The Problem With Pop Culture – Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring

blingIn Somewhere, Sofia Coppola’s most recent project prior to The Bling Ring, the director approached the disillusionment with the exceptional in a film that pushed that pictures protagonist, a successful actor trapped in the monotony of “the business”. Here, the American filmmaker projects a bunch of nobodies who aspire towards the celebrity lifestyle previously demythologised and examined in the earlier film. The two make for apt companions, as Coppola further traces the excesses and trappings of a 21st Century Los Angeles.

The Bling Ring opens with a thoughtful tribute to the recently deceased Harris Savides, Coppola’s DoP on Somewhere, but soon discards any sense of the somber, as the mood isn’t so much as broken as it is blown open by the siren call of the opening bars of uber-hip New York Noise-Pop duo Sleigh Bells’ Crown On The Ground. This sets the tone for the first act of the movie, as we meet the core group of adolescents who would eventually come to be known as the eponymous gang. Based upon recent events, in which a group of young Hollywood kids went on the lamb and burglarised the rich and famous, The Bling Ring charts the obsession with fame and celebrity that sits at the heart of contemporary American pop culture.

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Coppola presents the lives of souls clad between Facebook, Miu Miu, Teen Vogue and MTV’s The Hills, ultimately creating a collage of popular culture that acts as the ideal celebrity-obsessed primer for David Fincher’s Fight Club. TMZ and Bing act as a pair of enabling Demigods, one detecting, and the other locating the objects of affection. It brings to mind Tyler Durden angrily monologuing about how “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.” Coppola’s film almost acts as a Fight Club: Year One in that respect, zooming in on those affected by the first wave of the post-millenial, post-“I WANT MY MTV” victims of X-Factor, celebrity-for-celebrity’s-sake fetishised faux-lifestyles.

The director plays up the vapidity and ludicrousness of the situation being portrayed through purposefully overdramatic language. As one character says aloud that he “Never saw myself as a good looking guy“, to a gossip reporter eagerly lapping up his story, it’s difficult not to balk at the lack of self-awareness on display. It makes for an interesting antipode to Coppola’s other tale of the underside of L.A., Somewhere, in which a figure with a presumed considerable talent (“presumed” because we never see it, although we do witness the success that would suggest it exists) struggles in the very situation the central protagonists of The Bling Ring aspire towards. Of course, a longing for something else is a trait seen throughout the director’s entire body of work.

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Stylistically the film is as aesthetically satisfying as one might expect from the director of Lost In Translation and Marie Antoinette. The previously mentioned heavy-cut collage of imagery is paused mid-way through the feature, as we witness a burglary taking place from afar, in one long take. This scene recalls Jacques Tati’s iconic house from Mon Oncle, with the nightmarish vision of modernity accommodating a dolls house-type scenario. The whole thing is given a contextual boost (not to mention lent an air of authenticity) through the use of Paris Hilton’s own property in the film, which was famously burgled in real-life by the subjects. It’s this flirtation with the real that intrigues the most; Coppola has changed the names of the film’s main players, yet kept the familiar celebrity aspects the same. She recognises the cultural touch-points, but not the criminal. It’s a curious move, but one which adds an extra level of commentary within the picture.

This complex attitude towards it’s subject matter directly ties in to the film’s post-script. There is a certain irony in the manner in which the gang themselves became minor real-world celebrities as they were brought to justice and paraded on the gossip circuit. As one boasts of occupying a prison cell within as close a proximity to Lindsay Lohan, another of their victims,  to hear the actress weeping in to the night during one of her numerous stints in jail, the real heist falls in to place.

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