On the forehead of my friends, on every hand held out, I write your name.
On the stairs of death, I write your name, Liberty
Consider those two lines, in David Cronenberg’s excellent latest, a fatal cancer cell. Bear with me…
Maps to the Stars (2014) suggests a great auteur letting his hair down a little, à la Scorsese with After Hours. But there’s little doubt, despite the often surreal humor on offer here, about how Cronenberg feels about Tinseltown (and this is his first film there!), or that this is very much adherent to many of his thematic concerns. It isn’t just broad, black comedy: it’s horrifying, as troubling a tableau as that within which Max Renn and the Mantle twins succumbed.
The characters in Maps to the Stars don’t feel like real people, because they’re not. Alright, they’re actors performing roles, but they’re also “people” happiest being fed lines, and only when “on” do they exist — and they know it. Does Cronenberg feel this way about actors, as Hitchcock did? Their conversations otherwise, when left to themselves, are stilted and faltering: there’s no “director.” And into such identity-uncertainty flows a fair fount of madness. There’s a telling scene in which Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore, at the end of her tether and histrionic: easy money for such an actress) is part of a threesome with another actress and a reptilian mover/shaker. The other actress morphs into Segrand’s mother (Sarah Gadon), apparently sexually abusive when Segrand was a child, and the latter runs off (and plays out a scene from the film she is desperate to star in — which was made famous by her mother decades prior and which is omnipresent as a TV backdrop in numerous scenes during Maps To The Stars — but will fail to be cast in), suggesting: “I guess I’m a bad dyke.” A pretty horrifying line of dialogue, given the merest consideration. A “bad dyke” for mother?
She’s a bad everything, doomed to continuously exist within a melodramatic rerun of her mother’s and her own beyond-dysfunctional lives, destroyed by Hollywood, a jittery, vulnerable, volatile diva, her own storyline probably written out: her mother, dead but ever-present, appearing not only in sleazy threesomes but in bathtubs and, via incantatory dialogue (the ominous couplet I excerpt at the top of this review) from the film she’s desperate to star in and revive a withered career, in the mouths of other protagonists. Her malevolent apparition is orbiting Havana in ever-shallower circles, it seems, with able help from gamely unhinged emissary Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska ), who is soon hired as Havana’s personal assistant after ostensibly dropping into town off the back of a Twitter-accord with Carrie Fisher (a wry cameo — the ravage the “real” Hollywood has wrought upon her, and the familial reverberations her presence offers needn’t be overstated), but really arriving for much more prosaic, disturbing reasons: she’s fresh out of the asylum and has business to settle. She loves the film in question, constantly utters that creepy mantra, and gradually reveals herself to be not merely a kook.
And: her family lives here. Dr. Stafford Weiss’s (John Cusack, like an anomic Peter Sellers, all eyebrows and withdrawn poison, and almost indistinguishable from Nicolas Cage these days) hideous amalgam of pseudo-guru/self-appointed self-help maven/all-round platitude-peddler, who we witness delivering “sessions” to Moore’s ruined once-star, during which he employs a bizarre hodge-podge of motivational psychiatry catharsis nonsense and a dubious reinterpretation of yoga and homeopathic sociopathy. It’s painful to watch and listen to: a kind of Freudian regressive improvisational torture that Moore seems to benefit zero from (Havana is spent after such wringing appointments — this is a place where a flatly cruel and merciless dredge-display of demons is easily passed of as cutting edge innovation — and Dr. Weiss, as we will discover, is in his element as a disaster vampire, feeding, subsisting, off such misery). Weiss has clearly found a niche in Cronenberg’s horrifying take on Hollywood: he talks in ominously idiotic riddles like some addled charades version of a Zen master. But there he is in the background holding forth on TV: he’s always going to flourish here, not even a chameleon, just a vapid opportunist.
