Because the screen is the only well-lit mirror in town

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Metatextual Exorcist's Assistant: MAPS TO THE STARS, CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA


Film as a medium isn't old enough that it has a set response as to how to handle the 'problem' of aging A-list actresses. But two 2014 films both recently released on DVD have shown the 'old' way can be made 'new' again through post-modern tweaks. The sexy young bitches of the 80s-90s have found work playing middle-aged actresses fighting to stay young and relevant, the way hot bitches of the 20s-40s did in the 50s-70s, by playing faded stars who go insane from being cooped up in their cobwebbed minds and mansions while the pictures (and cars) in the world outside get smaller, junkier, younger. Going 'Norma Desmond' allows for a kind of ageist exorcism which then makes the aging actress playing the unbalanced aging actress seem balanced by contrast. So Billy Wilder makes Gloria Swanson seem cool and Robert Aldrich makes Bette Davis seem fearless--they boldly go into the depths of their own potential madness as Hyde versions of their own personae. Skulking around their eerie mansions as theremins goose their every mirror-ward hiss, the well-aging actress playing the semi-well-aging actress playing the unwell (delusional) aged actress is cathartically freed from her own gerascophobia, exorcised with the help of a Chanel-scented strait-jacket (starring Jessica Lang as Joan Crawford). (1)

Maps and Clouds stars in an important drama about Alzheimer's
Now that we're all feminists again, the kind of lurid madness that made Baby Jane and Norma Desmond so indelible is too objectifying, too freakshow, for squeamish PC Hollywood. Age and narcissism mustn't be reduced to just another carny attraction-- not that Hollywood wouldn't make it so if we demanded, but you can't put the genie back in the bottle. So the producers must instead paint a sensitive portrait of Alzheimer's or some real-life tragic figure's descent to madness. They must be educational, touching, and earnest instead of high-camp shock-value horrific. We associate aging with importance now, middle-aged actresses with serious drama. In this way, filmdom solemnly leads them out to pasture rather than letting them shred the walls of a cinematic padded cell. With all projects not good enough for a dame of their stature, they wither from underuse.

Sensing an opportunity to fill the gap, however, scrappy maverick independent filmmakers circle the wagons around the A-list divas with a little money saved up (or will work for scale to get their attached to a truly edgy and 'now' product) who want to sink their teeth into something bonkers for a change, to work with talents unafraid to plunge into new dark depths behind the camera, irregardless of the PC putsch that so paralyzes mainstream Hollywood when it comes to bitches over 40. Canadians like David Cronenberg and Frenchmen like Olivier Assayas, keep the luridly self-reflexive spirit of Billy Wilder and Robert Aldrich alive, for they know a secret denied the average Hollywood hack: the 50s-70s 'horror hag' spirit need only be taken one meta-level further to resonate in our new century's junk TV-addicted consciousness afresh and leave the stigma of exploitation behind in the process: Julianne Moore and Juliette Binoche shall play Gloria Swansons playing Norma Desmonds now, instead of just playing Norma Desmonds trying to play Salome. Brian Oblivion would be so proud! 

THE CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA
Dir Olivia Assayas (2014)
***

Olivier Assayas uses the post-modern lesbian corporate thriller the way Jean Pierre-Melville used the French New Wave gangster film, as a gateway between high art and low genre for anyone with a Gauloises and Steadicam to glide through behind him. In his Boarding Gate, for example, scenes of Asia Argento walking through a vast bustling Hong Kong mall-flea market--each booth/stall a vast tapestry of electronics, contrasting languages and music all whirling together one after the other--are perhaps the most ear-boggling use of post-modern affect in all cinema, but then... what is there to when from why? We're left feeling cheated, confused, even irked.Assayas' biggest weakness has always been his endings, since demonlover, even. His best works, like Irma Vep, end in pure abstraction. His worst endings feel like betrayals - like he led us on, like seducing us into bed then running away going "I forgot I'm married" and runs away last minute.

Before something like that happens, Clouds of Sils Maria covers several layers of a power trio of strong female leads ranging along the All about Eve axis, each playing versions of themselves and their personal assistants in screens-within-screens. The catsuit Les Vampyres S/M gone corporate bitch-in-the-boardroominess of his dEmonlover and Boarding Gate coalesce against Summer Hours pastorale realness as two women play characters studying to be themselves and each other; the same weird mix of back-stabbing and compassion with which younger executive assistants are shepherded by older female employers into the abyss of self-awareness and ambition, breaking them down and being broken in turn in some twisted--even if initially altruistic--identity merge/melt-down. They have youth; you have power. But they can get power, what can you get, except older?

