Lost in Hollywood
Sofia Coppola fixes lens on nature of celebrity
Our society is fixated on the funhouse of fame. We are obsessed with celebrity. We crave scandal, and we feast on the carcasses of those misguided souls who wander into the maw of modern media without a jacket of flaks or a vat of paparazzi repellent.
We could blame the selfesteem movement of the 1970s or the peeper-powered YouTube for this latest lapse, but as Sofia Coppola’s latest film suggests, our current obsession for celebrity may well be the result of an unfulfilled quest for personal realization.
Using the character of a very famous Hollywood actor to access the ephemeral strands of social meaning, we watch a relatively likable human being experience a strange brand of exile.
Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is a successful Hollywood star. We know this because he drives a very expensive car, he gets his picture taken with stunning ingenues and he’s forced to pose for publicity campaigns with people he doesn’t really like all that much.
But it’s all good: They don’t like him all that much, either.
In this alternative universe, nothing is genuine. Everything under the artificial sun is performance, and, as a result, Johnny Marco looks like a lizard who recently escaped the terrarium to plant his toes in sun-baked sand.
Afraid and alone, he’s waking up to his self-created alienation — without a genuine collapse, because that would signal completion. This is a movie about dislocation and the splintering of self.
Coppola pulls us into this fragmented reality, shot by shot, beginning with a long sequence of Johnny driving his black sports car in the middle of nowhere. The only sound we hear is the throaty groan of an Italian engine doing what it was designed to do: go faster, and faster.
Coppola keeps the camera static long enough for us to really process the sound of the engine and every gear shift, which essentially prepares us for the ensuing exploration of theme and structure.
We may think the car (and Johnny) are “nowhere,” but they are going “somewhere.” Or, the exact opposite: We may think the car and driver are “somewhere” but going “nowhere.”
These are subtle differences, but the whole movie is subtle. In keeping with the director’s talent for visually articulating the unutterable dimensions of the human condition — as she did so beautifully in Lost in Translation — Somewhere adopts a minimalist tone with grand results.
Whether it’s the seemingly endless shot of Johnny sitting in a special-effects studio as a latex mask is poured over his features, turning him into a moulting, drooping sculpture, or the brilliantly asexual framing of two strippers giving Johnny a private show in his hotel room, Coppola proves she can speak volumes with static compositions.
Only a handful of modern directors have the confidence of purpose, and the conviction of vision, to even use a tripod these days. They tend to cover the action with Steadicams that buzz around like flies because they can disguise directorial gaffes.
Coppola sets up each shot with the focus of a Renaissance painter, and as a result, Marco becomes a beautifully flawed hero as he begins to feel the edges of his own frame — and attempts to locate himself in this abstract world.
As far as actual plot goes, it’s extremely thin: Johnny gets in his car, goes to his “home” at celebrity hostel Chateau Marmont, spends some time with his young daughter (Elle Fanning), picks up an international award and poses for a few pictures.
That’s all we see on the surface. Yet, because Coppola inserts so much empty space between these moments, we fall into the void alongside Johnny as he tries to figure out who he is. The man is entirely lost, and he’s just beginning to realize how lost he is, because he’s been distracted and over-entertained for so many years.
Coppola probably has better insight into the fame phenomenon than most of her peers, and she’s clearly made a judgment about how empty it all is. Marco is a believable cipher, thanks to Dorff’s spacewalker performance, but he also operates as a social metaphor for where we are right now as a society: speeding down some road in a sexy car without a meaningful destination.
We all think we want to be Marco, but in this contained, controlled, cinematic success story, Coppola exposes fame and celebrity for everything it is, and isn’t. The result is a sobering, and frequently absurd voyage into blinding daylight that will prove disorienting to anyone happily lost in the twilight world of celebrity.