‘Birdman,’ ‘Maps to the Stars,’ and Hollywood’s Current Vogue for Self-Obsession

“Pray that those that eat, those that are eaten, and the act of eating be universally devoid of self,” celebrity therapist Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) says smugly in Maps to the Stars, director David Cronenberg’s big, wet defecation on the deadening influence of Hollywood. He’s quoting the Dalai Lama, he says, but long before his cushy life goes up in flames, it’s clear that Weiss’ Buddhist wisdom is all smoke and mirrors, a vain stab at profundity from an exceedingly shallow man. Indeed, here, as in other recent depictions of Tinseltown’s insider baseball, such noble sentiments ring false, or are otherwise crushed by an industry no longer much interested in altruism. That four films from four directors, each with its own distinct style and tone, should tread such similar thematic ground in this short span of time suggests a certain discomfort with the changing rules of the game, a fear that the dog-eat-dog business of filmmaking threatens to annihilate a particular brand of film art. Call it the unexpected anxiety of obsolescence.

Consider their protagonists: the washed-up star of a superhero franchise staking his claim on creative validation; the longtime indie darling facing off against the young starlet; the successful comedian burnishing his reputation with “thought-provoking entertainment”; the aging actress landing the role that may finally win her an Oscar. If these brief synopses of Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Clouds of Sils Maria, Top Five, and Maps to the Stars recall some of the real-life narratives of the last year in movies, this is no coincidence: along the meta-fictional Möbius strip of films about filmmaking, from Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle in The Film Johnnie (1914) to Robert Altman’s The Player (1992), the border between truth and artifice has traditionally been a porous one. But if the cinema’s willingness to turn the camera inward dates back to the invention of the medium, the four films considered here are very much products of the present, run through with a desperate sense that movies are dying — and Hollywood itself is killing them. As an industry in flux strives to find a workable business model for the digital age, those hemmed in by the rise of franchises and the decline of mid-budget cinema have taken to the proverbial barricades to express their resistance.

Gabrielle Union and Chris Rock in "Top Five"

Overrun by narcissists, sycophants, addicts, burnouts, and gossips, by rabid fans, fame whores, embittered critics, and embattled artists, the films wear their jaundice proudly, never more so than when the object of this bilious distemper is the series of factory-made commodities that dominate the box office. If fitful glimpses of fictional titles — Top Five‘s Hammy the Bear trilogy, MapsBad Babysitter franchise, the “bimbos in astronaut suits” of Sils Maria‘s 3D sci-fi blockbuster — offer the familiar satire of entitled talent and vacuous entertainment, however, the distaste for audiences that collaborate in the triumph of industrial “content” over cinematic art seems to stem from a fresher wound. “I hate Hammy the Bear!” Top Five‘s Andre Allen (Chris Rock) says while promoting Uprize, his dramatization of the Haitian Revolution. “I gave you three Hammy the Bears! I want people to take me seriously. I want people to stop walking up to me in the street and making bear sounds.”

In effect, the four films manage to take the wider movie-going public to task without alienating their own audiences by emphasizing this ostensible divide between mere consumers and connoisseurs. The films’ own, half-smirking sense of higher purpose invites the viewer to see him- or herself as the sort who prefers art-house fare to lowbrow dross, for laughing along with the likes of Top Five requires you to laugh at the huddled masses lapping up tabloid magazines, reality television, and lucrative franchises. There are people who make bear sounds and people who mock people who make bear sounds, and you, thankfully, are one of the latter.

“Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige,” Broadway veteran Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) says to this end in Birdman. Though Shiner’s “massive hard-on” for the theater is not immune to derision, the film more or less endorses the terms of the debate, framing Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) as a man torn between the public adulation that comes with his role in the titular blockbuster franchise and the respect he hopes to win by adapting Raymond Carver for the stage. “You confuse love for admiration,” his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) cautions, echoing the film’s epigraph, yet Birdman leaves the potential complications of such crude dichotomies largely unexamined. Indeed, to some degree each film discussed here uses the purported divide between popular culture and art, between “silly” and “serious,” to propel the characters through the narrative, and yet there’s a nagging sense of received wisdom in the idea that the artist’s fulfillment resides solely in the theater, the independent cinema, the historical epic, the award winner.

