Alongside the angel-soft nocturnal suburban warmth, dogs barking and cars passing in the sleepy distance as a breeze swims through the leaves, we return to the scene of the crime. A cluster of youths jump a fence and briskly walk up a driveway, a handheld camera following closely. They trace along the luxurious house’s transparent walls and find an unlocked sliding door. “Let’s go shopping,” one of the girls says, and we’re catapulted into a glossy, candy-soaked montage of jewelry, shoes, handbags, clothes, Facebook posts, and red carpet glamor. These images playing off each other coalesce into a single greasy – and expensive – ball of undifferentiated avatars showcasing the mindset of the thieves/shoppers. Transgressing physical boundaries without much conscience, their exploits curled into the same stuff of the icons from whom they steal and simulate, there’s zero notion of a separation from their ocular intake and experience and the outside world. Their sensate is all sensate. But note – as they exit the same residence, the angle is different: a black and white surveillance camera’s perspective over the same fence as they exit.
Sofia Coppola's "The Bling Ring"
This opening bookend in Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, based on the real-life exploits of some good-looking and fashionable teens who stole from celebrities, of diagetic and surveillance camera perspectives, tells me what the key flaw is with the group – if not the audience. I don’t want to reduce it all to wide contagion of selfie narcissism in social media, but the hyperreal element of endlessly programmed shared images points to something specific about the film’s setting, when Kardashian Reality Television was hitting its stride and the Yahoo.com “movies” page began to have little to do with the content of motion pictures so much as the controversial biographies about the faces populating them. For these teens, entertainment has less to do with a creative product than the “drama” in the celebrity’s life. Is Rachel Bilson still dating Hayden Christensen? Meanwhile, “Lindsay Lohan” no longer has anything to do with Mean Girls, and has everything to do with a DUI or a court appearance, and Paris Hilton is famous for simply being famous, as if fame was a hotel full of rooms without an origin or architectural purpose, just replications with an indiscernible square root. Angelina Jolie is not admirable for her performances or humanitarian work, but for her hot bod and her husband. Real life drama still plays out as entertainment, the projection transference between viewer and subject accelerating to ground zero imminence in the blur of illusion and reality. Assuming the viewer has a plethora of tools ensuring access – to cars, clothes, clubs, parties – of what use are boundaries? Of what use is fiction and the creative construction of artifice? In The Bling Ring we notice the mother (Leslie Mann) of bling ringers Nicki (Emma Watson) and Emily (Georgia Rock) pushes the New Age religion of The Secret, quite in vogue in 2008 to 2009 which, to simplify, assumes that which you imagine is yours to have and fulfill.
The Bling Ring is thoroughly engrossing, beautiful, and disgusting in all the ways it should be. But much of the recent criticism associated with The Bling Ring, regardless of any actual debits the film may exhibit, cannot resist bringing up its celebrity director of privilege, Coppola, who again is wading with her detached camera-eye in the waters of the well-off and well-dressed – as she did in The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, and Somewhere.Perhaps the catalyst for the criticism has less to do with the fact that these characters are usually so wealthy as they are also bored and listless, granted leisure and gaudiness but roaming around in search of fascination, like vampires looking for blood. It may be the same old story, but just as Coppola (usually) affords a fair share of sympathy to her lost and optically wandering protagonists, she’s also found ways to implicate us, bedazzled viewers logging in and reading TMZ headlines next to world affairs – or probably instead of world affairs.
"Dad?": Coppola's association with the confusion of Art and Life began with her performance in her father's "The Godfather Part III" (1990)
In The Bling Ring‘s speculation of confusing star reality for our reality and theatrical drama for tabloid “drama,” there’s the shadow of Coppola’s biography, just as there was with Marie Antoinette. Like the Austrian princess and free spirit who’s given the heavy responsibility of leaving life as she knew it for the clockwork mechanisms of French royalty, 17-year-old Coppola, a non-actress, had to play Mary Corleone in The Godfather Part III when Winona Ryder dropped out due to exhaustion. And like with the world of The Bling Ring, Mary Corleone’s death with the last word, “Dad?”, was belittled by the culture as having nothing to do with the Corleone tragedy (and I contend that that word, that death, and that which follows is an utterly affecting moment in father Francis Ford’s flawed but compelling drama), and everything to do with the Valley Girl-accented and un-movie star-looking Sofia Coppola. Both Mary Corleone and Sofia Coppola paid for their respective fathers’ sins.
