young Zelenskyy in Prague in 2009
young Zelenskyy in Prague in 2009

Longhaul air flights offer ideal training in bingeing your days away with video. Flying from the dream world of Zurich Airport, with its bewildering profusion of shopping areas and escalators, to the fantasyland of Miami Airport, equally huge and hard to find your way around its wild concourses, the “national airline” Swiss (now belonging to Lufthansa) offered as inflight entertainment (along with a number of paranoid violent fantasies) Being John Malkovich from 1999, perhaps the most brilliant U.S. comedy of the past 25 years, written by the masterly Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze in what for both of them was their first feature film.

Theatrical release poster. All photos from Wikimedia Commons unless otherwise specified.

In case you have, for some inexplicable reason, missed it, it’s the story of a frustrated puppeteer, Craig Schwartz, played by John Cusack, who is depressed by a dead-end job and stale marriage  (according to its blurb), who performs his  unsuccessful shows to Bartok’s most dramatic music. He takes a job as a filing clerk with the LesterCorp filing company on the 7.5th floor of the Mertin Flemmer Building in New York. The floor, designed for a vertically challenged woman from the not-too-distant past, consists of low ceilings throughout. The firm run by the enigmatic Dr Lester (Orson Bean) took the lease to save money. So all the staff have to walk around bent over with their arms down to the ground. The boss thinks he is speaking completely unintelligibly though every word he says seems eloquent and appropriate. But that’s not the story.

What gives the film its title is that Schwartz, by chance, discovers a secret door behind some filing cabinets, and this turns out to be a portal into the mind of actor John Malkovich. After about 15 minutes it spits Craig out onto the roadside by the Jersey Turnpike. But by then the character is hooked. A few moments before we had heard him promoting puppeteering as a way to experience being someone else. Soon he is inducting his wife and $200-a-shot customers into the experience.

New Jersey Turnpike 1992 (Photo: Wasted Time R)

I couldn’t help thinking of the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Almost every night we can hear him on television saying exactly the sort of things we would want to say in his position. We might never imagine ourselves as Joseph Biden, let alone Vladimir Putin.

But Zelenskyy, a former standup comedian, was also creator/star of the most bitterly realistic, hence tremendously comic, picture of 21st-century Socialist totalitarianism:  Servant of the People (2015-2019). He seems to be speaking to the world as if we were directing his voice. No wonder a political party was founded by Zelenskyy’s production company with the same name as the TV series, and he became its successful presidential candidate in the 2019 election.

It may be hard to remember now, but during his presidential campaign Zelenskyy promised to end Ukraine’s conflict with Russia and made efforts to keep open a dialogue with Putin. Then came 24 February 2022.

We are not President Zelenskyy, of course, as he’s entitled to protest. We are not living the hell that Putin is trying to make of Ukraine. And it’s not funny, as Being John Malkovich consistently is. But the film can teach us the benefits of comedy in horrific situations, even if we are cynical philosophers. We may be in John Cusack’s situation but we need not delude ourselves into thinking we know what it’s like to be Zelenskyy. And the difference between our position and his gives us reason to extend our empathy to the realities of his experience.

Zelenskyy in the Pandora papers

And Zelenskyy is not solely the anti-corruption President of his political campaign, or his character in Servant of the People. In October 2021, the U.K.’s Guardian reported from the 11.9m leaked financial and company files known as the Pandora papers “he had – or has – a previously undisclosed stake in an offshore company, which he appears to have secretly transferred to a friend weeks before winning the presidential vote”.  This, the newspaper observed, was “rather similar” to what he accused his presidential opponent of doing. It wrote: “Zelenskiy participated in a sprawling network of offshore companies, co-owned with his longtime friends and TV business partners.” He also appeared to have arranged for his family to continue receiving money from these companies, which owned expensive London properties, and Zelenskyy’s wife was named head of the main firm he controlled. In view of the corruption endemic in the Russia-allied Ukraine of the time, this may have been a survival tactic. In any case, his assets in 2018 were estimated to be worth $1.15m.

