“Maps to the Stars,” Tragic Surrealism, Tainted Love

 

“Maps to the Stars,” a great David Cronenberg-directed film, starring Julianne Moore in yet another stunning performance with a script by Bruce Wagner, knocked us out Saturday afternoon. The film is a great, cynical, very film noir inspired look at the black, romantic heart of Hollywood and in its own way, a valentine to the beautiful, toxic paradise that is Los Angeles. Despite its wicked cynicism and satire, it made me miss life in LA terribly.

The review in the Austin Chronicle gave it four stars. Nice work, but I give it five stars. I loved this dark, smart, mean film. I haven’t laughed out loud so hard in a long time. Guess I needed a dose of this.

I originally composed these notes to send to my son, Dashiell, who saw the film with Lois and I and liked it very much. He’s 21. He was born in LA. I wanted to give him some notes on some of the great allusions and thematic threads of the film.

One of the great things about Los Angeles is driving through the canyons and across the hills on Mulholland Drive. Living in Studio City and often working in Hollywood or Malibu in the late 1980s and 1990s, I drove through Laurel Canyon in particular hundreds, maybe thousands of times. I was driving a convertible Karmann Ghia, and was always fascinated and haunted by some of those tumble-down Spanish mansions on the hillsides, including ones where Houdini hung his hat, along with Jim Morrison and other characters. So the consummation of the doomed love between the psychopath sibling lovers in the ruins of their awful parents’ home in the shade of the Hollywood hills Mexican fan palms was beyond perfect. There were also great ruins in Runyon Canyon, with spooky legends attached.

Jesse Sublett, Austin Author and musician, true crime, noir

Tragic love amidst the ruins in a toxic paradise known as LA.

“Maps to the Stars” has many recognizable threads and allusions, one of which is the film “All About Eve,” in which a young, ambitious protégé, played by Anne Baxter, attaches herself to a great but fading star actress, played by Bette Davis, insinuates her way into the mentor’s life and takes over her role, like an alien life form or killer spider that devours its host. George Saunders plays the film critic who can make ‘em and break ‘em in rare form, but then again such lubricious and radioactive roles were his specialty. Laird Cregar played much the same character in the great bullfighting melodrama, “Blood and Sand,” with Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell and Rita Hayworth (which I have seen at least two dozen times; love that movie).

But I digress. Here are a couple of points I wanted to bring out.

The poem “Liberty” which is so often recited in “Maps of the Stars” was written by Paul Éluard, a leader of the Surrealist Movement. He had a very interesting life (understatement). Born in France, came of age on the cusp of World War I… contracted tuberculosis, met a Russian girl his own age in a TB sanitarium, Gala, they had an intense love affair, were separated after their release… corresponded a lot, got together…

You can experience Paul Eluard’s poem “Liberty” on youtube here.

In 1917, during the Great War, Eluard’s service included writing death letters to next-of-kin; he wrote more than 150 a day and at night he dug graves.

Jesse Sublett, author and musician, Austin true crime writer and noir fiction

Gala, by Dali

Gala, despite the great love she had for Eluard, had an affair with his best friend, Max Ernst, the great surrealist artist (More about Ernst here).

And then Gala famously had an affair with surrealist artist Max Ernst, which is the subject of a book by Robert McNab called “Ghost Ships: A surrealist love triangle”.

And then, even more famously, Gala left Paul for Salvador Dali and she was Dali’s muse, forever immortalized in his work (read and see more in “Tales of Salvador Dali’s Demon Bride” here ).

“Maps to the Stars” also features John Cusack, wearing a suitably ironic hair piece,  Mia Wasikowska , Robert Pattinson, Evan Bird, and Olivia Williams. There’s something going on with eyebrows in this film, perhaps as an ironic wink at teen stud vampire Robert Pattinson’s rather oversized brows? I don’t know. Incest is another big theme in the film–and is probably of more interest to most viewers.

Back to the Surrealist clique and their shared doom (sorry to digress, but one of my favorite Spanish expressions these days is “Estamos jodidos!” which means “We’re doomed!”) Éluard and Picasso were tight… the Spanish Civil war had a huge effect on them, as it did so many artists of the pre-WW2 period; in fact these artists helped create the cultural narrative of the war and its horrors so that people might never forget the atrocities committed against common people (unfortunately, the atrocities continue). In the surrealist / Dadaist movement of this time period, several other artist-heroes of mine were involved, including of course Jean Miro.

Jesse Sublett, Jesse Sublett's Little Black Book

“The Reaper” by Joan Miro.

 

And finally, the great Spanish surrealist poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca was in this circle, too, until he was more or less exiled by them, partially, apparently, because he was gay. Lorca also fought in his own way against the fascists in Spain, creating and producing plays, poems and social statements–which eventually sealed his fate. Lorca was executed by a gang of nationalist thugs in a cemetery in 1936.

Jesse Sublett, Austin author and musician, true crime, noir, poet, Austin character

Federico Garcia Lorca, Spain’s most prominent poet and playwright until his death in 1936

And I’ve been a huge fan of Lorca since high school, when my English teacher suggested that I read “Romance Sonambulo (Somnambulist Ballad),” one of Lorca’s “Gypsy Ballads” which, at first reading, seems so deep and strange and full of bizarre surrealist allusions and word play. It’s tragic and also and old, kind of universal story about the outlaw / rebel whose girlfriend waits for him, but the fascist cops find out about her and when the outlaw returns to see her, he learns that she committed suicide rather than betray him (an image of her appears above the cistern, hung by an icicle of the moon). Tragedy, mystery, doom, beauty… elements that “Maps to the Stars” shares in common in spades with the work of the surrealists.

Lorca’s original plan was to be a classic pianist. Many of poems tend to be intrinsically musical and have been set to music by a great many performers. I’ve written my own original arrangements of “Romance Sonambulo” and also one of his best-know great gypsy ballads, “La Casada Infiel (The Unfaithful Wife).” This latter work is the final song I’ve been recording for my EP, a work in progress since the summer of 2014. With some luck, the song will be finally mixed and mastered and released as one of seven songs, to accompany gigs and other appearances in support of my new true crime book, “1960s Austin Gangsters: Organized Crime that Rocked the Capital.”

“Estamos jodidos!” Long live surrealism!

Cheers,

Jesse, March 1, 2015

 

 

 

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