Her experiences as a controversial entertainment news story have made her keenly aware of how people ingest images through the interpretation of pop culture. As a filmmaker, Coppola always points out how there’s something ridiculous about how we look. Her skewering of royal custom in Marie Antoinette, commercial shooting in Lost in Translation, or celebrity interviews in Somewhere has a lot to say about how viewers and the viewers’ midwife, the media, approach art. Her idiosyncratic sensibility has led to some banal and unexamined criticism. Of Marie Antoinette, the long-respected Anthony Lane (The New Yorker) wrote, “There are hilarious attempts at landscape, but the fountains and parterres of Versailles are grabbed by the camera and pasted into the action, as if the whole thing were being shot on a cell phone and sent to friends.” Were we to expect the youthful Coppola to make another stiff costume drama with a stately Rachel Portman score? The truth is we would not be localized in any kind of “actual history” so much as comfortably zoned in what our idea of a 18th century costume drama has been for us throughout the decades.
As the Bling Ring, led by Rebecca (Katie Chang) and comprising Nicki, Sam (Taissa Farmiga), Chloe (Claire Julien), and Marc (Israel Broussard), checks the Internet to see if their celebrity targets are out of town, there’s now a sense that the film is presenting Orlando Bloom and Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan as victims, as meanwhile these teenagers are transgressing boundaries and luxuriating in the world of MTV’s ‘Cribs. They rummage through closets the size of studio apartments and say over and over “Oh my gawwwwwd” and “cuuuuute,” swinging on stripper poles, nabbing rolls of cash and stashed cocaine. They take iPhone pictures of the fun, post their experiences on Facebook, and brag about the exploits at parties. There’s a critical temptation to dismiss the hijinks and dialogue, much of which is taken directly from recorded transcripts, as, if not an endorsement, a passive retelling of events with characters who are terminally undeveloped.
And yes, they are undeveloped. But that’s not a flaw of the film. These are undeveloped people. An audience member at a screening I attended was vocal about how “awful” the film was, being about “awful people who do awful things,” and that’s it. I suppose one could point him in the direction of Goodfellas, to which The Bling Ring alludes with its courtroom finale involving one of the group “ratting” on the others, and just as there isn’t necessarily a clear “judgment” laid on the Bling Ringers, who aren’t so remorseful of their actions, so it is with Goodfellas’ Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), complaining about the “egg noodles and ketchup” in a Witness Protection Program that keeps him anonymous but alive. As underdeveloped people, these characters in The Bling Ring round out their personalities by what they intake through media. In home invasions, they simulate other lives, and whatever they present anywhere is rich artifice, a sexy representation of something disparate from a root meaning or purpose, much like the Buddha decorating the wall of one of their first victims: the Buddha is there because it’s a handsome ornament, not because the inhabitants are Buddhist.
