David Richter

Exiting Somewhere: Sofia Coppola and the Excess of Bourgeois Asceticism


ISSUE 6 | MAKING AN EXIT | JUL 2011

Read afterthoughts to this piece from Alexander Krasna.


Still from The Virgin Suicides, 1999

There are several shots in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere that seem especially representative of the director’s central preoccupations: Johnny Marco’s car, circling an empty racetrack; the two identical twin pole dancers performing their act with rote but starstruck enthusiasm; Marco’s face itself, covered in a plaster mold as he drifts into sleep—all these are static moving images: images that become what they are only when we become aware of their unnecessary persistence.

The passage of a certain quantity of time generates a new quality of experience. Our eyes glance around the frame looking for point on which to anchor our gaze. If we become uncomfortable it is because we don’t know where to look or how to feel—perhaps we have failed to interpret the image correctly, perhaps our attention has for a moment faded, producing a gap in what should be a seamless aesthetic experience. And when our attention returns, the chain of visual signifiers has been broken and we are brought back to a single moving image, devoid of context or meaning.

This failure of interpretation can’t be blamed on the hyperstimulation characteristic of contemporary media society or the resultant inability of modern movie-goers to sit still and be patient. In fact, this boredom has very little to do with the long tracking shots found in, say, a Tarkovsky movie, which still rely on our ability to read traditional narrative and filmic categories and techniques. It is a boredom of rapt fascination, in which we unsuccessfully attempt to “fully enjoy” the reality of an image that persists in its presence, yet refuses to yield any self-justification, or unfold into some more fully realized affective.

For Coppola, this stasis stands for the problem of excessive wealth—a stasis in excess of the ascetic bourgeois drive to put wealth into motion, to not let it go to waste, to make something of one’s life. It is the stillness that the rich attempt to escape by immersing themselves in one or another contingent activity or project, whether an altruistic project such as charity or volunteerism (towards the end of the movie, Marco’s wife suggests that he do volunteer work) or a narcissistic project such as exercise or weight loss. Only as long as metabolism (the metabolism bragged about by the “non-anorexic” bimbo character in Lost in Translation) is able to keep on par with accumulation, and only the extent that the rich are willing to put themselves to work, is excessive wealth justified. For the bourgeoisie, Nietzschean master morality is fundamentally impossible—when it is attempted it only results in neurotic anxieties and violent outbursts (such as those played out by the Jeff Daniels character in Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale).

This gap is the obverse of all productive accumulation and takes the outward appearance of waste. Waste appears not only in the form of the empty houses of the rich or the waste products of mass consumption (the pile of trays Marco finds in his room when he returns home from Las Vegas, the overflowing pot of spaghetti he cooks for himself) but also as lost time—moments whose beauty can never be appreciated unreflexively, but only with a tinge of tragic, preemptive nostalgia. Towards the end of Somewhere Marco and his daughter Cleo sit next to each other by the pool of the Chateau Marmont, their eyes hidden under their dark sunglasses. The nostalgic Strokes song we hear tells us that this moment is already a blissful memory, even though it ostensibly takes place in the “present” of the film.

There are two ways in which bourgeois culture can address this gap (between bourgeois virtue and the excessive wealth this virtue attempts to legitimate): on the one hand, it can attempt to bridge it, to affirm bourgeois ascetic values, and on the other hand, it can declare it unbridgeable, affirming this gap as decadent amoral jouissance.

The surest way to shore up the existential crises of bourgeois culture is to resort to family values. Wes Anderson is perhaps the most reprehensible of haut bourgeois stylists since his family dramas remain so slavishly Oedipal—fathers are consistently accomplished and their tragicomic shortcomings run no deeper than their failures to be more sensitive and understanding toward their neurotic progeny. In Anderson’s films there is a homogeneity between the stylistic choices the director makes to create his cinematic world and the aesthetic values of the characters themselves. These values are thereby naturalized, and the films’ satisfactory resolution of Oedipal conflicts further affirm their cultural worth.

Instead of affirming bourgeois values by coding them in terms of a “deeper” Oedipal drama, Coppola puts these values on display in all their post-Oedipal banality. Marco, the father figure in Somewhere, is castrated from the beginning of the film. His arm is wrapped in a cast, and his sexual misadventures are no mystery to his daughter Cleo, who reacts to them with pointed scorn. Cleo, by contrast, skates beautifully, prepares a flawless eggs benedict breakfast, and fakes all the poise she needs to comport herself in the adult world. If the values of this world are most perfectly and beautifully realized in the figure of a child, it seems impossible to be virtuous in it as an adult.

Many of Coppola’s characters are like upper-class Bartlebies, refusing or unable to “make something” of their lives and their privilege. As bearers of beauty, wealth or fame these characters are expected to live up to the fantasies projected onto them as celebrity objects of collective desire.

Celebrities, we believe, should be “just like us” only more disciplined, more ascetic, more objectified. They should accept media scrutiny and public voyeurism as the necessary price of their fame and social position. And the wealth they enjoy is acceptable because it is not only their own but also the public’s, at least insofar as it is able to consume and enjoy their image.

The celebrity who withholds himself from public view is eroticized all the more, since the tiny scraps we can salvage of his life are given value in proportion to their rarity. This is an important theme in Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, and though the movie portrays a family in 1970s suburban Michigan (rather than a Hollywood star), the Lisbon girls’ existence is fully mediated by television and celebrity culture. The demands that these girls and their family be on display, that they give some account of themselves to the public, and that their actions appear intelligible are placed on them both by the local TV channel and by the young boys who watch them from afar. Yet these are demands that can never be satisfied. The girls “just want to be girls.” They are expected to possess some secret understanding, power, or perfection and if their suicide appears necessary it is because it is the only way the other characters can sustain the belief in their mystique. From the narration at the beginning of the film, we know that the boys attribute a grand historical significance to the Lisbon girls, attempting to find in their deaths an anticipation of “everything that happened to their town”—in short, the decline of the auto industry and of U.S. economic hegemony.

This interpretation takes on a bitter note when we remember the penultimate scene of the film, in which the boys fantasize about driving away with the Lisbon girls in some kind of Great American Roadtrip. Instead of a car escape, the girls choose death. . . And given the opening shots of the movie, which are like a fast forward recap of Badlands (Lux standing in the middle of her street at us over her lollipop) and Blue Velvet (the tracking shots of suburban lawns, the ambulance pulling up at the Lisbon home)—two movies featuring bad car trips and an ominous take on American male fantasies of rebellion and escape—who can blame them?

Given the parallels between the fantasy ending of The Virgin Suicides and the “real” ending of Somewhere, Johnny Marco’s ridiculous walk into the sunset now appears at the very least more interesting than it does on a naive viewing. Marco’s cowboy charade is about as convincing as Bill Murray’s impressions of Roger Moore and the Rat Pack in Lost in Translation—an outdated Hollywood cliché that can only be repeated as farce. What will happen to Marco’s daughter? Will Marco return to Las Vegas via helicopter to pick her up from summer camp? Will he try to play father to a girl to whom he clearly has so little to offer? Or is the final scene of Somewhere as much an imaginative act on the part of Cleo as the car scene in The Virgin Suicides is an imaginative act on the part of the young boys—an attempt to transform what is actually Johnny her father’s suicide into a meaningful “way out”?

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