Sunday, November 02, 2014

Maps to the Stars: a review

Saw Maps to the Stars last night. It's an interesting experience. It seems like Cronenberg has come to prefer a very cool, detached mode of filmmaking; however dramatic the subject matter, the tone of movies like Cosmopolis and A Dangerous Method is very deliberately cold - like Cronenberg is taking this chilliness to be his signature (the exception in recent years, of course, is Eastern Promises, which is fairly warm and lively, but that's starting to seem like an aberration). In her Straight review, Janet Smith takes this somewhat reptilian detachment as a fault, and she may be right; it does make the film a bit of a challenge for viewers, something compounded by the difficulty one might have finding characters to identify (or even sympathize) with. Even the two children who are the moral centre of the film are both fairly damaged/ damaging individuals, and the subject material - a  scathing/ puritanical depiction of the moral corruption in Hollywood - is almost worthy of Bret Easton Ellis (I didn't see the film he made with Paul Schrader and Lindsay Lohan, but this is what I was expecting that to be; I bet Schrader will love this movie). I was somehow under the impression, before seeing the film - which tends to get described as a "satire" - that it was going to be funny, but really, folks: it isn't. This is one of the darker, crueler films in Cronenberg's career, and while on its own terms I have to say it succeeds, it's still a fairly unpleasant and demanding experience.
It's still worth seeing as a Cronenberg film. It is very much his film; interestingly enough, it bears a fair bit of resemblance to The Brood, which I wasn't expecting, and if you're as invested in Cronenberg's cinema as I am, you'll have some fun chasing down the echoes and trying to see how they expand and reflect on Cronenberg's body of work. John Cusack's Rolf-y body therapist has a mirror relationship to Oliver Reed, in that earlier film, and his therapy seems to have something to do with stirring up some of the ghosts that haunt the film's characters. As with The Brood, too, there's a fairly nasty scene where a character is bludgeoned to death. And of course, themes of child abuse are rife, though abuse and incest haunt so many of the characters in the film that they almost become normalized.
Besides Bret Easton Ellis and Cronenberg's own The Brood, I was surprised to find myself thinking of other texts that Maps to the Stars owes something to. Atom Egoyan's Speaking Parts looms large in the background; the film shares with early Egoyan a sort of talismanic need to repeat certain lines and motifs, to set them echoing against each other, even where it is highly unlikely that so many characters would have parallel lives. Like that film, too, questions of casting a role are fraught with incestuous or quasi-incestuous backstories. There are other films I thought of, as well. The character played by Evan Bird, the young man turned into an utter asshole by his time in Hollywood, seems to come as an echo of the title character in Don McKellar's Childstar - which is also the work of a Canadian poking fun at the Hollywood celebrity industry, only doing so in a way that is actually fun to watch. Finally, I was reminded, more interestingly - though this counts as a spoiler - of Yukio Mishima's Runaway Horses. While the children in the film don't have a trace of the purity or idealism that Mishima ascribes his protagonist, their final decision does read as a rejection of the corrupted adult world, an act of protest. I don't recall having been prompted by a film of Cronenberg's before to think on so many other similar or related texts.
That's not necessarily a good thing, mind you. I suspect that one of the reasons I spent so much time looking at the film in terms of its relations to other texts is that it's not all that pleasant or rewarding to watch it in terms of its reflection on the real world. I can easily imagine someone arguing that the film is cruel, unfair, and definitely unsubtle; there's a bit of a shooting-fish-in-a-barrel feel to the affair. And Cronenberg didn't do something I was kind of expecting: since having noticed, a few viewings ago, that Viggo Mortensen's haircut in Eastern Promises is a variant of Cronenberg's own favoured hairstyle of late - which makes for a very odd autobiographical resonance, like Cronenberg is somehow using the character to comment on his own ambitions - I was expecting him to implicate himself in this film, so it doesn't just seem like he's standing in the wings clucking his tongue. Maybe he'd have a character like Erland Josephson's in Bergman's A Passion? (Improperly known here as The Passion of Anna). Without that, I'm not sure this film won't be taken by Hollywood as a "fuck you" from an outsider, which I guess is what it ultimately is (unless someone wants to argue that the John Cusack character is somehow figuring Cronenberg. I couldn't see it, myself).
All the same, I was glad to see the film. Best farting scene in a movie that I can recall. Julianne Moore should win an award for this role, it's a brave one. Mia Wasikowska - the love interest in Aoyade's The Double - is also very good in it; I want to re-watch the 2007 Australian killer crocodile movie Rogue to appreciate her role in it anew - I believe its the earliest film of hers I've seen, made when she was just a teenager. Oh, and Maps to the Stars has one of the most achingly beautiful title sequences I've seen, with very unusual music from Howard Shore. The credits run at the end, so I sat there hoping it was a Shore soundtrack. How could it have been otherwise?

1 comment:

Allan MacInnis said...

Hm. Jack Vermee, on my Facebook wall, has written off the movie as "bad." Twice, actually. Meantime, Adrian Mack has a cool interview with Evan Bird in the Straight: the guy is from Vancouver!