Sunday, April 6, 2014


(Sofia Coppola, USA, 2011)

I had some issues with it, but it's a hypnotic, beguiling film, and demands repeated viewing.  My sense, just from reviewing certain scenes, is that it is Somewhere will yield insight into its depth gradually, and only with attentive viewing.  Despite an aversion to some aspects of Coppola's method, I have to admit that it has lodged itself in my consciousness, and there is no more reliable sign of lasting quality.

My chief beef with Coppola is this: there are times at which it seems that her formal preferences are front-loaded rather than arising organically from the material.  Her preferences are clear, with familiar precedents in world cinema: long takes, a detached, observational perspective, a preference for dry humor, and effusive atmospheric affect.  And yet she is a writer of great precision, and a committed scenarist; despite feeling deliberately directionless, her movies are based upon carefully constructed narratives.  The arc of the characters may be muted, but it is still there, and it's vital to the other side of Coppola, the side that isn't enthralled with beautiful moodiness and supple textures.  I refer to the side of her that comments, critiques, and subtly but insistently moralizes.  I don't have a problem with moralizing, and neither should Coppola, but one gets the sense, watching her films, that she does bear some unresolved ambivalence about what she's depicting, and perhaps even about what the audience might and/or should think about what they're seeing.

None of which is a cardinal sin, and all of which can (and often is) the basis for excellent filmmaking.  But still, while watching Somewhere, I was repeatedly reminded of a certain unwillingness to go all the way.  Either to present Johnny Marco's life as much more of a shambles, rather than just somewhat boring (with an occasional paroxysm of existential despair), or to alternatively indulge in the perks of such a lifestyle, with all the easy sex and temptation to chaos.  Show us black despair or show us ecstatic wildness; but left somewhere in between (as, admittedly, is surely the more "realistic" way to go) it feels somehow disappointing, like a missed opportunity.

There is also the part of me that craves more realism.  While plenty of the world film is reliably realistic, there are also moments in which the formal commitments trump what would be realistic, believable, or interesting behavior.  Coppola tends to envelope her characters in the same moody, detached zone from which she films them.  As a result, Marco comes off as kind of vitally constipated, a perpetually hungover cipher who's somehow misplaced his charisma.   To much of the time, he's reduced to awkward mugging, and when he does fill up with emotion - watching his daughter ice skate, making a jagged, weeping call to his former wife in which he proclaims that he is "nothing, not even a person" - it feels jarring, like scenes from another film.  Somewhere spends much of its time cruising dangerously close to the contrived and the maudlin.

At her best, she achieves scenes of transcendent, limpid beauty and wit; at her worst, she delivers platitudes wrapped in gauzy, beautiful gestures.


In fact, I was wrong to doubt Coppola and her method.  Upon viewing Somewhere a second time,  I found myself falling deliciously under its spell.  I think what happened was: concentrating too much on what I wrongly perceived as a knowing commentary by the director, I missed what is so delightfully evocative and steadfastedly non declarative about her style.  Is there any other contemporary director who has a more precise, yet gentle way with images and sound?  That might be too much, but still; Somewhere drew me in, and made me watch and listen, like no other film in some time.  It's true that the stuff about Johnny Marco being hollowed-out, soul-starved by Hollywood, is laid on rather thickly.  You have to look past that, to keep watching. The scene where they apply the modeling paste to his face, rendering him every bit the featureless cipher, is directly followed with the results; Johnny is made up to appear elderly, and his reaction - a deft combination of concern and amusement - adds a layer of complexity to what could have been a distracting, didactic point about the character.  He's not faceless; he is, on some basic level, detached from his own visage.  This connects to his strikingly passive personality, which on first viewing seemed merely to be an error.  Marco is easygoing to a fault; the source of his charm is that it's effortless, and everything from his mussed hair to his off-white tee shirts to his faintly goofy smile broadcasts this.  But Marco has gotten so used to radiating charm effortlessly that he no longer knows how to apply himself to the role that matters most, his own life.  His interactions with his daughter force him to try, and he does, in ways that are made all the more momentous for their being so obviously mundane. 

The other on-the-nose scene - Johnny's late night crying jag on the phone - is also complicated by the scene that directly follows it, where Johnny appears to have once again resumed his mode of unexamined comfort.  He's in the pool, floating on an inflatable raft, shades on, the picture of cushy indolence.  Slowly, inexorably, he drifts out of the frame, his legs disappearing last.  It manages to be both droll and subtly poignant; his recent crisis is no less urgent, but the decisiveness of what might have been a breakthrough is subsumed by the overwhelming inertia of The Good Life.  Even after a rough night, he still gets to spend the next day drifting in the pool, warmly ensconced at the Chateau Marmont.  Turning away from leisure, wealth, and instant gratification ain't easy.

The ending remains problematic, still:  while thematically apt and atmospherically rich, it has the top-heavy quality of blatant symbolism, and of self-conscious ambiguity. After all, where the hell is he supposed to be going?  But even here, I've revised my thinking: what initially seemed to be mere laziness on Coppola's part, as though she was opting for a neat little bookend for the narrative, now seems like a move of exemplary boldness, even if it isn't 100% successful.   This kind of tension - between the symbolic and the literal - is really, really hard to do, and Coppola deserves huge props for how much she was able to accomplish with such a (deceptively) simple list of ingredients.

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