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Kevin Fullam writesThe Fourth Wall: Starry Eyes

Welcome to The Fourth Wall, CHIRP's weekly e-conversation on cinema. This week's subject is the horror film Starry Eyes.

This edition is written by CHIRP Radio volunteers Kevin Fullam and Clarence Ewing.

Clarence:

Sarah is a young woman living in Hollywood and hoping to make it to the big time as an actress. She spends her days working a crappy day job as a waitress while squeezing in auditions and hanging out with her like-minded social circle of wannabe film-makers.

One day, Sarah lands an audition for what sounds like a low-rent horror movie flick. It turns out to be the most intense experience of her life, and it could lead to bigger things...if she’s willing to pay the price. Soon, she will have to decide how willing she is to undertake the physical and mental transformation asked of her, and also what to do about the “friends” who might be holding her back.

Partially funded by a Kickstarter campaign, Starry Eyes was a hit at South-by-Southwest in 2014. It’s got an indie-film sheen with a slasher-movie soul. I thought Alex Essoe did a wonderful job in the lead role, transmuting her ambition into frustration and rage that fuels her character through a (to put it mildly) drastic transformation. The supporting cast is also good, and the makeup and effects are disturbingly realistic.

But this film struck me as more than just a well-crafted exercise in horror. I thought the film also did a very good job of allegorizing both the idea of “making it” in Hollywood as well as the economic outlook faced by many Millennials in the US in the 21st century.

I finished watching the FX miniseries Feud: Bette and Joan a couple of weeks ago. That series was advertised as a campy send-up of the animosity between legendary actors Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, but it ended up being a sharp, detailed portrait of the underbelly of celebrity.

In one conversation, Crawford describes how, when she was young, she had her molars extracted by a back-alley dentist so her cheekbones would achieve the elegant curvature needed to take those classic photographs. I thought about that when watching Starry Eyes and how often bodies, especially womens’ bodies, are subject to painful transformations that aren’t that far from cinematic fantasy.

And while Sarah’s group of friends, all of them basically piddling around waiting for a break, is no different than generations past, their situation is bleaker than that of the young go-getters of the ’30s or the ‘70s or even the ‘90s. Making their own no-budget junk seems about as close as they’ll ever get to the Big Time. That is unless, like Sarah, they are willing to surrender everything (the proverbial mind, body, and soul) to someone who offers a way forward.

Kevin, what did you think of the movie overall? Do you like horror films? If so, how do you think this one stands up against ones you’ve seen?

Kevin:

I'm definitely a fan of the horror genre, though my tastes run much more towards slow-burn, psychological terror rather than straight-up violence. As such, the last third of Starry Eyes certainly was a bit jarring to watch, as Sarah's "transformation" boded ill for all those around her in a rather bloody fashion. Until then, though, I was intrigued by the film -- what price victory, indeed? 

Hollywood is one of the many worlds that's a bit like sausage; we just want to sample the end product... and would rather not know too much about the processes involved. For every actress who makes it to the silver screen (or The Silver Scream, the mysterious project in Starry Eyes), there are countless hopefuls who are left by the wayside, stuck at dead-end jobs like the demeaning waitressing gig held by Sarah. 

[And of course, that could also apply to this film in a meta sense. While Starry Eyes was a SXSW hit, it wasn't picked up for theatrical distribution, and thus no real money exchanged hands. But lead actress Alex Essoe and directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer have already bucked the odds in making it this far up the pyramid.] 

At least in sports, one can push their way to the top strictly on performance? If you're a great tennis player, you'll win and get noticed. If you're a great actress... well, maybe you'll get noticed and maybe you won't. And so, what lines are we willing to cross? How malleable is one's personal code? 

You mentioned Bette Davis -- I'm sure you've seen All About Eve, one of the landmark works dealing with celebrity and the ruthlessness of show business. There's also David Lynch's classic, Mulholland Drive, which touches upon those themes. But what struck me as an even bigger inspiration was Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (one of my favorite horror tales), where an aspiring actor starts getting huge breaks right after he and his wife (Mia Farrow) make friends with an eccentric elderly couple down the hall. Of course, Farrow's Rosemary didn't exactly sign on the dotted line herself...

As I mentioned in my opening paragraph, the film had me until the final act, where the motivations seemed murky. Did Sarah really need to eradicate everyone in her circle? (They might've not been great friends, but jeez, talk about disproportionate retribution.) And what exactly did Sarah "transform" into, anyway? How did that benefit her new Satanic pals? 

Also, Clarence, what are your favorite films dealing with showbiz and celebrity? (I'll throw two of mine out there: The Artist, and the much darker To Die For.) 

