with that of someone else, there would be no “you” left to observe the difference. It seems that a door that could allow first-person access to another’s mind is not only physically impossible, but also logically impossible. Apparently, we have no choice but to be ourselves.