Faustian Poptimism: "A Star is Born"

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Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born bows this weekend, being met with unusual—and not necessarily unwarranted—enthusiasm. The film is a gorgeous and mellifluous weepie about addiction and fame, as Cooper plays country-rock star Jackson Maine, whose only respite between (and, well, during) auditorium shows is in a bottle of either booze or pills. During one of his post-show binges, he slips into a gay bar where down-on-her-luck dead-end job Ally (Lady Gaga) gives a stellar performance of some Edith Piaf tunes. Amidst drag queen lip-synch mimicry, Ally has her own voice, transcending any conventional assignation of identity (Jackson, like any newbie in the bar perhaps, isn’t sure if Ally’s a drag queen). More than a performer, Jackson recognizes that Ally’s a songwriter, capable to producing her own melodies and lyrics. An all-night flirtation turns into a professional and romantic relationship, as Ally is swept up from her life at home with a limo-driving single dad (Andrew Dice Clay) and into the spotlight. As Jackson disintegrates into substance abuse, Ally’s image is taken over by her manager, Rez (Rafi Gavron). Holding to the mythos developed by previous screen incarnations from 1937, 1954, and 1976, Ally’s star rises as Jackson’s burns out. Through the rise and fall, the film climaxes with a pulverizing catharsis as Cooper shows how the flow of real world inspiration migrates into an overwhelming (or overwrought) stage performance. We swoon and clap.

A Star is Born (2018 anyway) has the influence of great concert films like The Last Waltz and Stop Making Sense, as cinematographer Matthew Libatique takes us through the stage’s liminal boundaries and captures the overwhelming spectacle of performative spaces where tens of thousands of onlookers are filtered as abstractions, compartmentalized from the stressful intensity of a performer’s ritual exposure, night after night. The intimate night club atmosphere where Ally does her set is similarly effective. The point of A Star is Born’s first act is the seductive quality of the preternatural performative space. But outside the club where Jackson meets Ally is an arrangement of rainbow nooses. The seduction of heightened beauty doubles for the more tacit seduction of obliteration, and A Star is Born works through a stirring notion of how that liminal boundary between the performer and audience is akin to cosmetic representation and reality, wondering of how a grounded sense of “real” identity ferments creativity and expression, which then only feeds back into the groundlings’ sense of identity and relationships.

Casting Lady Gaga as Ally might make some viewers wonder if the film were itself a Gaga project based on her own life, being that she was a talented New York performer living with dad and insecure about her idiosyncratic looks (having much to do with her Italian nose…which, I have to agree with Jackson, is perfect as it is), then adopted a full-on cosmetic identity. Celebrity has always been a part of the Gaga stew, as her breakthrough albums were named The Fame and then The Fame Monster. Gaga does well in the film, her improvised singing in an after-hours grocery store parking lot with Jackson charming us as much as him. Strangely the film loses much of its charge as it enters the electric machinery of Music Celebrity Inc. While Jackson grows increasingly pathetic—climaxing with drunkenly wetting his pants at the Grammys onstage—A Star is Born seems to be pulling its punches with Ally. She seems to remain perfectly innocent in this culture of augmentation and excess, and if the story shows how Rez is stealing away her identity, in the end there’s not really a sense of a conscientious, detached perspective on her metamorphosis (that is to say, the redeeming quality of art that is assessed by the commentariat as being “problematic”; A Star is Born has emerged as something wholly un-problematic. More on that in a moment). Indeed, the Gaga of The Fame Monster was a much more brusque and harrowing figure expressing—and embodying—what’s troubling about celebrity culture, something all the more compounded when it became apparent that the Gaga persona had drifted from a possible satirical critique of fame culture, and was rather a subset product of it. Gaga emerged as antipodal to her model, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. Bowie’s glam persona was an adventure in nihilism and evil, which grew only more hellacious and dissonant through Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, and the “Berlin” trilogy, before being totally strung out and at the end of a rope, as expressed in Scary Monsters’ “Ashes to Ashes.” Bowie’s personae (Ziggy, the Thin White Duke, the Mime) demonically flirted with—if not outright illicitly fornicated with—Death. There’s a strain of something dangerous and satanic in those albums. There’s a lot of good things going on, but also a struggle “to hang on to yourself,” as Ziggy sings.

