It needs to be said from the outset that Colour Me Kubrick (Dir: Brian Cook, 2005) is not a very good film. The story of Alan Conway, a London conman who impersonated Stanley Kubrick, has the potential for an interesting meditation on ideas of fame, reputation and personal success. Instead, we get clunk-heavy references to Kubrick's films (bits of Strauss; two droogs threatening an elderly couple); and Jim Davidson, of all people, playing one of Conway's victims, a character that seems to be based on Joe Longthorne, channelled through Dale Winton (something that's even worse in reality than it sounds).
I only mention the film, because: a) while I was watching it last night, I remembered that when I began this blog, I had the idea that I'd use it to review every film, book, record, etc that passed under my nose, and I've been pretty slack in that respect; and b) I think it adds a brief footnote to a post I wrote a few months ago about the ambiguities that ensue when actors play 'themselves', which has parallels with the soul-searching about blog personas that everyone seems to be experiencing these days (see here, here, here and here).
Conway is played by John Malkovich, an actor I like, but one who is always identifiably Malkovich in everything he does. Of course, since Being John Malkovich, this John Malkovich is interchangeable in the public mind with the pompous, self-obsessed 'John Malkovich', so casting him as someone who loses track of his own self in the assumed identity of someone else is a brave move, to say the least. The obvious comparison is with Geoffrey Rush's performance in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, and not just because the real 'Kubrick' appears in that film as a character. Rush, an actor who can disappear into his parts, plays a man who did the same, to the extent that his whole personality seems to have been extinguished.
No such risk with Malkovich. Even his accents are self-consciously acTORRish: as Conway he verges between Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins and Keanu Reeves in Dracula; as 'Kubrick', he seems closer to a Catskills comic being Bernie Schwartz being Tony Curtis being Joe being Josephine being Junior being Archie Leach being Cary Grant, a near-infinite Russian doll of reinventions.
This can be defended: Conway was unstable and shambolic, and a key theme of the film is how easily people allowed themselves to be fooled by such an unconvincing performance. Less excusable is the sheer labour with which the metafiction is ladled on soon becomes tiresome, especially when compared with the elegance with which similar nods to the audience were handled in the Sellers film. Conway announces that he's considering John Malkovich for a role in his new film: a throwaway gag that would have been fresh and startling had Jonze and Kaufman slipped it into Being JM, but now feels trite and obvious. As Conway languishes in a psychiatric ward, and hears all this fellow patients proclaiming that they're Kubrick as well, we're supposed to pick up a hint of a great Kubrick moment, the "I'm Spartacus!" scene. But that, of course, has already been parodied out of existence by Monty Python's Life of Brian; when we see that one of the others (played by Ken Russell) has "K. RUSSELL" scrawled on the sticker affixed to his bed, we're supposed to applaud the in-joke, but that too has been told before. Ethel Merman in Airplane!, anyone? Even the nudge-and-a-wink of the film's subtitle, "A True...ish Story" has been done to death, as far back as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
This is moviemaking for film students from the Rosebud School of Spotting the Reference. "So, you've never directed a Carry On film?" asks one of the less credulous characters that Conway meets. In comparison, the Carry Ons were masterpieces of subtlety. And that's the problem with making art that says "Look at me, look at me!" The worst thing is not for your potential audience to hate it. It's for the audience to say: "Yeah, I'm looking. And?"
PS: More film-related opinionating at CiF, as I suggest how to destroy the Oscars.