From Videodrome, 1983. Directed by David Cronenberg with cinematography by Mark Irwin. Via FilmGrab.
From Videodrome, 1983. Directed by David Cronenberg with cinematography by Mark Irwin. Via FilmGrab.
Surreal and often grotesque, David Cronenberg’s film Maps to the Stars (2014) attempts to merge a satire of the film industry with a riff on haunted Hollywood. The title, with its double meaning, suggests a cartography that might pinpoint the connections between larger-than-life screen avatars and the mythological figuration our culture has lent to them.
Maps to the Stars presents a large stage then for its host of strange characters to play upon. Center stage is the (ironically-named) Weiss family. Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) is a TV psychologist who manipulates his celebrity patients with psychobabble quackery. He’s emotionally-estranged from his wife Cristina (Olivia Williams), who plays stage-mother to their son Benjie (Evan Bird), an improbably gangly teen heartthrob trying to get his film career back on track after a stint in drug rehab. The Weiss family finds their not-so-blissful life terribly disrupted when daughter Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) shows up again after years in a mental hospital. She’s a schizophrenic with pyromaniac tendencies. Meanwhile, aging actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) pines for a role playing her own mother’s role in a remake of a film called Stolen Waters. Segrand resents that her mother’s fame exceeds her own. Alleging that she was sexually abused by her mother as a child, Segrand receives treatment (in her lingerie) from Dr. Weiss. Agatha eventually takes a job as Segrand’s “chore whore,” more firmly linking the two plots. There’s also a limo driver named Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattison), who wants to both write and act in Hollywood. Oh, and a bunch of ghosts.
The various plot points double and triple each other: actors hope to gain coveted roles, family members hope to convert their pain into love and forgiveness, people try to escape their past. The film kneads themes of child predation, infanticide, ageism, Hollywood-as-vampirism, and incest into the plot, along with fire and water motifs. Throughout, characters repeat lines from Paul Éluard’s 1942 poem Liberté, as if the mantra’s force might grant them liberty from all these evils.
Cronenberg’s keen visual sensibilities are a highlight of Maps to the Stars. The film sparkles with a glossy Pop Art appeal which Cronenberg delights in griming up with occasional Cronenbergian touches. Still, Maps to the Stars, while thoroughly thematically abject, is not Cronenberg’s most visually Cronenbergian film.
The performances are very Cronenbergian though—stylized, affected, warped, weird. Mia Wasikowska and Julianne Moore are particularly good, and John Cusack leans into his role with unexpected menace. As surreal as these characters are though, there’s a ballast of reality underneath—sometimes and ultra-real reality, as when Carrie Fisher, daughter of a famous actress, plays her self in a bit role. The whole affect is unnerving.
Maps to the Star’s unnerving tone generates in part from its divergent trajectories. The film strives to be both a biting satire of Hollywood and a familial drama with mythological undertones. There’s no reason that these trajectories might intertwine successfully, but they don’t in Maps to the Stars. The tonal elements never fully cohere, and the plot careens to its climax with a pace that upsets the film’s earlier mood of slow-burning menace. The rushed ending is probably the worst part about Maps to the Stars. There’s plenty of promise in its first hour that the last 45 minutes fails to deliver. The film might have made a better limited series, even, giving Cronenberg more time to weave the threads together.
Bruce Wagner, who wrote Maps to the Stars‘ screenplay, found more room to expand in his 2012 novel Dead Stars, which ran just over 650 pages in paperback. Wagner’s novel predates the film, and is based at least in part on an earlier version of the screenplay for Maps to the Stars. (This is all a bit confusing, I know). In interviews, Wagner has rejected critics’ characterization of Maps to the Stars as a satire, declaring it rather an elegiac family melodrama. (Cronenberg himself didn’t outright reject the idea that the film was satirical though). While it’s unlikely that Wagner is being disingenuous when he claims Maps to the Stars isn’t satirical, he and Cronenberg have nevertheless produced a satire—yet one that strives to be an elegiac family melodrama, and also a take on the old haunted Hollywood stuff. And yet all this material feels pretty hollow.
The specters and doppelgangers haunting the background of Maps to the Stars remain disappointingly underexplored by the film’s end. Worse, the film suffers from a comparison to David Lynch’s far superior Mulholland Drive (2001). Lynch’s film is richer and more expansive, evoking more with far less.
