Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Ring Out, Wild Bells, To The Wild Sky--Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring

So I just saw The Bling Ring, and if there is a more terrifying indictment of how America has gone horribly wrong, failed its youth, and willfully thrown itself into the shallow end of the pool, I for one do not have the stomach to face it.

That's not saying that the film itself is hard to stomach--on the contrary, it is as calm and impassive as a security camera on its post, doing its job and nothing else, recording image after image until that string of images spells out a story of children who managed to commit multiple burglaries of various celebrities' houses  while staring slack jawed and vacant eyed at the hundreds of tiny screens that make up their thinking processes. It is horrifying in the way flat truth is horrifying--its sheer existence is a condemnation of a vast swath of America's way of--not life, not even existence, but vague floating through the electronic ether, touching nothing even as they worship the piles of consumer goods that symbolize reality to them.

Based on the 2010 Vanity Fair magazine article "The Suspects Wore Louboutins", (http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2010/03/billionaire-girls-201003)
The movie displays, as if in a Barney's window, the actions of a group of high schoolers who, starting with the usual suspects of drinking, drugs, and joyriding in stolen cars, moved on to tracking various celebrities. Following their movements through the dozens of gossip sites that buzz through the Internet like fruit flies, and breaking into their homes when said celebs were out of town being famous in some capacity or other, the kids roam and gasp, taking thousands of selfies next to Paris Hilton's shoe closet or Orlando Bloom's pool.

Our guide and avatar in the film is Marc (Israel Broussard), a young man who shows up in the opening scenes starting his first day at the "drop out" high school in the community, less nervous or anxious then feeling he's supposed to be nervous and anxious. Hair wrapped around his head like a cap of feathers, all yearning, unfocused brown eyes and cheeks still showing traces of puppy fat, Marc wanders into the school the way he would a convenience store. He is quickly befriended by Rebecca (Katie Chang) for no particular reason, and the two start hanging around together. They share an interest in fashion and the expensive people who wear fashion, and soon Rebecca introduces him to Chloe (Claire Julien), whose affectation of a gangsta rasp clashes with her thousand dollar mane of blonde hair, Nicki (Emma Watson, shedding her Hermione role like an Invisibility Cloak), and Sam (Tessa Farmiga.) Despite not quite seeming to have actually met each other,  the quintet starts hanging in nightclubs (the idea that any one of these children has a fake i.d. is as quaint as a horse drawn carriage), taking streams of pictures for their Facebook pages and bouncing up and down for spooled-out stretches of time on dance floors.

Soon, the endless hours of hanging out in various bedrooms, each carefully collaged with cutout magazine pictures of Lindsay, Orlando, Rachel, and Her High Holiness Paris Hilton lead to Rebecca requesting that Marc Google Paris's house address after reading online that she's in Las Vegas. It takes under seven seconds to find her home, and, as confidently as only a young rich American can be, Rebecca takes Marc there as casually as if they're going to the mall. They'd previously broken into classmates' homes, Rebecca popping various tchotchkes into her pockets, and this is clearly viewed by them as just another way to spend a night.

The footage of how ridiculously, ludicrously easy it is to get into these faux-palatial estates--in one hilarious shot, the group comes to a locked gate and simply walks up the slope to where the fence is barely knee height and step over--underlines how unsubstantial these houses, these lives, are. The polished glass palaces are so unreal, so unlike a place where people actually exist in recognizable reality, that most of the doors are simply unlocked, or, as in Hilton's case, have keys under the fucking doormat. These are not places where life is lived. They are simply outrageously expensive boxes where the skinny, rich, famous segment of American society keep their bizarrely lavish piles of luxury crap.

And that's what attracts this crew--the erasure of any relativity, the stripping of life down to "how much great stuff" (a phrase used over and over by the protagonists) one human being can possibly aquire. These places are the ultimate boutique, the Mount Olympus of consumerism. Grabbing handfuls of jewelry, purses (the fetishization of purses could inspire a dozen analyzing essays) and shoes (ditto) the kids run about, shrieking and squealing, their flattened California accents hanging in the air like a Celebrity Signature perfume. So contextless are these adventures they, and the audience, can't really believe they'll ever get caught. The things that are taken seem to come from magic well, an endless tide of shiny baubles, and it is completely accepted that not only will there always be more, this is not stealing. Stealing would indicate taking something from an actual person, and as fervently as these kids worship the celebs whose houses they repeatedly pilfer, they clearly don't consider them to exist in any meaningful material way.

Sofia Coppola is in a unique position as a director of this film. She is A List Hollywood Royalty, the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, and grew up surrounded by the kind of opulence undreamed of by the most lavish Roman emperor. Rather then try to draw emotions out of these characters, she seems to accept that the only emotion properly aroused by the life she has lived as said daughter is Covetousness. Not desire or even lust, but a simple drive to grab up, clutch, hoard everything shoved into your face by the overwhelming engine that is social media. The piles and hills and mountains of worldly wealth shown are displayed as neutrally as Rorschach cards, blandly inviting you to project what you will.

