Friday, December 24, 2010

Writing What She Knows: Somewhere

The first shot in Somewhere lasts just over two minutes. It feels longer. From a fixed position, the camera observes a black Ferrari driving laps on a tight circular bit of road that’s stained with skid marks. Zoom, the car goes by in the foreground. Then, a bit later, zoom, it goes by again. And then again. And then again. Four times. Finally the Ferrari comes to a stop and a handsome yet disheveled man climbs out and looks into the distance, as if hoping to find inspiration. The man is Johnny Marco, a Hollywood actor who spends his days holed up at the famous Chateau Marmont hotel in Hollywood, living a pampered yet monotonous existence. The opening shot evokes the tedious sameness of Johnny’s (ugh!) circular way of life in which he’s stuck (ugh, again!) on a road to nowhere. Or at least that’s what this shot, and several others much like it, is ostensibly designed to do. In effect, however, the shot tells us less about Johnny Marco than it does about the film’s director. Somewhere is Sofia Coppola’s movie, and she never lets us forget that she’s there.

Just like the early films of Darren Aronofsky seem to play under a neon sign proclaiming “This film was directed!” so, too, does Coppola’s latest, albeit for entirely different reasons. Whereas Requiem for a Dream attacks us with fast-cut excessiveness, Somewhere is an assault of minimalism – both technically and emotionally. In stretches the camera moves so infrequently that you’d think it weighed two tons and needed military tanks to maneuver it into position. Ambient noise – usually the growl of Johnny’s Ferrari – fills the soundtrack. Slow Altmanesque zooms are passed off like bravura flourishes. And any scene in danger of being lively is extended to the point of monotony, or worse. Early in the film, for example, Coppola forces us to endure a choreographed dance routine performed by a pair of twin blondes in nurse outfits who spin around on collapsible silver poles while the Foo Fighters’ “My Hero” plays softly from a boombox on the floor, failing to obscure the sound of thigh flesh squeaking on metal. It’s a decidedly unsexy spectacle, but perhaps awkwardly humorous, and so as if to assure we take none of this lightly, Coppola brings the blondes back for another lengthy routine, thereby ensuring our boredom. In a film that attempts to demystify the Hollywood celebrity lifestyle while underlining the solemnity of Coppola’s artistry, cheap thrills are not to be tolerated.

The result is a pretentious film that has few thrills at all. Somewhere is cinematic amuse-bouche – all outward elegance with nothing of substance to sustain us. Plot is enemy. Emotion is unfashionable. Liveliness is frowned upon. If Coppola submitted to such frivolities, audiences might get distracted by what’s on screen, when clearly Coppola would prefer that we spend each moment marveling at her technique. Instead she serves up one flat-and-overlong scene after another, breaking from the pattern only when she wants to show off her just-out-of-the-mainstream musical tastes or prove her understanding of sunset strip culture (inserting Chateau Marmont singing waiter Romulo Laki in an inside-Hollywood cameo as himself). At issue isn’t Coppola’s skill set or eye for detail, it’s her insistence that we recognize it. Working with cinematographer Harris Savides, who shot 2010’s other aimless-in-L.A. picture Greenberg, Coppola regularly serves up striking compositions that are notable for their vivid yet natural colors: the cool blue of Johnny’s bathroom; the warm gold of a glass of alcohol; the lush green of the Chateau Marmont’s pool deck; etc. But Coppola and editor Sarah Flack hold each scene longer than the moment demands, and by constantly emphasizing her compositions Coppola snuffs out their would-be effect.

Lost in all of this are two characters who might in fact be interesting if Coppola had any interest in them. Alas, Johnny is a prop that Coppola uses to lay bare the fraudulence of Hollywood glamour – stumbling down a flight of stairs, falling asleep during the pole dancing routine, passing out during sex, standing on a wooden block to seem as tall as his female costar, ducking paparazzi who aren’t even there, etc. – while Cleo, Johnny’s virtually estranged daughter, is a magnifying glass used to emphasize her father’s soullessness. Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning make the most of these roles, particularly Fanning who manages to always seem vulnerable even while demonstrating a maturity that Johnny lacks, and yet with few exceptions these actors have to do little more than hit their marks. Coppola proves adept at creating touching father-daughter portraits – Johnny and Cleo lounging in bed eating gelato or basking in the sun by the pool – but the movie’s sum isn’t equal to that of its parts. And when the film’s so-literal-it’s-laughable conclusion nods back to the opening to give us another scene of Johnny and his Ferrari, this time on a road to – you guessed it – somewhere, the film’s shallowness is confirmed.

