David Cronenberg’s Maps To The Stars begins with a credits sequence illustrating Hollywood as a celestial constellation. It captures succinctly the quixotic allure and sense of ‘other’ associated with screen idols and their fixated-upon lives. If somewhat uncharitable (entirely on my part), the film's depiction of celebrity figures can be described as mutant or alien. They walk among us but they are not us. Very much like Brundlefly (in The Fly, 1986) or the Mantle twins in Dead Ringers (1988), they are beings unlike others. They're just ... different (quite drastically so in Brundle's case).
In Dead Ringers the lead female character, Claire Niveau (Geneviève Bujold), is an actress. A cynical attitude towards the trade and what it does to folk is markedly present in the dialogue. "She's an actress, Bev, she's a flake. You never know who she really is," Elliot tells his brother. Later on, he points out to his distraught and drug-addled twin: “She’s a showbiz lady, what can you expect?”
Maps To The Stars is a corrosive vision of the fame game with an increasingly febrile remit. The story of a family reunion as emotional reckoning day, it is equally about lack (and loss) of identity. Categorising and labelling directors and their work is fraught with peril and misunderstandings. However, it is a must. For that way there can be entry points, histories, connection and celebration. Maps To The Stars is quintessentially Cronenbergian. It fits well into his filmography and the old nickname 'Dave Deprave' feels as relevant today as it was back in the 1980s.
Satire and pessimism are the default settings of choice for tales set in the movie business. We openly acknowledge that Hollywood is really ‘Hollyweird’ and that this sunny place has attracted, along with genuine artistic talent, its fair share of crazies, chancers and the starry-eyed from its earliest days. Nathaniel West explored the madness of the dream factory way back in the late 1930s in his classic novel, The Day Of The Locust. The town attracts people like wasps to sugar, or indeed, like locusts to a field of crops. Even further back, in the 1920s, tales of debauchery and vice were hardly insiders-only knowledge: they were scandals that made the front pages of newspapers around the world.
Satire and Cronenberg are not uncommon bedfellows, even if the director recently denied Maps To The Stars should be read as a satire. It's right there in Shivers (1975). Videodrome (1983) is a playful movie that takes on a censorship board's worst-case scenario: violent imagery changing people literally. Satire is the sharpest comedic tool available, but also it's the perfect context and host for nightmares. It's worth pointing out, too, that the films of David Cronenberg can be as profoundly funny as they are profound in subtext. Characters start out believing they are in charge of things. They end up falling apart (sometimes literally). It is a winning Lovecraftian-like narrative ruse, in which outside forces reshape perception and the person is never the same again. They're privy to shattering information but wish they were not, etc.
Unlike a lot of satirical movies (Maps To The Stars is unavoidably satiric, even if the director professes the opposite) Cronenberg writes or presents characters that are likeable. James Woods in Videodrome played Max Renn with an amusing sleazy insouciance. He’s a television station president looking for the most sensational material to broadcast to the masses so he can further make a name for himself. He's a show business provocateur who becomes an agent provocateur. But you feel for the guy as he loses his grip on the situation and is subjected to all kinds of weirdness. The characters simply can no longer cope.
Cronenberg once commented (regarding Videodrome, but it feels applicable to almost all of his films): “To allow themselves to go totally into the emotional reality of what’s happening to them is to be destroyed completely.”1
Transformation is arguably the key theme in Cronenberg’s filmography. Ditching biological horror for other subgenres furthered - even saved - his artistry. This way he has remained a vital part of film culture and his work always of interest, even if 'the fans' long for the halcyon days when he was known as 'The Baron of Blood'. The slings and arrows of critical fortune have been (mostly) kind. Some films tanked (M Butterfly) and others were scandals (Crash). But has he ever fallen out of fashion? Not really. Avoiding the pitfalls of many other genre directors, he utilised his artistic obsessions to further explore his interests (madness, transformations and sex) in biopics, action thrillers, love stories and literary adaptations.
One hesitates to describe Maps To The Stars as a horror movie, as if - praise-the-Lord - 'Dave Deprave' finally came home. However just as (in its own unique way) Dead Ringers is a horror film, so too is Maps To The Stars. Interestingly, this latest picture and the 1988 masterpiece share similar endings and themes surrounding the power of sibling connections. A thin wisp of body shock horrifica is present, too, in the concept of mutant DNA (this is regarding a major plot point involving two characters). In fact, the brand 'Dave Deprave' has never vanished completely. The blood and guts might not be as strong as it once once in those winning days of gore, but 'Dave Deprave' is as fitting sobriquet in these august years as it was in the 1970s and 1980s. Look at the themes of each movie. They still feature incredible transgressive scenes and subtexts.