And of course, it doesn’t look like ‘Cribs either, but the cultural signifier of that MTV show is far reaching enough so that when the Bling Ringers go through Paris Hilton’s impossibly garish house, with Hilton aggrandizing herself with self-showing posters and pillows displaying her face (she’s her own Buddha), the association becomes an easy dismissal, so ironic because I think that The Bling Ring is, as Coppola’s least passive film, angrily revealing the ugliness of the‘Cribs universe (or the TMZ universe, the Perez Hilton universe, the tabloid universe, the Huffington Post side-boob universe, etc), in addition to the kind of flashy and pop-culture influenced reviews the film has received. Though I don’t see Coppola as a political filmmaker, she is acutely cognizant of the bubble in which she was born and raised — privileged but, lest we forget, often teetering on the precipice of ruin with her father’s multiple chapters of bankruptcy during her formative years (financial toil extending from Apocalypse Now‘s production in the late ’70s to the great success of Dracula in 1992 and the burgeoning Coppola wine business). I can’t say with certainty if the criticism directed at Coppola is because she’s a woman, but I wonder if Luchino Visconti, a card-carrying communist who had an aristocratic lineage, face similar derision with his post-neorealist films following decadent extravagance like The Leopard, The Damned, Death in Venice, and Ludwig? With her cinematographers Lance Acord, Savides (the ace shooter who died during The Bling Ring‘s production), and now Christopher Blauvelt, Coppola’s body of work displays the wonder of eyes searching beyond a fortunate window. Extravagance and privilege always seem to close individuals off into hermetical bubbles. But Coppola’s heroes can’t help but look out at what’s out there.
Coppola's signature image: Scarlett Johansson window gazing in "Lost in Translation"
Maybe this is what really differentiates The Bling Ring from the rest of her body of work: we see the motif of characters gazing with fascination out of car (or carriage) windows in Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, and Somewhere. It’s a perspective that’s beautiful, sad, and seems so much more consummately aware than other films. But The Bling Ring,with its several car scenes, keeps its youthful subjects unconscious of that outer world – just as they’re unaware of the surveillance cameras that capture their exploits. Fleeing a “shopping spree” at Paris Hilton’s, they gab and rap along with the car’s sound system oblivious to the oncoming traffic. If you think a drunken collision with another car would make them more aware, you’d be wrong.
Kirsten Dunst looking out in "Marie Antoinette"
Of the group, only Marc has a sense of reflection, beginning with a dissatisfied moment in front of a mirror before school, and concluding with Coppola’s signature shot of window gazing, as Marc stares outside a bus window, prison-bound to serve a four-year sentence. A reject because of his appearance – despite having a rich knowledge of fashion – Marc is targeted as prey by the predatory Rebecca. She’s the only person who talks to him, but it’s implied she’s doing so for her own benefit; if he’s not attracted to her, he at least becomes the foundation of her own Hollywood entourage.
Like Henry Hill in Goodfellas, Marc is hooked by the flashy club world and privilege he sees, even if he’s held apart from it by virtue of his self-consciousness (along with how this film’s characterizations of Rebecca and Nicki are more fitting for Daisy Buchanan, it’s an aspect of The Bling Ring that indicates how much better suited for The Great GatsbyCoppola would have been than Baz Luhrmann). The Bling Ring has some immersive dance club moments of electric light-washed ecstasy, the glances between the characters having a flirty and alluring sexual energy, promising satisfaction without wholly giving it. Marc is portrayed as asexual, and again like Henry Hill, his love and adoration isn’t directed to another person but to a way of life (he mentions how he wants his own “lifestyle brand”). The dynamism and charge is a glitzy but rootless energy, a narcotic. In the club, the characters are bathing in the music but also removed from the lyrics, the artist, the meaning, their dialogue stumbling through fuzz they’ve appropriated for dancefloor postures. But at last Marc has found a tribe, even if we observe how there’s not much intimacy through this ring. The group is physically close but psychologically disconnected, concerned how only they look to the others in the group. The Bling Ring is about a beautiful world with beautiful people, but they’re so contemptuous (a close friend is derided as “grimy”) that what we see becomes repulsive.
The Hollywood Coppola visually presents is spectral, often videographed at night. This is Coppola’s first digital film, and the way she sometimes films large houses from a distance as the Bling Ring goes from room to room — moving in ever-so-slowly with Gordon Willis-like patience – can’t help but remind me of the nocturnal urban landscapes in Michael Mann’s Heat and Collateral, two Los Angeles crime stories featuring sociopaths without any respect for the space of other people. In the former film, thief Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) justifies bank robbery because they’re insured by the federal government, but he just as casually colonizes a young bookseller and artist (Amy Brennenman) under false pretenses, telling her, while in her apartment, “If you want to go, there’s the door.” There’s a similar dynamic to how Rebecca adopts Marc, who is a piece of esteemed and convenient property for her. She almost does the same with Paris Hilton’s dog. “You can’t take the dog,” Marc says. “But he likes me!” she replies. “And we could probably get at least $500 for it!”