Maps to the Stars also suffers from comparison to Cronenberg’s earlier work, like Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1985), and Dead Ringers (1988). In the 2000s, Cronenberg delivered a particularly strong one-two punch with a pair of his most perfect films, both starring Viggo Mortensen: A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007). The magic with Mortensen seemed to wear off in A Dangerous Method (2011), and Cronenberg’s next film Cosmopolis (a 2012 adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel) was, in my estimation, unwatchable. While I think Maps to the Stars is stronger than the last two efforts, it does seem to point to a late-career slump. Here’s to hoping the next Cronenberg joint is a better deal, like the far-superior satire eXistenZ (1999) which he wrote himself. Maybe he should write the next one himself too.
How I watched it: I put it on a few nights ago on a big TV via a streaming service, late at night after a few tumblers of scotch, thinking, “Oh hey, I never watched this” but that turned out to be a false start. Rewatched on an iPad in bed with headphones in two sittings, very late at night.
1. I managed to avoid reading anything about Shane Carruth’s new film Upstream Color before I saw it.
I just knew that this was the guy who did Primer, this was his new film, and I wanted to see it because Primer was so strange and engaging.
2. Two immediate responses after viewing Upstream Color:
i). The desire to see Upstream Color again and
ii). The desire to read what other people thought about Upstream Color.
3. (My wife and I, reading the credits, pausing the credits, reassessing the film against the backdrop of the credits, arguing about the film, discussing the film, etc.).
4. I think it’s better that if you have any interest at all in Upstream Color that you just see it cold [update/warning: the comments section of this post is full of spoilers]. But I know that 100 minutes is an investment of time, so maybe you’d like some kind of précis or at least description. So, a loose attempt, which surely will devolve into fragments and references:
Upstream Color is a sci-film, sort of.
Or maybe its a mystery film about ethics and biology.
Maybe a nature film, sort of.
Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.
Shades of Philip K. Dick, David Cronenberg, Terence Malick, but also something utterly original.
Creation: knitting, paper chains, music, seeds, life, children, etc.
A film that can and should be described as poetic.
It’s a love story, too.
5. It occurs to me that there’s a trailer for the film. I haven’t seen it yet. Should we watch it?
6. Does that do it for you? I don’t know how to do this anymore. Recommend things. I don’t know, the trailer makes the film perhaps look more pretentious than it is. It isn’t pretentious. It isn’t even confusing—just perplexing, haunting, troubling.
7. (Wanted: Quinoa Valley Record Co., complete discography).
8. My take on Upstream Color, spoiler-free, supporting-detail-free:
The film is about agency, about drive, about how the characters (and, implicitly, us, we, the audience, who identify with the characters on the screen) may be driven by something beyond us, something controlling us like a parasite (internal) or from afar like a ventriloquist (external). That even when we do assert agency the effect, the fallout, the shape lays beyond us, upstream.
9. (This morning, my wife telling me about her dream, a nightmare that our young daughter had ingested hallucinogenic mushrooms, clearly a response to the film).
10. I haven’t done a good job of really saying anything about the film. So, lazily:
I think Caleb Crain provides a perceptive and persuasive reading of the film in his essay “The Thoreau Poison.” He reads the film through the American transcendentalists, particularly Thoreau, of course, but also Emerson and Hawthorne.
There’s also a piece at Slate by Forrest Wickman that perhaps over-explicates but nonetheless offers perspective, including elements of Carruth’s own take.
11. (I will avoid Carruth’s explanation of the film until I’ve seen it a second time. Maybe I’ll avoid his explanation forever).
12. A take on Upstream Color that I don’t quite buy into (the take is my own): The film perhaps invites us to find metaphysical entities in two of its secondary characters, both of whom exert influence (creative and destructive) over the primary characters. Something something godlike, something something devillike.
I like that the film offers this simple duality and then crushes it, shows something far more complicated, suggests a cycle far more strange.
13. (White orchid. Blue orchid. Yellow orchid).
14. Upstream Color features minimal dialogue and nothing approaching traditional exposition, but we still learn about its characters, come to feel for them, feel their desires and traumas. The film is cerebral and philosophical, but it’s also emotional, offering an aesthetic that sublimely overwhelms the viewer.
15. Carruth wrote, produced, directed, scored, photographed, cast and starred in Upstream Color. (I’m sure he did a lot of other stuff too). He also distributed the film himself. The entire filmmaking process was untouched by the Hollywood system. There’s so much hope for film as an art form in this knowledge.
16. Parting thoughts: See Upstream Color. Resist imposing whatever film grammar you usually bring with you to the movies. Resist the temptation to see the film as a puzzle to figure out. See Upstream Color.
1. I don’t know.
I spent most of this day—Sunday that is—swamping out my garden shed, recently rat-infested. Big wood rats, or river rats as we sometimes call them here, some of us.
