Land of La La
by Jeff Reichert

Maps to the Stars
Dir. David Cronenberg, Canada, Focus World

David Cronenberg is often discussed in terms of his formidable intellect. His core cinematic concerns—body horror, technology, fetishes, psychological control—are suggestive of an artist curious and searching enough to plumb past the mainstream for outré subjects. His preferences in literature to adapt—Ballard, DeLillo, Burroughs—are certainly often highbrow. And the films themselves, shiny, immaculate, and silvery cool, signal an artist in command of a specific palette. Even so, there’s a bit of a paradox here: Cronenberg’s films are made for the brain, but the most famous images in his oeuvre are ripped from the gut—sometimes literally. So much of what we actually remember of Cronenberg is so icky (Goldblum transitioning to insect in The Fly), gooey (the video game console-critter of eXistenZ), or downright bloody (much of A History of Violence and Eastern Promises) that there seems to be a disconnect at play between how his films are written about and how they are actually experienced.

Perhaps that’s what has afforded him such general acclaim for so long—his canny recognition that layering a thick gloss of capital-C culture on the tawdry, disgusting, and repulsive is a surefire signal of titillating depths to be probed. Paired with an aesthetic that keeps audiences forcibly at a remove (save those instances of rubbing our fascinated noses right in the muck), Cronenberg’s is a cinema that teases us with the sense of big ideas, but allows us little purchase with which to access them. His body of work has resulted in a kind of monolithic form of approbation that brokers no compromise with naysayers. Oftentimes those aspects of his films that might just seem off—a wooden performance, nonsensical narrative turn, an outdated thread of satirical commentary—are chalked up to being part of the overall design. It’s a condition of auteurism: if the films don’t function, their brokenness must be on purpose—and thus Cronenberg is presented as a filmmaker of superior intellect playing chess in eleven dimensions with viewers who cannot hope to keep up.

For this skeptic, Cronenberg’s choice of making back-to-back present-day satires based on decades-old material implies something is amiss, that the held perception of Canada’s most cutting-edge filmmaker needs a bit of realignment. Where his last film, the nightmarish limousine tour of New York in the era of late capitalism, Cosmopolis, felt merely musty, his latest, Maps to the Stars, an exposé of the narcissistic excesses of the self-immolating Hollywood machine, feels wholly mothballed. There might be a few rubes out there shocked and surprised by the increasingly improbable behaviors of the film’s cast of burn-outs (Evan Bird’s rehabbing child star Benjie), has-beens (Julianne Moore’s Havanna, an actress well past her prime, trying to desperately to win a role in a remake played by her mother in the original), wannabes (Mia Wasikowska’s Agatha, a naïf who arrives in Tinseltown at the film’s outset lugging a suitcase, some burn scars, and an opaque past), and never-wills (Robert Pattinson’s limo driving, ever-auditioning Jerome), but this is territory well trod and trampled.

A viewer with even a passing knowledge of the inner workings of Hollywood (say, anyone a half-step beyond what can be gleaned from a passing acquaintance with Entertainments Tonight or Weekly) will understand something important about what we’re shown in Maps to the Stars: that Hollywood’s venality is far more banal, and thus more frighteningly insidious, than anything written into Bruce Wagner’s aged screenplay. An early scene in which Benjie tells off one of his handlers, calling him a “Jew faggot,” is supposed to pin the audience to their seats—gasp, he’s but a child!—but don’t we expect the overvalued and privileged child actor of today to behave this way, if we haven’t seen evidence of it captured and clipped and .gif’ed online? Havanna’s increasingly pathetic attempts to land a role immortalized by her dead mother may evince a gross obsession with legacy and youth, but when hasn’t Hollywood been so? Billy Wilder’s recently revived Fedora is far more troubling on this score, not to mention Sunset Boulevard.

Making matters somewhat more complicated, if not necessarily better, Wagner frames his script as a kind of puzzle. We meet Benjie, Agatha, Havanna, and Jerome, along with Benjie’s parents, Christina (Olivia Williams) and Stafford (John Cusack), mostly separately, and the rest of the movie works to intersect their narratives, not unlike the movement of a certain Paul Haggis contraption from some years ago. So, Agatha, via a friendship struck up with the real Carrie Fisher on Twitter, becomes Havanna’s personal assistant, and is eventually revealed to be Benjie’s sister, long ago exiled to Jupiter (Florida, one of the film’s best jokes) after nearly setting him on fire as a child. Jerome, working for a limo service, picks up Agatha at the airport upon her arrival and eventually becomes her lover and Havanna’s. Stafford, some kind of motivational speaker-cum-massage therapist, works on Havanna, barely touching her as he goads her to reenact childhood traumas that she hopes will prepare her to play her mother onscreen.

Cronenberg maintains his studiously airless mise-en-scène throughout—the film at times plays like a stately version of tawdry melodramas like Desperate Housewives or Devious Maids. Longtime composer Howard Shore occasionally underlines with a kind of minimal ambient techno, lush with expectation and portent. It works nicely in the film’s first scene: Agatha alone, asleep on a bus, lights flashing by outside; it’s the beginning, so anything can and might happen, but the style grates as the stories begin to collide and the film scrapes for meaning. The events we see feel so weightless, so adrift in a narrative lacking even the barest sense of momentum that the score only serves as a promise for all that the experience of Maps to the Stars doesn’t provide. Even the regular appearance of the supernatural via several ghosts (Havanna’s mother, played by Sarah Gadon, shows up to berate her daughter as talentless; a child Benjie visited on her hospital deathbed appears to torment his nights) doesn’t help the film shake off its doldrums.

Let us assume for an instant that perhaps Cronenberg is fully aware his satire is stale, that his critique of contemporary Hollywood lacks trenchancy. So what, then is Maps to the Stars up to? Is it an honest portrait of a family laid low by Hollywood’s dream machine? As we learn more about the Weiss clan, a core incestuous relationship that has defined the family’s present is revealed. As well, when Benjie and Agatha are finally reunited, there’s a queasily palpable erotic tension between the pair—before their separation, they once played a game where they pretended to wed, and Agatha seems insistent on picking things up where they left off. Is Maps, then, a modern-day stab at Sophoclean tragedy? Paul Elard’s poem “Liberté” (once airdropped by the thousands over occupied WWII Paris) is read by various characters throughout—is the film, then, an anguished cry against a system that totalizes and destroys lives in the process of creating entertainment for others? Is Cronenberg telegraphing an allegiance to Billy Wilder that his body of work thus far has never suggested?

More likely, Maps is just a lesser version of what Paul Schrader accomplished last year with his much-derided The Canyons. Maps to the Stars produces a vision of Hollywood we can separate ourselves from; it’s comforting because we are not wholly complicit with or implicated in it. The Canyons was pilloried for its correct suggestion that under the right circumstances any and all of us might be corruptible. Maps gives us a Hollywood that, though written from the inside, is filtered through the perspective of an artist looking at it safely from afar. The Canyons comes from a filmmaker picked up, abused, then cast out by the machine that had once anointed him. For all the pus and ooze and gore and blood in his films (and Maps is no exception), there’s always been the sense that Cronenberg’s approach to his material involves sterilized gloves. Somehow that approach feels less honest, and less valuable to cinema, than that of those artists (now including Schrader) unafraid to jump right into the dumpster.