When I saw The Bling Ring on its initial release I wrote myself a note: ‘Permit me a speculation: If Sofia Coppola were a male director or if a greater proportion of film critics were female, there would have been shouting from the rooftops at the appearance of The Bling Ring’. Seeing it again on Monday confirmed my first impression. Sofia Coppola is a great filmmaker, in every way the equal of anyone of her generation – she’s only in her early forties; young for a director — and with a very particular style: beautiful compositions that are edited dynamically but elliptically, long sequence shots in which character complexity is allowed to be slowly revealed, the use of different textures of image (video footage, computer screens, phones) to allow for different points of view on the narration; all of this mixed in with montage-sequences set to music that are almost like video clips but here with the juxtaposition of images and sound used to communicate an idea or a state of mind rather than to sell you the song; and all her films demonstrate a brilliant use of an eclectic range of music (here the electronic techno sound familiar to e-culture clubbing but with an American hip-hopping rap overlay).
Coppola’s also got a point of view: a wry, sharp intelligent look, sometimes ironic, sometimes empathetic; always understanding but without necessarily condoning; one that suggests rather more than is shown; that hints there are implications other than the immediate ones and that the audience might find things to treasure if they not only looked but also thought about what they had seen and not seen, what they had heard and how. Her films treat the audience as intelligent beings interested in finding out more about what their world is like through the very particular ways she fictionalizes the world that she shows us in ways that we understand they are also our own; on what it is to be human today through the people her actors bring to life; Coppola communicates precisely but ambiguously too. It’s fodder for the audience’s particular experience and thoughts, through getting the audience to see and feel – but it’s always for the audience to decide. She’s smart, tactful, and as skilled and talented as any director working today.
Coppola’s oeuvre also contains a set of themes she constantly returns to: what contemporary culture feels like to a girl (e.g. The Virgin Suicides), the pleasure and power of pretty things in a shallow world (Marie Antoinette), but also what a culture so heavily centred on the acquisition of those things does to people. Pretty people worship pretty things in most of her films, and not all of them are bad for doing so but we all suffer when such acquisitions become practically the only lauded and supported desire in a consumer culture, our culture, which is based on the creation of such wants. Her work focuses on middle-class people or upwards, and usually deals with celebrity culture in particular (Lost in Translation, Somewhere, Marie Antoinette) and the anomie, the distance from the self and from others that such a state of celebrity creates in such a shallow culture. Part of the reason her films are great is because she illuminates the distance between her characters’ understanding and their feelings, the former so shallow, the latter so complex and alive; the two together an illustration of the frenzy the self is driven to when alienated from others and the world.
Her work is funny in an understated way, eliciting a knowing chuckle rather than a guffaw. But her camera and compositions first depicts a set of very privileged people commodified by their own desires, and then slices away all illusions humanely but uncompromisingly, to show us what is left. She’s worked with great cinematographers, Lance Accord who shot Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette and also, and importantly, Harris Savides who filmed Somewhere and enough of The Bling Ring to have established its look before dying during its filming — Coppola dedicates the film to him in the opening credits.
In ‘Frame by Frame, the Best Shots of 2013’, ’ ‘The Playlist Staff’ ranks the shot where we’re shown the robbery of Audrina Patridge’s house in The Bling Ring as the 2nd best shot of the year (Roger Deakins’ shot of the tree in Prisoners beat it to no. 1) and writes, “We’re not sure who was responsible for the shot, since the original cinematographer Harris Savides passed away during shooting (Christopher Blauvelt, Savides’ longtime first assistant took over from him), but whoever did created the film’s most memorable sequence as the camera slowly pushes in while the robbery occurs, all in one single shot, without the accompaniment of music or many sound effects (a car drives past here, a dog barks there). The shot operates like a mini-essay about insignificance, about how notions of privacy crumble in the face of a celebrity culture that is all about putting oneself on display for consumption, but also Coppola’s detached, voyeuristic camera summons up her frequent themes of the alienation and isolation of modern life—how nobody cares this is going on in plain sight and how everyone, like the gang themselves, feels removed from any real consequences.”
The Bling Ring is based on an article Nancy Jo Sales wrote for Vanity Fair, ‘The Suspects Wore Laboutins’ and which Sales later turned into a book, called The Bling Ring, after the movie, in which a still from the film, also the central image for the movie poster, is used as a cover (see the very first image above). It’s a tie-in, what would normally be a novelization of the film’s story, but here used to expand the account of the true story that forms the basis for the film. As the back cover shrieks, ‘The True Story That Inspired the Sofia Coppola Film’ in large print and in blue, then going to recount in a smaller size but bold ‘It was one of the most brazen crimes in recent Hollywood history: Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Orland Bloom, Rachel Bilson robbed – more than $3 million in clothing, jewelry, shoes and handbags reported missing. Who had the audacity to commit such a crime? Meet the Bling Ring. A gang of rich, beautiful, wild-living Valley teens…with everything to lose.’ And then in regular print, ‘Over one year, seven teens allegedly burgled the homes of the biggest names in Hollwood, using Google maps, Facebook and TMZ to track the targets’ whereabouts’. So, in a nutshell, we can see what drew Sofia Coppola to turn the story into a film: teens on the cusp of adulthood obsessed with celebrity culture, feeling lost but coveting luxe, and using social media and new technology to get the goods they covet and get close to who they want to be even as they search to connect with one another.