This meant sterilizing the whole deal, spraying a bleach solution, wearing appropriate eye and nose and mouth protection, because getting older and having kids I now seem to care about my oh-so-important sensory organs more than I did in my twenties. This meant removing rat feces and a few dead rats. Just fucking gross, really.
I don’t know.
2. Point 1 has almost nothing to do with Ben Marcus’s novel The Flame Alphabet. It’s just that I told myself I’d finally write about it here, after finishing it a few weeks ago and all. The farther out it gets, the harder it is to write about.
3. But really, there is some kind of corollary between my rat business and The Flame Alphabet: Both were repellent experiences. Now, to be fair, the rat purging dealie was wholly repellent and in no way intriguing, whereas Marcus’s book was simultaneously attractive and repellent. The novel’s ugliness hit me hard sometimes, and the final chapters were a sludgy slog.
4. Maybe you’re just like, Hey, c’mon, cut it out with the rats, nobody came here for that, get with the program, tell us the plot:
So, language becomes toxic. First in kids, who hold an immunity of some kind, but the toxicity spreads to all elements of language and just kills people and makes them sick &c. In this mix our (reliably unreliable) narrator Sam kinda sorta tries to protect/save/help his family, wife Claire and daughter Esther. He undertakes home experiments, his “smallwork,” and keeps up the old time religion of the forest Jews (you’ll have to read the book for clues to this mysticism; I am too exhausted from rat-swamping to further explicate).
Society falls apart, sort of. (This is one of the major maybe-problems with The Flame Alphabet: There’s this hideous apocalypse underway but there also seems to be authority somewhere, external to the narrative, a government or scientific cadre or just really a they who keep the system moving, bread baking, electricity crackling &c).
There’s our narrator’s nemesis LeBov (the name undoubtedly borrowed from William Labov, who you learned about in your linguistics classes, I’m sure).
Midway through the novel our feckless hero starts new smallwork for Labov. LeBov is my favorite character—whenever he shows up the novel is alchemically invigorated.
Other stuff happens.
5. Really though, The Flame Alphabet is an apocalypse novel, filled with mounds of salt and despair and isolation and probably madness, rarely energized by action, but hardly ponderous.
6. (Here’s a paltry criticism for me to critically make: I wish The Flame Alphabet was shorter. Like significantly shorter. Maybe a novella. Maybe a long short story).
7. Finishing the novel, I sketched out a list, which hey why not just cut and paste here:
This is the stuff that The Flame Alphabet reminded me of—this and David Cronenberg’s films, which Jesus, how did they not make the list?
8. I mean, really, I think Ben Marcus has given us a sort of lost Cronenberg film here. Maybe what the book most reminded me of, language plot aside, was Cronenberg’s underrated icky 1999 effort eXistenZ, a film that seems to take place in several worlds at once (including the imaginations of the protagonist and the viewer).
9. Actually, comparing Marcus’s novel to a film is stupid.
Really, I think what The Flame Alphabet most resembles—its best parts, I mean—are directions to some kind of far-out art installation.
Which may be a way of saying The Flame Alphabet is best—or really, I like The Flame Alphabet best—when it recalls Ben Marcus’s older, more “experimental” stuff.
10. To wit:
The practice of language smoking originates in Bolivia but quickly travels north. In Mexico City it is perfected. Words and sentences tested by a delegate in a smoke-filled tube, at the end of which is stationed a sacrificial listener called, for unknown reasons, the bell.
The bell’s brain, when he dies, is pulled and separated into loaves. The loaves are tagged and named. Only drawings survive.
11. Or maybe you want some textual evidence of TFA’s Cronenbergian contours:
Ruptured mattresses littered the floor, sleeping bags with the bottoms kicked through. A brittle pillow bore the facial welt of the last patient who slept here. A man’s work shirt had been chewed, swallowed, spit up in a glaze of bile.
Mesh baggies of hair hung from the ceiling, repelling flies. Possibly the hair attracted them instead.
12. Or a Joseph Beuys moment. Our narrator in his language lab:
To test this I created white text on white paper, gray on gray, froze water into text-like shapes and allowed it to melt on select surfaces—slate, wood, felt—which it scarred so gently, you’d need a magnifying glass to spot the writing.
13. And a passage that showcases our narrator’s smallwork as an act of love (of sorts):
On Esther’s final birthday in our house I went to the kitchen to get to work on the cake. There wasn’t much food left in the cupboard, just some pancake mix and a blend of baking powders I’d dumped into a bag. From the meaty, mineral smell I figured this would give a lift to the cake, at least if I got the batter down to room temperature and shocked it into a hot oven so it might have some spring.
For liquids I had an egg and some buttermilk, the custardy sludge from the bottom of the carton.
