Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Maps to the Stars

Boo-ray for Hell-y-weird!
They Should Have Called the Town "Phoenix," instead.

Los Angeles is a suitable case for Xanaxing it's water supply in the way they used to fluoridate the waters for tooth decay; the Xanax is for the psychic decay of a town whose whose compass in mainly bi-polar. A town built on incoming heights of hope and the gravely-crushed dreams of the downwardly spiraling, L.A. and its tarty step-sister Hollywood have inspired many a cautionary tale since...well, since they started making movies there. Every decade sees at least one or two poison pen letters to Tinsel-town, be it A Star is Born (three versions), The Day of the Locust, Mulholland Drive, The Oscar, The Player, Barton Fink, S.O.B., Postcards From the Edge, The Big Knife, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (those by Robert Aldrich), and the most revered and stylish, Sunset Boulevard. Those are the most successful, but there have been others by lesser lights, hoping their screeds to the industry would get them noticed—it's that kind of thinking that might be at the root of their discontent.

David Cronenberg is the latest to poke the wasp's nest in Maps to the Stars (written by Bruce Wagner, who wrote a Nightmare on Elm Street episode, Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills and the TV series "Wild Palms"), which is less about the movie business and what it creates and tears down, and more about the culture (or lack of it) swarming around the business. It's more of a self-contained soap opera that exposes the selfishness, egotism, neuroses, incestuousness, and just plain venality that provides the background stink to the town.*
"How's that therapy working out for ya, hun'?"
Like a soap, it's convoluted.  There are two spheres of influence, one is Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore, in the performance that should have won her the Oscar), child-star of a famous movie-star Mom (played by Sarah Gadon as a 20 year old ghost), who is starting to fade and is such a mess of conflicts she can't seem to get them straight—she's vying for a role in a remake of a film her mother starred in, despite the fact that she seems to have invented a past abusive relationship, when the abuse she seems to inhabit are of her own conjuring. Moore plays her with a valley-girl voice and a wild-animal stare that unnerves—one keeps thinking of Lindsey Lohan while watching her, which seems intentional, as the movie is steeped in name-dropping and gossipy in-jokes. She has visions of her mother that appear, only to break her down and throw her into an emotional melt-down.
Her therapist is a self-help guru of enormous ego named Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), who specializes in what mathematician-comedian Tom Lehrer used to call "diseases of the rich." He's very touchy-feely (especially with stars) and keeps up a running dialogue with them during his sessions—as opposed to them doing the talking—that encourages the wildest surface instincts. Weiss is married to Christina (Olivia Williams), a chain-smoker and manager of the career of their son Benjie (Evan Bird), a child-star with a franchise to keep up and a drug habit to keep down. Negotiations for him to star in the latest of the "Bad Babysitter" series of movies is going well, but things aren't going well for him—he's being haunted by a patient with Hodgkins that he visited in the hospital and subsequently died. Is she a vision of a flash-back—it's hard to differentiate.
And then (speaking of flashbacks) there's daughter Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), who's just come back to L.A. after "being" in Florida for many years. Why she was living there and not with the family is one of the many suspicions that get revealed eventually in the film (but not really revealed, and even then, circumspectly) but there might be some clue given the burns that she hides with her distinctive haircut and the black gloves that she constantly sports. Agatha meets up with a screenwriter/limo-driver—that's his order of importance, anyway, fantasy/reality—(Robert Pattinson) and lands a job as Havana's personal assistant (convenient!), while planning out how she will individually re-unite with her family, none of whom know that she has returned, as she is one of those many subjects the family avoids. 
There's a lot of back-story, some of which may be interconnected, but maybe not, but all of which explains why the people populating this movie might be All kinds of crazy, starting with the merely deluded to the criminally insane. Illusion is the normal—in fact, in L.A., it's business as usual—it's reality that no one has a grasp on, by choice or circumstance.
So, what are we to make of this cloistered, desolate finger-trap of a movie that has little to do with the illusion of movie-making, and more to do with the illusions of our own making. Movie-making is an art, even if it's the art of making a deal, but Maps to the Stars is all about lying to ourselves to get by. Just like movie-making, it takes imagination and a lot of work, but that's the extent of it. It is wasted effort. There's no art to kidding ourselves. All it takes is a bubble-world with no perspective other than our own. Movie-making is designed to leave a legacy. The tragedy of Maps to the Stars is that no one gets out alive, without any marker to show their existence
* I've done some work in L.A. and have mostly stayed in the safety of the studios and hotels, rather than do any sight-seeing.  The last time I walked down Hollywood Boulevard ("The Walk of the Stars"), I was so appalled, I couldn't get out of there fast enough.  Between the hustlers, screwballs, and weirdo's, the place gave off a vibe of cheapness that I've never been able to shake.

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