David Cronenberg has gone to the heights of absurdity and depths of symbolism in Maps to the Stars which screened at the 52nd New York Film Festival in its US Premiere. On a superficial level the film represents an occasionally humorous, searing, sardonic wallow, ridiculing a target we love to despise, Hollywood and the “Hollywood personality”. Replete with a phantasmagoria of characters, we watch with faint amazement the antics of these internally deformed who sport trending mental and emotional illnesses: narcissistic personality disorder, schizoid personality disorder, bi-polar disorder, manifestations of egomania, as well as the most common and worst of human traits, selfishness and infantilism. Cronenberg’s humans ghoul about. Sometimes they appear normal until their Freudian slips lengthen and the blood drains from their faces and they grimace in stark fear or frustration over circumstances; then they become even more unsettling and rather horrific.
We learn that these characters make do with their personality contrivances in an attempt to delude themselves that they are “A” list successes despite their need to flee self-revulsion and guilty acts of self-loathing. Cronenberg rips at their spurious lives in every frame. Screenwriter Bruce Wagner, an ironist of the first order lays out the material for Cronenberg’s grist. Wagner’s script is an excoriation of the damaging ethos of Tinseltown and those it attracts and succors at its leprous breast. This is one more satire in a series of bitterly droll exposes about the artificial and carnivorous factory town. Cronenberg and Wagner add a macabre, mysterious twist, brotherly/sisterly love which is unleashed by the end of the film. Can it be true that in this weird Cronenberg out-bound train wreck of humanity, there might be some art worthy elements that come into focus by the film’s end? Is this more than just a satire? Hmmm.
Initially, it appears that Cronenberg siphons out of this milieu everything you might conjecture that is uplifting about entertainment art and its purpose and ideation to enrich the soul. It looks this way because the director and writer focus their craft to show the “real nature” of these hyper-flawed characters, expertly played (it’s painful to watch) by Julianne Moore, John Cusack, Mia Wasikowska, Evan Bird, Olivia Williams and Robert Pattinson. Wagner’s satire has some of his characters diffuse into non being. Their dissolving identity is occluded by the famous “personality” they’ve become. Some, like Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson), are looking to join that starry group. He can barely wait to divest himself of his mundane insignificance (though it is the fabric of his identity), and “make it big.” Fontana is a chauffeur and like thousands out there in Hollywoodland, he has written a screenplay and intends to “become somebody famous.” Others are like actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), who is clinging to the last shreds of “fabulousness. She’s” a forty-something considered an “Ancient of Days,” by callow, young actresses and a “has been” by “Tinseltown’s” standards. Bad career choices made her too powerless and off her game to be considered a “player.”
Then there are the typical family business people like Dr. Stafford Weiss and Christina, his wife (John Cusack, Olivia Williams). These are the canker worms that prey off the psychosis of the celebrity factory stars, offering to manage their illnesses and aches. They are the “health” professionals who keep celebrities sane, fit, emotionally balanced and working until their next breakdown which usually requires stiffer medical attention and austere rehabilitation. The Weiss’ also manage their son Benjie’s TV career. We learn early on that Benji is their warped progeny, a strange, fungus mangled fruit who lashes out at everyone and resents other actors more talented than he at getting the most close-ups.
Cronenberg’s introduction to each of these characters is humorous, but our laughter is uneasy; we know this is not good- natured, Jon Stewart fun; it is, dark and stinging and it raises welts on our laugh track. For one, Benjie (an ironic play on the lovable, sweet, sheep dog’s name), is an appalling. pompous and cruel human. How efficacious can slick Dr. Weiss’ guru therapies be when he and his wife have raised such an ungrateful and denigrating spawn of Satan? Are these individuals as obnoxious as they seem? Are we their superior, the “normal,” loving ones? Are those who comprise the audience who watches such cretins “perform” on the big and small screens the happier, saner people?
Unlikely. Croenenberg slips in the theme that we would be just like these folks: birthed in a pus-filled bed of hackneyed commercialism, lured by the quest to “be celebrity famous,” and trod down by an enslaving treadmill of obsessions as the increasing inner bleakness evaporates the richly artistic spirit. Though it is perhaps satisfying to revile them, we can see a bit of ourselves in them; indeed, it is an irony that if the “shoe were on the other foot,” we might behave like we were blood relations. By the end of the film, Cronenberg assures us that the “fault dear Brutus IS in our stars.” He lets us understand that if we presume that we could never be like these scurrilous Tinseltown trolls whose star signs he has mapped for us in their character, nature, choices and dark impulses, on the other hand, we would probably be far, far worse.