I could boil the buttermilk to kill off bacteria, then flash freeze it before dumping it into the batter. The egg, too, would need flame, because it was likely spoiled by now.
I broke it into a pan, stifled a gag, then whisked it over a simmer until it frothed up, sputtered, and grew clear again. Mostly it did not congeal. The hardened parts were easy to flick out. When the pan cooled I slid it into the freezer, went to work on sifting the powders.
For sugar I reduced the last of the orange juice until it thickened into a syrup, then whipped in a thread of honey. This would have to do, because I needed the last of the sugar for frosting. I liked to feather it on lightly, then comb it up while hardening it with the medical cold blower, as if the cake had a fright wig.
The frosting I colored silver with a bead of food-grade aluminum.
14. These are all great fragments. Let’s keep going:
15. Desire—need—predicates language:
Presumably if you wanted nothing, you’d have no occasion to speak.
16. And Beckett:
“Failures have their place in our work,” he admitted, after hearing me out. “I’ve had my flirtations with failure. There is a small allure there. I commend you for seeking out failure so aggressively. But this idea people have of failing on purpose, failing better? Look at who says that. Just look at them. Look at them very carefully.”
17. Failure: Failure to imagine (better):
The linguist held forth, smugly dismissing an idea that had recently come into its own. It interested me that the linguist’s inability to imagine something constituted a sound rejection of its possibility.
We kept believing it couldn’t get any worse, as if our imaginations held sway in the natural world. We should have known that whatever we couldn’t imagine was exactly what was coming next.
19. I think I’ve shared a nice slice of Marcus’s prose. Dude can sling it. Seriously. I think he’s a great writer. I just wish more was stripped away from The Flame Alphabet. Feels overtly novelly at times—I mean, yes, it’s a novel, but this seems to be its biggest weakness: Marcus’s concessions to the form.
20. ( Let me parenthetically insert here what might be my biggest problem with The Flame Alphabet: I felt the ghost of Sam Lipsyte working under its contours. And I love Lipsyte’s stuff, seriously—but I often felt like Marcus was copping Lipsyte’s syntax, rhythms etc. as a means to a more, I dunno, normal narrative.
And while I’m here, in these parentheses, maybe I should direct you to a good and proper and real review. David Winters does a marvelous job at The Millions. And he brings up the Lipsyte thing that I just brought up, but he does a better job parsing the two styles than I.
21. The biggest tussle I had with TFA though is undoubtedly my agon (look how I make myself protagonist!) with its confounding reading rules.
The novel’s overtly parricidal/infantical scope, its estranging metaphors of language and extinctions, its remote anxieties of parenting—all of these pop up like red flags.
I wanted to—no, I set out to––deny the book as an allegory. I sought to resist metaphor, symbolism, analogy. But it’s hard, you know?
22. “Mythology is the lowest temptation,” our narrator tells us at one point.
And then Marcus wedges fairy tales and fables into the mixology.
23. And then our narrator:
I grew so alert to its obvious meanings that they sickened me, leading me to secondary, ironic intentions, disguises of rhetoric I would not normally notice. But soon these, too, felt fraudulent and then I returned to the literal meanings, which had gained more force now that I’d spurned them. That, however, did not last, and by the end the words had shucked their meaning entirely and evolved into a language of groaning, beyond interpretation. Or susceptible to the most obvious interpretation of all.
Language! Language! The problem of language!
24. And hence, what I take to be the book’s thesis, a two-sentence manifesto:
Explanations of any kind, in fact, were simply extinct.
Among the many rhetorical modes that had perished.
25. Does The Flame Alphabet enact its own holocaust, its own perishing; does it self-immolate? I don’t think so—although maybe that’s not what it sets out to do, maybe that’s just what I think it should do. I see a stronger book writhing there under the language, eager to consume some of the unnecessary pages, paragraphs, sentences, words. A book that would consume itself. (This is a silly metaphysical conceit; please move on).
26. So maybe I’ve knocked on the book a bit, rated it low even, you may perceive, dear reader: Let me be clear then: The Flame Alphabet is the sort of burning ugly vibrant affecting blazing grueling confounding bizarre novels that we need more of. It’s stronger than most of the contemporary stuff out there, definitely the stuff coming from the major houses. And if I seem to pick at it, it’s only because I see in it concessions to a so-called reading public; I wished to see Marcus pull publishing and readers closer to him.
I won’t forget cleaning the dead rats from the shed anytime soon; neither will I forget reading The Flame Alphabet.