"Everything with you is seeing, isn't it?" Serial killer Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan) fixates on images of his victims in Michael Mann's masterful "Manhunter" (1986)
It was when I was thinking how Coppola seemed to be channeling Mann’s oceans of night light, following Rebecca and company in a car after swiftly evading capture, that I heard a familiar piece of music on the soundtrack, the ambient piece “Freeze” by Klaus Schulze, incidentally featured in Mann’s wonderful 1986 serial killer film, Manhunter. Though I’m not certain of an intertextual key for further digging into Coppola’s film, the allusion is very applicable here. Manhunter‘s killer is Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan), a lonely man with a troubled past of abuse whose loud outfits and home decorating suggest overcompensating for a bruised ego’s deficiencies. “Everything with you is seeing isn’t it,” investigator Will Graham (William Petersen) says of Dollarhyde, who indeed works at a photo lab and spends long periods of time fixating on the home movies he develops, featuring families – based on their selective attributes – he will fantasize about, stalk, and slaughter. Muted and insecure with his cleft-lip appearance, Dollarhyde’s need for expression (through “This Big Hush,” recalling one of the songs of the film’s memorable soundtrack) is fulfilled through his bloody rampages. As the home invader of the well-adjusted and happy nuclear families he brutally destroys, he imagines himself as one who is loved, wanted, and desired, placing mirror shards in the eyes of his dead victims.
Dollarhyde’s obsession is a filmmaker’s obsession, and Michael Mann’s borderline vulgar sense of style in Manhunterperfectly suits the subject. Dollarhyde will make the world see him as he wants to be seen, with him finally being accepted into the homes into which he spies. “Do you see?” he repeatedly asks an unfortunate reporter (Stephen Lang) while showing some slides of his victims and obsessions, also demanding the reporter look upon him (“If you don’t open your eyes I’ll staple them to your forehead.”) When Dollarhyde’s fantasy collapses with an FBI and SWAT raid, so does the film. The killer’s panic translates into jump-cuts, alternating film speeds, and unmatched assemblage and continuity. The song in Dollarhyde’s 8-track (Iron Butterfly) becomes the non-diagetic score of the film’s climax, the static of a television in the background visually decorating the environment. There’s no difference between Reality and TV for Dollarhyde. His murders are compulsive rituals, wherein, according to Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox), he’s deluded himself into believing that if he “becomes” a part of one of these families enough times, he too will be accepted, loved, desired, wanted — at home. Dollarhyde’s delusion is perversely syncretic with The Secret: believe it and you will be it.
"Do you see?" Dollarhyde shows a reporter (Stephen Lang) his world in "Manhunter"
Dollarhyde’s inability to separate his life from the images he fetishizes (no difference between his eye and a camera eye) is congruous to the Bling Ringers, making Coppola’s odd selection of Schulze’s music a perfect intertextual tool, as filmgoers familiar with its usage (it occurs in Manhunter when we first meet the insane Dr. Lecktor) may associate it with psychopathology. Rebecca, her idol Lindsay Lohan on her wall (indeed a far cry from Antoine Doinel’s adoration of Balzac in The 400 Blows), wants to become Lindsay. When she is finally in Lohan’s house, the application of her idol’s fragrance is a moment of cherished erotic fulfillment. The Bling Ringers aren’t malevolent thieves – like Neil McCauley they rationalize their thievery – but they show off characteristics of inflated self-importance and insanity that curves along a dangerous road. During one home invasion, Taissa Farmiga’s Sam finds a loaded gun and plays around with it, greatly disturbing Marc, who seems like the only person in the room who understands the ramifications of a bullet in open space. She teases him with it by pointing it at him point blank, then backing away and alleging that he’s assaulting her when he tries to stop her. Then she points it at him again.
