on the Influence of Surrealism in the Early Work by Spike Jonze: A Critical Analysis of “How They Get There” (1997) and“Being John Malkovich” (1999)

Surrealism is a daunting term for a movement that originated in the 1920s by French writer André Breton. Over the course of decades, his movement grew roots and expanded worldwide; challenging the core beliefs of people everywhere in a post-Great War age, but also provoked the group’s members against each other in the very definition of what makes a work surreal; in their quest to unleash the unconscious mind and attain a firmer grasp on ‘life.’ Breton’s viewpoint on surrealism as initially described in his First Manifesto of Surrealism changes as he grows older, sparking confusion, enlightenment and disjointed unity in a people devoted to thinking differently. So differently, that Breton is famous for kicking out his own followers if their views differed too far from his. As the expectations, explanations and perspectives on what makes something surreal were defined and refined, the very essence of its meaning has been ultimately lost to the majority of those who use the term today to describe a visual quality, not a ideation process. Renown for being the father of “pure psychic automatism” or, the true functioning of thought, Breton details how a work that is in acknowledgement of key elements can subvert the hierarchical nature of society, and speak volumes on any given topic without explicitly stating its thesis aloud. Enter the world of the dream: where our conscious and subconscious tell dreamers things that we would not be able to hear in the waking state. Take part in a world inside a world, where life resides between peaceful coexistence and chaotic anarchy. The illusion so irresistible, so delusional, so real yet so unreal that artists and thinkers alike have adopted surrealism, its message and its terminology in their own work, commenting on a multitude of subjects in hopes to reach the sleeping listener, the ones who dare to dream.

Spike Jonze is considered by the entertainment industry to be one of those dreamers. His prolific work spanning decades began in photography, skateboard and music videos, with narrative work coming to fruition in the mid to late 1990s, followed by refreshing, new work for the advertisement world. His short film How They Get There is a brilliant early example of Jonze’s surrealism at play. The two and a half minute short film tackles the age-old question of how worn shoes find themselves in odd places. This nonsensical set up of a film opens with a close-up on a shoe turned on its side; symbolic for the fate it will inevitably have in the coming minutes. The shoe belongs to a man drinking milk, as he watches a woman pass by on the opposing sidewalk. He follows her. As they each walk down the two sides of the sidewalk, Jonze cuts back and forth between the two, as they delightfully mimic each others’ actions in a quasi-flirtatious encounter. As the audience observes the pantomiming back and forth, we get to see a budding relationship take place in an absurd way. Surrealists enjoy the use of mirrors, as the surface of a mirror reflects reality back at itself. As the two characters take part in their mimicry—Jonze is really just holding up a mirror between them, showing a disconnect from the rest of the world—a car approaches. The woman breaks her trance but continues the role of the mime: covering her mouth at the horror she’s about to experience. The man is still stuck in this world of make-pretend and covers his face as he crosses the street, but it’s too late. He turns and is hit by the oncoming car. The music swells and all chaos breaks loose in a frantic, amusing way as the man slams into the windshield, shoes flying off his feet, the car diverting off the street and flipping itself in mid air—all in cinematic, bombastic style that would appeal to the surrealist who’d enjoy nonsensical destruction caused by the silliest of circumstances. As the music dies down, and the audience gets a breath after the climax, we watch the shoes land near the gutter, bringing us full circle in the short story. 

Jonze’s first feature film Being John Malkovich could be called surreal from the very moment the film starts. The opening shot depicts a curtain and a performance arena that sets the stage for a puppet show. Involving puppets and trickery; the film juxtaposes one reality (the outside world) with another (the world and stage of the puppet show) especially as the puppeteer falls in love with the female lead Maxine and has delusions involving a romance with her and an occupied John Malkovich body. Jonze’s humor shines through when the protagonist Craig Schwartz is punched in the middle of a street performance by the father of a young girl, observing the puppet show. The father takes issue to the puppets air humping each other in some neoclassical puppetry rendition of Romeo and Juliet, and therefore takes specific action to rectify the atrocity his daughter is witnessing by responding with a different style of violence. He slugs Craig square in the jaw. The far-fetched suddenly becomes believable in Being John Malkovich. A fistfight can erupt from the minuscule, and there are such things as a floor between 7 and 8 called Floor 7 1/2.

Set in a city building that requires the elevator to be manually stopped, and a crowbar used within the elevator to get to where Craig is going, Floor 7 1/2 favors Surrealist’ humor by catering to the bizarre. The height of the 7 1/2 floor is rather short, requiring Jonze to work with production designer K.K. Barrett to build a set made for Alice in a place like Wonderland. The doorways stood at less than 5 feet tall, with other objects in frame made to scale with the appropriate size of an office floor. (Interiors: An Online Publication about Architecture and Film) All the actors on set had to slouch in order to fit inside the low-ceiling sets. The nature of the rooms’ construction never becomes familiar to the audience as it is so disassociated from life as we’re used to, yet the characters who occupy the space acknowledge it only so far as to bend over to accommodate traveling through these spaces, but don’t so much take issue to the uncomfortable conditions that are endured: metaphoric for the conditions presented within society at large. We are stifled by expectations and unnecessary desires of indulgence and yet we stoop ourselves to accommodate the short ceiling, instead of build a higher roof. After watching the explanation on the low ceilings in an introductory employment training video, Craig turns to another newly-hire and remarks, “Moving story, huh?” She replies, “Unfortunately, the story’s bullshit.” (00:14:57)