Via the AV Club:
Because he likes nothing more than to bring impossible-to-adapt novels to the big screen (see: Naked Lunch, Crash), Canadian super-genius David Cronenberg is set to direct the feature adaptation of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis. Released in 2003 to mixed notices, DeLillo’s book takes place almost entirely inside the limousine of a 28-year-old billionaire asset manager as he makes his way slowly across Manhattan in order to get a haircut. Traffic is slowed by everything from a Presidential motorcade to a rapper’s funeral, and several character [sic] slip into the limo alongside him. The trick for Cronenberg is to figure out how to make his hero’s adventure remotely cinematic, but if he pulls it off, the book has plenty to say about life in the new economy.
Shooting will commence in Toronto and New York next year.
We’ve thoroughly enjoyed Cronenberg’s last couple of films (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises) but his adaptations of J.G. Ballard’s Crash was problematic at best, and his take on William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch doesn’t even make for a good flawed film, in our humble expert opinion (here’s our review). We didn’t really like Cosmopolis either. Still, our interest is piqued. Here’s Cronenberg discussing Viggo Mortensen’s bathhouse fight scene in Eastern Promises:
I love Naked Lunch. I love David Cronenberg. Theoretically, I should love David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of William Burrough’s psychosurreal classic. But hey, that’s rational thought for you, right? I didn’t love it in ’93 or ’94, the first time I saw it. Maybe I was too young. Maybe I just didn’t get it (but if that was the case then why did I love the book so much..?) So I watched it again as an undergrad; this was maybe ’99 or ’00. Nope. In fact, I remember thinking “Wow. This is actually pretty bad.” At that point, I was a big Cronenberg fan too. eXistenZ had just come out. eXistenZ is easily my favorite Cronenberg film, and a favorite film in general, and Naked Lunch didn’t hold up well against it or my re-reading of the Burrough’s book. But yet and still, ever the glutton for disappointment, I gave the Naked Lunch movie another shot this weekend, as part of the Biblioklept Summer of Cronenberg Film Festival. Guess what? It’s not a very good movie.
The fault of Cronenberg’s movie is not in failing to adapt the content of Burrough’s book, which is pretty much untranslatable as a narrative movie. Instead, Cronenberg attempts to weld some of the images of Naked Lunch–along with elements of other Burroughs novels such as Nova Express, The Soft Machine, and The Ticket that Exploded–into a cohesive thread using Burroughs’s biography as the overarching frame story. Burroughs’s life story is fascinating–the guy shot his wife in the head, for chrissakes–and lit junkies will love to see characters based on Kerouac and Ginsberg and Paul Bowles–but the end results simply don’t achieve or reflect the spirit of the novel. The bitter, caustic satire of Naked Lunch is almost wholly absent, replaced by wry one-liners from Peter Weller (who woodenly portrays Burroughs’s alter-ego, William Lee (an alter-ego who doesn’t appear in the novel of Naked Lunch at all, incidentally)). Cronenberg seems to underestimate his audience’s capacity for a nonlinear story, taking the loose collection of riffs, routines, and episodes that comprise Naked Lunch, and turning them into a pretty dull meditation on the nature of creativity and the suffering and alienation of the outsider-artist. Worst of all, the audience is asked to identify and sympathize with William Lee–again, this seems to be a negation of the original text.
In the end, Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch is just another bad Cronenberg film (see also: his mish-mashed adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s Crash, his boring adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone). In Naked Lunch, we get the usual Cronenbergian tropes: mechanical objects that become hideously organic, bodily invasion, constant “is this real or is this a dream?” moments, and general dark creepiness. However, they simply don’t work here: Cronenberg is attempting Burroughs-icky resulting only in Cronenberg-icky. Cronenberg’s entire oeuvre is littered with flawed films, but I tend to enjoy them more for their flaws. This one was a no-go though, and I gave it three shots. But, in a way, I believe that Cronenberg deserved three viewings. You never know. Still, I doubt I’ll watch this one again.
If you haven’t seen a Cronenberg film, I suggest starting with Videodrome, A History of Violence, or eXistenZ. He also has a new movie coming out later this year, Eastern Promises starring Naomi Watts. If you haven’t read Burroughs, I suggest starting with Junkie or Queer (or just go ahead and jump into Naked Lunch).
I end with a far better review of Naked Lunch than I’ve provided here, courtesy of The Simpsons. Do you remember that episode where Bart makes a fake driver license (not the one where he’s awarded a real driver license courtesy Mayor Quimby)? And he takes Milhouse and Nelson and Martin on a road trip to the World’s Fair in Knoxville? Well, along the way the boys decide to sneak into an R-rated movie. They leave the theater disappointed; the shot reveals that they’ve just left Naked Lunch. Nelson remarks: “There’s at least two things wrong with that title.” I’ll leave it at that.