Simply put: it was a hit.
America lost its innocence on 9/11. It wasn’t an overnight thing, though. The gradual degradation of humanity on an ever-shrinking global landscape stewarded us there as school shootings and terrorist attacks grew with their weak links towards violent videogames rather than an otherwise Puritan sense of sex being worse than murder. Our repressed selves fought against growing malaise until that day provided a scapegoat to blame. We turned our internal rage onto an undeserving people suddenly reduced to their worst and smallest faction so as not to acknowledge our own role in the carnage. America sought escapism, embraced fearmongering, and forever buried its own responsibility. Half of us decided to fight the ensuing self-repeating nightmare while the other embraced its nihilism to become new Gods of chaotic bliss.
Now take that paragraph and spin it as metaphor wherein a young teenage survivor of a mass shooting (Raffey Cassidy‘s Celeste) becomes America. She’s a chaste, God-fearing girl who watches the incident with concern for others above her own wellbeing. She sees the shooter and asks him to stop and pray with her before he opens her eyes to the senseless darkness that runs beneath our feet in a bid to be seen and remembered infamously rather than simply forgotten. Give her witness a voice to galvanize the nation and watch as the capitalist vultures swoop down to mold her into a money machine, strangling her good intentions so she may breath the glorified air of purpose without meaning. Make her the hollow symbol America is now.
And let her awakening (or destruction) coincide with the World Trade Center going down. Let that act of cowardice push her to realize it’s better to live fast than die slow. Let her take credit for the work of others (her songwriting sister Ellie as played by Stacy Martin) and recruit a swarm of acolytes to give her meaning now that she’s transformed into everything her family raised her not to become. Fast-forward fifteen plus years to show the broken and delusional result (a thirty-year old Celeste now portrayed by Natalie Portman) of her path towards greed, entitlement, and success: an ugly, callous, and ambivalent shell of pre-packaged rhetoric meant to sell a product of stability that ignores the fact her house of cards fell years before.
Give the microphone to Willem Dafoe as a narrator injecting a disembodied voice that reminds us we’re viewing a fable of sorts and you’ll have Brady Corbet‘s dime-store allegory Vox Lux. But just as easily as we see it as a scathing commentary of what we’ve become as a country of organized villains and tired heroes, it’s hard not to also see it as a rallying cry to stop worrying and simply accept our demise was written long ago. Rather than see this thin metaphor as a means to wake up and recognize our role in the problem in order to find a solution, Corbet’s film had me wondering if we should actually surrender. Take this time to enjoy what’s left because there’s no turning back.
Is that what this is? To watch Celeste’s daughter and Ellie dance and smile to the climactic music amidst thirty thousand screaming fans yearning to forget their troubles for a couple hours has me saying, “Yes.” Corbet is telling us that no matter how much we resent what’s happened and say we want to help—the truth of the matter is that we’re slaves to the fantasy. While terrorists adopt celebrity disguises to mock America’s false superiority and rally themselves behind those who might have been able to rally us in opposition (see Taylor Swift’s long-standing refusal to pick a side and help steer her impressionable fans onto the right course), we become numb to the result and search even harder to distance ourselves from being a cause.
Why try to understand our enemies and look beyond our own history books to see what we did to devastate them when we can blindly vilify them and anyone else as guilty by association? When someone in the press (Christopher Abbott) actually asks an important question and the interviewee acts indignant, we give the latter the benefit of the doubt because we want to believe he/she is just like us. If we had Celeste’s fame we’d want our privacy and it’s that vicarious outlook that lets us demean those who understand artists with high profiles have a platform and must be cognizant of what they preach to it. So we call Abbott a monster. We call intrusive fans asking for photos jerks. But what about her actions?
No matter how beautiful Vox Lux looks or how catchy Sia‘s songs are, this desire to seemingly want to render Celeste sympathetic lost me. It doesn’t help that Cassidy plays the teenage version of this pop star with the same robotic flair as her Tomorrowland role. Where that part let her humanity shine through the monotone, this one contrastingly makes her a sociopath. Maybe that’s intentional: the American Dream as emotionless opportunist taking and taking and taking until deciding it’s time to cry and pretend as though her life was so hard. It was at first. And she rose from that tragedy with authentic hope. Sadly her wolf-in-sheep’s clothing manager (Jude Law) soon poisons the well in a way that makes it seem she did the poisoning.
In the end I have to applaud Corbet for swinging for the fences because his message can spark a much-needed conversation about our present. Unfortunately that message is spoken so loud and clear that you can’t call it metaphor anymore. Rather than experience Celeste’s tumultuous life and read into it with everything I’ve written above, I experienced America’s demise in this new technologically flat world of ours barely disguised by a character who refused to let me care. Celeste was always that lifeless form of herself haunting her nightmares to me. She was always this malleable construct pushed forward on a conveyor belt that stripped her of personality and identity. I pitied what she became, realizing that maybe those who died in high school were the lucky ones.
[1-3] Photos by Atsushi Nishijima