Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Cronenberg Series Part 18: All the Flesh That Says Yes

About a quarter of the way into Maps to the Stars, the new film directed by David Cronenberg and written by Bruce Wagner, a callow young Hollywood type (Jonathan Watton) and friend, of a sort, to washed-up actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) wonders aloud to Havana regarding the young woman with whom they will soon be enjoying (well two of them will; that the third enjoys it is debatable) a threesome, "I wonder if Blake Shelton peed in that butt." Upon hearing this crass joke, employing as it does the name of a real life celebrity being talked about by movie people in a film (I'm talking about Maps to the Stars here) set in Hollywood the plot of which, or a portion of the plot of which, revolves around, or rather in the vicinity of, the making of another film, one which is the remake of another film thereby providing a link to Old Hollywood, something which is always an important part of these things -- upon hearing this crass joke, as I say, the viewer of Maps to the Stars might reasonably conclude that what they are currently watching is a Hollywood Satire, one of the dark ones like The Player, something about how unforgiving the movie business is, how corrupting it is to the soul, and how twisted are the lives of those who exist within it. Well, to begin with, as far as the film being twisted goes, you have no idea. To the question of whether or not Maps to the Stars is the satire that so many critics have decided it must be, I would say that this is the case only if your definition of satire is "something which makes jokes about another thing." I think that is most people's definition of satire, although in the case of this film you'd actually have to alter the definition again, adding "but not many jokes, and then the jokes stop."

In addition to Julianne Moore's pathetic, amoral actress, Maps to the Stars boasts a freak show of characters, such as Benie Weiss (Evan Bird), at thirteen a recovering drug addict and the star of the Bad Babysitter film series, his parents Christina (Olivia Williams) and Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), the latter an author, therapist, and self-help guru who has among his clients Havana Segrand. She is seeking treatment from Weiss to deal with psychological problems she still wrestles with due to having been sexually abused by her mother, the actress Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon, who has appeared in each of Cronenberg's last three films), who died years ago in a fire, and who appears now to Havana as either a literal or figurative ghost, not sure, could be either one (given the facts of her life and death, I couldn't help but see Clarice as some unholy union of Linda Darnell and Anne Sexton, by which I mean to imply nothing about and give no offense to Linda Darnell). One of Clarice Taggart's movies, Stolen Waters, is being remade with a post-modern twist, and Havana wants desperately -- unhealthily, one could argue -- to play the role of her mother. While frantically pursuing this goal, she hires, on the recommendation of Carrie Fisher (herself), a new personal assistant, or "chore whore," named Agatha (Mia Wasikowska). Fisher got to know Agatha online, and, long story short, Agatha is now fresh off the bus, though doing pretty well under the circumstances, landing this pretty big job pretty quickly, and even striking up a romance with struggling actor/limo driver Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson, moving from the back seat of the limo he occupied in Cronenberg's Cosmopolis to the front, a little detail that I'm sure has been lost on absolutely no one). Agatha seems to be a winningly quirky young woman, remaining sunny even though her face was badly scarred in a fire, her body, she tells Jerome, more badly scarred still. But winning as she may be, that Cronenberg and his team have designed her look to resemble that of Holly Hunter's character in his adaptation of J.G. Ballard's Crash can't help but raise certain alarms in the heads of Cronenberg fans. In any case, Agatha's arrival in Los Angeles is noticed by Christina and Stafford Weiss, and remarked upon by them with dismay.

I hesitate, briefly, to reveal the source of their uneasiness because among the entertainments that Maps to the Stars offers is a completely mad story whose madness is skilfully parceled out. However, I'd judge it to be maybe just inside the outer limits of acceptable spoilers to say that Agatha's last name is Weiss, she's Stafford and Christina's daughter, and they're uneasy because the last time they saw Agatha she'd just tried to kill her brother Benjie, out of a disturbing, marital kind of love, and set the family home on fire. There is also another reason for their uneasiness, but anyway.

If I'm hesitant to deal with Agatha it's because she's the film's mystery, she's the stranger in black (check out those gloves) who shows up in town and turns everything on its head. This is an archetype found in the Western -- the West being where one can find Los Angeles -- but of course this tradition also exists in horror. Richard Matheson's classic short story "The Distributor" leaps to mind, as does The Intruder, the similarly themed non-horror novel by Matheson's friend Charles Beaumont, which is more instructive in this case in that that book has the premise of a social satire, but is not a satire. That's about as far as I can take this comparison in any event because Agatha, though potentially dangerous, is not menacing. It's not her intention to bring harm, whether she finds herself bringing it or not. So what is her intention?