It’s a terrific moment, brilliantly orchestrated by Coppola and the actors, conveying a thrilling uneasiness unlike anything the filmmaker has ever done. The exchange climaxes later when Sam, gun in hand, crawls into the bed of an anonymous boyfriend. He wakes up, grabs it, and the gun goes off. Instead of panic, it becomes the wordless prelude to sex, and is executed like the kind of fantastical stuff we’d see in a wholly different movie, like an erotic thriller: perhaps the movie playing in Sam’s head. There is no “Sam” (she has been adopted by Nicki’s family and sleeps in Nicki’s bed; she’s a rootless cipher), but she plays an assembly of contrastive roles: gangster, victim, dangerous seductress, and submissive woman. The viewer is like Sam, bringing constructed expectations and tropes of narrative with her. As mentioned above, Coppola confused some viewers with her unexpected approach to the 18th century inMarie Antoinette (and Michael Mann certainly had the same problem when he stepped out of the typical visual paradigm for a 1930s crime film with his stellar digital approach with Public Enemies). Our visual intake through the years have programmed how we relate to life – and to films – in both form and content.
Even though we’re welcome to ridicule the Bling Ringers with all of their delusions of grandeur, I don’t think Coppola’s angle is to suggest either our superiority or certainly the innocence of her victims. Though Paris Hilton cameos in the picture and gave Coppola license to shoot in her house, I think it’s Hilton’s own cooperation with the production that defines the degree of self-obsessed insanity which is The Bling Ring‘s subject. With Hilton’s face on her pillows and framed portraits of herself on the walls (asking “Can You Afford Me?”), along with pornographic pictures of herself laying around, it’s Hilton’s unapologetic sense of self that is more strikingly offensive than anything else. What’s insulting is that Lindsay Lohan (a criminal who is ever so quick to turn in her surveillance tapes) barely serves any time in jail, despite repeat offenses, while Marc is loaded onto a prison truck.
So The Bling Ring is Coppola’s angriest film, and it infuriated me. Whether in fame or anonymity, the sense of entitlement and privilege held by all the characters, whether victim or home invader, is maddening by the bare and unmentioned (and so more powerfully felt) fact that all of this is happening during a terrible recession: the first robberies occurred just after the economic collapse in the fall of 2008. And amidst economic amorality, the viewers, in the Hollywood Hills or in low income housing, capture relief and entertainment by seeking out not admirable qualities in public figures but train wrecks. It’s not surprising that Nicki Moore, giving an interview for Vanity Fair, is using her “learning lesson” as an “old soul” to underlie her pursuit of a Business degree, an area of study that will enable her to “become a leader who will take a stand for people.” Actually, given the context of the times, it’s suggested that should she finish that degree, she may go far. The Humanities have nothing to offer, certainly economically.
In Coppola’s last film, Somewhere, the lethargic movie star Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is something like a vampire (a couple vampire references are littered in the picture), undead and feeding on whatever comes his way at the storied Chateau Marmont, his admittance “I am nothing” much like the tender confession of Count Dracula (Gary Oldman) to his love (Winona Ryder) in the film made by Sofia Coppola’s father. The elder Coppola mentioned how the vampire’s renunciation of God, the “Creation,” was akin to renouncing “the creative spirit,” and to lose that is to become walking dead. For Sofia Coppola, the La Dolce Vita emptiness in the dance between celebrity and viewer, rich and poor (or less rich), the seen and seer, is a kind of rampant home invasion through a televisual prism sapping the creative spirit on both ends. In The Bling Ring, Marc begins his adventure by looking in the mirror and recognizing himself. At the end of his journey he seems to recover the sense of self that was lost. He is looking out through a window, beyond the confines of himself. Creativity is born-again through looking, and not disappearing into the vapidity of rootless representation: the “lifestyle brands” of other people. To dismiss Sofia Coppola’s perceptiveness is folly, when she holds up a reflective glass to us and invites the possibility of nobody being there – and then reminds us to look andsee once more.