Saturday, February 5, 2011

Stars and Zombies

Somewhere follows Johnny Marco, seemingly a major Hollywood star, temporarily living in the Los Angeles Chateau Marmont hotel. He drinks, has lots of sex, passes the time playing computer games and staring into space. Sometimes he gets a call to do some publicity thing for his new movie or some preparation thing for his next one; he goes dutifully along, but never suggesting much grasp of how the dots of his life join together. Sometimes his daughter spends the day with him; halfway through the movie, she comes for an extended stay after her mother suddenly takes off (this is as close as the film comes to a plot). Marco has all the access, privilege and adulation in the world – on a publicity trip to Milan he receives a police escort and the keys to the city, and stays in a suite the size of Versailles – but has no idea what to do with it. He never expresses an intelligent thought, and his curiosity seems limited to mild paranoia about whether he’s being followed.

A Better Life

The film is a deadpan counterpoint to the TV show Entourage, which places a somewhat similar character in the middle of a perpetual whirl of connection. Marco’s Blackberry seldom seems to buzz, and when it does, we see him receive only abusive texts from an unknown sender. In his public appearances, he’s affable, turning on a killer smile, but has so little to say as to seem almost catatonic. One of the film’s witty recurring motifs simply involves him falling asleep. When he goes to a special effects shop to have a mould made of his head, he’s left to sit there alone, covered in plaster, with just two breathing holes for his nostrils, a perfect evocation of inert, unfathomable presence. But then we see the end result of the process, when he’s made up to look like an old man, and the film momentarily feels like 2001, as if cosmic existential transformation were also within his grasp.

Because, of course, 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? Coppola has been criticized for making the same movie over and over – Lost in Translation was also about a movie star in a hotel, and when she extended her range to make a picture about Marie Antoinette, it was just another take on opulent isolation. Indeed, if the point of the film was merely Johnny Marco, the film would surely be too marginal for any of us to care about. I do actually think it’s a little too marginal to entirely deserve the top prize it took at the Venice film festival. But Somewhere’s import is maximized if we take it primarily as a critique of the societal investment in someone like Marco, a plausible interpretation given the film’s quietly relentless gaze (of course, given Coppola’s own celebrity and the scrutiny she’s endured in the past, the possibility always exists that she’s driven largely by self-motivated special pleading).


Superficially, the character makes some progress. But I think Coppola intends that mainly as a tease; he goes from driving his Porsche in circles in the opening shot to an actual straight-line journey in the final scene, but seemingly without ending up anywhere in particular (the title of Somewhere has the inevitable implication of Nowhere). Sure, we can find meaning in such lives if we look for it, but why are we bothering? Coppola strokes our fascination through her attention to place and texture, often of a rather tatty nature; for instance, when he has two pole dancers in his room (they bring their own collapsible poles), their sliding against the metal is heavy on the soundtrack; along with the scene’s sheer repetitive length, it renders events so functional that I doubt any viewer could retain much erotic interest.

It might have worked out pretty well that I saw the film in the week after Ricky Gervais’ Golden Globe gig, where he set off endless chatter by supposedly bruising some celebrity egos. Even as commentators deride the story, they perpetuate it, just as I’m doing here, and to the extent it obscures and diverts mass attention from the real needs of the human project, it’s a genuine social evil (which I suppose was Gervais’ broader point). So Somewhere sets off a timely reverie, but as I mentioned, it just isn’t impactful enough for all tastes. If it were more impactful, of course, then that would probably only mark it as a product of the machine, rather than being a critique of it.

Survival of the Dead

Back in the day, it was possible to argue (and yes, I mean with a straight face) for George Romero’s zombie movies as serious social critiques too. In Dawn of the Dead, the second of the films (made in 1978), a group of fleeing humans holes up inside an abandoned shopping mall, allowing endless opportunities to poke at how our commitment to consumerism might not be so different from the brain-dead blood lust driving on the zombies. Romero completed the trilogy a few years later, then put the subject matter aside for twenty years, since when he’s made three more in short order; it’s no surprise, I’m sure, that a sense of diminishing returns attaches to the effort.

The most recent, Survival of the Dead, is now available on DVD and cable. The main setting this time is an island off the coast of Delaware, long the domain of two feuding Irish families, whose enmity continues into a disagreement about the strategy toward the zombie plague (shoot them all on sight, or keep enough of them around to facilitate the search for a cure). Throw in a bunch of soldiers, lured from the mainland by the possibility of crafting a zombie-free refuge, and it’s an obvious tinderbox.

Compared to its deliberately ragged predecessor, Diary of the Dead (which riffed to no great purpose on the pervasiveness of new technologies), Survival has a pristine, classical kind of quality. It’s propulsive and exciting to watch, no question, and although the stuff with the Irish clans seems mostly silly, there’s something endearing about Romero thinking such swaggering blarney to be a suitable vehicle for depicting, basically, the end of everything. It works its way to some homily about how war continues on long after we’ve forgotten the original purpose behind the conflict; this is no doubt true, but not something particularly well-illuminated by this movie. If there’s a next time, I think Romero needs to refocus on the zombies’ metaphorical potential, maybe by having them combine eating human flesh with producing one of those showbiz gossip shows.

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