Cooper’s Jackson is a compelling creation that points to how he wanted to take this remake in interesting directions, given how affected he comes across—much more than Gaga, while wearing the countenance of authenticity (rustic Americana, his voice reminding me of The Band’s Levon Helm). But we learn that much of his self-presentation is another appropriation, taken from his much-older brother, Bobby (Sam Elliott, who is excellent). He portentously tells Ally to hold onto herself and stay grounded, as in the distance the billboards of her airbrushed face go up. Her songs and performances come to exhibit something distastefully tacky, such as we see her guest on SNL. And yet such delirium espouses the temperament and sensibility that is esteemed by the beloved cult of Poptimism. Which is fine (I myself love dancing to such synthetic spectacles and find the surfaces alluring), I suppose. It’s curious that the film would draw up such a template of irony and detachment and then abandon it, Jackson finally becoming something to express a writer/producer/director’s vain martyr complex. Gregory Jacobs’ Magic Mike XXL (2015) also indulged in a pop sheen rife for clapter (in many cases being reduced to a facile notion of “female gaze,” which, sure), but also retained an uncomfortable sense of how this spectacle is a narcotic of celebrity and advertising at odds with corporeal realities. While Jackson’s self-loathing and substance abuse is a brutal focal point for the story, when it comes to Ally, A Star is Born is closer to Jem. The second half of the film has been heralded for its emotion, but for me it’s made of the same stuff as the interventions of Reality TV. There’s something insidious in it.

Admittedly, for me the subtext to Cultural Poptimism is what’s in the White House, a malignant inflammation of a sensibility and rhetorical mode that got momentum in those early Gaga years. The causes of Trump and his toxicity, however endemic and deep-set to lingering sicknesses in our society and our nature, were amplified by the accelerating synthetic bug, striking big poses without substance or nuance. The “buzzfeed buzzards and TMZ crows,” as the Carly Rae Jepsen lyrics put it, plug an audience into this ersatz reality of celebrity living. The deco of Reality TV with its canned music and manufactured narratives fueled a collapse of the surplus images on themselves—Trump, an avatar for artificiality, most of all—as if we were all, like Ally, submitting to be a subset collective of that billboard. A Star is Born draws us into the world of celebrity, but it’s odd that in the time of Trump and Harvey Weinstein it should feel so benign, as if the lives of Ally and Jackson weren’t at all that alien to the humdrum happenings of the spectators looking up adoringly. George Cukor’s 1954 version with Judy Garland and James Mason—which has inspired moments in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator and David Lynch’s Wild at Heart and Mulholland Dr.—is exponentially more unsettling, and not so much as an aged ‘50s artifact to which we can smugly regard with condescension as through intent. Cooper meanwhile, to use a key phrase of the moment, normalizes fame. I’m committing a critic’s sin, I realize, by describing the movie I think should be there instead of the one Cooper gave me (and it will be fine, making lots of money and winning awards, having the acclaim of other critics I admire). It may be hyperbolic to suggest that Jackson’s lyric “maybe it’s time to let the old ways die” equals “drain the swamp,” and yet, as time passed following my viewing of A Star is Born, I wondered about an alternative arrangement of the twelve notes, maybe something similar to what the composer Adrian Leverkühn concocts in Thomas Mann’s postwar novel Doctor Faustus (1947), a version of this oft-sung song reaching for the abrasiveness of What’s Happening Now instead of satisfying pop catharsis and vindication. Then again, maybe A Star is Born is a definitive marker of its time, an expression of Faust without the hindrance (or knowing relief, rather) of Goethe’s Mephistopheles, or Mann’s spasmodic syphilitic infection-as-art commensurate with sociopolitical annihilation. We may not all be stars, but we’re billboards. Which is just as well.