From the ongoing discussion between Maria (Juliette Binoche) and her assistant Val (Kristen Stewart) about Maria's character in the play that made her famous (she's now shifting from the ingenue to the older lesbian mentor, and she ain't happy about it). Maria's nihilistic interpretation of the character during rehearsals and discussions jibes with Val's hip youthful (American) interpretation of Maria's interpretation, which Val sees as solipsistic, as glorifying youth based on one's rose-tinted memories and attacking her own aging dignity. And Val isn't backing down even against Maria's contemptuous laughter which might have worked on her when she was Val's age, but Val is somehow more grown up than that.

It makes sense then that Kristen Stewart steals the show as Val, handling her personal assistant duties with startling cool, knowing just how to rile, soothe or otherwise push Maria's buttons while juggling deals and cars and hotel rooms and interviews and meetings with photographers, all without ever seeming to break her detached stride or smash her incessantly ringing cell phone. Chloë Grace Moretz plays the rising star playing the younger part in the play (the superhero masochist in the comic book film they see) who Val and Maria meet with later for drinks, along with the young dumb boyfriend, a writer whose wife tries to commit suicide and...hmmm.

If that's confusing, it's my fault. Let's just say it's Bette Davis' The Star meets Petra Von Kant rehearsing a lesbian corporate boardroom version of The Blue Angel in the isolation of Faro (where Bergman filmed Persona) so hey, that's a lot a layers of reference. What makes it work even if you don't know those films is the way the pair of actresses connect with such quiet force (we understand immediately why Stewart won the César) and the dialogue of the play they're working on resembles their characters' own relationship--and perhaps Stewart's real-life relationship with PA Alicia Cargile (left)--so much it's (intentionally) impossible to tell where one (the lines they're running) ends and the other (their actual relationship) begins, except that the line-running they do feels real while their sudden lurches into directly discussing their own relationship--Val complaining as Maria laughs at her impressions of the play's subtext--seems sudden, hamfisted. It's as if direct confrontation would be too much, too theatrical, so they just endure all they can like it doesn't bother them until they just bail. It begs an interesting question: how does one deal with having acted all kinds of break-up scenes with someone when you're suddenly actually breaking up with them, without it feeling cliche? Atsa lotta layers, Olivier! Maybe ats too much...

Maybe yes, for then comes that terrible Assayas anticlimactic 'resolution.' As the Binoche-Stewart personae (see what I did there?) merges into itself like a sssnake. along with the two characters they're rehearsing (via the actress and personal assistant they're playing), there's a sudden mystical shift that... well.. it doesn't work. Oh Olivier, you just had to keep adding layers until the whole thing deflated like an overdone soufflé... again. 


Maybe I'm wrong or nitpicking --it's just that jibing to Stewart and Binoche's chemistry through most of the film as I was, I felt genuinely saddened by the sudden flight into Peter Weir-ish fourth act mysticism. The big comparisons critics have been making of course are to the endings of Bergman's Persona and Antonioni's L'Aventura, but the former was abstract from the get go, there the weird ending made sense and in the latter they at least talked about the disappearance --it even obsessed them for awhile, until they forgot about it, and we didn't much miss the missing girl anyway, since it was Monica Vitti we were collectively falling in love with even at the start. Here in Sils that love equation is reversed, like L'Aventura if Vitti just left without a note toward the end and we spent the rest of the damn movie with the smarmy Sandro (Gabriele Farzetti). Some critics hypothesize Val kind of morphs into Chloë Grace Moretz, playing the tabloid-branded scarlet letter marriage-wrecker of years ago (see: Kristen Stewart in the Snow with Poison), but to me they're making excuses on Assayas' behalf. Mention art cinema 'modernity' vs. vérité realism if you want --it just plum doesn't work... for me at least. In interviews Assayas says he wanted to give the audience something to think about, but it feels to me like all he did was take something we were thinking about away. 

The scenery is staggering. I love this mountainous zone where German loftiness, Nordic depression, and French intellectual aesthetics sizzle together and align like a constellation. I was imagining what if Bergman were directing, that he might go full-on post-modern and we'd maybe get an interview with Alice Cargile in between takes of the film within the play about a pair of women in a play. That might have worked, but whatever - the Melville of post-affect cinema transcends such things as satisfying destinations. As with Irma Vep, Boarding Gate, Carlos and demonlover, the trip is where he works his magic. Once arrived, he's all out of rabbits.


