- S. Milsome
"I never said all actors are cattle; what I said was all actors should be treated like cattle." -Hitchcock, on the 'stars' of the movie industry.
It doesn't take a Hitchcockian level of intellect to observe that contemporary cinema runs in circles and revels in pursuing its own tail. One only has to look at the past half-decade; we have had the comic book hero renaissance, are currently going through the Young Adult fiction adaptation-saga and now erotic bondage thrillers are bound to finagle their way into the regular listings following a certain Valentine's weekend release. While these genres have been bulldozing people's imaginations to ashes, a few subversive pieces seem to have quietly let themselves in through the stage door. Said releases have decided to focus on and even make mockery of the very personnel we willingly gawp at for up to three hours at a time; the movie star.
Admittedly, it isn't something that hasn't been done before, but the past 12 months have seen a handful of releases hit the ground with some traction, enough so people are starting to notice. It is a somewhat puzzling approach, even for the willing stars, because no matter how fervently they insist the characters they are assuming are vastly different from their actual personalities, they are still assuming the part nonetheless, knowing that their portrayal will be convincing, or so they hope. What they may not realise is that they are making their ilk come across as needy, desperate, insecure and narcissistic to a near-sickening degree.
Take Alejandro G. Iñárritu's ambitiously-shot and critically lauded Birdman, starring ex-superhero of the screen himself Michael Keaton, playing an ex-superhero of the screen attempting to cut his teeth in contemporary theatre, with generally catastrophic results. His best days far behind him, this man has delusions of superpowers and a holier-than-thou attitude which, when pitted against the mammoth-ego of Edward Norton's character, causes nothing but destruction and even hospitalisation. Some of the less lucid segments, such as where he imagines himself to be Birdman, or at least has his powers, seem to owe a certain amount of homage to Lynch's seminal and daring Inland Empire, where an actress begins to mentally unravel and adopt the personality of the role she is playing. Also not forgetting that Birdman features Naomi Watts, who starred in Lynch's other skewed look at movie stars and their struggle with identity, Mulholland Drive.
Following the unexpected success of Birdman, David Cronenbourg unleashed his vision of Hollywood's unpleasant undercarriage in the form of Maps to the Stars. When Julianne Moore isn't conjuring visions of Lindsay Lohan in a couple of decades' time, she is showing the world how quick an actress can go from lauded to past-it, exacerbated by her tragic childhood. Other characters include a child star who has grown nihilistic and bitter, already having battled addiction and depression by the tender age of 12; his parents, one of whom is an over-the-hill Hollywood type, projecting her desire to be valid on her son; his mentally unstable, estranged arsonist sister and finally a limo driver who just happens to be caught up in the mess (as well as some of the female characters' nethers) somehow. The film not only shows how being in showbiz can mess the actors' lives up, but affect the lives of those around them too, often driving them to insanity. It also reveals the ugly depths that humanity is capable of sinking to if there is a chance they'd become somehow validated by fame once more.
Lesser-known but rightfully cemented in the horror genre is Kolsch & Widmyer's spiral into occult madness Starry-Eyes. Very much a slow-burner and verging on the utterly absurd at several points, it focuses on a fresh-faced but clearly troubled young lady struggling to make herself known in the film industry as well as holding down a stable part-time job. Stable is certainly a choice word, as this hopeful starlet mentally and physically deteriorates, allegedly under thrall of the ominous 'Producer'. Things take a grisly turn or two before a rebirth of sorts, which is a clear allusion to the sacrifice of humanity, or one's soul, just to be the toast of Tinseltown. It alludes to stardom making you immortal, inasmuch as that when someone is captured on camera they are essentially frozen in time, displayed for future generations to witness and no doubt discuss the finer points of in an online forum.
All these films share traits, include elements of fantasy, ghosts and apparitions, and ultimately lead to a wholly unsettling or tragic conclusions, all involving past-it actors, struggling actresses and hopeful stars-to-be. The fact that these pictures are cutting into the mainstream is a testament to the changing face of cinema; people don't seem to want to be entertained so much as informed, or maybe the inclusion of an ensemble cast overrides the message for most viewers. After all, if they knew what the directors were really trying to tell them, that their perfect archetypes are just puppets dancing along to the tune of the camera's whir; that they are hollow beings unable to function unless said camera is pointing at them, they'd surely take umbrage.
Or maybe, just like the actors themselves, they don't care so long as they are getting a reward or recognition from the experience: no matter the cost. They are not like cattle in this way, for cattle are oblivious to their overall fate; humans simply don't seem to care.