THE BLING RING (SOFIA COPPOLA, USA)
UN CERTAIN REGARD
The first of a series of "dialogue" dispatches from Cannes: Adam Cook & Daniel Kasman discuss the latest from Sofia Coppola, the opening film in Un Certain Regard.
DANIEL KASMAN: The Bling Ring comes on top of a consecutive series of hyper-stylized and seemingly sympathetic portraits of American consumer culture, aspirations and dreams, Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers and Michael Bay's Pain & Gain. Do you see this film as connected to those?
ADAM COOK: Absolutely. Clearly, it's the tamest of the three in terms of its approach but nevertheless is concerned with the same set of (specifically American?) themes of image-obsessed lifestyles. I feel as though each of them compliments each other well as their specific interests diverge but collectively illuminate different takes on the tragic pursuit of the American dream—though it's necessary to point out Pain & Gain is a period piece whereas the Korine and Coppola are contemporary and their characters wouldn't look out of place next to each other either. The interesting thing that connects all three is that within them we witness as these image-victims develop a criminal pathology.
KASMAN: What is the American Dream you see in the Coppola film, what is her "take"? Is it pursued in a similar way as Korine's partiers and Bay's torturing murderers?
COOK: Well, it's not exactly outside of Sofia Coppola's wheelhouse. All of her films are concerned with people in the spotlight and the malaise and alienation that comes with privileged living. Here though we have the other side of that coin: the spoiled "nobodies" who desire the very lifestyles Coppola has shown us are not desirable. So now we have a more complete picture of Coppola's take on...not necessarily the American dream, but the hunger to be in the limelight. We've seen those in it who struggle to retain their identity and their happiness, and those who foolishly pursue their positions, idolizing an illusion perpetuated by the forces of media. In The Bling Ring we see the demented fetishization of material objects, of brand name purses and shoes; it's not about style and maybe it's not even about status anymore. It's about ownership, a new post-object materialism in which the fulfillment of desire comes from acquiring these items. It's not even about having or keeping them, their worth is in the immediate sensation of getting them, a vacuous conquest.
KASMAN: Is it portrayed as demented, though? I would argue to a degree all three of these films present their criminals and their crimes in a vacuum inside which it is difficult to see the position of the filmmaker on the subject. I'm not sure The Bling Ring is actually showing things that are "wrong," neither the crimes (breaking into houses of celebrities and stealing their luxury goods) nor their focus (luxury goods, celebrity hob-knobbing). There's little context in the world or the filmmaking by which to consider the decisions these people make, in a similar way to Korine's ambivalent portrait of criminal partiers, or perhaps Bay's exuberant, giddy revelation of what in real life was a horrific crime.
Look, for example, at the film's immaculately "supervisored" soundtrack of up to the moment hip-hop, scoring every crime montage and almost any scene in-between. (One of the film's finest moments is a jump cut into a luxury car cruising the beach, camera planted like a passenger in the back along with the neophyte high schooler, the perfect blonde female driver singing along to Rick Ross's booming "9 Piece" on the car's speakers, the girl turning around looking at him and us in joy at the groove of the tunes, her knowledge of the lyrics, her total conquest of a lifestyle not her own but made hers...)
COOK: Well, with Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring we have these young girls realizing they can exert this level of control over their environment, that they can break out (while breaking in) of their lives and be something more, but that "something more" is itself an imprisoning position offered to them by a predominantly superficial culture—a false empowerment. I think Spring Breakers is working on an ecstatic level, a "pop poem" as Korine himself said. It's a film that examines a universe from the inside. The Bling Ring has a clear stance on these characters. Spring Breakers shows us the seductive qualities of the lifestyle and has a compassion for its characters even as it characterizes the world they live in as something hellish. I was actually struck by Coppola's lack of sympathy for, say, Emma Watson or Katie Chang's character (Rebecca). The only person we're asked to feel for is the male protagonist, who complicity tags along with the girls' self-destructive pursuit. The soundtrack fits in within the same lines of the dynamic between the false idols and these people who look up to them: I feel like there's a miscommunication between the music and its listeners (Kanye's "Power", for instance, is a self-reflexive take on his own egomania and celebrity lifestyle). What do you think the soundtrack suggests as far as where Coppola stands on the subject and her characters?