Part of the richness of the film, and perhaps part of the reason why audiences didn’t quite embrace it, lies in its structure: on the one hand the leader of the gang is Rebecca (Katie Chang); on the other, the biggest star in the film is Emma Watson who plays Nicki and who in the film embodies all that’s wrong with contemporary American culture; yet, the central character and the film’s narrator is Marc (Israel Broussard); and at the core of the film is the love affair between Marc and Rebecca, an almost archetypal gay boy/ straight girl love affair. The film has a trio of protagonists, each with a different import and resonance in the film’s narrative.
Rebecca is the teen femme fatale: smart, the object of the gay boy’s desires, duplicitous, unknowable. ‘I loved her,’ he says, ‘that’s what’s so terrible about what happened I really loved her, like a sister’ There’s a scene in the car, after they’ve just committed a robbery and edited together by a series of fades to black, when he asks her would she ever rob him if they ever stopped being friends. ‘No I would never do that to you’. And then, at the end, she un-friends him on Facebook.
The film’s …. villain might be too strong a word, the film is too complex to pick a facile target, let’s say the dramatic embodiment of the film’s critique of American culture is Nicki; home-schooled by her mother in ‘The Secret’ using wish-boards about Angelina Jolie as a teaching tool; so uneducated she thinks Africa is a country; having celebrity and the acquisition of high-end luxury designer goods as her main goal in life; willing to use her body to get what she wants; and completely amoral not through design but through circumstances and education. She’s an embodiment of the hyper-real; she knows the right things to say, the right way to seem (‘I want to lead a large charity organisation’; she’s merely been a victim of her friendships) but has no more moral or ethical thoughts beyond that. Rules don’t apply to her. She seems to exist in a mediated world and understands the world only as it is mediated by celebrity culture. Interestingly Marc, the narrator, appears in the second shot and is also given the second-to-last shot where the story proper ends; the last shot is the punch-line, the afterwards, the way the film seals its critique.
The Bling Ring’s focus is on the gay boy. He’s a Mama’s boy with bruised lips who suffers from anxiety and depression. He wants friends, wants to fit in. He already knows and is comfortable with his desires but has not yet learned to be ‘gay’. There’s a brilliant shot near the beginning where he’s out of focus at the high school and he comes into being, he comes into focus, once he sees Rebecca, once he makes a friend. It’s kind of a queer film by a heterosexual woman and the sympathy is with the boy. The shots at the end where the steel door to his future gets shut down on his way to the LA county jail — one’s heart just cracks at the idea of what this sensitive boy will face there — whilst the girl played by Watson gets interviewed at the end by TMF, transforming every question the interviewer asks about Lindsey Lohan into one about her own sensitivity and suffering, lying through her teeth, selling her website and angling for the reality TV series the character she’s based on eventually got.
The girls are meaner, they know what they want, they’ve been around, and are capable of being wanton bullies. They’re girls on the make and their willingness to make out with VIP customers at the club who may be of use to them in the future is what will make and unmake them. I love the way that Coppola looks at girls, the tribalness of girl culture, the deceit and lies and seeking of status, how they can be so casually or so calculatingly hurtful at will, how they hierarchise their relationships within the group in a way that’s invisible but instantly knowable to all, but also the support and affection. The scene with the gun during the Megan Fox robbery, where one of the girls threatens Marc with it; then, as soon as he resists, threatens ‘’are you pushing a girl, is as charged and dangerous as any I’ve seen and a wonderful contrast to a similar scene in Spring Breakers (see clip below): Coppola sees the relationships between the girls as complex and multifaceted; Korine doesn’t. Unlike Coppola, Korine has to sexualize a moment in order to motivate a shift in tone.
The Bling Ring is a critique of celebrity culture that simultaneously makes our obsession with that culture understandable. Each of their robberies is almost foreshadowed by what’s happening to Lindsey Lohan. Coverage of her court appearances punctuate and comment on the film’s action. The narrative is interestingly made up of scenes for which there are real-life equivalent available to see on You Tube (the Nick Prugo webcam ‘Drop It Low’ sequence (this has now been removed); the CCTV footage of the Audrina Patridge robbery). The narrative is also made up of different textures, the differences brought to the narrative when it’s TMZ footage, or CCTV, Facebook, or selfies. For example in the ‘Drop It Low’ sequence, it starts in black and white, the texture and colour of the image indicating that it’s on webcam, going out into the world, then moving into the film’s real diagetic world via a change in grain and colour with the question now over-hanging that this boys innermost private desires are now being made public and visible to who knows who, how vulnerable that makes him, and how unaware he is of it all. The film’s use of many different textures that are each conduits to a whole series of different narrative devices whilst making the overarching story seem so simple is but one of the things that makes the film so rich.
In The Politics of Aesthetics Jacques Rancière writes that he’s ‘concerned with aesthetic acts as configurations of experience that create new modes of sense perception and induce novel forms of political subjectivity’. So should we all; and that’s what Sofia Coppola provides us with in The Bling Ring: a way of understanding celebrity and consumer cultures that makes understandable the lure and danger of pretty things whilst simultaneously providing a pretty devastating critique of it.