Putin in KGB uniform, about 1980 (Photo: Kremlin.ru)

…and Putin’s associates 

Vladimir Putin’s assets, according to official figures, were put at $280,000 in bank accounts plus a St. Petersburg apartment in 2007, though by 2017 journalists were asking “Is Vladimir Putin Secretly the Richest Man in the World?”  and put his fortune at around $70 billion. Wikipedia records: “Putin has been photographed wearing a number of expensive wristwatches, collectively valued at $700,000, nearly six times his annual salary.” Putin’s associates feature in the Panama paper but the man himself is not mentioned by name.

John Malkovich, 1994 (Photo: Gorupdebesanez). He does a superb job of playing himself as he is not.

But if you need a reminder not to confuse the person with the public character, or the representation with reality, we have the fiction film. John Malkovich does a marvellous job of playing himself as an actor being John Malkovich the film person. Zelenskyy has been equally a victim of attempts to suggest his personality is a series of impersonations. His legal steps against oligarchs’ influence on Ukrainian politics in September 2021 were criticized, in The Financial Times no less, as seeking to “centralize authority and strengthen his personal position” (paywalled article).

Spike Jonze, 2013 (Photo: aphrodite-in-nyc)

Back to the ‘fiction’. Spike Jonze is actually Adam H. Spiegel, once married to Sofia Coppola, daughter of film-maker Francis Ford Coppola, which is how Spiegel saw the script, and it was produced in part by Michael Stipe, who you may know as the lead singer-composer for R.E.M. Spiegel (German for mirror) made his name as a music video director after photographing skateboard and BMX riders since his teens.

He became Spike Jonze professionally because the owner of a Bethesda community store gave him the nickname in his high school years in reference to the satirical bandleader Spike Jones.

As for the film, one potential funding studio head asked: “Why the fuck can’t it be Being Tom Cruise?”  Wikipedia notes: “Jonze recalled that Malkovich asked the same question, and that Malkovich had felt that ‘Either the movie’s a bomb and it’s got not only my name above the title but my name in the title, so I’m fucked that way; or it does well and I’m just forever associated with this character.’”

From the film

The film’s spoof video in which Schwartz presents the building’s attractions of “low overheads” for less profitable businesses: “to the trained eye,” wrote Jay Potts In a 2020 blog, “[the building] bears the same organizing principles and structural grid as Louis Sullivan’s 1891 Wainwright building, hailed as the beginning of modern skyscraper design”.

Merton Flemmer Building
Wainwright building

Mental Floss has an article on 9 notable real buildings with secret floors, including the Empire State Building’s 103rd floor with an open, narrow walkway surrounding the top, and an Amsterdam house that has a fully functioning church that has been hidden away in its attic for 400 years since the persecution of Roman Catholics in the Netherlands.

Empire State Building floor 102: entry $79. But not floor 103. (Photo: esbnyc)

Though the office address of Mertin Flemmer was specified as 610 11th Ave. in New York, New York 10012, it was all filmed in Los Angeles, on board the Queen Mary liner, Bristol (England) and, of course, the New Jersey Turnpike.

Cameron Diaz in 2012. (Photo: David Shankbone).

By the way, the other stars are Cameron Diaz and Catherine Keener. Brad Pitt has a half-second cameo, Sean Penn puts in an even shorter appearance. So does Wynona Ryder, and Spike Jonze appears himself on screen as assistant to the world’s pre-eminent puppeteer. Charlie Sheen has a bigger role as himself, ridiculing Malkovich for taking drugs. Film director David Fincher is seen in its pseudo-documentary.

Catherine Keener in 2014 (Photo: GabboT)

Diaz and Keener both won nominations for best supporting actress at the Screen Actors Guild Awards and Keener in the Academy awards. Diaz’s makeup artist said it was a challenge to make the actress look homely, while Keener initially disliked her scheming character (a Lesbian in love with Craig’s wife) and did not feel she was right for the part. Craig’s wife, for her part, though also enamoured of Keener’s character, later falls in love with her chimpanzee Elijah who is suffering from repressed early childhood trauma.

