By Mique Watson
Let me tell you why I love Sofia Coppola so much: she’s interesting. She is unbothered by box office returns; she is loyal to her vision. Here is a woman who has had a keen understanding of Hollywood since her earliest memories–she plays the baby in “The Godfather”, for crying out loud! She is a keen observer of life, of human nature, and–as a consequence, I suppose, of growing up around the glitz and glam of Hollywood–the repercussions of copious amounts of glitz and glam.
In keeping with this month’s theme of Mental Health, I thought it’d be appropriate to write about a woman’s depiction of a man’s mental state in La La Land. “Somewhere”, which won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival, offers very little in terms of plot and intrigue. As such, it’s one of those films I find to be mostly impossible to recommend: it’s stultifyingly dull, it’s numbing, it’s exhausting–and that’s exactly the point! I personally hated this film with a passion…until I fell irrevocably in love with everything about it.
“If art is an extension of the artist; Coppola’s films are surely an extension of her…What she personally perceived to be poignant may not resonate with many on the onset. Her ideas of happiness and love, however, certainly could.”
It’s a film about a life of constant stimulation; it follows a privileged son of Hollywood, Johnny (Stephen Dorff) and his life of booze, cigarettes, women, and stranger-filled parties all at his beck and call. A life which many dream of–one many would perhaps kill to have; yet we find out relatively early on that the gospel according to Aristippus has left Johnny numb. He has attained success in his career–he has reaped all its benefits; the pleasures of experiencing them, however, are lost to him.
So, what effect has fame and a life of excess had on Johnny? Well, Johnny, at the end of the film, seems to believe he is nothing. This is a sentiment he seems to be sure of–this is nihilism, a product, “Somewhere” seems to suggest, of hedonism. Johnny spends most of this film perched in his bird’s nest of a suite in the Chateau Marmont; a hotel that has hosted generations of Hollywood personalities. A hotel where everyone has been inured to the site of famous people; a setting where Johnny fades into anonymity.
The first shot of the film immediately calls Vincent Gallo’s “The Brown Bunny” to mind; you’ll know what I mean if you’ve seen them. Both Coppola and Gallo’s protagonists share the same existential crisis: they’re racing nowhere, with determined fervour. They’ve both lost their abilities to go somewhere, and this incredible irony just harkens back to the ingeniousness of the film’s title.
“Coppola does analyze Johnny’s mindset–but primarily, she seems to suggest that it is a microcosm for Los Angeles and how it is today.”
The intent behind this film is equally as fascinating. Director Sofia Coppola had apparently just finished filming “Marie Antoinette”, and was living in France. She was pondering one day and decided she was interested in doing a film from a man’s point of view–something minimum, something that showed the darker realities of celebrity culture. She was drawn to Elle Fanning’s intellect and youth. Many actually believe that her character, Cleo, is a stand-in for Fanning; Coppola denies this. She does admit that she relates to Cleo being a child who grew up around people who were so attracted to this whole world.
The best thing about this film is the director’s intention. Yes, Coppola does analyze Johnny’s mindset–but primarily, she seems to suggest that it is a microcosm for Los Angeles and how it is today. She has stated in interviews that she was inspired by her love for films that serve as time capsules for how Los Angeles was at certain points in history (she cites films like “Shampoo” and “American Gigolo”). She observes her subject with such tender understanding: apparently, rehearsals involved her actors improvising family situations; the shooting process, though, was relaxed and natural. The effect is a tactile understanding of the setting and the characters that thrive in it.
If art is an extension of the artist; Coppola’s films are surely an extension of her. She likes to incorporate her humour, her taste in music (I thank her films for spicing up my Spotify playlists! If only Coppola could make one…), and her knowledge of photography. What she personally perceived to be poignant may not resonate with many on the onset. Her ideas of happiness and love, however, certainly could… to those who have the patience to let her work her magic, that is.