MAPS TO THE STARS
(2014) Dir. David Cronenberg
***1/2

One can't imagine either Hollywood or the Sils Maria European bourgeois "artist" community making a film like Maps to the Stars. A lurid, slow-burn haunted-Hollywood saga of pyromaniac schizophrenics, hot young ghosts, egomaniacal stars, and abusive life coaches, it could only come from a Canadian indie auteur who doesn't need pretentious vanishings to craft a Brechtian dissertations on aging actresses being intimidated by the endless incoming waves of amber ingenues. As in Sils, the idea of female 'performance' leads to meta-split mirroring, passive-aggressive sabotage by the older insecure actress against her younger personal assistant, the Twilight connection (Stewart in Sils, Pattinson Maps), Stewart co-starring with Maps star Julianne Moore in Still Alice the same year (top), like an eerie reflection across continents, genres, and post-modern layers. 

Thing is, of the two films, only one is genuinely subversive and ballsy. Only one goes to places the jugular didn't even know it led to.



In both Sils and Maps there's the idea of being subsumed by another's ego, of being a young female assistant, trying to have her own life while working for a solipsistic middle-aged actress who's going insane from dealing with the dwindling roles / loss of youth, and so bullying their younger incarnation in an attempt to exorcise their own inferiority complex. In Sils the assistant takes revenge in the must cowardly way possible, by merely vanishing without even two-weeks notice; in Maps, well.. I can't spoil it, but it's far more satisfying. There's a sense of unyielding magnetism in Cronenberg's film that Assayas' was too high in the Alps to feel: the inexorable magnetized streak of insanity running deep in the fault line crust of Los Angeles, and the most expedient, direct way to drill down into it.

Sordid show biz underbelly chronicler (and Castaneda mystic) Bruce Wagner (Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills) knows every inch of what his script is chronicling, and he can match the darkness, stab-for-stab. Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska) arrives on Hollywood Boulevard by bus after being released from some juvenile mental hospital, and--like Melanie Daniels at Bodega Bay--her mere presence triggers the vengeful furies, here a series of ghosts: Her new employer, fading star Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), is haunted by her crazy star mom Clarice, who set their house on fire when Havana was only a child; Agatha's estranged brother Benji (Evan Bird), a bratty child star, finds himself haunted by a girl who died before he could grant her Make-a-Wish Foundation request. Meanwhile, a new biopic is being made on Clarice's storied life and daughter Havana is  fighting to play her, even while claiming she was molested and abused. Ingeniously, the ghost of Clarice is played by luminous hottie Sara Gordon (above, in the bath),  and of course, it makes sense--why wouldn't a vain ghost want to appear younger than her own grown alive children? It's just the right kind of weird twist that shows a real subversive instinct that Maps has in abundance, the kind Assayas ultimately lacks even as it covers the same ground.

It's all in the genes.



With the kind of naive prepossession that does well in Hollywood, Agatha-- on meds and working the steps, tries make amends with her family, but that doesn't go over well with her bitter father (John Cusack) who still hates her for setting fire to their house as a child and feeding Benji a near-fatal overdose of pills. Since that ordeal, Cusack has risen to make a fortune as a platitude-spouting gestalt masseur (with clients including Havana whom he clearly hasn't told about Agatha or vice versa). He has demons of his own, clearly, exhibiting the typical violent denial self-help gurus often display towards their own hang-ups. 



Ultimately these two interlocked pyromaniac-and-narcissist-choked LA families crash into one another in a shocker climax so effective and satisfying it becomes the polar opposite to Assayas' Sils's (we saw them as a double feature this past Friday night - I'd recommend you do the same, in the order presented). We just don't expect such a shock because for awhile there Cronenberg made us forget we were watching a Cronenberg film and not some piece of Hollywood self-regard and near-whimsy about how all we need is a bus ticket and a dream. That's the Cronenberg touch at work, to be good enough at the one thing you forget it's the other. Stars has courage to go deep into the abyss from off a steep, high diving board, while Sils only splashes around a bit then crooks a finger towards Lars Von Trier's receding light. Even Maps' ghost appearances aren't trite or cliche. Although they're presumed to be just psychic projection, it's a movie first, so we understand that being actors anyway the haunted A-listers are conditioned to let their imagination get the better of them, to confuse their script with their life in ways only we were confused by in Sils Maria. In other words, even as actors playing characters who are actors, characters will mess themselves up in the name of a good performance, with the understanding that--above all--they're still in an "actual" film as well as a film about film, even when they know within the context of the (outer) film that the (inner) film is just their reality and not even a film-within-the-main film!

If that's confusing, consider the contrast: in Sils, Binoche is playing an aging Marlene Dietrich remaking The Blue Angel as a butch Emil Jannings, heading back to her classroom to sulk after her younger wife hooks up with the strongman. In Maps, the better option is finally presented: kill them both and burn the whole fucking cabaret to the ground! Clarice and Agatha, I tell they, by the power of Chuck D, Hollywood sur le feu!

NOTES:
1. PS - when I wrote this that AMC show FEUD hadn't even been announced! Was it ushered into existence because of this post? I like to think so (5-16-17). 

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