The CEO of the office space gives an absurd explanation for the low-ceiling predicament: “Low overhead, my boy! We pass the savings onto you.” (00:12:24) The use of dialogue becoming a prominent focal point to consider as the characters try to exchange through the five levels of communication, yet fail to connect at all whatsoever. A series of misfires and miscommunications bring our puppeteer protagonist through the “mind of the other.” What language can mean on a very simple level can often lead us down pathways we never intended on taking due to dictation, vocation and connotation of the language used—therefore specific language can lead the mind to other, more intentional conclusions. This mind-fuckery is seen at the bar as Craig and Maxine have a drink when Maxine asks if Craig is a fag, or when Craig’s wife Lotte is directed to the bathroom: “fifth door from my left” and is greeted by a series of doors facing multiple directions, or when Craig has difficulty responding to the receptionist who does not pronounce his last name correctly. 

The true mind-fuckery occurs when Craig’s “mind of the other" truly becomes someone else’s. As a puppeteer, Craig’s desire to become another character and live in their skin is put to the test when he discovers a small door hidden behind a filing cabinet. Curiosity draws him in, and it’s too late before Craig gets swept up and forced into witnessing life from another human’s perspective; John Malkovich’s to be exact. The very premise to an impossibility made possible and grounded in reality as concretely as Jonze could ever visualize: Craig is sucked up and spit out in unrealistic fashion. In an essay to The Guardian, the film’s screenwriter Charlie Kaufman writes, “Most people think perspective is a good thing: you can figure out characters arcs, you can apply a moral, you can tell it with understanding and context. But this perspective is a misrepresentation: it's a reconstruction with meaning, and as such bears little resemblance to the event.” (Charlie Kaufman: Why I Wrote Being John Malkovich) When he enters Malkovich’s perspective for the first time, he is sucked through the hole corridor he is crawling through, and when he leaves Malkovich’s perspective, Craig falls into frame from out of thin air. Both physically impossible and unrealistic scenarios that are made possible with some surreal, creative thinking and the presumption that the audience can mend the in-betweens. The process becomes the physical manifestation of the film’s thesis: the human desire to be someone else but then forces you to question your own perspective on the world.

Actor playing himself John Malkovich discovers the ploy, and goes through the portal himself. When he comes out the other end, he finds himself in the land of Malkovich: his own head attached to every living body within a restaurant, every menu item his own name, and every word that is uttered; “Malkovich.” Kaufman’s illogical screenplay provides perfectly logical insight provided by Jonze on the human condition through a surreal journey: venture far enough into yourself and the ego within swells out of proportion. But it’s through this same surrealistic device that Jonze explores the state of living, as a soul leaping out to claim its vessel, claim its own body. The underlying tragedy in this thought leads to a dark conclusion: those who feel dead inside are anxious to escape their problems and their bodies, to become someone new, to start over, or to end it all. The differences in these outcomes rely on personal interpretation of the perspective history the subject has experienced over the course of their lifetime.

“There’s the truth and there are lies and uhh, art always tells the truth: even when it’s lying.” (01:28:50) John Malkovich says in a TV broadcast for his new puppeteering show. The ultimate puppeteer is Craig, pulling the strings controlling John Malkovich through the portal, who in tandem is controlling the puppets. This controller-within-a-controller scenario is purely surreal; as the TV audience does not know what’s real and what’s fake. In this ‘John Malkovich’ puppeteering broadcast there can be truth, but there is also deception—an unfortunate truth/lie about the world we live in. 

While Being John Malkovich comments on the nature of celebrity culture, it more so utilizes the ability to be someone else to analyze the environment of the every day individual: a resemblance of a lonely, seeking, desiring anybody who wants the opportunity to escape the waking state and live in a dream. Surrealism’s influence on Spike Jonze has been present from the very start.

In Spike’s early days he filmed a skateboarder doing a jump off a multi-step staircase. When the skater landed the trick, Spike and a team of demolition experts triggered explosives that blew the staircase to smithereens. As he filmed the action in slow-motion, Spike had the picture already clear in mind: the skater would land the trick, prompting the explosion to occur. This foresight is crucial in how surrealists conduct their work: that they have a vision and see it through to fruition through exploration, discovery, collaboration and in times, authoritarianism. The conclusion of an explosion once after a skater lands his trick is similar to the journey one embarks after following their thoughts in pure, psychic automatism coined by the founder of the surrealist movement Breton: that the explosion is the extension and result of riding a thought through to completion. Spike Jonze’s repertoire of films share the sort of existentialist comedy that Surrealists look for, and he will always be remembered for allowing us to become someone else.


Jonze, Spike, director. How They Get There. YouTube, YouTube, 1997, www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0C11en8tXo.

Karaoghlanian, Armen, and Mehruss Jon Ahi. “Being John Malkovich (1999) - Interiors : An Online Publication about Architecture and Film.” Interiors, www.intjournal.com/1113/being-john-malkovich.

Kaufman, Charlie. “Charlie Kaufman: Why I Wrote Being John Malkovich.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 3 Oct. 2011, www.theguardian.com/film/2011/oct/03/charlie-kaufman-how-to-write.

Lim, Dennis. “A Second Look: 'Being John Malkovich' Is a Surreal Mind Trip.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 13 May 2012, www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-xpm-2012-may-13-la-ca-second-look-20120513-story.html.

“Spike Jonze.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 14 Apr. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spike_Jonze.