Micheal Keaton in "Birdman"

That four directors — Rock, Birdman‘s Alejandro González Iñárritu, Maps David Cronenberg, and Sils Maria‘s Olivier Assayas — known to inhabit the increasingly narrow space between high-concept spectacles and DIY independents should bristle at the industry’s aversion to risky business in favor of the sure thing is wholly unsurprising. Today’s auteur, as Shadow and Act’s Andre Seewood suggests, “is a filmmaker who makes the film that they want to make regardless of demographic and/or commercial box office considerations,” and, if nothing else, this quartet of backstage dramas expresses frustration at the lack of funding for such passion projects. “[A]t the end of the day, it’s an art film,” actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) hears from her dismissive agent (Dawn Greenhalgh) in Maps to the Stars. “I mean, there’s so many movies out there. Big-deal movies!” The four films’ prickly satire is a reminder that movies of this kind are a dying breed, and we’re meant to feel the pinch.

And yet, even to the most ardent supporter of films that defy the current Hollywood business model, this pinching satire may fail to wage a successful argument for a wider range of productions. Only the exquisite Sils Maria, in which Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) prepares for an upcoming role opposite tabloid sensation Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz) with her personal assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), thoroughly engages the notion that “prestige” is no less culturally determined than “popularity,” which ultimately makes Maria’s own anxiety about being displaced all the more poignant. In the midst of the film’s sequence of dissolves, Maria and Valentine pause their bruising rehearsals to take in Jo-Ann’s aforementioned “bimbos in astronaut suits” blockbuster. Over post-movie pints, Maria, who winces at “acting hanging from wires in front of green screens” for an installment in the X-Men saga, laughs it off as yet another moronic entertainment, but Valentine proves a worthy adversary. “Because it takes place on a spaceship?” she asks. “I know that if it was set on an assembly line or like a farm or something, you’d love it.”

Kristen Stewart and Juliette Binoche in "Clouds of Sils Maria"

By the time the extended epilogue comes to a close, with a slip of the tongue that suddenly erases the distinction between Maria and her “washed up” character, Sils Maria emerges as a far more complicated, and thus compelling, examination of the art form’s sometimes doubtful future than the facile pieties of Birdman, the “Hollywood shit” of Top Five, and the terrifying excesses of Maps to the Stars. Slipping, in Birdman‘s parlance, from hyperrealism to hallucination, satirizing each cog in the industry’s machine — from producers, agents, and celebrities to audiences, studio moguls, and critics — the four films resist easy analysis, but it’s Sils Maria that seems to understand most fully that the uncomfortable détente between art and business, passion project and popular entertainment, predates the current craze for men in capes.

As Grantland‘s Mark Harris notes in his analysis of Sunday’s Oscars, the decision to award Birdman Best Picture, like Argo and The Artist before it, speaks to the tension in the industry between “two strains of argument — ‘Let’s celebrate our effort!’ and ‘This business is going to hell!'” As Harris points out, however, recalling the spate of “pictorial/historical” epics that won the top prize in the 1980s, such movements tend to be short-sighted, reflecting nothing so much as a particular moment in the film industry’s self-conception.

“Maybe I only remember what it suits me to remember,” Maria admits in Sils Maria. Indeed, the fear of obsolescence that marks the four films discussed here, much like the Academy’s recent laureates, is its own variety of nostalgia for a bygone era whose own rough edges have been softened by memory’s mists. After all, Birdman, Clouds of Sils Maria, Top Five, and Maps to the Stars may expose the raw nerves of the medium’s current, transitional moment, but each also returns to the cinema’s longest and most magnificent obsession, which is, of course, itself.

Maps to the Stars is out Friday in limited release and on demand. Clouds of Sils Maria is out in April. Birdman is available now on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD; Top Five hits those formats on March 17.

Matt Brennan is the TV critic for Indiewire’s Thompson on Hollywood! and a frequent contributor to Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in LA Weekly, Deadspin, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @thefilmgoer.