Friday, October 7, 2016

Starry Eyes: The Sacrifices We Make

After my last post, I ended up having a conversation with some friends about the importance of tragedy in horror film, and it’s definitely something I think is important. Good horror films don’t have unambiguously happy endings. If there’s a victory of any sort, it should come with tremendous physical and/or psychological cost. As the tagline to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre said, “who will survive, and what will be left of them?” Good horror ends badly, with loss and regret and things forever changed. Good horror is at heart tragedy, and one of the most time-honored tragic stories is that of the person whose ambition costs them everything, whose drive to the top alienates them from everyone and everything, sometimes even their own humanity. 

Starry Eyes, then, is a sharply observed story of what it can mean to do whatever it takes to achieve your dream, to a terrible degree. It’s not an especially original premise, or an especially novel approach to it, but it’s handled with tremendous skill and confidence and works wonderfully as a result.

Sarah Walker is an aspiring actress who is, like a lot of actresses, struggling. She has a shitty job at a PG-rated Hooters type restaurant, she goes on auditions and gets nowhere. She has a reasonably sympathetic roommate and a small circle of fairly unsympathetic friends who really can’t or don’t look past their own selfish needs. One guy is an aspiring filmmaker who lives in his van and hasn’t actually produced anything but talk, another guy is a shallow, thoughtless twerp who thinks taking photographs of everything makes him an artist, and there are two women who undermine Sarah constantly in pitch-perfect displays of relational aggression and do whatever it takes in a situation to keep themselves at the center of attention, even to the point of pretending to slip and fall the instant the others stop noticing them. Her roommate’s largely harmless, but nobody in this film is really on Sarah’s side. 

Nobody’s on Sarah’s side, and her life is basically a series of small, repeated concessions - she concedes her dignity at her terrible job, she concedes her value and self-worth to her insensitive friends, she concedes her sense of herself every time an audition goes badly. It becomes clear pretty quickly that Sarah is maybe not as stable as she should be for this career path, as failed auditions are inevitably followed by fits of rage and compulsive self-harm. So here she is, stuck in a dead-end job, no acting prospects, her only social support network a bunch of self-involved nitwits who are all talk and no resolve, and her ambition to transcend all of this (and her anxiety at failing to do so) is eating her from the inside out.

And then comes the call to audition for a horror film called “The Silver Scream.” It’s a weird audition - the two production company representatives are oddly reserved past the point of professionalism into near hostility, and a decent line reading gets her no closer to the job. So she goes into the bathroom, screams, curses, and tears her hair out, as she always does.

And there, waiting outside the stall, is one of the representatives, who wants to her to reproduce her fit of rage and self-punishment for their cold, appraising eyes. How far are you willing to go?

And then a second audition, where she is asked to disrobe under a spotlight, where discomfort gives way to release, to brief, half-glimpsed visions of blood and bared, feral teeth and hooded figures.

How far are you willing to go?

A woman trying to become a successful actress in Los Angeles is probably the most obvious vector for a story like this, but it’s handled with a lot of skill. Lots of things happen in little moments - interruptions in conversation, quick glances, fleeting expressions, sudden, swift changes in mood. You can see the life sap out of Sarah as she begs her blandly paternal boss at the restaurant for another chance. You can see the moment, played out entirely in small changes in facial expression, where she lets go of some of her dignity as she sheds her clothes for the audition. The little moments with her friends where their dynamic is sketched out economically and clearly and a tossed-off mispronunciation of a movie studio’s name communicates so much. A meeting with a producer who seems avuncular if slightly unhinged curdles into something worse in the blink of an eye. It’s finely tuned in a way that’s rare for horror films (and manages to be blackly funny in places without tipping over into comedy), and it makes all of what happens eventually so much worse. The editing is crisp and relies (at least initially) a lot on quick cuts and sudden transitions. The effect is slightly disorienting, but not overly so, just enough to maintain a constant low-level hum of tension and deep unease. And then, when the inevitable happens, and Sarah decides how far she is willing to go, that crisp economy gives way to extended sequences of very human-scale suffering, as the cost of Sarah’s decision and the scope of the bargain she has made begins to make itself evident in horrifying ways (her ambition really is eating her alive). 

(As a side note, it’s interesting to me the number of ways in which this film resembles Contracted, another story about a troubled young woman in Los Angeles who is surrounded by people who do not have her best interests in mind. The parallels don’t stop there - rape or at the very least sexual coercion in both cases drive a traumatic internal transformation which results in violence against the people who should have kept the protagonist safe. I think Starry Eyes is probably the better film of the two insofar as it is inhabited by people who are less cartoonish than those in Contracted, but I felt weird enough about one film taking this tack, that there are two makes me feel even more uncomfortable.)

A terrible price must be paid for Sarah’s “gateway part,” and we’ve had the whole film to recognize that not only is Sarah primed to pay it, but nobody around her has treated her in a way that would give her pause to reconsider. She is asked to do something bloody and horrible and she does so willingly because everyone has made it easy, The violence that follows is genuinely uncomfortable, her suffering is raw and hard to watch, and so is that of the people who pay a price for her ambition. All of the snappy glibness of the film’s beginning falls away into something excruciating. A price must be paid, and Sarah is born anew into a Los Angeles sunrise, ready for her close-up.

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