( In this way, she makes an interesting contrast to her fellow director and social peer Xan Cassavetes, whose debut feature film Kiss of the Damned displays wealth with the loving tenderness shown to the trappings of  the fantasies of a fifteen year old writing delirious Twilight fanfic. Both movies, although completely different,  use wealth as a self-explaining necessity to the believablilty of the story being told.)

Of course this Bacchanalian plunge can't go on forever, and eventually reality pounds on the door with search warrants. Police stoically bag up the clothes, necklaces, bags stacked in piles around the kids' bedrooms, there is a trial or so, and the kids end up sentenced to and serving jail terms (although they seem to have been released well before the completion of their various sentences.) The movie ends with Nicki drawling context free New Age platitudes on a talk show, ending by facing the camera and proudly announcing her website, her selfie-practiced smirk the last shot of the film before the fade to black.

The acting and set design in this movie are worthy of critical study. As the only parent who seems to exist in this world until the final act, Leslie Mann plays the mother of Nicki and guardian of Sam as a completely blank-headed twittering bird, dispensing Adderall and platitudes with a wide eyed smiling countenance that seems to suggest a constant low level of electroshock treatment. Obsessed with The Secret, she home schools the girls using the colorless selfish platitudes of the Self-Esteem movement, giving "homework" that consists of the construction of endless series of Vision Boards, meant to draw "positive energy" into a life that is already beyond the reach of at least 75% of the world's citizenry.

 Israel Broussard's abandoned puppy wanders through the film as the only character who seems to sense, vaguely, that somebody ought to be feeling or doing something about this situation, but is armed only with counseling-speak about anxiety issues and pages upon pages of various famous women wearing the same dress for a guide. Claire Julien's Chloe struts through nightclubs and strange closets with equal equanimity, posing wherever she sits or stands, her gaze only caught by her smartphone's screen.  Rebecca (Katie Chang), as the leader of the gang, gives a terrifyingly inevitable performance as a young woman who can't even summon the required vim to be a Mean Girl, whose blank affect conceals the shallowest void possible and eyes that only spark with life as she contemplates images of Lindsay Lohan and judges the quality of her hair extensions. Tessa Farmiga, saddled with a thankless role of Follower Without A Cause, plays Sam as an abandoned child who hasn't been told that fact, and who accepts the idea of traipsing through strange houses and filling up bags with swag as a natural outgrowth of her regular life.

Emma Watson's Nicki, although presented as a follower in the gang, is the most important role. As Marc is the numbed conscience of the group and Rebecca its bored and waspish entertainment director, Nicki stands as the extreme but logical outcome of this way of Modern American life--that of a consumer as empty vessel. Nicki contains nothing so sophisticated as thoughts or even desires, which would require more reasoning ability then has ever been imparted to her; she consists only of various appetites, the kind born of an utterly directionless mind, staggering from website to glossy page to dance floor to stolen car, all while being led around by nothing more then the phantom images of people she has been told to worship as the most exalted outcome of what she's been told to want. She plucks up handfuls of bling in the kind of blind dash seen in a housewife who has won a five minute free shopping spree at a Safeway--shoveling fistfuls of random stuff grabbed from the nearest surface into Chanel purses and trotting out the door in triumph as her peers cheer her on. Whether being dressed by Marc with her cigarette poised carefully, as she learned from endless gazing at celebs posing with their smokes, or being interviewed by a reporter flanked by her shiny happy mother and dark suited lawyers, her face shows either bored derision, smirking entitlement, or slight traces of panic as she realizes the words coming out of her mouth have no meaning for her, as if she were speaking in tongues.

The sets in this movie are enthralling, as they are the real residences of the actual burgled celebrities. Paris Hilton gave permission to film in her home, and the Louis XVI decor, covered with throw pillows bearing images of her own face, says more about what our country and culture rewards and covets then any constructed or FX image ever could. The clothes, the jewels, the bags and shoes-they're all the real deal. They carry more weight, more soul, then any of the pack of young people in the movie. The camera sometimes looms over the swaths of goods, sometimes stands back in long shots of the kids running through the houses as though playing hide and seek, but never makes any kind of judgement, nor does it invite the audience to do so. This is what this is, says the camera. It's what you wanted, what you sought. That is isn't more, well, that's not my problem. It's yours.

The Bling Ring is a deeply disturbing movie, standing as blank report on the way we have trained ourselves and our young people to abandon thought like last season's skinny jeans. This is what it is, and you can't blame these kids for performing acts displayed as the logical outcome of what they've been told existence consists of. Shiny, twinkly, alluring, the possessions of the famous exist as the only real things they have ever seen.


  1. First of all, excellent review, as usual.

    Second, as to the film itself, I'll probably give it a miss.
    Call me old fashioned, call me childish, but I prefer my existentialist horror films to be caked with a little blood.


  2. The lack of blood is the most horrifying part, honestly. That would mean something real was happening in these kids' lives.