Maps To The Stars serves up one of the most radical Cronenbergian depictions of the world yet. A pathogen called 'celebrity' has spread and consumed the world. It is beamed and transferred via exposure to technology such as televisions, magazines, the Internet. It's already won. There is no battle to be fought. Stardom is a profoundly lunatic mass illusion with which we invest a serious amount of time and attention. Cary Grant, who transformed Archie Leach from Bristol into the ultimate image of the debonair gentleman, once quipped that even he wanted to be Cary Grant. On the big screen, actors and actresses become something ‘other’. We love this. Some stars may profess that ‘I’m just like you’, but that’s baloney. They’re not ordinary and down to earth. Anyway, we wouldn't accept them as 'just like us'. For when they are one of us, they are no longer a star. We aid superstars in the delusion like dealers providing primo junk to their customers. It's vampiric in a way, too. Although, as a social satire, it is far more subtle (and less outwardly absurd) than Brandon Cronenberg's excellent Antiviral.
The dialogue in Maps To The Stars comes in two flavours: deadpan and callous. But its the lives of these folk and their mental tortures that is most striking and thematically rich. An alternative title could have been Map To The Scars. The material has a primal resonance, too, as in all of Cronenberg's work. Not to diminish the contribution of Bruce Wagner, and he may well have written the screenplay and is known for biting dramas about life in Hell.A., but the story and dialogue feels perfectly attuned to Cronenberg's own sensibilities. There is no question of authorship. A meeting of creative minds it might well be, but it's absolutely a David Cronenberg film.
Just as there are rungs on a ladder there are circles of hell. Maps To The Stars is focused on two movie icons teetering precariously on the edge of personal and professional oblivion. Another character, Jerome, played by Robert Pattinson, is a scriptwriter trying to find a way into the world of show business. He finds this opportunity via Agatha (Mia Wasikowska). Jerome represents those that desperately want to be part of the machine and to express their creativity. All that awaits Jerome is humiliation and disappointment.
Does Maps To The Stars form a trilogy with Videodrome and eXistenZ? (The New Flesh Trilogy?) Cronenberg’s first masterpiece was the story of a television producer exposed to violent imagery via a pirate broadcast and videotape recordings. eXistenZ updated the storyline, this time focused on video game technology and a band of activists intent on saving humankind (they are known as The Realists). All three pictures are set in the media world and subject characters to perilous journeys where minds crack wide open. Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) is a fading actress longing to exact personal revenge against her famous mother. In a genius move, one of modern Hollywood’s most lambasted products – the re-imagining of a classic – is turned into an act of personal vengeance. Havana's desire to play the mother is the ultimate cosmetic surgery operation. Her reason could be summed up as: I’m not remaking the movie, I’m destroying you and remaking me. It’s an act of symbolic matricide. Freud would have a field day.
Havana has conversations with her dead mother – played by Sarah Gadon – who attempts to belittle or taunt her about an issue from the past. The director never distinguishes between dreams and waking life. It is a tactic that has been utilised throughout his filmography: Videodrome, Naked Lunch, The Fly. The line has to be seamless as much as it is clearly 'not right'. "Our own personal perception of reality is the only one we'll accept. Even if you're going mad, it's still your reality. But the same thing, seen from an outsider's perspective, is a person acting insane. The two ideas click together."2
Havana walks into the bathroom talking away to the housekeeper or Agatha, and there's Mother lying in the bath wanting to chat. It's like a person talking to a ghost ... but underneath this visual interpretation, you know Havana is talking to herself while suffering an auditory and visual hallucination. Because there are no ghosts. It is not a supernatural movie.
The daughter is convinced she was abused by the mother. Havana appears in television interviews discussing her childhood, playing the sympathy card like an ace, and maybe believing that playing her famous mother, Clarice Taggart, will settle the score. Havana might be batshit crazy, but there is equally a sense of awareness that rises above the obvious 'Norma Desmond' appeal of the role. Ironically, Moore has earned plaudits for her performance, including an award at Cannes (and rightly so), but Mia Wasikowska's contribution to the film should not be ignored. As Agatha, the girl whose Twitter friendship with Carrie Fisher (playing herself) sets the ball rolling to its personal apocalypse finale, the Australian actress is phenomenal.
The other major screw-up is child star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird). Back from a stint in rehab and trying to get his career back on track, he starts tripping out and acting increasingly reckless. Benjie detests a rival talent so much, he strangles the kid while the latter takes a bathroom break on the set of their new project, another edition of the popular Bad Babysitter franchise. It's the kind of wacked-out scene worth of Videodrome or eXistenZ, where a person is no longer in control and compelled to act by an inner voice/programme.
Whether its Havana or Benjie, or his father Stafford (John Cusack), a self-help guru hiding a shattering secret, the film shows off Hollywood as a place that can ruin people in spectacularly malignant fashion. Orson Welles once described working in Tinseltown as being akin to a boy getting to play with the greatest train set in the world. Map To The Stars is a depiction of the train set crashed, wrecked and with all lives lost.
The film is arguably David Cronenberg's bleakest. It can be viewed, too, as the completion of a trilogy exploring the malefic influence of 'entertainment' on the mind and body. Bone guns, bullet teeth, bio-digital spine plugs and exploding television sets hurling human-like innards across the room are absent, but this is still a brutal, devastating and haunting work from one of cinema's most singular and original talents.
Maps To The Stars is released in the UK on 26th September by EOne
1. Cronenberg on Cronenberg, Faber & Faber, 1997