Monday, December 20, 2010

Somewhere and Some Reflections on "Personal" Cinema

While Somewhere’s obvious film-opening symbolism of a car driving in endless circles or a later image of the film’s aging movie star protagonist Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) relaxing on a float in a hotel pool, straying aimlessly offscreen, is meant to suggest the repetitive driftlessness of that character’s booze-, drug- and sex-fueled lifestyle, they speak just as eloquently to the impasse of director Sofia Coppola’s career. Her fourth feature, and fourth to deal with the isolating nature of celebrity – from the local (The Virgin Suicides) to the world-historical (Marie Antoinette) level - this is the one where the trail has officially run cold. Anyone with a reasonably good eye and Harris Savides as her cinematographer can frame a decent image, and, whether taking in an amateurish double stripper pole dance performed for Johnny’s purported pleasure (mostly he just looks bored) or the aforementioned car looping its way around a private race track, Coppola’s largely fixed takes are certainly handsome enough. Similarly, the director occasionally nails the absurdity of the rituals of celebrity, particularly in an amusingly offhand press junket and photo shoot that gain their disorienting power from the fact that they’re just one more non-emphatic event in Johnny’s life. Things change slightly when his young daughter (Elle Fanning) comes to stay with him at his L.A. hotel. At least he has to pass on most of the sexual opportunities that present themselves with credulity-straining frequency, perhaps because, as Miriam Bale suggests, he learns to see women as women through the lens of his female offspring, but also, undoubtedly, because of sheer logistical difficulty. Still, by the time the actor’s whining out the film’s thesis “I’m not even a human being” and wandering off down the road to nowhere in a film-ending gambit that last worked forty years ago in Five Easy Pieces, the limits of not only Johnny’s lifestyle, but Coppola’s trademark themes have most definitely been reached.

A problem with so much of recent American cinema is an insistence on that old Creative Writing 101 saw, “Write about what you know.” Whether it’s the insular mumblings of filmmakers like Joe Swanberg, the privileged wallow of Lena Dunham’s overpraised Tiny Furniture that makes a virtue of its deliberately narrow world-view or the wave of look-at-me-and-my-family first-person docs, our national independent filmmaking has become practically synonymous with what often feels like a round of glorified vanity projects. Critical responses to such self-reflective films have ranged from ambivalent pieces like Dan Callahan’s consideration of Coppola and Dunham’s efforts (he finds the latter promising, while disliking the former) appropriately titled “On Rich Girl Cinema” to Richard Brody’s ample praise of a strain of filmmaking that allows sheltered youth the privilege of self-expression, a position most clearly articulated in his consideration of the recent book of essays What Was the Hipster?. Taking to task the book’s chief contributor Mark Greif for chiding middle-class whites who focus on “their struggles for their own pleasures and luxuries… rather than asking what makes their sort of people entitled to them”, Brody counters by praising the art being made by “young people” that “depicts themselves and the specifics of their own lives,” including “their economic circumstances, the places in which they live, the assumptions on which their choices are based.” Brody’s own assumption seems to be that all subject matters are uniformly valid, and that Greif’s prescription is essentially anti-democratic.

But are all subjects equal? Just because you’re white, middle- (or upper-) class and apolitical does that make your story any less valid than those of less privileged people? (Certainly if a film’s focus on working-class life consists of an unholy mix of sentimental heroics and class contempt like David O. Russell’s The Fighter, it doesn’t). But whether dealing with Coppola’s filthy-rich movie star, Dunham’s wealthy recent college grad or the aimless twenty-somethings of Joe Swanberg's and Kentucker Audley’s films (presumably the latter two examples are what Brody has in mind), I would say that the answer is that these films' subjects are simply not terribly interesting objects of study. Not everybody’s life is.

As a young, white, middle-class (by lifestyle if not income), though hardly apolitical person, I wouldn’t think of turning my life into a film; it would probably be the dullest thing ever committed to celluloid. But at least I can say this: Unlike the protagonists (and directors) of most American independent films, my interests extend beyond my own daily existence. In reading my Tiny Furniture review one can take me to task for putting my set of cultural references above Lena Dunham’s and asserting my superiority to the filmmaker and her character. My response would be that my interests aren’t more valid because they’re more highbrow, but because they don’t begin and end with the specifics of my personal existence. As someone interested in the cinema (like Dunham’s character), I don’t try to limit myself by declaring a blanket dislike of “foreign films”, but try to engage with all forms of movies. And rather than assert that my social life is more important than the larger issues facing the world (impending climate catastrophe, growing wealth inequality, endless wars abroad - or the politics of sexual inequality that play out daily in less dramatic theaters), I freely admit my personal insignificance. In the final analysis, what’s ultimately lacking from the vast majority of independent American films being released to groundswells of critical acclaim is any kind of political awareness.


kenjfuj said...

This is a great post, Andrew. I've been thinking about this topic a lot, too, especially in regards to Tiny Furniture, which I actually like quite a bit, for reasons which you thoughtfully demolish in this post. I can see why many might find Dunham's enclosed worldview irritating; for me, though, I was moved by what I perceived as a welcome measure of brutal honesty and self-deprecation within that worldview. Of course, I may well just be allowing personal identification to influence my response; for me, she nails a certain kind of post-graduate aimlessness which I understand completely, and which I sometimes feel I'm experiencing myself (even with a steady income and a middle-class background). I'd like to think some of the situations and emotions she explores are universal—but what do I know, right?

Still, I think your larger argument—about whether being "personal" is enough to make great, lasting art—is full of fascinating implications, and worth pondering. My instinct is to say, "it depends"...but on what? The level of artistry? One's own personal response? Like you, I'm probably inclined to more enthusiastically celebrate art that does evince a more open and exploratory point of view (this is what I get from a filmmaker like Olivier Assayas, for instance)...but it might also be a bit narrow-minded to wholly dismiss works that take a more inward-looking approach. What might seem unbearably narcissistic to some may resonate more deeply and personally with others.

If nothing else, though, you've written the first pan of Tiny Furniture that didn't make me want to tear my hair out in frustration...most likely because you're at least upfront about where you're coming from in your lack of enthusiasm.

andrew schenker said...

Thanks for the thoughtful response, Kenji. Clearly all art must be "personal" to some sense in that it reflects the worldview or concerns of its maker(s). The question is how much an insular cinema that deliberately limits that worldview is likely to have the larger resonance/lasting value/etc. that makes it a worthwhile piece of work. Clearly, as you note, it depends on the individual film/book/painting, but as to what criteria one uses, it will obviously depend on the individual.

I basically wrote this post as an extension of some short words I wrote a couple of weeks ago about Somewhere since in typing them up it got me thinking about the limits of Coppola's cinema which I think are reached in that film. It also got me thinking about some of the accusations leveled against me for my Tiny Furniture review and I wanted to clarify why I think my characterization of the film as narcissistic is justified in that TF's insularity is so smug and deliberate and to dispel notions that I think my cultural reference points are intellectually superior to Dunham's.