This guest post by Amy Woolsey appears as part of our theme week on Unlikable Women.
“Empty.” “Wispy.” “Disposable.” These are the kinds of adjectives used to describe The Bling Ring, Sofia Coppola’s cinematic rendering of the real-life Los Angeles robbery spree perpetrated by a clique of celebrity-obsessed teenagers, when it came out in June 2013. Although a smattering of dissent could be heard from various circles, general consensus seemed to maintain that the film was like its protagonists: pretty to look at, without much to say. A couple critics went so far as to ask why Coppola bothered to make it at all, and many others (including Marcia Herring, whose review was posted on Bitch Flicks) made explicit or oblique references to the director’s famously upper-class background, intimating that it impeded her ability to effectively critique her subjects.
In all fairness, it’s easy to see how people would get this impression. With its glittering veneer, ubiquitous (if unavoidable) product placement, and energetic, dance-ready soundtrack, The Bling Ring practically shrieks “pop confection,” a catchy trifle obsessed with imagery and texture perhaps at the expense of substance. It spends more time reveling in obscenely expensive shoes, purses and jewelry than developing the characters. As anyone who endured the heated Wolf of Wall Street debates that waged throughout the 2013-14 awards season can attest, the line between satirizing something and glorifying it is flimsy at best. Lacking an alternate viewpoint to lend perspective to or openly comment on the characters’ behavior, we’re left on our own to decipher what, if any, meaning can be found beneath the surface gloss.[caption id="attachment_18939" align="aligncenter" width="500"] So. Many. Shoes.[/caption]
At the same time, I can’t help but detect a disconcertingly gendered undercurrent in much of the criticism. Especially flagrant are the recurring accusations of nepotism that have been leveled at Coppola, daughter of legendary Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola, since her acting days. There’s nothing wrong with interrogating privilege; seeing as people don’t create art in a vacuum, it’s always important to be cognizant of biases and circumstances that might inform filmmakers’ perspectives. The problem is that the targets of complaints concerning class and pedigree are primarily, if not exclusively, women. As IndieWire’s Sam Adams said, even after helming five films and receiving a Best Director Oscar nomination, a feat achieved by only three other women, Coppola is still treated “like an upstart, a spoiled little girl who owes her career to her father” and cannot possibly have any worthwhile insight to contribute to society. By contrast, Jason Reitman (son of Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman), Tony Gilroy (son of award-winning writer and director Frank D. Gilroy), and Nick Cassavetes (son of independent film pioneer John Cassavetes and actress Gena Rowland) apparently didn’t benefit from their family histories at all.
It’s true that, by devoting her career to scrutinizing the lives and angst of those immersed in wealth, from Bill Murray’s jaded actor in Lost in Translation to Kirsten Dunst’s Marie Antoinette, Coppola draws increased attention to her own wealth. Yet instead of undermining her credibility, her insider status should make her uniquely qualified to comment on the culture and lifestyle of the rich and famous. With The Bling Ring, for example, she follows the brash teenage thieves with the curious yet matter-of-fact eye of a documentarian, neither in awe of nor disgusted by them. She takes for granted that these people and their world exists – the afternoons spent lounging on the beach, the evenings drinking in nightclubs and doing drugs at parties, the inattentive or absent parents, the educational methods based on self-help books – and, as a result, so do we. Only once are we explicitly made aware of the distance between our reality and the one inhabited by the characters, the sheer strangeness of the events unfolding onscreen. In the film’s most memorable sequence, we’re treated to a voyeuristic, unbroken wide shot of a glass house while the titular ring scurries inside, plundering it. It’s a tantalizing reminder that we don’t belong here; we can gawk at the red carpet all we want, but the gala itself is off-limits.[caption id="attachment_18940" align="aligncenter" width="500"] A glass menagerie[/caption]
Coppola’s refusal to condemn, explain or apologize for her characters makes for a rather opaque experience. To state the obvious, these are not likable individuals. They exhibit no visible remorse for their crimes, seemingly oblivious to the concept of personal boundaries, and think about little besides fashion and D-list celebrities. Even Marc (Israel Broussard), who is new to the group and expresses alarm when Rebecca (Katie Chang) breaks into Paris Hilton’s home for the first time, protests less out of a sense of morality than a fear of being caught. The youths are excruciatingly vacuous and narcissistic, think-piece millennials on Adderall. Why should we care about what they do or what happens to them? How does Coppola want us to see them – as brats, sociopaths, rebels, misguided kids, or what?
