Tuesday, September 20, 2016

David Cronenberg: Maps to Scary Places

I’m not sure what there is about the sturdy, Biblical name David that encourages perverse thoughts, but Movieland seems to be studded with writer-director Davids who consistently look on the dark side. David Lynch started with creepy works like Eraserhead, won widespread acclaim for Blue Velvet, achieved cult status with Twin Peaks, and continued off the beaten path with such disturbing films as Lost Highway  and Mulholland Drive. David  Fincher is perhaps best known for the not-so-grim The Social Network, but he got his hands bloody with flicks like Se7en, Fight Club, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl.

And then there’s David Cronenberg, who has made a career out of exploring subjects that are eerie and gruesome. Cronenberg is Canadian, which I believe is supposed to make him mild-mannered and polite. Which he may well be, in person, but his mind works in peculiar ways. Maybe that’s why his favorite literary influences are Vladimir Nabokov and William S. Burroughs, whose bizarre and unfilmable Naked Lunch he once tried to adapt for the screen. Given his filmography, it’s no surprise to learn that his favorite school subject was science, especially botany and lepidopterology. (This field, the study of butterflies, would certainly put him in sync with Nabokov, an expert in the field.)

I was first introduced to Cronenberg via his ghoulish remake of The Fly (1986), starring Jeff Goldblum as an out-of-control biologist. Intrigued—and, as a Roger Cormanite, always on the look-out for low-budget ideas we could steal—I  dipped back into the Cronenberg canon to discover The Brood (1979), full of psychological and biological oddities that end in a shocking conclusion. Then came Dead Ringers (1988), a cold, clinical tale involving Jeremy Irons as twin gynecologists who share a perverse interest in women who are beautiful, inside and out. Not a lot of laughs in that one.

 I was impressed by Cronenberg’s riveting, though slightly more conventional, film approach to the graphic novel, A History of Violence (2005). But I’m thinking about Cronenberg right now because I just caught up with his most recent feature, 2014’s Maps to the Stars. This film has won its share of international awards, many of them for the lead performance of Julianne Moore as Havana Segrand, a troubled child of Hollywood.  Written by Tinseltown laureate Bruce Wagner, it has its share of mordant humor, based as it is on the questionable priorities of film stars and their entourage. But it seemed odd to me that Moore’s performance was singled out by the Golden Globes folks as a nominee for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical. This film is by no means a musical, and I’d be hard pressed to think of it as a comedy, given that it encompasses arson, poisoning, strangulation, and the shooting death of an entirely innocent creature. I guess it could be considered comic in the Shakespearean sense because it ends (sort of) in a wedding. And that’s all the spoilers I’ll dare to mention.

Suffice it to say that there’s an expert cast, led by Moore as well as John Cusack (as a pop psychologist to the stars), Olivia Williams as his wife, Evan Bird as their cocky child-star son (now appearing in a sequel to Bad Baby-Sitters), Mia Wasikowska as the new girl from Jupiter, and Robert Pattinson as a Hollywood hopeful. The horror elements of the story don’t necessarily add up, but they’re creepy indeed. And the swank venues inhabited by the Hollywood rich are reproduced with a cold, clear eye. That’s good for a shudder, at least.

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