Sunday, June 12, 2011
When he's not making snide remarks about the hit TV musical Glee (I believe he said it made him feel like he'd "just stepped into a puddle of HIV"), cult author Bret Easton Ellis usually tweets in a totally civilized manner about his current pop-culture preferences. Last January, he tweeted: "Long talk with angry, successful screenwriter yesterday about our admiration for 'Somewhere' and how its images have haunted us for weeks..."
I share Ellis' enthusiasm for the haunting imagery in Somewhere, the latest film written and directed by Sofia Coppola. Like Ellis, Coppola is often accused of making shallow art about spoiled rich people, and Somewhere won't change anybody's mind. The picture is best appreciated as a purely aesthetic experience; if you approach it any other way, it's bound to try your patience.
Stephen Dorff, an actor I've always admired because he was in two early-'90s movies I grew up loving (Judgment Night and Backbeat), plays Johnny Marco, a movie star whose personal life suffers as his professional life flourishes. His tween daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), is left in his custody for the weekend, and the two of them spend the movie hanging out in five-star hotels. At one point, they fly halfway around the world to attend a glitzy awards show, and their suite actually has a swimming pool in it, like Francis' bathtub in Pee-wee's Big Adventure.
I can certainly see where critics are coming from when they say Coppola seems a little, uh, out of touch. In a particularly nasty review of her 2006 film, Marie Antoinette (a delicious piece of eye candy that I find slightly alienating), the reviewer refers to her as "arguably the most successful living member of the Lucky Sperm Club." (Her dad is legendary movie director Francis Ford Coppola). And, because I love snarky reviews, let me quote some more: "Without daddy’s money backing up her efforts, Coppola’s emaciated screenplay would still be moldering on her hard drive as the author worked the 10-4 shift at the Starbucks on Figueroa." Fun to read, but not exactly true. It's easy to question Coppola's abilities as a screenwriter, but harder to dismiss her talent as an image maker. And so what if her films are about the rich and the famous? If you want stories about the working class, check out Mike Leigh or Ken Loach.
The relatively brief plot description I've included here doesn't skimp on the details. Nothing much *happens* in Somewhere; the opening shot of a Ferrari circling endlessly around a barren stretch of road should be taken as a warning to some viewers to stay away. The movie fits nicely into an ongoing debate in certain cinephile circles – sparked by a recent NY Times Magazine piece by Dan Kois, who's been criticized by Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott and Glenn Kenny – about "slow cinema". Somewhere is like Coppola's homage to the anti-narrative indies of Jim Jarmusch and Gus Van Sant. I don't find her film as maddening as Jarmusch's The Limits of Control, nor do I find it as compelling as Van Sant's Death Trilogy. (Nothing as dramatic as dying happens in Somewhere.) Overall, I was grateful that the film offered me, in the words of Dargis, the opportunity to "meditate, trance out, bliss out, luxuriate in your thoughts, think."
As for the image that haunted me the most, it would have to be an extended shot of Johnny in a makeup chair. He's being prepped to play an elderly version of himself for his next project, and we see him as a totally blank slate, his face an eerie reflection of the emptiness he feels inside. That moment is not merely the product of "lucky sperm"; it shows an artist honing her craft. Coppola's talent is evident in everything from her casting choices (Dorff and Fanning are wonderful together) to her soundtrack selections, which never fail to amaze me. I've included a few samples below: a dreamy track by the Strokes and the opening-titles song by Phoenix (Coppola is engaged to frontman Tom Mars, whose band provides most of the music in Somewhere).