KASMAN: I wasn't experiencing the soundtrack as anything particularly literal in terms of the lyrics pertaining to thematics, but rather the complicity between the filmmakers and the characters in setting their activities and what little we see of their day to day life with the energy and catchiness of AAA contemporary pop (cf. Korine's soundtrack co-authored by Skrillex. The other co-author there would be ambient specialist Cliff Martinez. The co-composer of the interstitial music in The Bling Ring is a generically similar musician, Daniel Loptain).
I agree that Korine is narrating his film from the "inside"; and Bay may be characterized as narrating his film along with, in direct complicity with his characters. Coppola's case seems far vaguer and even more hedge-y, a tentative distance in semi-improvisitory scenes which reveal little of the social dynamic of these high schoolers and even less psychologically (the central relationship between Rebecca and Marc (Israel Broussard) collapses like a main event but the psychology is entirely paint by numbers). Without this analysis, Coppola's partial distance seems pointless to me, and leaves the movie hanging in an unsure state of what to show or why to show what it's chosen to show.
In a way, the film feels closer to Soderbergh's materialist, semi-arbitrary "New Objectivity" style of recent digital filmmaking, where an entire movie will hang on a conceptual premise, which is then illustrated semi-piecemeal day-of and on-set, with little rationale for scene-by-scene construction other than to dutifully introduce the concept to the audience. I don't think Coppola's film goes much further than delivering the concept of these crimes, attractively dressed. Despite its catalog-effect of objects and locations, the movie had for me a decided lack of specificity.
COOK: I agree, and I do think the film has problems. Somewhere was so precise, and this doesn't seem to have the same level of focus. The Bling Ring's series of break-ins and intervals of partying do repeat themselves, and there are tonal issues with how Coppola balances what is mostly a sober film with comedy.
KASMAN: Yes, the sense of commitment seems uneven—though unfortunately not uneasy (the film could use a good dose of the discomfort level of Pain & Gain or gestures towards the vid-art grotesqueness of the Korine)—commitment to a vision of tone, characters or morality. Or maybe uneven suggests too much texture; I think I just found the whole film very blasé. Like Korine's, the trailer for Coppola's film has an almost equal amount of content as the feature film; but Korine's exercise in sustained tone, plotlessnes, timelessness were a part of his vision of the world, even if these qualities were carefully planted where one could read the vision as equally satiric (critiquing the lifestyle) and exultant (celebrating/partaking). Two words I don't think Coppola is anywhere near. So how would you characterize this film?
COOK: It doesn't have to be "satire" to be critiquing the lifestyle. I think it's a considerably realistic and dark look at a vapid existence and I think its stance is apparent. I do think it suffers from the lack of commitment you speak of but it does have an intelligent understanding of the moral universe of its characters. The way they feel entitled and don't have any guilt for their actions; the way we see Nicolette's mom (Leslie Mann) spiritually coach her family with philosophical trash derived from "The Secret" is instructive in showing us how these people view and approach life and see their roles within it.
KASMAN: I'm curious about how you see the film's imagemaking. I don't mean its photography (the last film, to my knowledge, shot by Harris Savides), but rather how it forms and judges images. This isn't a portrait of outsiders looking in at a different world. On the surface, these girls, their world, is just as attractive as that to which they aspire. (Aside from two throwaway cameos, the celebrity world is nothing but empty houses, unworn clothing and unused jewelry.) These seem to be rich kids, so the aspiration isn't one of class or even wealth, and while the desire for fame or fame by proximity to celebrity is there, I was mainly fascinated by the sense of a mirror facing a mirror, a thing consuming an image of itself to sustain that image. These girls look and behave no different after their criminal forays. The movie transmutes consumption of images and material into an illegal absorption, as well as a complete co-mingling of personal lives and public persona.
COOK: Right. When you’re that close to celebrity anyways, why not invade that space? The key is under the mat. You can walk right in and occupy these empty homes and the hollow spaces between living and dreaming. Unworn clothing, unused jewelry and unlived lives: just the sustainment, as you say, of an image. Perhaps even worse than a mirror facing a mirror it’s much like one of the rooms in Paris Hilton’s (actual) house we see in the film adorned with mirrors on all sides, a completely insular existence. The world beyond this immediate image-making/consuming is out of sight and out mind. In the club—where much of Coppola’s sharpest material is—we see as these characters obsessively snap photos of themselves and upload them to Facebook. It’s not about fun or chasing a high (Spring Breakers) but being seen as part of the world they admire and interacting with it, being separate from real life, the tragedy being that the world they think they want to be a part of doesn’t really exist: it’s a collectively (and culturally) constructed work of fiction, a pop culture melodrama.