Tag Archives: satire

Maps to the Stars

Maps to the Stars
Maps to the Stars

Format: Cinema

Release date: 26 September 2014

Distributor: Entertainment One

Director: David Cronenberg

Writer: Bruce Wagner

Cast: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Olivia Williams, Sarah Gadon, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson

Canada, USA 2014

112 mins

You can say what you want about Maps to the Stars, as long you don’t mention the word ‘satire’. At least not in the presence of director David Cronenberg or his screenwriter Bruce Wagner, who spent most of their time in Cannes denying the fact that the narrative could be seen as such. A pitch-black family drama of sorts, yes. Cronenberg’s very own Divine Comedy, maybe. A haunting, terrifying version of life in LA, if you like. But a ‘Tinseltown satire’, NO. ‘It is not a satire of Hollywood,’ Cronenberg stresses in more than one interview, ‘it’s reality.’ And Wagner adds: ‘I’ve given you the lay of the land as I see it, saw it, and lived it.’

If so, then the truth is that Wagner has seen a lot – by anyone’s standards. Julianne Moore plays Havana, a fading yet feisty ageing actress, who is desperate to make her big comeback but instead is increasingly haunted by the ghost of her mother, a celebrated child actress who became a classic Hollywood star. To her good fortune, Havana is inclined to think, she meets Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), whom she employs as her new PA. Branded with burn scars on her hands and arms, Agatha, however, has her very own agenda. The daughter of a smug self-help guru (John Cusack) and demanding mother (Olivia Williams), who managed her kids’ careers but otherwise cared little for their well-being, Agatha left home for rehab after causing a fire that put her and her little brother Benjie (Evan Bird) – a child star ruined by fame – in life-threatening danger. Now back in the hood, Agatha lives out her inner demons and romantic fantasies in a weird imaginary game with limousine chauffeur Jerome (Robert Pattinson), who, in turn, is seduced by Havana. Unsurprisingly, things get pretty messy from here on.

In his career, spanning almost 40 years since his 1975 debut featureShivers, Cronenberg has never before shot an entire film in LA and, quite aptly, finally arrives only to expose it to the bone before burning it all down to ashes. What’s more, Maps to the Stars exploits its blatantly Lynch-inspired plot of switching reality for fantasy, yourself for someone else, and losing all sense of truth to a point where delusion (and in Havana’s case, hysteria) thrives, terror rules, and nothing is sacred.

In both counts, the film sees Cronenberg at his weirdest, wittiest and most horrifying in years, crafting a highly charged, cynical nightmare about today’s fucked-up Hollywood society, with the suitable feel of a mystery ghost story. And yet, as fitting, seductive and gruesome as it is, Maps to the Stars somewhat feels at odds with the director’s insistence that the film is anything but a satirical apocalypse. But luckily, as in real life, the truth lies in the details and it is the ambiguity that makes the experience worthwhile.

This review is part of our Cannes 2014 coverage.

Pamela Jahn

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Kin Dza Dza

Format: DVD

Distributor: Ruscico, Mosfilm

Director: Georgiy Daneliya

Writers: Georgiy Daneliya, Revaz Gabriadze

Cast: Stanislav Lyubshin, Levan Gabriadze, Evgeniy Leonov, Yuriy Yakovlev, Irina Shmeleva

Soviet Union 1986

135 mins

Kin-dza-dza! is one of the strangest artefacts in all of Soviet cinema. It’s a science fiction satire in which Vladmir and Gedevan, a gruff Russian construction worker and a Georgian student, find themselves accidentally transported to Pluke, a barren desert-world with a barbaric, bureaucratic society. Gradually realising that they are not in a ‘capitalist country’, the two men begin a long and farcical voyage home that more closely resembles the theatre of the absurd than it does any preconceived notion of cinematic science fiction. The men befriend two locals, Bi and Wef, and are soon busking their way across Pluke and becoming ensnared in various misadventures that stem from the planet’s bizarre and unbendable social rules, and its two-tier social structure of ruling Chatlanians and subservient Patsaks.

There are many things to note about Kin-dza-dza!: the satire that struck a chord with a Soviet audience experiencing the first flourishes of glasnost but that can seem impenetrable to a contemporary audience; the ‘used future’ mise-en-scene that anticipates the subversive combinations of salvagepunk, with items that look like ships and ferris wheels half-submerged in the arid desert; the buried Christian themes; the melancholy-comic dirge that constitutes the film’s score.

But one of the most noteworthy things is the film’s creative use of language: the bizarre Plukanian tongue, which rivals A Clockwork Orange’s ‘nadsat’ as a futuristic dialect, despite mostly consisting of the word ‘koo’. The near identical ‘kyoo’ is a swear word, and there are a few other specific terms, such as ‘pepelats’ for spaceship, ‘etsilop’ for police, ‘etsikh’ for prison, and ‘Gravitsapa’, which they spend much of the film trying to obtain so that they can get back home.

Soviet science fiction had always been an arena for voicing social critique and ridicule, and could be cloaked in futuristic and fantastical trappings. Danelia and his co-writer Revaz Gabriadze (the founder of Tbilisi’s puppet theatre) took advantage of the far-fetched scenario by foregrounding Georgian-ness against the wider expanse of Russia proper. Georgian, which shares neither an alphabet nor a common root with the Russian language, is the first language of both writers, and some of the language used in the film comes from their native tongue. ‘Etsikh’ is from the Georgian word ‘tsikhe’ for fortress, while the film’s title, named for the galaxy that Pluke is found in, comes from ‘kindza’, the Georgian word for coriander. Most humorously, they capitalised on the non-Russian word ‘katsap’, used to describe Russians in other Soviet republics. The scriptwriters reversed the word, and also reversed the social order so that the Russians find themselves on the lower social strata.

The philosophers Deleuze and Guattari used ‘minor literature’ to describe work done from the point of view of a minority in the ‘major’ language of the coloniser. Kin-dza-dza! transposes elements of minor literature to cinema. The script reflects the frustrations of having a language imposed from above, most of it sounding like an unfamiliar, monotonous noise, but it also demonstrates the strangeness, potential and richness of language; French, Georgian (ideal for creative obscenities), German and English are all heard in the film along with Russian.

The puppet-like gestures that the lowly patsaks have to perform when confronted with their superiors back up this linguistic satire, where gesture becomes a grotesque parody in which power relations are laid bare. This is also true for the busking, done from inside cages, with Vladimir sawing the violin back and forth in a threadbare parody of musicianship.

Near the film’s conclusion, the desert is exchanged for a verdant paradise as Vladimir and Gedevan touch down on the planet Alpha, where they meet patrician overlords in white robes. Perhaps intended to represent the Soviet elite, the Alpha race don’t prove to be the key to redemption or restoration for Vladimir and Gedevan, despite their advanced society and utopian veneer. The film constantly raises questions, but answers few of them. The rules on these other planets simply ‘are’, and if they are not followed, then one risks ending up trapped in a box or transformed into a cactus.

Kin-dza-dza! is still adored in Russia and former Soviet republics, but is little known in the Anglophone world. Some of its humour and reference points may appear to be Soviet specific. But as we move towards an increasingly confusing and complex society, Danelia’s film is likely to become increasingly relevant, and perhaps the glossy new animated version (which was released in Russia in April 2013) will bring this salvagepunk prototype to wider acclaim.

John A. Riley