Bling times at Indian Hills High
It’s happened again. The brilliant filmmaking machine that is Coppola has come out with a visually-stunning, zeitgeist-defining movie.
I’m talking about Sofia Coppola.
She’s my favorite Coppola. While her father has made some terrific movies, she has said more about our stars and our selves with a handful of really small, really personal pictures that are closer to very smart short stories than the epic, sprawling works of Francis Ford.
She does it on a fraction of his typical budgets. And while his films give me a grand sweep that sometimes loses the narrative thread in its over-ambition, hers are personal snapshots of a moment, a time, a feeling.
I was struck by this after seeing her latest, The Bling Ring, about a group of disconnected SoCal teens who attend Indian Hills High, an alternative institution for those who got kicked out of mainstream schools. This group—mostly gals, one guy—likes to break into celebrity homes when the owners (Paris Hilton, Audrina Patridge, Lindsay Lohan) are away, which seems to be more often than they are home. They steal clothes and jewelry and handbags—truly gaudy stuff—but the stars have so much of it that they don’t seem to notice at first. (And the quantity of clothes in this film is truly frightening. Paris Hilton could change outfits three times a day for the rest of her life and not wear everything we see in this film, and the scenes involving her were actually filmed in her home using her clothes.)
But the real thrill comes from being in the homes of the rich and famous and seeing their lifestyles up close. But as with all Sofia Coppola films, this movie ceases to be plot-driven and becomes both a character display (“study” seems like too strong a word) and even more, a depiction of modern LA morality, such as there is.
Sure we’ve heard most of this stuff before if we’ve watched TMZ. But what I love about this film is the way Ms. Coppola feels confident enough not to manipulate the audience to a reaction she desires. (See Five Ways to Know You’re Watching A Steven Spielberg Movie.) That takes guts. This is also where a lot of critics have come to ding The Bling Ring. The movie scores a miserable 57% approval on Rotten Tomatoes. You have to travel far to find a theater that’s showing it.
The complaints are the same over and over, and they are the same complaints that dogged her last film, Somewhere: the filmmaker doesn’t make a point about what she films. There is no summation at the end, no one at the tiller. It’s almost as if they expect Stan from South Park to appear and utter his soliloquy that always starts, “I learned something today.” Even Stephanie Zacharek of the Village Voice, who can be counted on as a solid Sofia fan, says this film left her cold.
I’m at a loss as to why. Unless we watched different cuts of the movie, we do get a sense of closure and a “statement” from the auteur. (Actually I’d argue with Ms. Zacharek that there’s more closure and “point” here than in Marie Antoinette or Lost in Translation, both of which she loved.) It’s just that we don’t get a statement outlined in crisp magic marker. Everyone will take away something different. I’m sure some in the Valley will even feel the bling ring did nothing wrong at all, except perhaps get so cocky they eventually were caught. (Another critic, David Fear, perceptively states, “”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.” Yet he didn’t like The Bling Ring either.)
The reactions of the characters are interesting, and range from genuine introspection over what they did to annoyance the legal system has interrupted their bling game to joy at being caught and thrust into the spotlight, so that now they”ll become as famous as the celebs they stole from, who themselves are only famous for the trouble they get into, not from any real accomplishment. People who elbowed their way onto the world stage through misdeeds or pure narcissism are burgled in this film, the people who did the robbing now basking in the same spotlight as their victims. And they seem very happy about it. The final takeaway for me was that people paying attention to us is what matters today. The why is irrelevant, even naive to contemplate. We’ve simply jumped over the step that’s most difficult, because, in case you haven’t noticed, in this day and age, we deal with the real challenges in life by ignoring them in favor of invented challenges we can be sure(r) of winning.
It seems to me that many critics (American in particular) desire the author to come down and make a statement before they pack up and fade out, and that if they do not do this they have somehow failed. A Robert Altman would be a mystery to today’s film-goers. Actually, the faux morality in The Bling Ring (we have a suburban mommy home-schooling her three daughters to lesson plans based on the book The Secret, and who begins each morning with a group prayer with her little angels) reminded me a lot of the ending of Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, which for me is easily one of the greatest films of the 1970s. Bad men come to murder a naive but otherwise upright character played by Warren Beatty. Rather than help him, the amoral villagers are concerned that the symbol of their piety, the local church, has caught fire. As Beatty’s character, McCabe, lay dying, crimson blood staining the white snow, the others are praising Jesus and themselves because they are making progress against the flames.
The Bling Ring isn’t perfect. It could have had a little more depth. An interesting subplot with a stolen gun goes nowhere. There are too many parties and we spend too much time in Paris Hilton’s house, probably because she allowed Ms. Coppola to do just that. (She even makes a brief cameo.) Coppola has a habit of repeating rather than developing, and when the ring has penetrated it’s sixth or seventh house it starts to feel repetitious. I think the parents and the plain, every day lives of these kids could have gotten a little more coverage: we don’t even see the houses of some of the kids until the police come to haul them to jail. Sometimes Coppola focuses her lens a little too tightly. These flaws exist in all her movies.
But Coppola more than most filmmakers understands that artists observe and present. They ask questions. Give me Sofia Coppola, flaws and everything, over the next all-too-neat packaged Hollywood experience any time.
One final thought, to bring it back to my novel. Just like the celebrities in The Bling Ring, Welsey Shaw is fabulously famous and glamorized and sought-after by fans and paparazzi. Yet all of the celebrities in this movie are reality stars or have in some way self-generated their notoriety. I search for an accomplished artist in real life who’s as big as Welsey is in my book—in vain. We are more cautious towards real talent than we are to the self-promoters, perhaps because we are no longer sure who to pay attention to unless they tell us.
That says something too.