Saturday, January 22, 2011

Somewhere: Hanging Out in Sophia Coppola-land

While Blue Valentine may be considered an actor's showcase, Somewhere, the new movie by Sophia Coppola (director of Lost In Translation), is clearly a showcase for its director.

Coppola has developed a unique style – a kind of modernized Italian neo-realism, or Andy Wharholism, with the camera as a watchful eye. Her scenes are drawn out and interminable, immersing you in the full moment of time: the smoking of a cigarette, the breezes of a California afternoon. She has patience enough to let us catch so much of the mood of the scene that you can practically feel the soft dappling of the California humidity on your skin as you watch the characters lie about by the pool. During these scenes Coppola is training you to focus your attention on all the details that eventually tell this story: the character's expressions, the background surroundings, the sounds and sensations of their insulated, time-absent, esoteric celebrity world. It’s such a departure from modern style, with its MTV-inspired crash cutting and Michael Bay bombing soundtracks, that you want to track down the young Ms. Coppola and give her a big hug. This is the pure pleasure of cinema, and she seems to be the only person left on the planet who appreciates it.

As in Lost in Translation, Somewhere is intrigued by the idea of celebrity – by its trappings, its absurdities, and ultimately, its meaninglessness. This time, instead of a more experienced, world-weary actor, she focuses on a younger-but-aging world-weary actor, Johnny Marco (played with perfect pitch by Stephen Dorff). Johnny spends most of his time at the Marmont Hotel in Los Angeles, a famous celebrity hangout, receiving private lap dances from models, hanging out with sex-starved groupies, smoking, drinking, and generally waiting about for the next phone call from his manager, which will tell him what interview or makeup session he needs to attend next.

The movie opens with what looks like a road, and a car coming along it…until we see the same car going back along another road and disappear in the other direction, then hear its engines, and see the same car come roaring back on the first road into the frame again. It’s a trick of perception, see – what Coppola is filming is really a circular race track, not a straight road – and even though we get the joke on the first loop, she makes us sit through three more for good measure.

That’s basically her strategy through the entire movie: first observe the humor, then see the pathos, then keep going and going until you have to admit the point. Coppola manages to find the right poignant absurdity in all these tedious routines – from the blond twins who perform for Johnny in his bedroom (just enough out of sync and with little enough booty showing to be at once pitiable and captivating) to the process of creating a plaster cast of Johnny’s head (which we are taken through in thorough detail, lavishing every slurp of plaster the makeup team lathers on his face). That cast is for a mask to make Johnny look like an old man, but we’ve pretty much gotten the picture from the start – Johnny is bored with his life and afraid of growing old in his aimless state – but Coppola is going to be merciless in holding our gaze to every little excruciating moment that Johnny has to live through.

She also manages to make this far from boring for us, since Johnny lives in an intriguing, rarefied environment of absurd celebrity. A young wannabe actor asks Johnny whether he trained formally or studied any method. The answer is no: he just fell into it, like he seems to be doing with all of his life. That falling leads him to start taking care of his daughter from a former marriage (when her mother needs to leave town), and the two of them get whisked off to a celebrity reception in Italy. Here Coppola makes the most of celebrity absurdity as Johnny is feted and adored in a language he barely understands: if the meaningless of it all hasn't been driven home before, it certainly is now.

Fortunately, there is someone in Johnny's life who doesn't take him as simply an asset to be whisked this way and that: his pre-teen daughter, Cleo, played with wonderful unpretentious by Elle Fanning (younger sister of Dakota). Elle caters to all the small details - whether it be dressing up nicely for a televised event or making eggs Benedict for breakfast - that Johnny ignores. That attitude of care eventually becomes infectious for Johnny, and in the movie's one moment of progress, he gives cooking his own plate of spaghetti a try.

But Coppola isn't going to let this film end without keeping it as ambiguous as she can. That unswerving devotion to not telling us what anything means may be, in fact, what keeps this film, and perhaps Coppola's work to date, from rising from indie-film darling to broadly popular greatness. It's clear from looking at both this film and Lost in Translation that Coppola sympathies with the young woman's point of view of an older, famous, cynical, father figure: she paints that father figure with love, obsessive attention, and tenderness. But I think we've gotten the full picture of that subject now. For her next trick, I'd like to see her move on.

These are both miraculous movies, road maps of film making that shouldn't be missed. But now that Coppola has become a master of her own style, if she can next find a subject of broader relevance and weightiness, she will truly become one of the industry's most valued artists.

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