With its overserious tone and underwhelming effect, Somewhere would be a challenge to connect with in any time, but even more so in this one. This is, after all, a film that asks us to feel all torn up inside over the plight of a Hollywood star who does little more than party, play video games and fuck women – a guy for whom hard work amounts to sitting still while a plaster mold is made of his face at a Hollywood effects studio, or pretending to have a good time while posing for promotional photos next to the co-star that he screwed and then screwed over, or enduring inane questions at a press conference. Sure, pampered celebrities are people, too, and all that, but it’s hard to imagine a film being so oblivious about the state of the country in which it is being released. Last year Jason Reitman used real-life victims of the job crisis for cheap effect in Up in the Air, but at least he recognized a world beyond Sunset Boulevard. With its attention-baiting long takes and insular outlook, Somewhere makes it seem as if Johnny Marco isn’t the only one suffering a crisis of self-absorption.


Tony Dayoub said...

This is exactly how I felt watching SOMEWHERE, the film equivalent of "The Emperor's New Clothes" (sometimes there is no there there). It it the thinnest of concepts stretched out for much too long. And at 90 minutes that is somewhat alarming.

The two leads are excellent and there are occasional moments of profundity, but overall this film could have been far more effective at 30 minutes and betrays Coppola's lack of real-world experience.

Stephen said...

I recognise, Jason, my reactions to certain films in this review but I don't agree when it comes to SOMEWHERE or other films by Sofia Coppola.

I don't think that it's a matter of self-absorption or insularity but, yes, using what she knows well to talk about things outside of what she knows and all the while creating a mood piece. It's not a film about a poor pampered and lonely actor but about a disillusioned, bored man. The milieu is not the story.

Neither do I think that the film draws attention to itself. The takes are long and place us in his shoes - feeling both relaxed and elegant as well as sucked clean of life.

It is difficult to straddle depicting boredom and the danger of engendering audience boredom but I think she does it well.

We aren't meant to feel terribly sorry for him but almost, with what sympathy we do have, disappointed in him.

Anyway when it comes down to it, you either find the film self-indulgent viscerally or you don't. I don't. I see what you mean but for me, this criticism is directed at the wrong film.

Jason Bellamy said...

Egad. I realize I never replied to Tony. And, Tony, I still need to get access to your review. Need to try that again.

Stephen: Thanks for your comments. Let's see ...

We aren't meant to feel terribly sorry for him but almost, with what sympathy we do have, disappointed in him.

Yes. I think that's true, and I should have said as much in my review. Good point. Still, even though the film does ask us to be disappointed in him, I did detect a current of, "Oh, Hollywood ... it's lonely, not glamorous ... if only you knew ..."

As for the length of the takes: Minus the opening shot, or the needless return of the pole dancers, I might have agreed with you. But to me those shots expose the degree to which Coppala seems to want us to appreciate her artistry as artistry, rather than the art within it. That's my take. But I know this film has its fans. And it does work for me in many moments. So it's not as if I can't understand the way you see it.

But then there's this ...

It's not a film about a poor pampered and lonely actor but about a disillusioned, bored man. The milieu is not the story.

Again, I might have agreed with the first part, but in my opinion there are too many Hollywood in-jokes to suggest that the milieu isn't a very significant part of this film. Coppola seems to be making some very specific comments about Hollywood here. Whereas if we applied your observation to Lost in Translation, I'd agree with you.

Thanks much for the thoughts! Always happy when someone offers a dissenting opinion.

Stephen said...

"...there are too many Hollywood in-jokes to suggest that the milieu isn't a very significant part of this film."

Yes, maybe I over-stated it.

By the way, I certainly wouldn't put SOMEWHERE on a par with LOST IN TRANSLATION.

Thanks for the response Jason. Your blog, and the 'Conversations' at THE HOUSE NEXT DOOR, are great reads.