The signature style of Spike Jonze, which has been fundamental in all of his projects, ranging from his music videos for artists as diverse as Beastie Boys, Björk, Daft Punk and Kanye West to the feature films that display a very specific authorial vision.
In Being John Malkovich (1999), Spike Jonze’s first feature film, style plays an integral role, as he creates impossible worlds that are grounded in realism. The film, written by Charlie Kaufman, offers an absurd spin on reality – characters discover a portal into the mind of actor John Malkovich and start renting the experience for a price.
Being John Malkovich relies heavily on oddities, but the audience is provided with its first instance of absurdity with the “half floor.” Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is an unsuccessful puppeteer in need of a job. In his search for work, he comes across an ad for a “short statured file clerk.” The ad states that the offices are located on 610 11th Ave. in New York, New York 10012 in the Mertin Flemmer Building. Craig arrives for an interview and soon discovers that the floor he is visiting is located on the 7½ floor. This occurs precisely at the 7:30 minute mark in the film.
In the elevator, a woman spots Craig’s confusion and asks if he is looking for the 7½ floor. The woman assists him in the process – she stops the elevator between floors 7 and 8 and uses a crowbar as a way of prying the doors open. Spike Jonze presents this scene in such a way that its design seems believable. The elevator stops between the floors as the woman uses the crowbar and pries open the door, as if it’s normal practice among the staff.
The crowbar is part of the elevator; it’s solely used for opening the door for the 7½ floor. In addition, workers on the floor hunch over while walking through halls, accepting this as the norm. Spike Jonze incorporates absurd elements within his film, while putting a realistic spin on them. In his world, a half floor can exist as if it’s a functioning part of the real world.
Craig questions his employer, Dr. Lester (Orson Bean), about the height of the ceilings. Dr. Lester notes that all will be explained in orientation. The orientation video provides us with the history of this “famous floor.” The video explains that in the late 1800s, James Mertin, an Irish ship captain, came into town and erected an office building. It’s during this time when a woman with short stature complained to the captain, saying, “The world was not built with me in mind… doorknobs are too high, chairs are unwieldy and high-ceilinged rooms mock my stature.” The woman later become the captain’s wife, and he designed an entire floor specifically for her needs. The video, however unbelievable, ends with its narrator pointing out that the floor has now been adopted by businesses that are cutting corners. The “half floor” means that rents are considerably lower. In pointing this out for the audience, this implausible feature of the narrative is once again grounded in reality.
The Mertin Flemmer Building itself is fictional. The interior scenes of the workplace were filmed on constructed sets. In terms of architecture and design, a concrete office building usually has anywhere from two to three feet of space in between the ceilings and floors. This is mostly for concrete slabs, plumbing, electrical and lighting. In the case of this unusual floor, we see the small amount of space between the floors when the elevator doors open. It’s therefore unlikely that such a floor could actually be created; while some laboratories and hospitals have "interstitial space,” which is extra space made possible for larger mechanical systems (sometimes between six and eight feet), having a completely livable floor in an office building is physically improbable. The 7½ floor is a little under five feet, if we use John Cusack, who is 6’2”, as a guide in determining the height of the floor.
It’s interesting to note that the doorways, trashcans and all other objects on this floor are scaled to the appropriate size of the floor. In this sense, everything within the floor itself is catered to the low ceilings of this floor. This also references the orientation video, where we discover that the floor was designed in an effort to be proportionate to those with a shorter stature. The production design of the scene therefore speaks to those intentions.
In the course of the film, we soon realize how plausible a half floor really is in comparison to the other elements of the narrative. This is a film that solely revolves around entering another man’s mind. In the course of the film, various characters enter John Malkovich’s mind. In one instance, John Malkovich himself enters his own mind and becomes surrounded by John Malkovich copies. In a later scene in the film, Lotte (Cameron Diaz) and Maxine (Catherine Keener) enter John Malkovich’s subconscious – jumping through rooms that sends them back years in his life. In exploring the spaces of the subconscious, Being John Malkovich creates a map of the mind, exploring time and space as various doors and passages lead into various moments of John Malkovich’s life. In this sense, as we fall deeper into the rabbit hole of the human subconscious, the notion of a half floor seems completely rational.