Well, what strange times we find ourselves in. I never in a million years thought when I began covering this Film Studies series that I’d be writing my final post in government ordered isolation but here we are. I’ll begin by apologising for the tardiness of this piece and for its length however, these are strange times and I’ve found comfort in writing this as normal.
After the last few weeks, I’ve got to admit there is something oddly Cronenberg-esque about the entire Covid-19 situation. As I write this, the sun is shining, the sky is a glorious clear blue and the birds are singing. The world carries on regardless of whether people are there to witness it or not which I find quite dystopian but oddly reassuring.
The final film of what has been Showroom cinema’s incredible ‘Film Studies: Long Live The New Flesh! The Visions of David Cronenberg’ was his 2014 big-screen adaptation of Bruce Wagner’s dramatic satire Maps to the Stars. I’ll admit on first watch, other than being told it was a Cronenberg piece, I wouldn’t have been able to place it as such. However, since the screening, I’ve watched it again and again and the directors’ usual techniques are there. Arguably more subtle and less forced, it feels more calculated and grown-up than works like The Brood and Videodrome, and more in line with his later works such as History of Violence and Eastern Promises. The visceral brutality and body horror is less apparent, instead taking in ideas surrounding identity and the delicate nature of the human psyche, something that is apparent in all his work, and uses them to hold a mirror up to Hollywood. As one of the film’s stars, John Cusack said in a 2014 interview about Hollywood; “It’s a whorehouse and people go mad,” pretty much summarising the feeling of Maps to the Stars.
The films main narrative, although similarly to Cronenberg’s Spider (2002), contains a number of carefully interwoven narratives centralised around Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) attempting to relaunch her Hollywood career by playing the part of her dead mother, who literally haunts her in some bizarrely comedic moments reminiscent of The Exorcist (1973) throughout the film. One thing about Maps that really knocked me for six, and I’ve learnt on this study is typical of Cronenberg, was Cusack’s performance as Dr Stafford Weiss, the unconventional therapist and a clear mockery of LA lifestyle guru bullshittery delivering lines like “if we name it, we can shame it.” I think I personally found this particularly jarring at first glance because of how far removed from the usual rom-com or psychological thriller roles Cusack is typically cast in, however, his performance here is reminiscent of Oliver Reed’s character in The Brood and another perfect example of the director’s ability to extract incredible performances from his cast. In my opinion though, the standout performance of this film is Mia Wasikowska as Agatha Weiss and Wasikowska gives so much depth to this deeply troubled character. I don’t like putting spoilers in these, so I’ll just say the film is worth watching for how messed up her storyline and character arc actually is. Even on my third viewing, I was still mouth open shocked at what was being communicated. Arguably she doesn’t have to contend with the physically violent scenes in the same way Debbie Harry or Maria Bello did in their roles, however when you watch it, you’ll find out exactly what I mean.
Howard Shore returns again to compose the minimalist soundtrack to this film but for the first time in this series, I was left wanting more from the soundtrack. Sure the quiet ambiance allows the audience to reflect alongside the characters at times, but Shore’s soundtracks for me usually go so far as to help underpin the horror on screen. Having said that, perhaps given the apparent lack of physical violence, the silence is more attributable to the apparent mental torture the various characters are going through, but I’ll leave that up to you to decide.
The lecture that usually follows these screenings was unfortunately cancelled due to the government enforced lockdown as mentioned in my introduction. However, between the simply fantastic Shelley O’Brien who is the mastermind behind these lectures and the dedicated hard-working team at Showroom, all participants were sent an electronic copy of what would have been Shelley’s final lecture. Detailed within was Cronenberg’s cinematic journey outlining his relationships with various actors and composer Howard Shore and it also gave readers access to a number of critical writings on Cronenberg’s work, as well as a comprehensive reading list. I’d suggest David Cronenberg: Interviews with Serge Grünberg (Plexus Publishing, 2006) as a good starting point for anyone with a further interest in Cronenberg’s work.
And with that this series comes to an end. I’d like to extend a huge thanks to everyone involved, Shelley and the team at Showroom and everyone that attended this series as it really has been fantastic.
On a final note, given the government enforced lockdown, the Showroom is unfortunately closed for the meanwhile. In order for them to be able to continue delivering fantastic thought-provoking content like this series, why not consider becoming a paid member? Or purchase a gift card to use upon reopening. Details can be found here.