Mascara runs down her cheeks. Alexis Neiers is recording a voicemail. “Twenty-nine dollars!” shouts her mother in the background. “Everytime you yell, I have to re-record it!” screams Alexis, just a shade off incoherence. We watch her record and re-record this message four times; in every instance her meandering soliloquies (full of self-affirmation and aggression) are interrupted by her equally tearful mother. The ridiculousness of the scene is only heightened by the modulated high-pitched voices of Alexis and her mother that the uploader of the video to Youtube has imposed upon the episode in order to avoid copyright infringement.
The voicemail belonged to the journalist Nancy Jo Sales; the scene is part of a mostly forgotten 2010 reality television series called Pretty Wild. Earlier in the episode (the fifth in a one season ‘wonder’) we have seen Alexis in a state of emotional vulnerability during an interview and offered a comforting hug by this journalist. Her later betrayal is transparent. And in the very nature of a journalist. In the Vanity Fair article that has so upset Alexis, Sales observes the reality television show being filmed. Gleefully she recounts a producer off-camera feeding lines to Alexis’ mother during the filming of a scene. The unreality of reality. Who knows whether what was screamed during that hysterical (both senses of the word) scene was truthful? Both Alexis and the journalist are playing a game, manipulating reality to reduce each other to a caricature, the sneaky journalist, the fame-hungry simpleton. They are mutual victims of editing.
There’s another video on Youtube where Alexis talks about her substantial drug addiction during the filming of Pretty Wild (her voice mellowed and calmer through its lack of modulation). Her addiction is never fully addressed on the show, but it a subtext to her ‘wild’ behaviour. It acts as a shadow of self-manipulation hanging over every action seen on screen. Another layer of unreality to a life.
Alexis was part of the ‘Bling Ring’, a bunch of young people who invaded the homes of the rich and famous and stole thousands of dollars of clothes, watches and naked photos of Paris Hilton. Years later, her story will be adapted and manipulated by Sofia Coppola in a movie called The Bling Ring. Alexis will be played by Emma Watson. Lines from the Vanity Fair article by Sales are repeated verboten, scenes from Pretty Wild are re-enacted (included some hilarious moments where Alexis lowers the zip on her hoodie to flirt unnecessarily with a delivery man). The layers of unreality pile up.
In the hands of any other director, Alexis’ life would be sneered at. Most reviews of the film were disappointed that Alexis was not judged enough. However Coppola’s camera is an unjudgemental eye. Simply uninterested in demeaning the lives of those within her films, Coppola revels in the beauty that surrounds them. Her gaze is indulgent, colourful and confrontational; because whilst it is easy (and often it is invited) to sneer at a reality television show it is hard to detach yourself to the same extent from a movie. It surrounds you and penetrates you. Coppola has realised that all moves are lies; that the lives she documents are constructs of layers upon layers of manipulation, editing and delusion, and the only thing left to do is dance in the ashes of reality.
Across five films (The Virgin Suicides – 1999, Lost in Translation – 2003, Marie Antoinette – 2006, Somewhere – 2010, The Bling Ring – 2013, and various short films, music videos, adverts and Netflix specials) Coppola has documented individuals who have often led lives far more privileged than our own. Her work is often attacked – for its failure to critique, snippy comments about existential angst, the nepotism perceived in her own career. Coppola has brushed this all off with the same cultured indifference that has allowed her to present the lives that most filmmakers (white, cis, male etc) are, at most, indifferent to.
The loudest voices are often silent when it comes to defending young people. Their indulgences are reminders of our own painful adolescences (and the copious mistakes of our youths). Young people are never listened to. But they experience reality with such an intensity that puts us adults to shame. Everything is present, felt, heightened. Everything is new. Adults could do with replacing some of our cultivated ‘maturity’ with a little of the passion of a young person. Certainly, meaningful social change would be more likely to occur. Coppola’s camera is the closest thing we have to the eye of a young person. We could do well with learning from it.
