The Bling Ring

SZ: OK, I shouldn't have said that I derived no aesthetic pleasure from The Bling Ring -- that would be impossible, given that it's a Sofia Coppola movie. Her visual sense is like no other director's, although part of that is, of course, attributable to her longtime cinematographer, the amazing Harris Savides, who shot part of "The Bling Ring." It will be interesting to see how, or how much, her own style changes now that he's gone. Anyway, yes, I did love that nighttime shot of Rebecca and Marc creeping through that hillside mansion, strangers-in-the-night style. But I don't think this story makes the best use of Coppola's gifts. David, I understand what you're saying about "The Bling Ring"'s being about celebrity culture, not just celebrity. And how it nails these kids' sense of entitlement, their feeling they deserve these nice things and thus have no guilt about just reaching into the glass case to take them. But I still what? Identifying these traits and putting them onscreen in a believable way isn't the same as actually doing something emotionally meaningful with them. I don't want heavy-duty moralism; I'm not looking for a "These greedy, shallow children must be punished" kind of thing. But I quailed at the scene where Emma Watson spins her ill-gotten celebrity into something allegedly positive for the news media: "For all I know, I might want to run a country someday." I realize much of the movie's dialogue was taken directly from Nancy Jo Sales' account in Vanity Fair, but I think we're invited to giggle, or tsk-tsk, or somehow feel superior, to this character who is obviously vapid but also very shrewd. And I just think it's too easy. I expect more pointillist shading from Coppola and not so much black-and-white.

I also disagree with you heartily about "Somewhere," and my feelings about that movie may be the root of my disappointment with "The Bling Ring." "Somewhere" is really only tangentially about the emptiness of celebrity. (And frankly, I think it's sort of an easy interpretation, given the royalty from which Coppola comes and the way she grew up. People have really focused on her as "the daughter of..." in a way no one has done with Jason Reitman or Brandon Cronenberg or Duncan Jones: Everyone makes note of those filmmakers' notable fathers, of course, but we don't automatically read every aspect of their filmmaking as a by-product of their privilege.) What I really see in "Somewhere" is a father-daughter relationship that transcends any of that celebrity emptiness. Yesterday, noodling around on the Internet, I found this picture from that lovely sequence where Elle Fanning's Cleo and dad Stephen Dorff are horsing around in the pool, and they have that little undersea tea party:

Somewhere Screen Grab

It's so throwaway, so casual, but so wonderful. This is obviously a little routine left over from Cleo's childhood, something she's outgrown, but just for that moment, she and her dad are reliving it. It's like that nostalgia that little kids have -- they're eight years old and they're saying, "Remember when I was a little kid, I wore those pajamas with the feet in them? But I don't wear them now, because I'm big." They're looking back at where they've been, and even though they're ready to move forward, they're also -- already! -- a little wistful. The process of growing up means going forward, really fast, but it's also mixed with a little backtracking. "Somewhere" captures that so beautifully. The small things like that are what I look for in Coppola's movies. "The Bling Ring" is just wry reportage. I just can't find much depth or meaning there. But also -- I believe "Somewhere" is perfection. And I don't know how you come back from that with your very next movie. As disappointed as I am with "The Bling Ring," I still can't wait to see what Coppola does next.

DF: Ah, that underwater tea party! It's an amazing moment for all the reasons you've is the Guitar Hero scene, the sequence of her cooking dinner, the climactic helicopter goodbye (the one blatant homage to "La Dolce Vita" in a film about the emptiness of the good life). Basically, any moment that Elle Fanning is on screen—for better or worse, Coppola is a director who works wonders re: chronicling the inner lives of young women, and these moments remind us of how she's one of the few working filmmakers who can present young women in ways that feel remarkably free of gratuitous sexuality, free of sentimentality and totally true to life.

(I only say "or worse" because this talent she has for telling stories of women poised between prepubescence and PeeChee folder doodlings is often used against her in a reductive way—an excuse to claim she's so attuned to young female stories simply because she's female, while conveniently ignoring her sense of lyricism, her affinity for ambience and work with actors like Bill Murray. And let me be crystal clear here: The earlier mention of her father is in reference to seeing fame as something destructive from a second-hand perspective, not as some sort of veiled jab about nepotism. She's her own artist, period. Also, Steph, I don't think you and I were reading the same articles about Brandon Cronenberg. Every single one I perused brought up Ol' Long-Live-the-New-Flesh Pops in the most unflattering of ways.)

Your memory seems a little selective in regards to "Somewhere," however, in that Fanning is only in roughly half the movie. She's not in those vapid scenes of the press conference, or the dual poledancer scenes, or the Film-School-symbolic sequences of the plaster mask or that god-awful stroll away from the Ferrari that signifies "liberation." (Please.) Those are the moments that strike me as trite and false, and I wish more of the movie was from Fanning's point of view—the notion of seeing young seeing someone they love adrift. I'd watch those two together for hours, preferably in another movie.

In any case, I fear that I'm starting to seem as if I came here to bury "Somewhere," not to praise Le Bling. If you're not feeling the movie, SZ, I certainly sympathize: There's a lot of bad behavior on display that's presented in a manner that skirts between non-judgmental and distant to the point of chilly. And you're not the first person I'd talked to who saw the film and went "So what?" I'm with you on some of the clunkier here's-our-lede dialogue as well, even if it's totally in character; I believe that Marc's "Bonnie and Clyde" line is from Nancy Jo Sales' piece as well, but that doesn't make it any less cringe-worthy.