Clarence:

I never did see The Artist, but I did see To Die For a bunch of years ago and liked it a lot. All About Eve is probably my favorite film of its kind. I think it goes a long way in establishing ambition, mental illness, and evil as shades of the same driving force that pushes certain people to do things to themselves and others. Mulholland Drive is also one of my all-time favorites, but just as much for technique and style as for the story.

That last act of Starry Eyes certainly did send things over the top. I think what was going on there was that in order for Sarah to cross over she had to literally destroy whatever relationships she had with people who weren't willing to do what it takes to make it in the business. She could also erase her past as a struggling nobody while getting payback from her frenemies and their undermining jabs and criticisms.

In the end, Sarah turned into a "perfect" template for a director to make a movie - fake eyes, fake hair, nothing out of place or "flawed" in the sense that she could be mistaken for an actual human being. Her natural beauty was rotted away and replaced with a waxen commercialized version that can be photographed and sold. She is now ready to take her place among the legends who decorated her bedroom wall for years, people who also burned bridges and cut ties to make it to the top.

But it's interesting that there's no guarantee this movie Sarah destroyed her friends for is going to be any good. The legendary production company making The Silver Scream made me think of Miramax. If this story were to follow real life, the endgame would be Astraeus Pictures selling their back catalog to Disney so the owners can get a huge payday and Sarah starring in a string of mid-budget films that never get past the festival circuit..!

While the bloodbath that happens in this movie is clearly over-the-top, I think it's worth remembering that there is an undercurrent of real-life violence in Hollywood (up to and including murder) that's provided fuel for tabloids, movies, and TV shows since the beginning of the industry. L.A. Confidential is one great dramatization of this. It also wouldn't take long to find stories of weird cults inflicting psychological damage on vulnerable people either. 

I think you're right in how sports-themed films tend to lean toward performance-based rewards, although I think that's more of a recent trend. Take boxing, for example. The Rocky franchise casts a long shadow over American sports movies, but there's an extensive list of earlier films which show a different side to the sport. I just saw a great film noir called The Set-Up (1949)one of the best I've seen in that genre, that depicts the boxing game as a mob-infested cesspool of corruption. And there's no need for metaphorical symbolism to get the point across.

At a high level, what most of these movies have in common seems to be that achieving fame and/or success requires some kind of violence and moral corruption, a symbolic or literal "deal with the devil." Can you think of any movie that depicts someone's climb to the top of the ladder of fame and fortune ending well?

Kevin:

As I thought about your question, it struck me how much we, as audiences, love morality tales. In the absence of the Hays Code, it's no longer a requirement that evil be punished in cinema... but if you look at pretty much every modern crime tale out there, there's a price to be paid for the sins committed on the way to the throne. Scarface. Goodfellas. Casino. American Gangster. Wolf of Wall Street. And you can throw in The Sopranos and The Wire on the television side.

[Surprisingly, this doesn't quite apply to the giant of the genre: The Godfather saga. One could argue that in the first two films (which were originally intended to tell the whole story), Michael Corleone outmaneuvers all his enemies as well as the government.]

It's interesting to look at the difference in the depictions of "fame and fortune" achievements of sports vs. business. If you achieve glory in the former, the message is that you "deserved" it, right? You vanquished some great foe, and besides, riches in that arena* are seen as a by-product of success, not the end goal. Defeating enemies in business or politics isn't nearly as romantic, with the implication that you probably put one over on the opposition. Nice Guys Finish Last. 

[* Of course, in Rocky III -- by far my favorite of the franchise -- Rocky's high-society lifestyle has actually corrupted him and crippled his fighting spirit, and only by eschewing such riches is he able to topple a young, hungry Clubber Lang.]

We as a society certainly don't think of business tycoons as being noble folks (though most of us would love to be rich), but Hollywood stars? Different story. There's certainly a projection angle -- we see stars doing heroic things on screen, so that rubs off on our views of them personally. Obviously, this doesn't always come to fruition; I sense Anthony Hopkins would have a tough time getting elected to the British Parliament with the memory of Hannibal Lecter indelibly seared into everyone's noggin. But for the most part, we tend to view Hollywood stars positively, and I would guess that few people begrudge them their success. 

Let's say the entire horror angle was stripped from Starry Eyes, and Sarah makes a straightforward sex-for-stardom (albeit via a minor picture) exchange. We obviously loathe the creepy, old studio exec, but how do we feel about Sarah? 

There was a similar scenario in the brilliant Mad Men series, where a member of an advertising firm makes a similar deal for much higher stakes: 5% of the company. The propositioned woman was a single mother in the 1960s, and was desperate to provide long-term stability for her family. It was an awful situation that involved a man about as repulsive as the studio head in Starry Eyes, and in the end? All parties got what they wanted. Do we think less of her for agreeing to the exchange? If we do, what does that say about us?

Did you see the movie? Want to add to the conversation? Leave a comment below!

 

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