Few mainstream filmmakers have explored the texture of film with the casualness that Coppola does. Her films can feature shocking jump cuts, static long takes, time-lapse photography, montage from one moment to the next. To this extent, she is a multimedia artist, playing with all the materials available to her through her camera to best suit her story. The casualness of their use is present right from the start of her career. It’s as if the ease at which movie sets and filmmaking that came from her upbringing have found their way in to the very text of her movies. It’s easy to dismiss a caricature of her films – slow, ponderous nothingness – but the energy, particularly of Marie Antoinette and The Bling Ring, is refreshing in comparison to most mainstream cinema.
And shocking. In many of her films, the narrative flow (and rule) of the film will be disrupted by the sudden intrusion of voiceover. Often the spoken, unseen thoughts of a lead character, it will reveal a feeling about a moment that could not occur to us as a viewer. We bring so much to films, we impose on them our values and beliefs, and Coppola snatches it away from us. She anticipates the ease at which we will judge others. But like the person in the queue ahead of you who is holding you up, who suddenly turns around and apologises (causing your build up of anger to dissipate), Coppola forces the viewer of her films to challenge their preconceptions and preoccupations.
Within her work, there is an open acceptance that no one really knows what they are doing. It’s as if the very meaninglessness of life has been revealed cinematically. Success, youth, fame, love, beauty (the things we seek/prize most) are hollow victories, and ultimately bring an emptiness inside. Could it be that our every endeavour leads to…nothingness? It’s rare for a filmmaker to revel in the secular so outrageously, but Coppola presents the freedom of choice that comes from an acceptance of purposelessness. Relationships, both essential and disposable, have a heightened intensity in her cinema, because they are the only glimmer of something that may matter, something that may have affect. You can’t seem to shape your own life; perhaps you can shape another’s and see some proof of your own worth.
Coppola has a love of beauty, in nature, people and consumerism. Objects (often clothes and shoes) are treated with a reverence unfamiliar to onlookers. It’s as if the love of these is a bold feminist act. Beauty was of no concern to men (except the very narrow values they applied to the physical appearance of the women of their culture) so women indulged in its fineries. Men dismissed this indulgence as a clear indication of the shallowness and silliness of the female species. But little did men know, for the clothes, the animals, the decoration was a little joy in a meaningless existence. There is a creativeness to dressing yourself that few men choose to experience – women wallow in the everyday creativity that comes with beauty. Coppola’s films take time to show the finery of colour, the texture of nature, the every-changing loveliness of the human face. It is a spit in the eye of the everyday western religious judgement that surrounds the making of beautiful things (and indeed, her films are beautiful themselves – perhaps the ultimate creative act of beauty).
One area where beauty is not found in her films is in the physical act of sex. Sex is a source of embarrassment to Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, Stephen Dorff falls asleep watching twin pole dancers in Somewhere, Kirsten Dunst is abandoned in The Virgin Suicides and unsatisfied in Marie Antoinette. Strange, as her films often play as extended acts of foreplay. Sex is heavy in the air during the heists in The Bling Ring and between the Bill Murray/Scarlett Johansson relationship in Lost in Translation. There is a desperation for the characters to fuck each other. But the physical act of conventional heterosexual sex will disappoint the expectations that tingles the participants during flirtations. It’s as if her cinema wants to indulge in something kinkier, but can’t quite bring itself to commit. It teeters on the precipice of queerness, but can’t quite take the leap into the exciting unknown.
Coppola’s gaze transgresses the everyday ordinariness of male led cinema. It presents characters dismissed and mocked by others (the histories of Marie Antoinette were written by men after all) without prejudice. It revels in the possibility of beauty. It presents modern life with all its complex, constructed social dynamics in place (most cinema ignores the existence of social media – The Bling Ring presents an ‘unfriending’ on Facebook with a casual complexity). It is unusual, vibrant and unjudgemental. It is essential American cinema.
You can watch the episode of Pretty Wild mentioned in this article at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQnYlJezRwg
Alexis Neiers talks about her drug addiction (and sobriety) at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FH9-S6ntIBQ
The Vanity Fair article concerning the ‘Bling Ring’ can be found at: http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2010/03/billionaire-girls-201003
Essential, if somewhat out of date, writing on Coppola by Anna Backman Rogers can be found at: http://sensesofcinema.com/2007/great-directors/sofia-coppola/ (a book on Coppola by the same author is apparently forthcoming).