Friday, June 21, 2013

The Bling Ring and a Defense of Sofia Coppola

Last week, film critic Sam Adams wrote a fantastic piece on Sofia Coppola and critics' relation to her.  In it, he wonders why critics seem to take her to task for her privileged upbringing in ways that they don't seem to with somebody like Jason Reitman (whose father was also a famous director).  In fact, many directors have come from some kind of affluent background, yet Sofia Coppola is the only instance where critics frequently make it a point to frame their opinions of her movies on.  I don't know whether it's because she's a woman (the aforementioned article also points out Lena Dunham, a person similarly criticized for her perceived "privilege") or if people are just still upset about the poor acting performance she gave when she was a little girl in The Godfather III, but something about the way her detractors judge her work smells awfully rotten.

We constantly see writers choosing to write about what they know, we see it across all media, and sometimes what a writer knows is the lives of the rich and educated.  Whit Stillman does it.  Woody Allen does it.  Yet there's rarely any kind of uproar about it when either of them do it -- in fact, they're two of the more praised filmmakers working today.  Despite this fact, I'm always coming across people on the internet who bash Sofia Coppola films, complaining that "nobody cares about rich people problems!"  Saying that nobody cares about your problems, whether you're rich or otherwise, is something that's so fundamentally cruel that it seems inhuman.  It's an example of one failing to acknowledge the rich as human beings with hopes and fears and anxieties just like the rest of us -- a point Coppola tries to make in all of her films.  In an effort to tear her down, people neglect to see the immense talent, exquisite sense of mood, and fair-minded writing on display in Sofia Coppola's work.  You may not care about the problems that rich people face, but Coppola imbues her characters with such an endearing loneliness that it's reductive to think of them in such a narrow way.  Even if you don't relate to their financial status, their emotions are as real and grounded as they can get.

Maybe I'm just in the tank because she's one of my favorite directors.  After all, The Virgin Suicides, is in the top 5 on my list of all time favorite films.  I've seen it 7 times and every time I watch it, I'm convinced that I'll have outgrown it, yet it only gets better with each viewing.  Lost in Translation may be most people's favorite Sofia Coppola film, but nothing will top her debut in my eyes.  Although I like Lost in Translation less than most people, I still think it's a great film.  It feels like every unexplainable emotion that any human being has every felt was bottled up and released in that film, resulting in a hazy, dreamy smear of sadness.  Heck, I even think the first half of Marie Antoinette is pretty solid!  When we think of famous people who existed before we did, our minds often reduce them to a series of facts and actions, and Marie Antoinette made its titular character human in a way that I've never seen any other biopic accomplish.  Her fourth film, Somewhere, wasn't as perfect as its trailer, but it's a small, personal father-daughter story that's quite emotionally affecting.

When I heard that she was doing a film about The Bling Ring, I thought that this was finally the point where I drew the line with Sofia Coppola films, stepping over to the side of the thousands of people who take issue with her narrow focus on the wealthy.  It certainly didn't help that I first saw the trailer in front of Spring Breakers, which seemed similar in style, but Harmony Korine beat Sofia Coppola to the punch by a few months.  Fortunately, The Bling Ring is a much more thoughtful film than the trailers suggested and instead of aping Spring Breakers completely, the two actually complement each other quite well.  Where Spring Breakers was very influenced by the late 90s, using pop culture from that era to define the generation that grew up on it, The Bling Ring serves as a logical progression, examining those same kinds of kids growing up to be teens in the mid-2000s, a landscape saturated with reality TV programming and tabloid publications.  

Like Spring Breakers, and all Coppola films, The Bling Ring is rich with detail about its protagonists and their surroundings.  You don't know that these girls (and guy) are obsessed with the Hollywood lifestyle simply because the film tells you.  Instead, it shows you with collages of starlets plastered all over walls, stacks of Us Weekly magazines, and the way they document their lives through pictures and videos as if they were the celebrities they idolize.  The film also takes on 2008 and 2009 with a period piece level of specificity.  Everything from the music choices to the lingo to Emma Watson's vocal fry was so dead on.  If this were a story about poor people trying to get rich, I could see how some would take issue with Coppola for making a film about it, but what's so fascinating about The Bling Ring is that it's about the rich wanting to get richer.  It's at its most compelling when it hones in on the frustration of almost being "there," to the point where it makes you want to actually be "there" more than if you weren't close at all.  This crew of teens live in affluent neighborhoods in California, at arms length from celebrities, and the allure of their lifestyle has even more of a pull because of it. The Bling Ring was cinematographer Harry Savides's last film before he died, and it's a fitting way to leave, because the film is absolutely sumptuous.  Savides always had a gift for making colors feel cool yet crisp, and it's no different here, as his lens work gives Los Angeles an appropriate sheen.

It's hard to tell exactly what the film wants us to think about these people, yet that's one of the movie's strengths.  There might be some cynicism to the way the main characters are depicted, but perhaps it just reads like cynicism because of how much more objective the camera is in this than in Coppola's other films.  The scenes of the crew partying wantonly near the end are some of the most mesmerizing, but it's never clear whether we're supposed to feel sympathy or pity for their dreams.   Obviously, their actions are painted as being wrong, but there's very little statement on the film's part about those actions.  Coppola's willingness to take a 360 degree look at the situation, however, lends the film much more depth than it would've had were it just a retelling of these robberies from the perspective of the thieves.  During the robbery scenes, the cameras always linger on just how much stuff these celebrities have, so much so that some don't even notice when things are taken.  Many of the celebrity houses that get robbed have large glass walls and windows, almost as if these stars invite the world into their lives like a sliding door.  Most notable in this regard is the highlight of the film, where two of the group go to break into Audrina Patridge's house.  The scene is shot in a continuous take with the whole house in frame, and from the camera's far away view, the house looks like something out of a Chris Ware comic, an exhibit for all who are curious to observe.

Things get shaky towards the end, where the film less successfully tries to broaden the scope even more, focusing not only on this group of young people and the era that cultivated them, but on the nation in general and the way they eat scandals up.  Fittingly, the actual details of the trial are glossed over in favor of the media flurry that surrounded them, but the film punctuates its point a tad too much.  At times, it's a bit leaden in the way it tries to indict America for the things it pays attention to (at one point, a character literally says the subtext of the film).  It leads up to a final scene that's both too on-the-nose and not big and brash enough to make any sort of impact.

We may not be at the peak of the fame-obsessed tabloid culture that's depicted in The Bling Ring, but it's still prevalent, and the main well of entertainment for much of America.  In a world where TMZ is our primary source for news and people clamor to learn the name of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West's baby, the film still serves as a relevant examination of celebrity.  Some may argue that Coppola has no right to make a treatise against fame since she stands on the right side of the velvet rope, but to do that would be to ignore the larger picture she's trying to paint.  It's not one without smudges and blemishes, but it's a vivid portrait by one of Hollywood's most underrated directors.

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