His wife, Cristina (Olivia Williams, harshly vulnerable), seemingly has little to do other than sit in their characterless, expensive-yet-impoverished house with the ease you might associate with someone awaiting serious test results, look deeply depressed and beleaguered, and chaperone their Bierberesque potty-mouthed famous thirteen-year old son Benjie (Evan Bird, enjoyably horrid, too busy demolishing everyone to develop a personality), who stars in a lucrative Two-And-A-Half-Men type travesty (he will soon be upstaged and have a meltdown of his own, subject, as he also is, to visions, his of a terminally-ill fan he visited just before she died (outside the hospital, having previously mistakenly suggested that the bedridden girl had AIDS, he asks, “Non-Hodgkins or Hodgkins? It either is or it isn’t.”), who now haunts him with those same persistently performed dialogue portents — note: all of these faces, the dead mother, Wasikowska, the dead fan, look alarmingly similar . . .) and who is far more “human” as the 2D character he unenthusedly inhabits onscreen, all homely vim and gentle laughs, than he is in his own skin. He deals in airbrushed contempt and careful barbs on TV, including the use of the word “vabina” (reference to binary?); in “reality” he asks his dutiful but constantly aggrieved aide if he can see his “cunt. I know you have one.” The lies are manifold; the only substance appalling.
There’s a marvelous boardroom scene (one of many Mulholland Dr. echoes) involving studio execs, Benjie (such an anodyne appellate for such a vacuous little monster) and his mother: we understand that Benjie has been up to no good (Charlie Sheen?) and certain reassurances need to be delivered for the show to go on. Benjie isn’t interested: he has no facility for self-reproach. He’s an automaton quip-machine, disparaging, self-obscuring one-liners and serious attitude: exactly why they hired him. They fathom blood-curdling smiles for their thirteen-year-old master, and he returns them, a quick glance to mom, also subservient.
(So appalled is Benjie at such a show of deference to studio middle-men that he races into the toilet as soon as the ordeal is over: mother follows, blankly hugging him from behind as Cronenberg’s curious slow-zoom examines these oddities.)
Benjie hasn’t had to grow up fast so much as had his childhood traded in for a bilious, useful charisma, and he merely reacts to things, normally in the negative, having no ideas or self. This call-and-response facility he has is unmistakable: he makes others’ words his own and flings them back with interest. This is why at thirteen he’s a huge star, but also why he’s so awful. He can’t question a self that doesn’t exist and so, when up against a situation outside his comfort zone, he colonizes it and subverts it: it becomes “Benjie doesn’t approve” material and he riffs on ways of antagonizing what’s potentially harmful and alien. He’s like an internet troll — trash it before it gets real. Keep everything as unreal and malleable as Benjie.
So when his co-star begins to eclipse him, this being Cronenberg, it’s a virus being overwhelmed and having to mutate/colonize to survive (very Revok brothers stuff — after wondering what on earth Cronenberg may have had in mind taking on such a project, the reasons accumulate steadily). Alas: there is no “Benjie” to mutate so his co-star is the site upon which such mental mutation occurs. The dead fan, a recurring presence, replaces his young counterpart in a paranoid vision and Benjie, unable to distinguish between reality and hallucination, strangles the tormentor.
This reaction — the kid survives the assault — threatens the stability of the extended family franchise and the only two characters in the film with any control over their destiny, Agatha and Stanford, assume their positions as the only likely survivors. Everyone else is doomed: Hollywood winds blow in one direction. And let’s not forget that Agatha is already crazy, thoroughly infected and highly successful, by the end, at snuffing wavering lights, including her own. Stanford Weiss (white, blank — I decided against a terrible Grosse Point Blanke joke here), equally emptied and possessed but having managed to convert his dark energy to lucrative as opposed to murderous ends, is the benefactor, and does what he is built to.
We get little understanding of the backstory initially: we discover that Wasikowska set fire to the home and almost-fatally imperiled her brother before being committed to the asylum. She bears scars from such escapades: but these are initially relatively unapparent and only become noticeably manifest as her initial guise slips.
Cristina, meanwhile, begins to fall off the edge as Agatha’s reappearance becomes apparent, but Benjie, who it is hinted at had a murky bit of near-incest with Agatha (there is mention of a marriage ceremony — for good reason, as it turns out), is less troubled by her return. I’m not sure the fact that they’re twins is mentioned, but they certainly are, figuratively. They’re a divided cell with aligned fates. Beyond the credits, we can assume that their fused mutual star will rise considerably.
