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Stephanie Zacharek and David Fear Discuss Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Bling Ring’

Stephanie Zacharek and David Fear Discuss Sofia Coppola's 'The Bling Ring'

Welcome to Critical Consensus, a bi-weekly column in which two critics from our Criticwire Network discuss a new release with Indiewire critic Eric Kohn. This week, Time Out New York’s David Fear trades e-mails with The Village Voice’s Stephanie Zacharek about “The Bling Ring,” which opens tomorrow.

First off, Stephanie: Sofia Coppola tends to divide critics, but your reactions to her films provide an interesting starting point, since you’ve been kind to all of them except “The Bling Ring.” At Cannes, you wrote that the movie was “the first of her pictures I actively disliked,” attributing much of your disappointment to the characters’ lack of likability. Yet of all the alienating young people populating the director’s oeuvre, couldn’t you make the case that the kids at the focus of “Bling Ring” are the most innocent, naive of the bunch? And doesn’t that make you pity them more? And just to go one step further: How essential is it to you that a film make its characters appealing? Of course, there are plenty of unlikable characters at the center of movies these days — at least the ones produced outside of Hollywood.

STEPHANIE ZACHAREK: Even though Sofia Coppola is one of my favorite living directors, I get very little feeling coming off The Bling Ring — although, Eric, I certainly don’t think Coppola has disdain for her characters, and I never said as much. I don’t care for the movie or for Coppola’s approach, but she’s not a filmmaker who’d take on a project if she felt disdain for the characters. (Leave that to Alexander Payne.) She has too much compassion for that. As for the idea of unlikable characters: There’s been some debate about that recently in the literary-fiction world, but I barely pay any attention to it. I’m not sure what a “likable” character is, and I never worry about it, when I’m reading or watching a movie. Some characters just tear at your heart, and yet they’re awful people — how do you get through a Thomas Hardy or D.H. Lawrence novel, for instance, without having to deal with multiple conflicting ideas of a character?

But I don’t think Coppola knows how she feels about these characters. She has a degree of visible sympathy for Marc, Israel Broussard’s character, who’s clearly pretty lost and finds a sense of identity with Katie Chang’s Rebecca and her gang. And of course she picks up on the idea that these kids are so celebrity-obsessed that they believe some of that star power will rub off if they don the actual celebrity raiments, which is inherently sad. But beyond that, I don’t think the movie is saying much, and I don’t think these characters are particularly well drawn. I certainly didn’t feel that way about “Somewhere,” or even “Marie Antoinette,” which lots of people hated because to them, it was just a movie about a spoiled princess. But I see a person there — misguided but also vulnerable. In “The Bling Ring,” I just see a lot of kids flipping though magazines and saying, “Oooo, I love that, it’s Chanel!” without really having any aesthetic sense or judgment, a sense of craftsmanship or of an object’s inherent worth. And say what you want about Marie Antoinette as Coppola saw her — she may have been materialistic, but she also sought to surround herself with beauty. Yearning for beauty is very different from feeling that you simply must have those Christian Louboutins with the big platform in front. Which are just butt-ugly, by the way.

Part of why I feel nothing for “The Bling Ring” is that I get no aesthetic pleasure from it. I don’t like looking at that ugly stuff, those glitzy necklaces, those designer garments that just look sort of limp and tacky. This isn’t me being an anti-materialist Marxist. Heaven forfend! Clothes, shoes, jewelry — I love it all, in the movies and in real life. But I don’t understand, and don’t connect with, the desire those kids feel for that awful-looking stuff. Much worse than that is that I feel Coppola is, uncharacteristically, anesthetized and distanced from her characters. I just read an interview with her somewhere where she said that she didn’t want to pass judgment on the characters — that she wanted the audience to decide for themselves how they feel about these kids. And that’s the worst thing an artist can do, particularly one like Coppola, who has such delicate, tensile gifts as a filmmaker. This isn’t journalism, and even if it were, a skillful writer would clue us in to her point of view. Then again, I don’t think Coppola is satirizing these kids, either — I’ve been reading some reviews praising her for that, or saying that at last she’s apologizing for having had a rich-kid upbringing, which seems very weird to me. I do think she’s making fun of these kids, but in a very gentle way. In that sense — the gentleness of approach — this is a Sofia Coppola movie. Just not the one I wanted to see.

David, how would you say “Bling Ring” compares to Coppola’s previous film, “Somewhere,” which you derided for its “boo-hoo fixation on the aimless and privileged”? One could argue that the new movie, rather than falling into the same trap, is actually a commentary on that very same fixation. What say you?

DAVID FEAR: My problem with “Somewhere” isn’t that it’s fixated on the lifestyle its Chateau Marmont-dwelling hero leads so much as the way it keeps beating you over the head with how empty said lifestyle is; all that money and those Ferraris and so much V.I.P. treatment…they won’t buy you happiness, people! I don’t doubt that Coppola, having grown up watching her dad negotiate the ins and outs of show business and having beaucoup creative-type celebrity friends, has insight on the perils and tolls of such high-altitude Hell-Ay living. I just find its mode of attack, or exploration, graceless and obvious; remove the sublime Elle Fanning moments, and the whole thing would feel like a feature-length version of the “Lip my stocking!” scene from “Lost in Translation.”

Coppola herself declared that The Bling Ring was a natural follow-up to “Somewhere” (thematically if not tonally), saying at the Cannes press conference that the earlier film was about “wanting to achieve celebrity and what happens when you get there…[this is] the same thought on another level.” The differences between the two, however, are like the differences between those Louboutins the new film’s “Rififi”-ish rugrats covet and your typical Canal St knockoffs. “The Bling Ring” isn’t about celebrity so much as celebrity culture, and the way that these Generation TMZ Angelenos have become so wrapped up in this world that a chance to step through the looking glass—legally or otherwise—feels like a God-given right. These youth run wild aren’t poor, but they’re not brand-name rich, either, and I love how she nails their entitlement in feeling like they should be part of that world. Even better: She captures these iJuvies’ evolution from virtually rummaging through celebrity wardrobes via magazine spreads, Internet gossip sites and E! Channel C-list star-porn to actually rummaging through their houses and closets in a way that seems to eschew judgement without letting them off the hook…Stephanie, your phrase “the gentleness of approach” eloquently sums it up. Heavy-handed moments come and go, but there’s a balance here that keeps the material(ism) from slipping into tabloid fodder itself while still bringing the trashy appeal.

As for Stephanie’s response…you really got no aesthetic pleasure out of this? I’m not talking about basking in the glamor of the goods the way you would with something like The Scarlet Empress, in which Von Sternberg and Dietrich let you feel every fabric and fur Dietrich discards. (The bling may be designer, but it’s not about it looking good; it’s about taking a piece of celebrity aenima.) I’m talking about the filmmaking: The feral silhouette shot of the kids scampering across the L.A. skyline? That amazing shot of Rebecca and Marc running through that modernist mansion, the sound of coyote howls and cop sirens mingling on the sound track? That slo-mo shot of a young woman walking into school—just in case you somehow forgot you are watching a Sofia Coppola movie? None of that did anything for you?

Next: A few concessions, and more debate about “Somewhere.”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 say…so 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:
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 listed…as 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.

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?

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.

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.

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