Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

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) get small. Going 'Norma Desmond' allows for a kind of ageist exorcism which then makes the actress playing the 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. Skulking around their eerie mansions, buzzing theremins goosing every mirror-ward hiss, the aging actress playing the aging actress is freed from her own gerascophobia by a Chanel-scented strait-jacket (starring Joan Crawford).

Maps and Clouds stars in an important drama about Alzheimer's
Now that we're all feminists, the kind of lurid madness that made Baby Jane and Norma Desmond so indelible is too objectifying, too freakshow, for Hollywood. Age and narcissism mustn't be reduced to just another carny attraction. So they must instead paint a sensitive portrait of Alzheimer's or some real life tragic figure's descent to madness. They must be educational, touching, instead of 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.

Sensing an opportunity to fill the gap, however, scrappy young independent filmmakers circle the wagons around the A-list divas as they crest through middle and later age, tailoring projects to their vanity the way mainstream Hollywood tailors to older men. To compete and compensate, the A-list divas produce their own Oscar-bait with adoring young talents unafraid to plunge into new dark depths behind the camera, irregardless of the PC putsch that so paralyzes mainstream Hollywood. 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. Julianne Moore and Juliette Binoche shall play Gloria Swansons playing Norma Desmonds now, instead of just Norma Desmonds trying to play Salome. Brian Oblivion would be so proud!    

Dir Olivia Assayas (2014)

Olivier Assayas is to the post-modern lesbian corporate thriller what Jean Pierre-Melville was to the French New Wave gangster film, opening the self-reflexive door between high art and low genre for anyone with a Gauloises and Steadicam to glide through. 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--in Boarding Gate is perhaps the most ear-boggling use of post-modern affect in all cinema, but then... what?

Then an escalator, is what. Assayas' biggest weakness has always been endings. His best are mere abstraction, a riff on some cryptic snatch of dialogue from an earlier scene no one would remember until a second or third viewing, which is presuming a lot. The worst endings feel like betrayals, like self-sabotage, like the guy who aces your first date and blows it from nervousness at your apartment door and thinks he's being gallant or edgy by just running away without saying goodbye let alone a kiss. She'll be thinking about you all right, that you're either gay, a virgin, or pretentious.

Assayas' Clouds of Sils Maria covers several layers of a power trio of strong female leads ranging along the All about Eve axis, playing versions of themselves and their personal assistants in screens within screens--the slinky corporate S/M vibe still present in a scene of a superhero movie with a decidedly kinky bent the ladies see and star in--playing characters studying to be themselves and each other with the same weird mix of back-stabbing and compassion with which younger executive assistants are shepherded by older employers into the abyss of self-awareness and ambition, breaking them down and being broken in turn in some twisted if initially altruistic melt-down. While certainly great material for the actresses to layer up in, once again Assayas' great instinct for self-sabotage, his fascination with watching his/her masterpiece burn up before it can dry, results in an unsatisfying 'Antonioni' imitation twist.

The lesbian corporate thriller heat this time comes from the ongoing discussion between Maria (Juliette Binoche) and her assistant Val (Kristen Stewart) about Maria's character in the play within the film: Maria's nihilistic interpretation vs. Val's interpretation of Maria's interpretation as solipsistic, as glorifying youth based on one's rose-tinted memories. An aging European icon, Maria has been talked into playing the part of older corporate executive having a lesbian affair with her hot young heartbreaker assistant. The craw sticker is that the younger role made Maria a star 20 years earlier. 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 without ever seeming to break her cool 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) and later meet her and her boyfriend, a writer whose wife tries to commit suicide and...hmmm.

In other words, it's Bette Davis' The Star meets Petra Von Kant rehearsing a lesbian corporate boardroom version of The Blue Angel at the Alpine lodge home of the play's recently deceased writer. It's these rehearsal scenes that carry the film. Stewart and Binoche connect with such quiet force that we understand immediately why Stewart won the César and the dialogue of the play within the film resembles their characters' own relationship and perhaps Stewart's real-life relationship with her real life PA Alicia Cargile (left) so much it's (intentionally) impossible to tell where one ends and the other 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 but long simmering, as if confrontation would be too much, they just endure all they can like it doesn't bother them and then peace out.

But then... ah but then comes that terrible Assayas anticlimactic resolution. As the Binoche-Stewart personae (see what I did there?) merges into itself 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 because the whole first 4/5 of the film has been this show business European fly-on-the-wall vérité so to suddenly move into a Freudian ego dissolution parable seems false, as if Assayas didn't trust the relationship to be good enough on its own so he had to keep adding layers until the whole thing deflates like an overdone soufflé.  

Maybe I'm wrong, it's just that jibing to Stewart and Binoche's chemistry through most of the film, 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 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. 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 and insecure 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 fancy critics can discuss the use of art cinema 'modernity' vs. vérité realism all they 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 frankly, he didn't... there's nothing at all to think about, other than 'fuck you Assayas.' We'd rather follow Kristen into the clouds than be dragged along with Juliette Binoche into the dungeons of 'prestige' theater. After all, Binoche ain't winning no César. 

Neither is Assayas, for the French are wary of auteurs who sabotage their own work just so everyone knows it's their's and not some gamin upstart's. The French are smart that way. Sometimes. 

If I'm being unfair, so be it. Most of the film is great, 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. The trip is where he works his magic. Once arrived, it's okay if  he's all out of rabbits.

(2014) Dir. David Cronenberg

One can't imagine either actual Hollywood or the Sils Maria bourgeois European intellectual community, i.e. Assayas, making a film like Maps to the Stars. A lurid, slow-burn haunted Hollywood saga of pyromaniac schizophrenics, ghosts, egomaniacal stars and 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 younger generation. The similarities between the two films are striking: a behind and in front of the camera mirroring, passive aggressive sabotage by the older insecure actress against her personal assistant, and the merging of personae and then there's the Twilight connection: Stewart in Sils, Pattinson (in a Cronenberg limo again) for Maps. Considering Stewart co-starred with Maps star Julianne Moore in Still Alice the same year (top), it's like an eerie reflection across continents, genres, and post-modern layers. But one is ballsy, the other just has a picture of balls on its cell.

In both Sils and Maps there's the idea of being subsumed by another's ego, of being a young female employee trying to have a life while working for a solipsistic middle-aged actress dealing with the dwindling roles / loss of youth by bullying their younger incarnation. In Sils the assistant leaves without giving two weeks notice or even looking back; in the other... I can't spoil it, but it's far more satisfying. She leaves too, but we know just where she's going. There's a sense of unyielding fatalism, of the inexorable pull of madness so in sync with Los Angeles, of knowing exactly where under the Grauman's Chinese pavement beats Hollywood's hideous Babylonian heart, and the most expedient way to drill for it.

Written by sordid show biz underbelly chronicler (and Castaneda mystic) Bruce Wagner (Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills), this is jet black satire of the type that knows every inch of what it's chronicling, and can match the darkness stab for stab. Everything connects: just as Tippi's arrival triggered the bird attacks in Bodega Bay, young Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska) triggers an outbreak of specters upon her arrival in Hollywood. Her estranged brother Benji (Evan Bird), a bratty child star, is haunted by a dying girl he did a Make a Wish Foundation visit to; Agatha's employer, fading star Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) is haunted by her crazy mom Clarice, who set their house on fire when Havana was a child. A new bio is being made on Clarice's life and 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), just the right kind of weird mind melter twist that shows a real subversive instinct, the kind Assayas ultimately lacks, afraid, perhaps, of alienating the bourgeois fan base he won with Summer Hours. 

It's all in the genes.

With the kind of naive prepossession that does well in Hollywood, Agatha arrives in town after a mysterious exit from a mental institution, on meds and her ninth step, bearing a recommendation from Carrie Fisher. But her coming back to make amends 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. Cusack has made a fortune as a platitude-spouting gestalt masseur (with clients including Havana). He has demons of his own, clearly, such as being unable to forgive his own child, showing perhaps where she got her insanity as well as the typical blindness of the New Age Quick Fix guru to his own issues. 

Ultimately that's the kind of loop-de-loop macabre interlocking that makes the big shocker climax so effective and the Assayas' conclusion so unsatisfying. We just don't expect it 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. Stars has courage to go deep into the abyss from a high diving board of familiarity, while Sils has only a vague eye out towards Lars Von Trier's receding pilot light from the get go, so there's nowhere to go to except to brings it back around to banal. 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 they're 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, to mess themselves up in the name of a good performance and the understanding that--above all--they're still in an "actual" film as well as a film about film. 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. But in Maps, the better option is finally presented: burn the whole fucking cabaret to the ground! Clarice and Agatha, by the power of Chuck D, Hollywood sur le feu!

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