The element of surprise Cronenberg usually employs is present in Maps to the Stars and it is trenchant from the outset of the film. As the mystery is presented and unravels, events are foreshadowed. We know where the conclusion is heading; the obvious is laid bare, but when the mystery is revealed, it is not what we expected. What becomes surprising is that during the process of revelation, Cronenberg converts his tropes of satire. The humor dissolves to dark, mythic gravity. It is on this plane where he suggests much deeper questions about our birth, and the “starred” patterns of our blood and DNA.
The instrument which carries the conflict and follows the story’s through line to the end is the one who appears to be off center, the one who doesn’t appear to fit in. This is Agatha whom Cronenberg propels into the California sunshine as she steps off a bus from back east and looks around for a driver to take her to the Hollywood Hills. She sees Fontana waiting for a client and “starry” eyed she engages his service and asks if he has a map of the stars’ homes. It seems she has a connection who might help her get a job as a personal manager to “one” of them. Cronenberg and the screenwriter are giving us the set up as Fontana and Agatha stop and chat in a shot with the “Hollywood” sign looming up in the background. The cinematographer’s sledge hammer blow is significant; we think, “irony, irony,” ‘Oh, God,” here is another vapid, “star struck” imbecile. But do we know who we are looking at?
What Cronenberg keeps from us is that Agatha is very familiar with this area of California. In fact she is looking for a “way back” into her home and the constellation of love, family and friends from which she had been dispossessed, through no fault of her own. What we don’t realize until much later is that this is a mythic journey for her and for those with whom she is involved by consanguinity. During the course of her wanderings as an outcast estranged from her family through intriguing circumstances, she has discovered information. It is arcane and secret. Its explosive power and significance should return her into the fold. The information has become her birthright; it signifies she has a place among them. She intends to reveal it to gain their acceptance and love. (There is no spoiler alert; you’ll have to see the film to understand the mystery and all its implications at the conclusion.)
Cronenberg and Wagner are thoughtful, insightful and careful in their mystery unraveling. They sharpen their cinematic artistry to organically bring on complication after complication. They add deeper and darker layers, though they never lose sight of the irony of events. The story is filled with double meanings related to the themes; the Hollywood backdrop is intentionally satiric but even such a place can produce myths that are throwbacks to ancient times. Yes, the individuals like Havana have allowed themselves to be reduced to a point of extinction. The irony is that her end is sad but what she has done to herself is the worst tragedy.
Though I questioned the necessity of Cronenberg’s belittling sexual scenes of Julianne Moore deeming them gratuitous, I changed my mind by the end of the film. Her tawdry behavior is characteristic of how Havana has committed a self-genocide of her inner beauty by extolling and embracing a meaningless, unfilled life. As a woman seeing Moore’s performance, an actress portraying a self-exploiting, enslaved actress, I cringed. Yet it is a necessary, vital portrait. It not only points the finger toward the character’s tragedy, it serves as an ironic counterpoint to Agatha’s development, autonomy and empowerment. Moore’s Havana raises Mia’s Agatha into an archetype, a woman like Medea. In juxtaposition, Agatha is iconic as a powerful and devastating symbol of freedom.
Whether some will disagree with the themes or not, Wagner implies that spiritual elements and even the dark preternatural bonds that run deep in our unconscious minds cannot be pulled, drugged or rehabbed out of us. They must be slowly sifted and understood. The question is should we even try? It’s an interesting view especially if the culture that judges the individuals in the film is even more warped in its inability to see into the depths of humanity to lay it bare and work toward a viable healing. The theme is clear; it is a sad destruction when individuals run from from their own inner truths using any and all means the culture offers (in this film commercialism, drugs, fantasy lifestyles, sex), to cover them over. Better to confront the truth, especially because one didn’t choose one’s birth path. Then again (apart from laws whose justice is unequal and whose enforcement it biased), can any of us truly be held accountable for what we have done. Can we blame ourselves for who we are if the star patterns of our blood rule us? It’s a question for the ages and it is a question that looms large in Maps to the Stars and bigger than the Hollywood sign.
[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00M0GKN9K]