Charlie Kaufman in 2015 (Photo: Anna Hanks from Austin, Texas)

Kaufman said he started writing the script in 1994 as “a story about a man who falls in love with someone who is not his wife”. All the weirdness was added in the writing. There’s even an alternative, original ending unearthed by Badass Digest in 2014, which is much stranger even than the final version, which climaxed with a battle against a giant Harry S. Truman puppet. Kaufman went on to write Adaptation (2002) for Jonze and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), then directed Synecdoche, New York (2008), Anomalisa (2015), and I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020).

Voting with his wife Olena in the 2019 elections (Photo: President.gov.ua)

Back to ‘reality’. Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelenskyy, also transliterated as Zelensky or Zelenskiy, was born on 25 January 1978, which makes him one year past the fiction film’s cut-off date of 44 for being taken over by a third person. He grew up as a native Russian speaker in central Ukraine.

He announced his candidacy for President on New Year’s Eve 2018, alongside the address of then-president Petro Poroshenko. In contrast to his TV character, Vasily Petrovych Golobroko, a high-school history teacher, son of a ne’er-do-well father determined to cash in on the new opportunity his son’s presidency offers, Zelenskyy is the son of a professor/computer scientist father and engineer mother. He gained a law degree from an Institute of Economics at what was part of the Kyiv National University, but never worked in the legal field.

When Zelenskyy the man became president, he appointed a prime minister that made Ukraine the only country outside Israel to have a Jewish head of state and government leader. The ironies of Putin’s accusations of neo-Nazis in the leadership of Ukraine are worthy of the Jonze and Kaufman film.

Paddington Bear, all alone: statue in Leicester Square (Photo: Matt Brown from London, England).

Zelenskyy, meanwhile, earned fame by recording the voice of Paddington Bear in the 2014 and 2017 Ukrainian dubbing of films with that name. In 2014 he also spoke out against the banning of Russian artists from Ukraine, which was then instituted in 2015.

Film historians exploring originality in productions may remember the 2006 movie Man of the Year, written and directed by Barry Levinson, in which Robin Williams played a talk show host who is elected president following an offhand remark.  The Italian film Welcome Mr President, about a librarian who is elected president due to a joke vote, was released in 2013.

Wikipedia says an American remake of Servant of the People (sometimes also translated as Servant of the Nation) was ordered by Hulu but scrapped when Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States. Zelenskyy was named the Time Person of the Year for 2022. Reality often outdoes even the wildest fiction.

Zelenskyy at WEF Davos 2023

Zelenskyy Urges ‘Speed and Resolve’ in Ukraine Conflict — weforum — 19 January 2023 (LINK)

Zelenskiy uses Davos speech to intensify call for more tanks from allies — guardian — 18 January 2023 (LINK)

Ukraine’s president Zelensky addresses Davos forum after fatal helicopter crash — bbc — 18 January 2023 (LINK)

Ukraine’s Zelenskyy invites China’s President Xi for ‘dialogue’ — aljazeera — 18 January 2023 (LINK)

Ukraine first lady headlines first big day at Davos meeting: scolds leaders for failing to ‘use influence’ — apnews — 17 January 2023 (LINK)

NuseReal: Other WEF Davos 2023 news (LINK)

Some weird news from Friday the 13th

Russian boy, 6, gifted cheap smartwatch and toy car after dad killed in Ukraine (LINK)

Texas 21-year-old in jail after allegedly decapitating his newlywed wife (LINK

Professional Organizers Share Photos of the MOST Organized Closets (LINK)

‘Cerebral Valley?’ San Francisco’s Nerdiest New Neighborhood (LINK)

Student sparks chaos by testing teachers’ engagement rings to see if they’re real (LINK)

Get an AI to write a cover letter for every position you apply to (LINK)

Five famous artworks that were accidentally hung upside-down (LINK)

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