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.
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
New Jersey Turnpike 1992 (Photo: Wasted Time R)

I couldn’t help thinking of the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky (his preferred transliteration into English). 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 Zelensky, 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 Zelensky’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 Zelensky promised to end Ukraine’s conflict with Russia and made efforts to keep open a dialogue with Putin. Then came 24 February 2022 (Did Putin forget it was the 102nd anniversary of the founding of Germany’s Nazi Party? Zelensky didn’t, as he reminded the Israeli Knesset in March 2022).

We are not President Zelensky, 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 Zelensky. And the difference between our position and his gives us reason to extend our empathy to the realities of his experience.

Zelensky in the Pandora papers

Zelensky, to be sure, 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: “Zelensky 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 Zelensky’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 only $1.15m.

… and in other records

Volodymyr Zelensky’s selected, edited speeches —  from his inaugural address to the Ukrainian Parliament on 20 May 2019 to Independence Day on 22 August 2022 —  are gathered together in A Message from Ukraine to raise cash for United24, his initiative to collect funds for Ukraine.

In Britain’s Daily Telegraph Colin Freeman reports, without sources, that “They are understood […] to be crafted partly by Dmytro Lytvyn, a 30-something magazine columnist who works for the presidential office. While the precise words are apparently Lytvyn’s, they are inspired by Zelensky’s ideas and emotions” (LINK). But the reporter finds it “genial, witty, personable and scathing. Not once did I sense windbaggery, posturing or the moral preachiness that so many leaders adopt when striding the world stage.” And in the Guardian on 16 April 2022 Lytvyn is quoted as freely acknowledging his part in the speeches but insists: “The president always knows what he wants to say, and how he wants to say it.” (LINK).

Why it’s worth reading

The book, also available on Kindle, is worth reading at the very least for its preface by The Economist‘s Arkady Ostrovsky.

                It reminds us how unusual Zelensky’s rise in politics has been, bringing him to the very front of the world scene.

                He was not part of the ‘Maidan Revolution’ in 2014 that overthrew Victor Yanukovych, “a Moscow-backed thug”, and led Russia to annex Crimea, Ostrovsky underlines.

                The journalist points out: “He was driven by neither nationalism nor ideology and, stylistically, revolutions were not his ‘genre’. As a successful television producer he had a strong sense of his audience — slightly cynical, self-reliant, conformist but also deeply grounded. During the revolution, much of this audience stayed at home watching his sitcoms.”

The improbable president

                Zelensky’s entry into politics and success with the public against the Russian-backed elite, “in a system where money decided everything”, seemed “improbable”, Ostrovsky observes. Nevertheless, the comedian from Kryvyi Rih, a “rough industrial city in central Ukraine”, obtained 75% of the vote.

                Inside and outside Ukraine, liberals were sceptical of his chances because of “his lack of either a comprehensive programme or a professional team”. But what made him different from many of his predecessors, apart from his personality, was that “he did not exploit regional, linguistic differences” but promoted what people had in common, not what divided them.

‘I still don’t feel comfortable here’

Ostrovsky first interviewed Zelensky in June 2021 in the vast reception room of the presidential administration office. Even after two years “Zelensky looked decidedly out of place,” and he told Ostrovsky: “I still don’t feel comfortable here.”

“I was struck by his sincerity, his desire to transform Ukraine and his lack of a plan to do so,” the journalist writes. “He seemed out of his depth, taking on a system that would almost certainly demolish him.”

Ostrovsky came back to Kyiv in late March 2022, a month after the Russian invasion.

“Zelensky no longer looked out of place as he emerged from the bunker, dug by the Soviets [in the 1930s] in case of an air raid and deep enough to withstand a nuclear bomb. But there was nothing Churchillian about his manner. […] He spoke not like a commander-in-chief, but as an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances. He had also aged by about ten years and had grown a beard.”

The reporter added: “It was clear he was not commanding an army — the generals were doing that, and he was wise enough to leave them to it. Nor was he micromanaging mayors and local communities — they were closer to the action and had a better sense of what they did best.”

From dialogue to victory

In Zelensky’s introduction the unassuming president quotes from his first and last speeches in the book:

20 May 2019: “We are not the ones who started this war. But we are the ones who must finish it. And we are ready for dialogue to do so.”

24 August 2022: “What will bring the end of the war? We used to say ‘peace’. Now we say ‘victory’.”

But typically, Zelensky starts his first address to Parliament with a funny story: “After I was elected, my six-year-old son said, ‘Dad, they say on TV that Zelensky is the President. Does that mean that I’m the President too?’”

The serious Zelenksy

Zelensky is not just a jokester, despite his career in comedy. He ended his first speech to Parliament with a serious admonition: “Both Crimea and Donbas are Ukrainian land. But it is land where we have lost the most important thing: the minds of the people who live there. And we need to win them back. Over the years, the [Ukrainian] authorities have done nothing to make the people of Crimea and Donbas feel like Ukrainians; to understand they are not strangers, but our people.”

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

Putin’s associates 

By contrast, consider Vladimir Putin. His 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 papers but the man himself is not mentioned by name.

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

If you need a reminder not to confuse a 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. Zelensky 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
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
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
Merton Flemmer Building (from the film)
Wainwright 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:  note not floor 103
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
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
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
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).

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

Back to ‘reality’. Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelensky, also transliterated as Zelenskyy or Zelenskiy (I’ve chosen his preference), 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 Goloborodko, a high-school history teacher, son of a ne’er-do-well taxi-driver father determined to cash in on the new opportunity his son’s presidency offers, Zelensky 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 Zelensky 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 statue in Leicester Square
Paddington Bear, all alone: statue in Leicester Square (Photo: Matt Brown from London, England).

Zelensky, 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.

Robin Williams, Man of the Year poster

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. Zelensky was named the Time Person of the Year for 2022. Reality often outdoes even the wildest fiction.

Zelensky at WEF Davos 2023

Zelensky 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 Zelensky 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)