An answer of sorts, or a clue anyway, could be lying in plain sight. Throughout the film, Agatha performs little rituals -- involving taking her pills, for instance, or, in one instance, kneeling worshipfully over Clarice Taggart's Hollywood Walk of Fame star -- the actions of which she accompanies with a recital of Paul Éluard's poem "Liberté". This happens over and over again, and in the film, this poem, which is twenty-one stanzas, is usually represented by the same few lines (for those as curious and ignorant as me, you'll have to do some digging to find an English translation online close to the one used in Maps to the Stars but this one does the trick pretty well), which are:

On my school notebooks
On my desk and the trees
On the sand on the snow
I write your name


On all flesh that says yes
On the forehead of my friends
On each hand that is held out
I write your name

Regarding the background of this poem, the reader and viewer might want to know two things. One is that the poet, Paul Éluard, is one of the fathers of surrealism, and the other is that the poem was dropped from RAF planes over France to serve as a source of inspiration during the Nazi occupation. Knowing that, you can sure see it, can't you, even in these relatively few lines? What's interesting though is that first bit -- which is the poem's first stanza -- "On my school notebooks/On my desk and the trees/On the sand on the snow/I write your name." In addition to being a poem about freedom, "Liberté" is also a poem about devotion, and without any work at all (it's perhaps the way of things that it now takes more work to find the intended meaning) those lines can be made to evoke the love a teenage girl -- let's say, for the sake of argument -- has for a teenage boy. Or a movie star. Or someone who is both.

Things can mean many different things, of course, even clichés. Maps to the Stars, which perhaps not at its heart, because at heart it's sad, but in its bones, and all surrounding tissue, it is an evil movie, so when one character says of a child that he is "a little miracle," it's one of the film's most hair-raising moments. Similarly, that phrase of easy hope, "everything happens for a reason," is turned by Cronenberg and Wagner into an assurance that someone is good and fucked. In this way, a poem meant to inspire those crushed under a bootheel transforms into a chant of sincere love and almost mystical doom. Agatha's burned face stumbles into the City of Angels with a bag full of pills reciting a poem about freedom and we're not supposed to run screaming?  I mean, that the poem is called "Liberté" certainly isn't insignificant -- in the context of Maps to the Stars, the questions are free from what (I have some ideas) and free how? Ah. Yes. Well.

I don't think any of this would displease a surrealist like Paul Éluard, who was, by the way, an ideological mess, which is even better, or rather "better." Surrealism is meant to be disqueting -- that seems to me to be the first step, and sometimes the last step -- as well as grotesque on some level. Something that is grotesque can be awful from the skin on down, or the entire source of its alarm may be simply that physically it skews badly from the norm. Hence pity (asked for and unasked for) and sadness. Hence Agatha. Anyway, these concepts of surrealism and the grotesque challenge reality with the unreal, and Maps to the Stars would like to get in on that. Clocks should drip from trees and freedom shouldn't mean that.

And yes, Maps to the Stars is funny, too, but then Cronenberg usually is to some degree, and plus these days the worst thing you can say about an artist is that they're humorless, which I don't believe is the same thing as saying "Why isn't everything a satire?" The grotesque and the surreal can pull from the audience any number of reactions, from laughter to revulsion to abject horror. Those who don't think Maps to the Stars is a satire have taken to describing it as a horror film, and that's something I can get behind, because it is. And you don't have to stretch the definition the way some people do so they can say things like "In many ways Gravity is a horror film." No -- Maps to the Stars has ghosts in it. Add to this the fact that many horror directors and horror writers (Ramsey Campbell is especially keen to point this out) talk about the close relationship between comedy and horror, having to do, I believe, with the explosive involuntary emotional reaction that both forms can bring from their audience, the loss of control they can force on others, and you start to think that this whole "satire" categorization is a bit of a dodge.

Sure, yes, it takes place in Hollywood, and it does sometimes feel like ninety-nine out of every hundred films set in Hollywood is a satire, but Bruce Wagner, the writer of the film, has made Hollywood his subject or his environment for pretty much his whole career (people who know Wagner's work better than I do have told me that Maps to the Stars is every bit a Wagnerian piece of writing), and so that the characters exist in or around the movie business seems to me to be incidental. You write what you know, so they say. What I'm getting at is, Blake Shelton probably didn't pee in that butt, though even if he did it wouldn't matter.


Fabian W. said...

I understand that you don't want to spoil the Weiss' family secret but doesn't Agatha tell Jerome in the diner very early on? Of course at this point it's not clear at all whether she's making it up but still.

Also, I wonder whether there is some dark gossip about Natasha Gregson-Wagner. (And I think you mean Anne Sexton, not Ann Sexton, who is a great soul singer though.)

ALSO, it's a shame this series has to come to an end for the time being! Really some of your best work, Bill.

bill r. said...

A) I could say what I wanted to say without getting into the Weiss stuff too much so I wanted to leave it alone

B) Oops! Fixed.

C) Thanks!

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Thanks much for this writeup! I just saw MAPS last night, and I think I'm going to be thinking about it for a good long while.

Among other things: It was interesting how the ghost story was contextualized as an extension of repetition compulsion. Havana's re-watching of her tape, the bits of language (including but not only the poem) that keep returning, and of course the marital drama that ends the movie. It's one thing to have living people repeating what a long-dead person did, but to have a long-dead person repeating the words of the living (as with the threesome dialogue) is something much creepier.

But maybe nothing was as creepy as the total lack of master shots. That early meeting with Benjie and the studio, where the relentless procession of close-ups makes it impossible to know how many people are in the room, drove home what a deliberate strategy this was.