The Career of Sofia Coppola
(I suppose this isn’t a total look at Coppola’s entire career as I stop right before The Beguiled)
It’s strange to call anyone from the Coppola family underrated but I believe Sofia Coppola to be exactly that. She’s a paradox herself, as she’s definitely not an independent filmmaker but she makes Indie films and she regularly rejects the mainstream film world.
Sofia Coppola was first seen on camera as an infant in the first Godfather and she was promptly in the second and third films of the series. Her role in the third film would be almost universally panned as she “won” two Golden Raspberries for her role. She would appear in a handful of a few other films as an actor but for all intents and purposes, this would effectively end her acting career. In the early 90s, she started directing a lot of music video much like her contemporaries who would also go on to see great success in the film world. She, of course, made her feature-length directorial debut with The Virgin Suicides. Any complaints against her regarding nepotism seem to be thrown out when this is shown at Cannes in 1999. Already you can see her begin to form these dream-like realities in her film with her use of film photography and her writing style. She was influenced by Japanese photographer Takashi Homma and his photos of Tokyo suburbs she specifically talks about how she likes “the beauty of banal details” which is what suburbia is down to its core. She pairs up with cinematographer Ed Lachman and together they nail down this aesthetic that looks like it was ripped from a family photo album and the character memories which is perfect for the film’s content. Along with her early visual style, we can a certain writing style start to take hold as well, with Coppola’s admiration of adolescence in the forefront of the film and her soon to be trademark melancholy storytelling.
Her next film, Lost in Translation, is the one that would propel her name into the mainstream as it would go on to receive three Oscar nominations and gross well over one-hundred million dollars at the box office. She adds another piece to the Coppola puzzle with this theme of loneliness in the most lavish of settings. Again, the visuals look like a dream or a memory building off her visual language she started to build in Virgin Suicides. This also marks the first time we might be able to interpret Coppola placing some of her own feelings in her films. I don’t think it would be a stretch to imagine that she felt a sense of loneliness when traveling to these lavish places with her father. She even filmed the hotel scenes in the Park Hyatt Tokyo which she describes as one of her favorite places in the world for its quietness and overall design.
She would follow up with Marie Antoinette which had a budget of forty million dollars. It seems that after the massive success that Lost in Translations was at the box office these studios were willing to give her more money and freedom. We see a few significant changes in her sensibilities as a filmmaker. Marie Antoinette is still shot on 35mm film but it lacks that dream veil that covers her first two films. Furthermore, she explains that Marie Antoinette was also a departure for her usual color scheme “Marie Antoinette was very fanciful and decorative. Usually, I love not very saturated colors. That’s something in my films-I always want low contrast. But not always. It depends on the subject matter.” (Coppola, 2018) We also see her utilize this theme of sympathy towards a younger person, or group of younger people, that probably don’t deserve it. She also explores the theme of young people being thrust into a situation where they still obviously do the wrong thing but are left with little choice and we’re supposed to feel a little sorry for them. While similar to the first theme I mentioned the specifics of the latter are important.
Following up a bombastic tale of countrywide revolution she narrowed her sights to a story of an actor dealing with a personal existential crisis and spends the week with his daughter. Somewhere is definitely one of Coppola’s more forgotten films, almost as much as Bling Ring but I don’t want to get ahead of myself, it’s much slower and deliberately paced than her first three films. Somewhere is also important because it is Coppola’s first collaboration with legendary cinematographer Harris Savides, and this continues her decision to work with your favorite cinematographer’s cinematographer. At this point, Sofia Coppola seems pretty set in her thematic ways with a couple of films having to do with loneliness inside of privilege places and the power of memories and how they change the place we got to or have been. It also continues the theme from Marie Antoinette of a person that seems disliked by most except for the audience. As she made more and more films I also get the sense that she started to allow more of herself and her life events in the films she was making. I don’t think it’s a very far reach to say that a movie about the relationship between a distant father, who works in Hollywood, and a daughter have some of her personal fingerprints in it. It’s also important to note that while Coppola is making these critically acclaimed films she dabbles in modeling for Marc Jacobs, makes two commercials for Christian Dior, and still was very involved in the world of analog photography. All of that stuff seems ancillary but I believe The Bling Ring to be a sum of all the parts of Sofia Coppola.
