12.23.10

Sofia Coppola's Somewhere: Boring Rich People in Hotels

After seeing Somewhere, Coppola’s third film in a row about the idle, angst-ridden rich, Richard Rushfield is repelled by her characters’ limited, boring worldview.

In 2003, Sofia Coppola, earned her place as a lioness of the independent film world when she wrote and directed, Lost in Translation, a film about an affectless young woman, fighting off boredom and ennui as she kills time hanging around a luxury hotel in Japan. The film won Ms. Coppola an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and a Best Director nomination. In 2006, she followed up Lost in Translation with Marie Antoinette, a film about an affectless young woman fighting off boredom and ennui as she kills time hanging around a gigantic palace in 18th Century France.  And now she is back with Somewhere, a film about an affectless, not-as-young-as-he-dresses actor, fighting off boredom and ennui as he kills time hanging around a luxurious hotel in Los Angeles.

There is no rule of cinema stating that the problems the wealthy face in killing time while hanging out at luxury hotels can never be the stuff of good drama. (For the purposes of this article, we will count Marie Antoinette's Versailles as a luxury hotel of its day, which to many thousands of its guests, it was. And will be again: This week, The New York Times reported that an annex on the Versailles estate will soon be a 23-room hotel.) Tolstoy, to name one artist, managed to spin a decent yarn or two around the travails of the extravagantly wealthy. The comedies of Hollywood’s Golden Age were typically set in grand hotels or on cruise liners or country estates. And in these cases, their authors (or auteurs) created works that were accessible to a broad audience largely composed of classes other than those of the ridiculously wealthy. They may have been works that were by the rich, they may have been of the rich, but they decidedly were not only for the rich. However, much love stricken Anna Karenina may have suffered, acute consciousness of the social context was never far from the surface in Tolstoy, who titled one of his most famous stories Master and Man. And while the comedies of the '30s contained a certain real-estate porn element, ultimately the point of setting the films on mammoth estates was not to set the audience ooohing and ahhing at the silver soup tureens, but to set up laughs when the tureen went flying and everyone got turtle soup all over their tuxedo fronts; the grander the staircase, the bigger the pratfall down it.

Which is not to suggest that the rich don’t have real problems. People across the social spectrum can sympathize with Anna Karenina’s woes, or rage with Scarlett O’Hara.  Nor am I suggesting that every film become a pedantic diatribe on class barriers; one Michael Moore in the world is plenty. But a film about the plight of a young, fabulously wealthy actor whose greatest problem seems to be that he has run out of ideas for how to spend his money, told without the tiniest nod, the barest glimmer that there might be, somewhere out there in the world, greater problems than this, leaves one wondering whether it is the character’s horizons that are so limited—or the director’s. 

Defenders caution that Ms. Coppola is not sharing her hero’s ennui, just portraying it. They say she is giving a sensitive account of birds trapped in gilded cages. That may well be her intent, but frankly there is little on the screen, in this or any of her films to suggest that Ms. Coppola is any more cognizant than are her heroes that there is in fact, another possible world beyond the golden bars. When the French Revolution arrives in Marie Antoinette, Coppola’s camera, frankly, seems as uninterested in it as does her young queen. In three luxury hotel films, there is nary a shot of that oldest of tropes, the servant quarters, not even a wink at the Upstairs, Downstairs dichotomy of these worlds that so bore their protagonists. Instead, in Somewhere’s most cringe-inducing scene, the one moment in any of her films when a servant actually becomes a character, a Chateau Marmont waiter is permitted to sully the frame so that he may serenade Stephen Dorff and daughter Elle Fanning, in a moment highly suggestive of a plantation minstrel show for the massa and his family.

In composing her films—and here I include her 1999 debut, The Virgin Suicides, too—Coppola mimics the style of dreamy isolation of Italian New Wave director Michelangelo Antonioni, aping their look while stripping these works of their meaning, which, for the auteur of working class roots, was heavily tinged with a sort of spiritual Marxism, decrying the emptiness of middle class materialism.  In the Coppola version, the director herself seems to share her characters'  obsession with those possessions.  More than anything else, the Coppola oeuvre is a lavish catalogue of luxury; where the accoutrements of status were depicted in an eerie, unnatural light in Antonioni, as though they were alien artifacts, the items of luxe are lovingly caressed and displayed in Coppola’s films.  Again, one may say she is merely capturing her characters'  obsessions, but if anything, the auteur far exceeds her players in being awestruck by the spell-binding power of a well-appointed suite.

Sofia Coppola has shown herself time and again to have an extraordinary natural gift at capturing small ironies and tiny comedies of human interaction; her films are rife with funny little moments of misunderstandings and awkwardness between her characters.  But while she can see the little irony, she seems completely oblivious to the big one; neither in the films nor in any interview she has ever given does Ms. Coppola give any sign of realizing that the problem of being bored in a luxury hotel is not, perhaps, an insoluble problem. In Lost In Translation, the heroine, an alleged philosophy student takes two brief trips into the city, Tokyo, takes all of two brief outings—one befuddled, the other drunken—into the foreign land she finds herself trapped in before it’s back to lying on her bed sheets wondering whatever she might do with herself, her philosophy texts apparently lost in transit.  Stephen Dorff in Somewhere makes stabs at playing Guitar Hero, going for drives, and having sex with every under 25-year-old woman on Earth, but when those options run out, he and his filmmaker can think of nothing else but that he stare off the balcony into the void and contemplating…thoughts so big we dare not speak their name lest they evaporate at the first contact with mortal air.

My fourth grade teacher used to tell us when we complained that “only boring people get bored.”  Ms. Coppola tries to convince us that if waters are still, they must run deep.  At least if they are clad in Rodarte.     
 

Which brings us to the even more worrisome phenomenon that Ms. Coppola’s films represent. She is nominated for Independent Spirit awards, celebrated in non-supermarket magazines like Interview and Black Book.  She has been married to one other indie directing icon and currently is wed to a French rock star.  At the dawn of independent film, growing out of avant-garde culture, the movies reveled in their outsider status, portraying edgy misfits living on the cusps of society, in films like Stranger Than Paradise. Somewhere along the way, however, America’s self-styled outsider arts, the “indie” movement in all its manifestations across film, music and fashion, not only made their peace with the capitalist hierarchy, but began to celebrate it.  Across culture, the “indie” world filed for emancipation from its downtrodden, protest-heavy forbears, and became something cloying, cutesy and simpering.  Once upon a time, the sight of a man walking across the screen of an independent film in a $500 silk shirt was immediate shorthand for the presence of evil.  One might as well have cued the Darth Vader theme music when such a figure appeared, walking on, in all likelihood, to lay off the film’s hero from his dead end job, provoking his journey of self-discovery.  Now the man in the $500 shirt is likely to be the film’s hero, and if anything we are meant to feel sympathy for the emptiness all that glitters brings. 

Neither in the films nor in any interview she has ever given does Ms. Coppola give any sign of realizing that the problem of being bored in a luxury hotel is not, perhaps, an insoluble problem.

And the thought that so many young people today so relate to this feeling as portrayed in Sofia Coppola’s works induces a spiritual terror worthy of…a night at the Chateau Marmont.

Richard Rushfield is a four-year veteran of the American Idol beat and the author of a recent memoir, Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost.