Friday, May 31, 2013

Guest Post: Derek Hill on Sofia Coppola's SOMEWHERE

Today I am so happy to welcome one of Moon in the Gutter's oldest friends and greatest inspirations back, the incredible Derek Hill, author of the essential Charlie Kaufman and Hollywood's Merry Band of Pranksters.  This guest post is a particular treat as Derek's book, which included a large section on Sofia Coppola, was published before the release of her Somewhere so finally getting to read Derek's thoughts on the film is really exciting.  Enough of my rambling though...let's get to the good stuff!

                                                         Nowhere Man by Derek Hill, 2013
An actor aimlessly roams through the affluent, insular rooms and hallways of an upscale hotel, searching for any kind of stimulus to relieve him of his emotional stasis, some kind of diversion to occupy his time before he is whisked away to yet another press junket, another photo shoot, another interview that he glides through with practiced charm and ease. The actor is bored. Although comfortable within his cocoon of luxury and unreality, he is starving for a real emotional connection with someone. Anyone.


You wouldn't be reprimanded for thinking I was talking about Bill Murray's character from Sofia Coppola's extraordinary second feature Lost in Translation (2003). Coppola's underrated fourth movie, Somewhere (2010), also contains a similar character, action star Johnny Marco, played by Stephen Dorff. Stylistically and thematically, both movies are fascinating compliments to one another, although the earlier movie is more incisive about human nature, dreamy, and quietly poignant. Lost in Translation also contains one of Murray's finest moments on screen and a (so far) career-best performance by Scarlett Johansson, two difficult acts to follow. But regardless of the similarities between the two movies, and there are many important ones, Somewhere is its own distinctive, vital creation and not an artistic regression. It's also the first time that Coppola attempts to burrow into the male psyche for the majority of the movie, establishing the story's point of view through Marco's eyes. For a director whose movies tend to billow with images and emotional states that can conveniently be contextualized as delicately feminine, this change is significant.


Viewers invested in the three-act structure, clearly delineated plot points, and in characters that must undergo some form of dramatic change, will only be frustrated with Coppola's movies. That's not to suggest that Coppola's methodology is superior to classic Hollywood storytelling (it's not), but for her, the rudiments of commercial screenwriting 101 don't interest her. Not all movies need to chart a direct path through the wilderness of narrative. For some adventurous filmmakers, the detours from narrative are the most worthwhile moments of the trip, and it's in those strange, seemingly unnecessary deviations from the throughline and tyranny of plot when the cinematic poet blossoms. It's when the cinematic poet relates how the world really appears through their eyes, offering us a moment of reality beyond the artificiality of the screen.


Coppola, so unlike her father Francis, doesn't approach story in broad strokes. She is interested in the subtle nuances of character and visually lyrical epiphanies, allowing her actors to reveal the nature of their roles through the slow accretion of significant details. In Somewhere, we go roughly 15 minutes before any real dialogue is spoken, and even then, what is heard is banal and hardly illuminating. However, what we see is provocative and precisely revelatory. It's in the visual where Coppola and her cinematographer, the late Harris Savides, get down to business.


Although still gruffly attractive, movie star Marco wanders through the legendary Chateau Marmont like a hollowed-out relic of his better days. He's still on top of the Hollywood food chain, but only for the moment. Age is slowly settling in and it doesn't take a fortune teller to point out that the golden boy is going to show signs of rust within a year or two. But he still goes through the motions for his fans, colleagues, and entourage. Marco the party boy lazily roams through a late-night party, lazily flirts with women (his pickup lines consist of either "Hi" or "Hi, I'm Johnny"), and lazily watches two twin pole dancers listlessly perform their routine for his arousal. He falls asleep and they in turn pack up their gear and exit to entertain another happy customer. Later, Marco pathetically (and hilariously) conks out with his face buried between the thighs of his latest conquest. The man is psychologically and physically spent. He's an emotional zombie.


It would be easy for Coppola to eviscerate her characters, lampooning them for their absurdities and plunging the venomous blade of satire deeply, then twisting it for maximum audience ridicule. This world of hermetic affluence is one Coppola knows well, but she holds off tormenting her characters. She is not filled with self-hate. Instead, she observes her characters and their milieu with a sharp, cool perspective, but never at the expense of their humanity. Humor undercuts many scenes, particularly when examining celebrity culture, and there is a strong sense that Marco's inner life is non-existent, or at least deadened, from his steady diet of nothing. Coppola, however, is not a moralist. Her observations aren't jaundiced, even when she does poke at the pretensions of celebrity.


Although their approach to filmmaking and storytelling are very different, she does share with Antonioni and Fellini that ability to dissect the world of privilege without murdering it. It's no accident that Coppola has referenced Fellini's brilliant La Dolce Vita twice. In Lost in Translation, Murray and Johansson watch the movie on television. In Somewhere, Marco puts his daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) on a plane after their night in Las Vegas and yells to her that he's sorry he's been absent from her life, she unable to hear his confession because of the roar of the plane's engine. The scene is reminiscent of the finale of La Dolce Vita, when a haggard Marcello Mastroianni slumps on a beach in the morning sun after a long night of debauchery and engages a young girl he met earlier in the movie. Her agonizingly touching expression of love for him goes unacknowledged because he can't understand what she's saying over the crashing waves and he's too bleary-eyed to comprehend the look on her face.


Coppola does not elevate the scene between Marco and Cleo to the profound emotional heights that Fellini went for, instead opting for her usual low-key preciseness. Later, when Marco self-pityingly calls up a woman and cries on the phone to her, she cuts him off and our wonderboy is literally left spending the night floating in a pool alone.


But Coppola does opt for a happy ending of sorts, albeit tinged with ambiguity and a trickle of Hollywood sentimentality. Marco has the hotel pack up his belongings and he hops into his sports car, taking off for the open road. What gives some advantage to reading this moment as optimistic for Marco, is that stylistically Coppola and Savides shoot Marco's car rigidly in the center of the frame as he drives further away from Los Angeles, our perspective always moving in a straight line… forward, forward, forward. Jump cuts accelerate the passage of time as Marco heads out into the desert. This is in direct opposition to the provocative opening shot of the movie, which is a long uninterrupted take observing Marco driving his car in a loop at a desert racetrack for several minutes, the camera stationary and only picking up a portion of the roadway. The shot selection at the end, with Marco breaking free from that interminable endless circle, and his life in Hollywood, feels exhilarating.


The question remaining, however, is whether Marco is truly up for the challenge. Marko finally pulls his car over to the side of the road. The desert surrounds him. He looks tentatively aware walking away from his abandoned car. But it feels like a movie moment, as the music slowly gains piercing urgency. It feels like a moment from a Johnny Marko movie, instead of the dead end it really is.   
***Thanks again Derek!***


Bigplatts said...

I really liked the ending of this movie, I thought it was a bit too much of a metaphor ending when I first saw it; where was he going? Why in the middle of the desert? But I noticed something about it, and thats that for the whole film he's going around in circles (like in the opening) never sure where to go, but in the end he's finally going "somewhere".

Steve Langton said...

Terrific review. I struggle to think of a more perfect double bill than Lost In Translation and Somewhere.