At some point in 2010, Coppola reads a vanity fair article titled The Suspects Wore Louboutins in which a group of privileged teens robs a group of reality stars and supermodels for upwards of three million dollars. It seems like almost immediately she begins working on a script to adapt this. She is set to direct and her father to be executive producer, and most importantly it marks another collaboration with her and Harris Savides. This collaboration would prove to be a little different as they decided to shoot on digital format instead of the 35mm analog format that they went with last time. This first just seems like Coppola dropping a dying format and finally getting with the times, but when we think about the content of the film it actually fits perfectly. The films itself deals with this pervasive rot of hunting for fame and the dangerous amount of knowledge we have of one another. So, would a film that is dealing with vapid and self-obsessed people look right on dreamy celluloid or does the fact that things are seemingly overlit and plastic looking fit right in? Of course this is a rhetorical question as I don’t think this movie works at all if it is shot on film. Coppola herself agreed that this film had to be shot digitally “Appropriate to that world. That was the only film I shot on digital. Everything else has been on film. I feel like they’re two different media, digital and photographic film. Film just has a different quality.” (Coppola, 2018) This is another great example of form and content meshing together as one. Like I mentioned before, Bling Ring seems like a culmination of everything that makes Sofia Coppola tick. She genuinely loves fashion and scoffs at the idea that its a childish pursuit, and while the characters in this film are childish and maybe a little simple they have a near encyclopedic knowledge on fashion and who wears it. She is showing us that having that knowledge isn’t something to be laughed at. I’m sure she caught flack for seemingly vapid career choices with her doing commercials for these luxury brands. Furthermore, her directing and photography of commercials seems to come into play with The Bling Ring. That glossy and overlit sheen that is so prevalent in scenes makes everything look like a commercial for something like E! I saw criticisms for this film calling it a commercial for high-end clothing brands which is one of those criticisms that are just so close to an actual idea of the film it’s hilarious.
This film also stands the test of time due to its fascination with the idea of parasocial relationships. Shannon Strucci researched this topic extensively with her multi-part video essay titled Fake Friends. She argues that not only is it completely reasonable to have a relationship with someone you’ll never probably never meet but those personalities are actually engineered so that you do get attached to them, and while she focuses on YouTube personalities this is relevant to Bling Ring because these robberies would not have happened if the media and these stars didn’t advertise themselves as friends to consumers of their products. A lot of these stars were from tv or magazines programs more aptly called “Personality Programs.” Shannon Strucci expands on why Personality Programs have a more susceptible audience who might fall for these attempts to harvest a parasocial relationship “I do think people who are more isolated and vulnerable are susceptible to exploitation parasocial relationships.” (“FAKE FRIENDS EPISODE ONE: Intro to Parasocial Relationships.” YouTube, YouTube, 27 Aug. 2017) This fits perfectly into the context of the film and the real-life crimes. The two main proponents of the group in the film were Marc and Rebecca and while they weren’t necessarily watching “Personality Programs” they were digesting magazines and tmz webpages at an alarming rate. The hosts of those shows or writers of those magazines aren’t necessarily selling themselves but they are certainly selling an idea of buyable beauty. A quick but relevant aside, Bo Burnham has a wonderful and extremely funny song and music video called Repeat Stuff. It’s about a fake mega popstar that is a servant for Satan. He appeared on Conan’s late night show and talked fairly extensively about the gross cynical nature of these parasocial relationships. “It’s a song it mocks the way that those songs are written. They’re love songs to girls and they describe as vaguely as they possibly can.” (O’Brien, Conan. “Bo Burnham on Conan O’Brien.” TBS, 3 May 2013.) Like I said it’s an aside but it’s relevant because the idea of pop stars or pop star adjacent personalities seem very aware of marketing themselves as “friends” to people just so they can sell whatever products they’re selling.
Marc and Rebeca met in a high school that only took kids that were previously expelled from their previous high school. This definitely seems like the type of place a person could feel isolated and that need to have a friend, obtainable or not, would increase. Of course, parasocial relationships are ultimately destructive and I think Bling Ring shows us just how far that destruction can take you. I doubt most people would go to the extent of the culprits in the film but I imagine viewing The Bling Ring with the idea of Parasocial relationships in mind would hopefully make people really think about their interactions with celebrities or celebrities’ brands.
While I think all of Sofia Coppola’s filmography is ultimately underrated I think there is a particular blind spot when it comes to The Bling Ring. It manages to be a significant change in her style and substance but still has her trademark touches as a filmmaker with her sympathetic view towards people who maybe don’t deserve it and using her background of photography to give us an image that we’ll never be able to forget. She never seems to allow herself to settle into any sort of creative rut. Shooting a commercial for a luxury brand one day and then getting interviewed by a smaller magazine that is all about shooting on film. She battled cries of nepotism and a “lack of talent” and proves that she is deserving of all of her praise and more.