Saturday, July 13, 2013

Stealing stuff

I’d never try to argue that human innovation and achievement has run out, but it does sometimes feel as if its capacity for meaningful public discourse has hit the wall. Politics has never been so trivial; substance has never been so crowded out by trivia and ephemera; it seems unthinkable that we might ever conduct an even vaguely balanced mass conversation about our long-term needs and how to get there. Rick Salutin pointed out in The Star last week that even bedrock terms like “democracy” have become degraded, essentially used merely as a synonym for “elections,” regardless that those elections may be rendered all but meaningless by the lies told at the time, or by subsequent lack of faith. It’s a better way to go, argued Salutin counseled, if “you don’t assume the definition of democracy or human progress has reached any fixed end points. Most cultural activity only really began 8,000 to 12,000 years ago, as a teenager recently told me; it would be odd to assume anything is complete. In that light, it’s we who should uncouple from fixed definitions and learn something from their openness.”

The Bling Ring

This might not seem like the most obvious way into Sofia Coppola’s new film The Bling Ring, based on the real life story from a few years ago about a group of teenagers who got into burglarizing celebrity homes, taking off with several million dollars in stuff. But I think the film’s main interest is in its implicit challenge to governing concepts – morality, the “rule of law,” property rights; it suggests their underpinning has become (at least in certain quadrants of America) so distorted and degraded that it’s increasingly unclear what they’re meant to safeguard. The kids in The Bling Ring might well be largely  “uncoupled from fixed definitions” – the trouble is, instead of this being a path to enlightenment, it strands them in mind-boggling narcissism and idiocy.

The narrative gets under way as Marc, a vaguely troubled kid of no great distinction, arrives at a new school, where he instantly falls in with Rebecca, one of the hot girls. In a few minutes of screen time, she’s leading him outside from a party to check out the parked cars, finding a good percentage of them unlocked and containing spoils. They progress into rifling empty houses, first the homes of no-names and then (aided by Google as a supplier both of addresses and of information on who’s out of town at any given moment) of the rich and famous, their favourite target being Paris Hilton’s, which they hit up as you or I might visit a local Starbucks (the premise, reasonable from what we see of the house, is that she has so much stuff, she’d never miss any of it as long as they keep the nightly haul no greater than, say, a small truckload). Of course, it’s a bubble that inevitably bursts.

Taking from Paris

Their targets, like Hilton, all belong to that category where the source of their fame and wealth is either unknown, or else seems grossly disproportionate to their actual achievements, and Paris’ pad in particular resembles a department store cum nightclub cum Museum of Paris Hilton more than a place where anyone might feel at home. Of course, there’s not much new to be said about such excesses, and yet Coppola manages it, by conveying just how little any of these trappings matter, how they constitute an existential black hole of meaning. As the film presents it, the security at these buildings is shockingly lax, far more so than it would be for a “normal” person, who actually cared about their space and what it contained. The kids seem not to perceive their actions as stealing, and how could they, when what they’re taking wasn’t “earned” by any rational measure of functioning capitalism, doesn’t seem to fundamentally matter to its notional owners, and has little inherent value relative to its ticket price (it’s hard to imagine them wearing or using anything they steal much more than once). When they’re caught, they barely seem to relate to the development as other than a practical problem, which for at least one of them might as much constitute a public relations opportunity (Lindsay Lohan’s jail time gets cited several times). A shot near the end of Marc being led along in an orange jumpsuit, followed and preceded by serious-looking convicts with the kind of bodies and ambiance appearing nowhere else in the movie, emphasizes how little any of this has to do with broader societal notions and impacts of crime.

It’s not that Coppola defends her subjects as such, but that she seems to regard them as beyond defense or criticism, as embodiments of a complete moral absence. Writing in the British Observer, Catherine Shoard called the film “a Tinseltown stitch-up that exonerates all involved by understanding the plight of the crimes in terms of simple celeb worship (and) actually acts as yet another ad. By reiterating the desirability of starry clobber, Coppola is pushing positive brand reinforcement.” She adds: “Coppola's dialogue is remorselessly authentic in its inanity, and this blankness runs deep in what finally feels a shallow film about shallow people.” Many other reviewers saw the film in broadly similar terms, and it’s not hard to see where they’re coming from. But the depth of the blankness seems like the point – any kind of imposed intelligence or analytical distance would be untrue to the all-consuming absence of those qualities. If the film was going to be made at all, it could only be as an artfully shallow one.

A better life?

You might fairly argue though that the film didn’t need to be made, that Coppola is mining to exhaustion a narrow seam of material. Writing here about her last film Somewhere, an examination of a star actor, I said it raised such questions as “if someone like Johnny Marco isn’t living a better life than the average slacker, then what’s the point of it all; in particular, what’s the nature of the attention directed at him, the desire to be close to him?” and “we can find meaning in such lives if we look for it, but why are we bothering?” These may not be exactly the same questions as those raised by The Bling Ring, but they don’t seem a million miles removed from them either. Still, Coppola is skillful enough that it continues to seem like a useful line of investigation, even if the inner layerings of Hollywood can only stretch so far in illustrating broader issues.

I quoted Shoard as calling the film an “exoneration,” but it would be a complex task to consider whether America retains enough intellectual and ethical coherence to convict or exonerate anyone of much of anything; it’s a country that seems fixed where it ought to be open, and vice versa. I don’t think it’s quite at the point where Paris Hilton’s closet is a more meaningful institution than, say, Congress, but it might be getting there fast.

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