Perhaps a better question is, why are we so repulsed by them in the first place? Robbing celebrities is hardly the worst transgression imaginable, and this isn’t the first movie to center on unruly rich people. Take the aforementioned Wolf of Wall Street, which chronicles the criminal activities and general depravity of Wall Street stockbroker Jordan Belfort. Like The Bling Ring, it rests on the assumption that all people are, to some extent, seduced by the allure of wealth (as Marc says, “I think we just wanted to be part of the lifestyle. The lifestyle that everybody kind of wants”) and strives to implicate the audience in the protagonist’s wrongdoing, suggesting that he’s the product of a larger culture that tolerates or outright encourages such behavior. Both films use repetition to make statements about capitalist excess, bombarding viewers with images of decadence and materialism arguably to the point of overkill. If it conveys the same basic message in half the screen-time (and with a far more consistent tone), why didn’t The Bling Ring have close to the same impact as The Wolf of Wall Street? Yes, Martin Scorsese’s darkly comic epic had its share of detractors, but it still got five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, which I’m pretty sure qualifies as success.
Let’s face it: people are much more willing to stomach, examine and identify with men who behave badly than women, particularly when they’re affluent and white. The Bling Ring is a rare film that 1) revolves around women 2) who are not admirable or sympathetic and 3) doesn’t treat their misdeeds as either harmless fun or feminist defiance. No wonder so many critics are at a loss for how to interpret it. ReelView.com’s James Berardinelli sums it up:
Spending time with these loathsome, self-absorbed individuals, none of whom has a single endearing characteristic, is an ordeal.
Fine, if you don’t enjoy something, you don’t enjoy it. But what, exactly, are Jordan Belfort’s endearing characteristics? That he looks like Leonardo DiCaprio? Hollywood loves to churn out male scumbags, from Belfort to Patrick Bateman from American Psycho and Lou Bloom from 2013’s Nightcrawler (whose sleek/sleazy vision of contemporary Los Angeles and satirical takedown of American entitlement echoes that in The Bling Ring). While it’s agreed that these characters aren’t good people, their desires and values are always recognized as legitimate, albeit twisted. Even the most vocal members of the anti-Wolf of Wall Street camp acknowledged that Scorsese was trying to say something about greed and power and deserved to be taken seriously. On the other hand, The Bling Ring is dismissed as glamorous fluff and its heroines as spoiled, delusional air-heads, I suppose because they fixate on clothes instead of cocaine and sex. Women who covet money and things are frivolous, whereas men who covet money and things are ambitious.[caption id="attachment_18943" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Yep, men don’t care about how they look at all.[/caption]
The key to The Bling Ring ultimately lies in its music. At first glance, the medley of hip-hop, pop, and electronic tunes that Coppola and composer Brian Reitzell have compiled seems to merely complement the flamboyant visuals and shallow characters. Yet they also point to an acute sense of cynicism. It’s impossible to miss the glaring hypocrisy of Rebecca, Marc, and Chloe rocking out to M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls” while aimlessly driving around in a luxury car. They may view themselves as renegades, defying the System by stealing from the uber-rich and giving to themselves, doing whatever they want with zero regard for the consequences, but the fact is that they are the System; they do whatever they want because they can get away with it, and they can get away with it because no one cares. It would be a stretch to say Coppola sympathizes with them (she doesn’t hesitate to poke fun at her characters’ cluelessness, particularly with Emma Watson inhabiting a role that lampoons her real-life persona), but she understands the underlying sadness of their situation. They are, after all, teenagers with nothing and no one to rebel against. They’re not distrustful of authority so much as indifferent to its very existence, so alienated from the rest of the world that they genuinely believe they own it.
Recommended reading: The Narcissistic Postfeminist Millennial Supergirls of ‘The Bling Ring’ and ‘Spring Breakers’ by Judy Berman at Flavorwire; The Bling Ring by Owen Gleiberman at Entertainment Weekly; Rob Jobs “Now You See Me” and “The Bling Ring.” by David Denby at The New Yorker
Amy Woolsey is a writer living in northern Virginia. She plans to graduate from George Mason University with an English degree this year and spends most of her free time consuming, discussing and generally obsessing over pop culture. You can follow her on Twitter and Tumblr, and she keeps a personal blog that is updated irregularly. This is her first time contributing to Bitch Flicks.