"The Bling Ring."
"The Bling Ring."

But I actually find the balance between what you call "dry reportage" and the more resonant interactions between "the kids" to be a great mix. I want to single out Israel Broussard here: Though I'm impressed with the performances overall (especially Claire Julien's faux-street-savvy waif and Taissa Farmiga's awkward personae-seeker), it's the way he communicates neediness and vulnerability without playing to the cheap seats that anchors the movie emotionally. It's belaboring the obvious to say that this kid clearly wants to feel like he's accepted by these SoCal bright young things and that, like the other teens around him, he can vicariously experience this Good Life he's been media-fed. Yet the fact that you feel him reaching out to Rebecca and her clique for a sense of acceptance, so much so that he slips rather easily into this mentality of treating home invasion like house parties, simply by dint of him sheepishly playing along feels moving to me. Peer pressure is a bitch. Broussard turns his giving in to it into a grace note. 

You've both alluded to an issue that's annoying on several levels but tough to ignore: How many women directors working in the United States today have achieved a level of visibility on par with Coppola's? Would we discuss her films any differently if she were male? And perhaps most crucially: What needs to happen -- in society, in the film industry, or even simply to the way we talk about movies -- to rectify the apparent lack of strong American women directors so that we can stop having this conversation once and for all?

"We don't need any more crap directors of either gender. Please!" --Stephanie Zacharek

SZ: I hate to even talk about Coppola as a "woman" director. I know people are very aware of how few of them there are, and there's the usual flap at Cannes about how few women directors are typically included. But I don't think it does anyone any good to divide filmmakers into piles of men and women. I'd like to see more women filmmakers, of course, but mostly I just want to see more good directors. We don't need any more crap directors of either gender. Please!

But I will say this about Coppola: I've been appalled over the years at some of the charges and alleged criticisms I've heard leveled against her. It's true that everyone compared Brandon Cronenberg's "Antiviral" to his father's movies, and many did so unfavorably. But "Antiviral" is similar to his father's movies, thematically and even somewhat stylistically, so those comparisons (positive or negative) aren't so unfounded. Around the time of "Lost in Translation" and "Marie Antoinette," I heard people claiming that Coppola's movies were as good as they were because Coppola's father had unofficially cut them. (To that I'd say, if Francis Ford Coppola is such a genius in the editing room, why wasn't "Tetro" a critical smash?) And of course, plenty of critics have alluded to her as a spoiled little rich girl who got where she is only because of nepotism. It was/is nasty, and no other male director with a famous father has gotten the same level of vitriol, not even Brandon Cronenberg. There's also the thing of "She can only make movies about rich people." What's wrong with movies about rich people, as long as the characters are treated as people? And I think Coppola does that. (I know you don't feel anything for Stephen Dorff's character in "Somewhere," David, but I do -- people can feel lost for lots of reasons, whether they're celebrities or not.) Moreover, I don't hear many critics saying, "Oh, 'The Leopard,' a movie about tiresome rich folk, but of course, that's all Visconti knows."

All that said, I'm really tired of mounting any defense of Coppola as a woman director. That we're at a point where any filmmaker's merits has to be weighed against his or her sex is just...depressing.

"Never mind the lack of bollocks; let's look at the art." --David Fear

DF: In an age in which glass ceilings still exist in various parts of the film industry, I certainly wouldn't want to ignore the fact that Coppola is a woman who has distinguished herself in a field dominated by males. And I'm sure that, as a woman, she brings something extra—a personal insight, a sense of longing or particular life-perspective—to her tales of young women. But I wouldn't want to fixate on it too much either, as that pays short shrift to who she is as an artist. She's a sui generis writer-director regardless of gender. She should be discussed primarily as such. I'm with Stephanie: Just give me more great filmmaker making more great films, pretty please.

So never mind the lack of bollocks; let's look at the art. I laughed out loud in that "Bling Ring" scene where Katie Chung's character Rebecca (I believe it's Rebecca in the shot) walks into high school and the film slows down to a near-crawl, letting her and her literally-too-cool-for-school clique saunter in while fizzy/fuzzy pop music plays over the soundtrack. It's such a signature Sofia Coppola shot that it can't help but elicit a yup-that's-her-behind-the-camera giggle. But it also reminded me of: a) how she's made that kind of floating-through-air, shoegazy-stroll moment her own; b) how she has such a knack for capturing that sensation of being a teenager and how everything seems so incredibly sensual and present; c) how she has an impeccable ear for interesting music and using it to great effect (whether its those Kevin Shields or Air-commissioned scores or Gang of Four's "Natural's Not in It" in "Marie Antioinette"); and d) how her sense of visual lyricism informs the emotional aspects of her movies even when her films come close to courting a Jeanne Dielmann-style chilliness. (I'm not sure how the passing of her longtime collaborator Harris Savides will affect her visual style, but I do know she's got a strong enough sensibility that it will come through regardless of who's lighting the shots and adjusting the lenses.)

You can see aspects of this in all of her films, even the ones I like less than others (see again: the underwater tea party). And as flawed as "The Bling Ring" is in places, I find myself running over specific scenes and the emotions it dredged up in me weeks after having seen it. I'll see it once more, at least. And like the rest of Coppola's work, I'll imagine I'll keep going back to it as time goes by.