Thursday, May 5, 2011

Dad's Review of Somewhere

Sofia, so subtle, so slow, so beautiful…. so what?
What was big in Japan didn’t work in Milan

by Denis Murphy

So… after a fine Saturday night dinner, we (my wife Mary and I) screened the DVD version of Sofia Coppola’s film Somewhere. As the final credits came up, Mary’s reaction was, “That’s the worst movie I’ve ever watched through to the end. It was like watching paint dry.”

Yeah, good call babe.
But... maybe... (after an another sip of wine...let’s say from Coppola’s California vineyard) ... there’s painting, you know, like just covering surfaces and there’s PAINTING, you know, ART!” Now, listen to yourself. Aw shit. Why did I promise Caitlin I’d do this?


It takes a young girl to make an old man smile
It takes a young girl to make an old man fly
Now why should it take a young girl
To move this old heart of mine?

("Young Girl" by Jesse Winchester from the LP Nothing but a Breeze (1969?))

Just saw JW in concert recently, and kept hearing this song as the story (such as it was) slowly (comme un escargot... in joke for my blog administrator) developed. Accumulated? Jesse’s lyric pretty much sums things up. Messed up, isolated, self loathing celebrity father is moved, revived, and perhaps even redeemed by the luminous, yet resiliently grounded presence of the eleven year old daughter he has neglected...From nowhere, a man/father may be finally getting somewhere.

The father in this one, is Hollywood movie and global tabloid star, Johnny Marco (played by Stephen Dorff. After an opening sequence in he which he drives his Maserati through aimless ovals in the desert, our hero returns to languish restlessly in Room 59 of Hollywood’s legendary Chateau Marmont Hotel. (We know it’s legendary because in a strange little elevator encounter, Benicio del Toro (it was him...wasn’t that him?) tells Johnny of meeting Bono in Room 59. Cool.) Johnny vainly battles the ennui of fame by smoking, drinking, popping pills, fucking beautifully superficial women, sighing, sitting, lying down, inhaling deeply, exhaling deeply, watching blonde twins pole dancing, partying, and falling asleep trying to fuck another beautifully superficial woman. Tough day, Marco. When not in his room, he’s in his car, cruising LA, evading media attention and ignoring texts that ask why he is such an asshole. Stuff like that.

Stephen Dorff looks to me more like a TV actor than a screen icon, so it was a problem accepting all the adulation, deference, and “action” he was getting...Okay, we are told that his stardom is totally unearned. In a brief chat with an insipid, aspiring actor, Johnny reveals that he never really studied “the method” or anything. You just get an agent, do auditions, and… oh yeah... keep at it. Marco’s success is based on his willingness to vapidly comply with the demands of his PR people, to subject himself to the humiliations of inane press conferences and photo shoots (seen this before?), to let makeup people encase his head in a latex mask for 40 minutes (and yes, this shot felt that it would last that long. Are we looping into real time now? NO!) And, he does his own stunts... see, broken wrist. Is that all it takes?

As Johnny, Dorff is amiable and vacant enough, I guess. But, he is hard to take as a world sensation, and it is even harder to care whether or not he escapes his privileged, “first world” existential funk. The character can know...indifferent. But the viewer? Not good.

One morning, Johnny awakens to the vision of his daughter, Cleo, signing the cast on his wrist. (No, don’t get me started about that cast. Boy, was that an irritant! Let me just send the reader to a poolroom scene in The Departed where the legitimacy of DiCaprio’s cast was sorely tested and verified. Where’s that Boston Irish thug when you need him?) Back to Cleo. The Fanning children certainly photograph well. Elle has a sylphy elegance in scenes where she figure skates (the long program, I’m guessing) or is gowned for a gala in Milan. And, who would not be charmed by the sensible and plucky practicality of an eleven year old survivor of estranged parenthood. Cleo makes mac and cheese from scratch, turns out a great eggs Benedict, takes licence plate numbers, remembers passports and Sudokos for the trip to Milan, and, studiously alluring in glasses, makes lists on her laptop of things to take to camp. This performance seems more like modelling than acting, although she does have one teary breakdown about her mother not coming back.

When Cleo’s mother, Layla, has “to get away for a while”, Johnny is compelled to bear responsiblity for the girl and to deliver her to summer camp. But first, Johnny has to be in Milan to get a golden cat award from that crazy Italian media. What follows is a picaresque of father/daughter bonding from LA to Milan to LA to Vegas(an obligatory stop in any road trip... wasn’t that the idiot savant Raymond counting cards at the next table?)and back to the desert where we began. All the father/daughter moments in this journey, tender, langurous, comic, and cute seem to serve as just so many occassions for artsy “montage-y” exercises in cinematography and tone variation.

Sofia Coppola is admirable in the way she challenges the conventions and expectations of most mainstream American films and in the way she creates beautiful, quietly understated humane “moments”. For example, I was shamelessly moved by the aging night porter, Romulo, at the Marmont singing and strumming that old Elvis song “Teddy Bear’ with such artlesss sincerity as Johnnny and Cleo nestled together on a couch in the lobby.

A black SUV lurks behind a Maserati in the streets of LA. Rev ‘em up, I feel a car chase coming. Not so fast. Just more driving. Pole dancers, twins yet. This is going to be hot. Well, no rather awkward and pathetic really. Those two girls look like a couple of distracted juniors trying to avoid mistakes in an inadequately rehearsed routine in front of the cheerleading coach. Accelerated editing is now the movie norm. The pace of this film would make Barry Lyndon look frenetic.

But, as laudable as it should be, the struggle against convention can devolve into idiosyncracy, mannerism and aesthtetic fetish. When the viewer’s awareness of the director’s craft becomes focal rather than subsidiary, subtelty shrieks for atttention to itself, minimalism becomes a form of overwrought excess and the viewer suspects that “there is less in this than meets the eye”.

Check out time, yet?. No. Well just one other thing we have to talk about.

Although Sofia Coppola insists that the older guy /young girl relationships in her films are personal, not autobiographical, I can’t help but comment on some resonances with images associated with her dad. Warning: the rest of this paragraph may be of interest or meaningful only to aging boomers or film junkies!! But, who can watch a man debauching himself in a hotel room without thinking of Martin Sheen smashing mirrors in a Saigon hotel? Who can watch a guy slop way too much spaghetti into a strainer without thinking of the Corleones going to the mattresses? And a helicopter to take a kid to summer camp, for Chrissakes? How can you watch a man’s long overdue apology to his child being drowned out by the sound of chopper blades without wondering about the tolls on the Coppolas -- father, mother, and children -- during the filming of Apocolypse Now. There are more of these. Have fun, fans.

So there it is. “Artfulness” in direction can be a distraction. More matter, less art. Celebrity must suck. LA has a lot of freeway, billboards, and pools. Italian TV is just so wild and crazy. Love, when you can recognize it and actually feel it, is transformative.

Yeah, Johnny, it’s cool, I guess, that you realized you were fucking nothing, not even a person and checked out of the Marmont. Keep smiling. Keep walking away from the car. And oh yeah... yeah...just keep at it.

(Yeah, like I give a fuck?)

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