By Jake Howell

Cannes Competition Review: Maps To The Stars

Mapstothestars“I infect my work with madness, then let it settle,” Bruce Wagner told LA Weekly in 2005 when his satirical Hollywood novel “Dead Stars” was released. “The story is infected by something, like in David Cronenberg’s films.”

As a screenwriter and a relatively prolific novelist, Wagner has built his career on taking shots at the ironies and hypocrisies of Hollywood and popular culture, and he continues to ply his trade in Maps to the Stars. Wagner’s searing script is sick,  twisted and also very funny, driving a knife deep into the ugly side of the entertainment industry and the Western world at large.

Enter Cronenberg.

The Baron of Blood’s ever-evolving canon is in the middle of his latest phase: discursive, cerebral, nihilistic cinema that has moved away from the body horror for which his earliest work was notorious. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s interesting to see masters explore different facets of their inspirations. Scholars already connect A Dangerous Method, Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars as a sort of series, and it would be an appropriate link; if you hated Cosmopolis or found it cold and distant, there’s little reason for you to unfurl Maps to the Stars expecting something wholly different. That said, this is easily more entertaining than Cronenberg’s previous two features, as Wagner’s script is a work of brilliant cartography; this is a film where we watch Julianne Moore’s character take a dump and wipe her ass, simultaneously cracking jokes about all the pills she’s taking. (“I’m all blocked up from the Vicodin.”)

cusack map to the starsMaps to the Stars charts the stereotypically-Hollywood Weiss family, where mother (Olivia Williams), father (John Cusack), and child actor Benjie (Evan Bird) have cut their teeth on the serrated edge that is show business. For reasons we learn later, estranged Weiss daughter Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) rejoins the family in Los Angeles after taking a personal assistant job under Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a wilting actress in denial, and supernatural chaos begins to ensue. Literal ghosts from the past are returning uninvited, and it’s almost Shakespearean (“Oh, my prophetic soul!”) to see them haunt these fame-obsessed, narcotic-addled characters, driving them to insanity.

Cronenberg is an outspoken proponent of the new digital era, and his perennial cinematographer Peter Suschitzky has done an excellent job in capturing the beauty of Los Angeles (and the exquisite interior design of LA mansions), despite the festering hideousness that lies beneath the city. His slow dollies capture the Cronenbergian creepshow perfectly.

Because Wagner’s script calls for actors to do and say depraved things with a straight face, the film couldn’t have been made—in this current form, anyway—without Cronenberg’s history of directing violence and dissecting the psycho-bizarre. Every player, especially Julianne Moore, surprises with their eagerness to go with the flow of debauchery. Mia Wasikowska is crazier here than she was in Stoker, and that’s saying something. Robert Pattinson, Cronenberg’s oddly appropriate muse, no longer needs to prove his authenticity as a proper actor. Finally, we need to see more of Evan Bird, witnessed here in his breakout role as a hilarious asshole narcissist. To be sure, Cronenberg’s navigation combined with Wagner’s pen (“it’s a fucking art film!”) make Maps to the Stars both a standout of Cannes 2014, and the best film the director has made since 2005.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon