Zach Clark is the writer/director of Modern Love is Automatic, Vacation!, White Reindeer and Little Sister. His films have played across the United States and Europe at festivals including SXSW, Edinburgh, Outfest, BAMcinemaFest and Stockholm. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.
Remember your creepy Uncle David? Sure, you do. He’s from Canada and he makes movies. When you were a teenager he showed you some pretty fucked-up shit that totally blew your mind. Your parents were probably OK with you watching horror movies, but it’s for the best they didn’t really know everything your Uncle David exposed you to. There was something… unseemly about it. You didn’t always understand the things he was saying, or the ways he saying them to you, and that gave them their power. And they were gross. Gross and crazy. And full of ideas.
And then something happened. Your creepy Uncle David became respectable. He got a “real” job, and started making movies that weren’t as interesting, that felt heavy-handed. And they were less gross. And less crazy. Still kinda full of ideas, but those ideas got a little boring. Uncle David didn’t take you to a dark room to show you strange and terrifying things anymore, he just sat at the table and talked and talked and talked…. Occasionally he held up a picture of something gross for about 30 seconds, but then he put it away and went back to talking.
Look, people get older. They mellow out. Their tastes change. John Waters hit the nail on the head when he said, “A 20-year-old angry man is sexy. A 63-year-old angry man is an asshole.” And beyond that, artists evolve. They want to explore new things in new ways, and it’s probably this very thing that attracted you to their art in the first place. So why hold it against them when their style changes and their interests mature? Heck, even Ozu’s style evolved! If the Ramones can change, why hold it against your creepy Uncle David when he wants to try new things?
Because, I dunno, man, he used to be so cool, right? I saw that Freud movie in the theater and I had this exact thought during it: “If there is one more scene in this movie covered in a two-shot and two over-the-shoulders, I’m going to scream.” Luckily, very shortly after having that thought, there was a dolly in on Michael Fassbender and then the movie was over. I could look up that movie’s name right now, but I’m not going to, because I also forgot what it was two weeks ago and looked it up then and I’ve already forgotten it again. That’s what a non-entity that movie was. What a waste. And then Cosmopolis, which at best felt like video art with famous people and at worst felt like, well, video art with famous people.
But I am an optimist. And there are some filmmakers whose body of work as a whole is so strong, and meant so much to me at a younger age, that I’ll keep giving them a chance. For some reason, I still watch new Tim Burton movies, and even though Big Eyes was a disappointment, it felt like maybe enough of a step in the right direction for me to keep hoping. And every now and then, a childhood idol I’ve temporarily abandoned faith in knocks it out of the park. Jim Jarmusch did it with Only Lovers Left Alive! Woody Allen movies were dreadful for a decade, and then he made Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and it wasn’t just one of his best movies, but was totally a new Woody Allen movie. (But I’m done carrying that specific torch, because, you know, the child molesting…) But, I will keep carrying the torch for your creepy Uncle David. Because Videodrome is one of the best movies ever made. And there are many, many more movies in his oeuvre that are great, and crazy, and gross, and full of ideas.
The first thing I wrote down while watching his new movie, Maps to the Stars, was this: “A Cronenberg movie with a Ryan Seacrest reference.” A bad, squirmy sign right off the bat, like when Nick Cave used the word “Frappuccino” in a song on Abattoir Blues. Now he’s writing songs about Miley Cyrus and it’s a bummer. I acknowledge that these exist simultaneously in the universe — Nick Cave songs, Frappuccinos and Miley Cyrus — but their crossover into each other’s worlds feels like some sort of cultural pollution. Yes, David Cronenberg lives in the 21st century, when a guy named Ryan Seacrest is on TV all the time, but the fact that he is acknowledging Seacrest’s existence feels deeply wrong. The good news is that it’s meant to feel wrong, as this is only the first of the myriad cultural references dropped in Maps to the Stars. The loathing with which they’re presented is palpable, and it’s a really amazing, invigorating loathing.
(Side note: Nick Cave, I would much rather you write songs for Miley Cyrus than about Miley Cyrus, because that might actually be amazing. Please have your people call Miley’s people.)
At this point, I’m assuming you’ve seen the trailer for Maps to the Stars or read a synopsis. If you haven’t, here. How about that John Waters quote? The trailer really downplays all the incest in the movie, and I’m really not spoiling anything for you by saying that. That’s the depth of the degeneracy on display here. Maps to the Stars is a drama at its center, a comedy on the edges, and ultimately the best horror movie Cronenberg has made since the ’90s. There’s a phrase that pops up a couple times in the movie, “all the flesh that says ‘yes,’” which is worth noting not just because it sounds really cool, but also because it so specifically recalls the “new flesh” of Videodrome. There’s an apt comparison to be drawn, as the two films are Cronenberg’s most explicit and scathing explorations of the degenerative effects of mass media on the human psyche. Maps doesn’t really play like a sequel to Videodrome, but more as a logical continuation of its worldview — “Remember when that thing with the new flesh happened, well… now this is what’s happening because of it….”
In the hands of another director, Bruce Wagner’s script would play as broad, satirical black comedy, but Cronenberg strips all that away. There’s no irony here, because really, what’s the point to irony anymore? The straightforward “hey, look directly at this thing” coverage that crippled that Freud movie is here, too, but the camera feels like a scalpel now — clinical but razor-sharp. Medium shot, medium shot, medium shot…. Sometimes you get a close-up. Sometimes a wide shot, but not too wide, never really wider than there are characters in the frame. The digital photography has the unforgiving, high-key edge of some nightmare telenovela. You’re shown exactly what you need to see, and nothing else. There are no establishing shots. Fuck establishing shots. We don’t them, and Cronenberg knows this. You’ve been to enough restaurants that you don’t need to see the outside of one to know that’s where you are. The pacing of the editing sucks out all the punchlines, every scene has a little too much room to breathe. It was in these deliberately awkward moments that I realized I recognized some of these characters and that they’re monsters. Cronenberg used to show you things that made your squirm; now it’s the way he shows things to you that makes you squirm. In Maps to the Stars, boring office scenes are shot and cut in ways that give you the fucking creeps. Also, bonus points for having a better farting scene than Goodbye to Language.
It’s a master class in cinematic distancing. He’s really gotten the hang of the thing that made his made his past few movies feel so dull. This is a very tricky balancing act, holding your audience at arm’s length while also keeping them engaged. (You gotta know when to hold ’em, fold ’em, etc.) If you’re too removed, you run the risk of alienating everyone. But if you don’t stay far enough away, the whole thing could fall apart. The icy, matter-of-fact coverage sets the tone, but Cronenberg’s real triumph in Maps to the Stars is the near-perfect casting of the actors, and the delicate way in which various acting styles are mixed and played off each other. The right characters are earnestly, painfully naturalistic. Julianne Moore is off the rails in a really devastating, sincere way. This is her wheelhouse, and she’s simply the best actress for the part. Robert Pattinson is basically treated like a prop, which is great, and totally appropriate. The film’s inevitable final gesture could easily slip into heavy-handedness, and it’s the exact kind of thing that had my eyes rolling at the end of A History of Violence, but Cronenberg totally nails it, and it’s heartbreaking. He feels at home here, finally finding the synthesis of style and substance he’s been searching for since he said goodbye to his icky, sticky past with eXistenZ