Robert Pattinson shows up a few times, memorably, as an actor “currently chauffeuring” (bit of a Cosmopolis in-joke there) the likes of Moore’s direct rival for the aforementioned coveted role. He is briefly hired by Wasikowska and they begin an uneasy relationship. He eventually gets a gig on a cheesy Star Trek ripoff called Blue Matrix. His character has a telling scar on his face, right where Wasikowska has . . . another example of recurrence, recycling, viral remanifestation, metamorphosis and, in particular, susceptibility to whatever it is that’s doing all this (and you may in passing wonder about that strange man dwelling behind the diner in Mulholland Dr. — this is indisputably, to a degree, a Lynchian take on this town). Pattinson eventually chauffeurs Havana, and they fumble a hasty quickie in the back of the limo: an act of tawdry abandon on her part that will form a prelude to a bloody finale.
Maps To The Stars would seem to be about the malleability of the self that Hollywood demands versus what that does to human beings unchanged in fundamental ways for millions of years; the truly bizarre thing that this place represents as a revered pocket of civilization which is necessarily despicable, consisting almost entirely (from my point of view) of the damaged and the predatorial, all wearing multiple masks that hide a reality we perfectly understand but choose to deny. They tell stories all the time: we tell ourselves that we know who they are but we can’t because they, invariably, don’t. What is it we know, recognize? The infirmity of identity. Havana Segrand’s problem is simple: her career has ground to a halt, there are no roles for her, so she starts to consume herself, Ouroboros style, with her own story, and that’s her mother. She can no longer keep reality at bay (as Stanford Weiss will). Her reality is that she’s seriously damaged and self-destructive. The worst thing she could possibly do is play the role her mother made famous. She would be throwing away the key at that point, so to speak. But this is what she pursues, self-hating, and the combination of factors are just the wrong side of deathly. And she then becomes the catalyst for the devastation wrought upon the Weisses.
Cronenberg, rather than hint at what’s behind the curtain, burns it down. He knows there’s no point playing Hollywood satire subtly. This goes up to 11 within minutes (and it does occasionally feel Spinal Tap-esque — an, if you will, baroqueumentary) and stays there.
Not only do you have to be feckless, deceptive, absurdly selfish, and vile to get by in Cronenberg’s Hollywood, it also helps if you’re inhuman and able to overlook the death of your wife and children. Or: Hollywood eats people and souls. Where’s the fun in opposing such a view, and who would? Everyone in Hollywood, of course, but it’s their job to perform, and ours to watch. I’m certainly thankful that Cronenberg put this out there: I’d love to overhear candid conversations in that town as to what everyone made of it. None of the acting establishment are in it: the cast is made up of mavericks and lefty outsiders. Can you imagine Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise in this? No: it’s about them, and they’d be the last to know or to want to know.
Stanford Weiss is pretty much a personification of Hollywood as Cronenberg would have it. Cusack’s Doctor cannot tolerate or use reality for long — he can’t control or script it — so failing to repel it he simply absorbs and subverts it, turning it into pure Hollywood currency — a great story — before it can establish any dominion.
The absurd home in which the hollowed-out Weisses pass the unhappiest hours of their time — faced with each other, naked, off-screen — is all sleek symmetry and harsh angles, industrial corridors, and sterile enormity. It’s a minimalist, echoing stage, every over-or-underthought word bouncing back off the walls, emphasis for the elegant emptiness. It’s a mausoleum, really. When the disaster that Agatha represents really hits home (a scene that’d normally be far too over-the-top to succeed, during which an ablaze Cristina is disgustedly and unhurriedly prodded into the swimming pool by her husband, who sits down impassively as his charred wife sizzles, is absolutely apt under the circumstances) Cusack’s Stanford Weiss simply accepts the situation as opportunity for further reinvention, the next stage of his evolution as a “star,” and phones his agent to relate his ideas about Oprah and something “lucrative.” He’s the only survivor, other than Hollywood itself, and the show must go on, all impediments chewed up, recycled and recast.