Maps to the Stars
Reviewed by John David Ebert
For the ancients, the quickest route to the stars was death: all you had to do was suffer heroically after accomplishing some great deed and, like the twins Castor and Pollux (who became Gemini), the gods might consider placing you into the heavens as stars or clusters of stars called constellations. Thus, the various fates of Andromeda, or her mother Cassiopeia, or Perseus, or Orion after he was stung to death by a scorpion, all added up, over time, to the creation of a kind of cosmic map of the stars.
David Cronenberg’s new film Maps to the Stars–a welcome return to form for him–is a sort of experiment in hybridizing genres: what would happen, he asks, if–like the mad scientist in one of his early films Rabid who transplants a skin graft from one part of a woman’s body to another, which then grows anarchically to become a deadly, viral-bearing spore–what if you were to transplant the basic structures of Greek myth as a kind of skin graft onto the (historically more recent) genre of L.A. noir, a genre that began back in the 1930s and 40s in the novels of Raymond Chandler and Nathaniel West, and in films like Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard or Robert Altman’s The Player?
The result is a marvelous new work of art in the very genre of contemporary postmodern tragedy that Cronenberg perfected back in the 1980s in such films as Videodrome, The Dead Zone, The Fly and Dead Ringers. Indeed, the ending of Maps to the Stars invites immediate comparison to the final moments of Dead Ringers.
The plot concerns the return of one Agatha Weiss to her Hollywood hometown–and here the ominous return of the banished protagonist already resonates with such fated returns as that of Oedipus to his hometown of Thebes in Oedipus at Colonus, or that of Orestes, who reunites with his sister Electra to plot the murder of their mother Clytemnaestra–from which she had been banished after attempting, as a child, to burn down her family’s house. She has returned from seven years of intensive medical therapy and, at first, she avoids contact with her family, consisting of one younger (13 year old) brother named Benjie Weiss, a spoiled brat child star straight out of Day of the Locust, and her father, one Stafford Weiss, a pop psychology self-help guru to the stars. One of Stafford’s clients is an ageing Hollywood superstar known as Havana Segrand (played by Julianne Moore) who is attempting to make a career comeback by playing her dead mother’s role in the remake of a famous 1960s film. Agatha seduces her limo driver, one Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson), into becoming her new boyfriend and then, as the result of a personal reference from Carrie Fisher, is hired by Havana Segrand to become her personal “chore whore.”
Stafford Weiss, meanwhile, has absolutely forbidden his wife and son to have any contact with the new and revised Agatha Weiss, whom he no longer trusts (Saint Agatha, incidentally, was the patron saint of fire). He makes this clear to Agatha, but she visits her brother and mother anyway, both of whom react traumatically to her return. Her brother, however, in spite of being the classic spoiled brat Hollywood kid star, seems willing to make amends, although he knows very well that his sister had specifically given him sleeping pills when she had started the fire as a child. Benjie, meanwhile, has been having problems with another, younger child star on the set of his new film who keeps upstaging him, and one day, Benjie, in a furious rage attempts to strangle his co-star to death. His career, at that point, is ruined.
But it is revealed to the viewer where at least SOME of this rage of brother and sister are coming from: their parents are actually brother and sister, although they claim they did not know this when they met, since they had been separated at birth. This is a VERY old myth motif, that of the separated brother and sister who are brought mysteriously together years later and feel an amorous attraction for one another: it is the basis of the plot of Wagner’s opera Die Walkure, for instance, and of course, it occurs in Star Wars. It is implicit in the relationship of Electra and her brother Orestes, and of course, brother-sister marriages were standard for the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, who were following the imaginary types set for them by the myth of Isis and Osiris who were also brother and sister (and who were, incidentally, constellations: Osiris was Orion and Isis was identified with the bright star Sirius).
As the plot unfolds, Havana Segrand, having learned about her “chore whore’s” new boyfriend, decides out of pure spite to have sex with him in her car while parked in her driveway in full view of Agatha, who stands watching from the window. When Havana enters the house and sees that Agatha has leaked menstrual blood on her expensive couch, she flies into a rage and fires Agatha, who responds by smashing her skull in with one of Havana’s Oscar award statues.
As in all great tragedy, the body count thus begins and keeps on rising…
The interesting thing about Maps to the Stars is its retrieval of the old nineteenth century myth of racial and cultural degeneration: Weiss means “white” in German, but it can also mean “wisdom” or “knowledge,” as in “Wissenschaft,” the German word for “science.” The Weiss family is anything but wise, but there hovers about them a kind of racial curse–like that which the doomed Oedipus had inherited from his own blood relatives–a curse whereby brother and sister are fated to marry and produce another brother and sister doomed to marry and destroy all those who have any connection to them. The “weiss” of the “Weiss” family, it would appear, is heavily tainted with some dim vestigial racial sin which they have apparently inherited, and which has blackened them–just the way fire blackens anything it touches–with impurities. (This is implied by Agatha’s menstrual stain which taints Havana’s “white” couch).
The great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun in his great historical epic The Muqaddimah evolved a cultural theory in which he privileged the blood and kin connections of the Bedouin and the nomad as superior to “civilization,” which emerges and becomes decadent and corrupt for precisely the reason that it disrupts and destroys all such blood-kin connections with the creation of a state that replaces tribal consanguinity. In tribal societies, the bonds of blood are a source of strength and moral purity, which is why a man is supposed to marry his father’s brother’s daughter as the ideal marriage candidate.
But Maps to the Stars, consistent with the point of view of “civilization,” regards such blood affiliations as decadent and corrupting, just as they were regarded in nineteenth century racial theories of degeneracy. Because they do not filter out enough genes, apparently, the genes that are passed along via incest can carry curses along with them, too: curses that, as in Greek tragedy, ruin entire families for many generations.
Hence, Cronenberg’s verdict on contemporary Hollywood: it is so decadent and incapable of producing anything new now that it has entered into its “Post-Classic” phase precisely because of its incestuous nature. Hollywood needs new blood, and until it gets new blood, it is only going to continue to produce racial monstrosities and degenerate works such as we have been getting for the past ten or fifteen years.
Works, that is, which are suicidally doomed and actually function to disrupt and destroy the Hollywood machine’s creation of new stars of the stature of Marlon Brando or Elizabeth Taylor. Indeed, Jack Nicholson and Harrison Ford may have been the last such stars that the system was ever capable of producing.
Hollywood’s star map, Cronenberg is saying, would seem to be complete. There is no longer room for the addition of more stars to its constellations.
It is a done deal.
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