Sofia Coppola poses at the premiere of The Bling Ring in Los Angeles, California on June 4, 2013. (REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni)
The Bling Ring, which opened wide in the United States over the weekend, is like most of Sofia Coppola’s other films: occasionally beautiful, freighted with never-quite-articulated existential angst and absolutely unsure of what it has to say. For an hour and thirty minutes, we are treated to the story of a group of teenagers from the LA suburbs who decide to rob a bunch of celebrity houses, get to do this quite a lot before they are arrested, and… that’s it. It’s not so much that one expected a moral treatise from this but that the movie’s refusal to comment on what it’s depicting makes it look asleep at the wheel.
The trouble with identifying the problem has been a theme of the press on the Bling Ring generally. Vanity Fair’s Nancy Jo Sales reported out the story; her fascinating book of the same title arrived last month. But even she is at a loss to venture a strong analysis of the phenomenon. The book is filled with half-musings: “I was surprised, as I started talking to people about this story by how many seemed to find what the Bling Ring did amusing or even kind of marvelous,” Sales writes. “It made me wonder if there was some kind of growing resentment toward the rich (a precursor to Occupy Wall Street sentiment?).” It’s hard not to throw the book down at faux-naïve moments like those, because yes, of course there is. Sales understands this, of course—her book quotes, in quick succession, both Michael Lewis and Glenn Greenwald—so her posturing grates, a bit.
Class is important here, but not in the usual way. It’s just as hard to style these young women (and one young man) as Robin Hoods as it is to feel sympathy for their victims. The Bling Ring stole from the rich and gave to themselves. And they hardly lacked for material necessities to begin with. Yet I don’t know that they acted quite out of the investment-banking-inspired plutocratic greed that Sales, and to an extent Coppola, suggest. These kids are, at best, a faint reflection of Gordon Gekko. What seems more likely to me is that these kids were bored, and this was a way of filling up an empty night. “Bling” just happened to be the solution they chose instead of the multiplex.
Giving it more reason than that would miss the point, somehow, to me. The crimes are remarkable not because they are particularly horrible but because they were committed with an extreme indifference. Disconnection is the dominant theme. Even when the kids speak in clichés—the trailer’s central joke is Emma Watson earnestly saying, “I may want to lead a country someday,” something her alter ego, Alexis Neiers, did actually say—they are, it feels like, trying on another outfit, committed to the theater of meaning rather than the experience of it. It is this same curious and apathetic ethos that informs shows like The Hills or Teen Mom or even Keeping Up with the Kardashians. And it all goes beyond mere bad acting, as you’d see if you watched the shows. They plod along like narcotics, and not the fun ones either.
Coppola’s film is not the only recent piece of art to seek to depict this. In literary circles, there’s a lot of chatter about a new novel, Taipei, by Tao Lin. Lin, who has been kicking around the web for some time now, has made his reputation based on his deliberate adoption of mundane prose and subjects. His books are plotted by way of gchats and the sort of distant, halting sexual encounters that seem to plague twentysomethings nowadays. For this, in some circles, Lin is a styled revolutionary. A New York Observer review recently placed him in “the literary tradition of Knut Hamsun, Ernest Hemingway, and Robert Musil.” The writer also says he’s like Proust. Coppola is often subjected to similarly formed praise, usually comparing her to someone like Stanley Kubrick, who was as fond of moral vacuums as she.
But, fundamentally, the problem facing people like Sofia Coppola and Tao Lin is that their interest in the boring presents them with a very difficult task. Namely, that they have to depict boredom in an interesting way, which can end up defeating the purpose of showing us the bored at all. The gleeful producers of reality shows don’t have this problem. They can sex it up, as it were. But art about boredom, as they do it, is reluctant to keep things interesting, or shake things up with a strong take.
And you can have a “take,” here. After all, this boredom is not wholly apolitical. The other day The New York Times ran an opinion piece by an academic who has been studying the young working class of Massachusetts. She catalogues their reactions to their diminished employment prospects as apathy and disconnection. “Adulthood,” she concludes, “is not simply being delayed but dramatically reimagined along lines of trust, dignity and connection and obligation to others.” Those lines are definitionally political. They are about how you imagine the possibilities of yourself and society. That’s why it’s important to go beyond observing that we live in the kind of place where Paris Hilton’s clothing has the status of religious totems, and make art that, unlike Coppola’s, moves us in another direction.
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