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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Frenzy on the Wall: Somewhere Goes Nowhere

I consider myself a fan of Sofia Coppola. I think her first two films – The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation – are up there with any other filmmaker’s first two movies. These films showed a fascinating insight into the minds of both males and females, young and old; these were movies about lost souls that feel cut off from the rest of humanity, a theme that runs through all of Coppola’s films. She also happens to be a gifted stylist, bathing her films in a sun-dappled light. But it seems as she gets older, she is less interested in things like story or character, and more interested in watching billowing cigarette smoke for three minutes. In other words, this isn’t a matter of “style over substance,” but rather that Coppola has become a filmmaker whose style is her substance.

The Virgin Suicides, Coppola’s first feature, might be her most mature and conventional work. There isn’t as much hand-held camerawork and the story is tightly focused. Of course, it’s also an adaptation of a pretty wonderful book, giving her a structure and form and characters. However, Coppola makes some pretty great choices in the way she presents the story to us. I loved the way that the Lisbon girls are the main characters despite the fact that we only see them through the eyes of the boys across the street. We only know those boys – the true protagonists of the film – through their feelings about the Lisbon sisters.

With Lost in Translation, she made a completely different type of film, one that relied heavily on hand-held and the ad-libbing of Bill Murray. The basic story and structure of the film is a wonderful invention of Coppola, using a foreign city and a beautiful hotel as the purgatory where these very different – but equally lost – people meet and fall in a sort of love. It’s impossible not to compare what Coppola does here with what she does in Somewhere because of the similarities and I’ll get into that more later, but really the big difference is that Bill Murray can make any scene interesting just by his presence; Stephen Dorff, not so much.

I was willing to forgive Coppola for Marie Antoinette. It is absolutely stunning to look at, as well as being stunningly boring to endure. I didn’t understand why Coppola would use such a famous figure for a story that really has no interest in helping us get to know her any better; this could be about any young fictional princess. Mostly, it’s a story about a young and naïve woman who is fabulously wealthy and wears Marc Jacobs shoes. It’s hard to become particularly engaged in any aspect of the story since there is a lack of dramatic tension. It’s a film about a woman trapped in her gilded cage, which could potentially be interesting, but the character is so dull and passive that it’s hard to root for her situation to change. I thought a lot about how it seemed as if Coppola was saying that Marie Antoinette was basically the Paris Hilton of her time and how the real gutsy move would be to actually have Paris Hilton play the part. Hell, it would have made it a heck of a lot more interesting.

And “interesting” is not really the word I would use to describe Somewhere, which just falls apart from the get-go. At least the beginning of Marie Antoinette had the semi-interesting scene where all her belongings are taken from her, but with Somewhere, Coppola puts us firmly in The Brown Bunny territory. We have a stationary camera focused hazily on a desert track where a Ferrari goes around in circles. It goes out of view, comes back into view, then disappears, forever going in circles for an excruciating three minutes. Eventually the car stops and we see it is Stephen Dorff, our “hero” for the film. In other words, Coppola decides to start off this film about a man whose life is repetitive and numbing with the world’s most obvious metaphor! I gulped hard after seeing that.

I’ve seen people compare this film to the work of Antonioni, but there is zero chance that Antonioni would ever put a scene in his films that was that on the nose. I suppose one could say that a film like L’Avventura doesn’t have a plot in the conventional sense, but there is a sense of intrigue and foreboding hanging over the entire movie. Even if Antonioni isn’t particularly interested in answering the question about what happened to the missing woman, we carry that discomfort of not knowing with us throughout the film. In Somewhere, there is no tension that carries us through on a story level, meaning that Coppola tries to have mood and tone carry the film.

This would all be well and good, except the mood is elegiac and the tone is sleepy. I’ve never seen a person spend so much time around people in a movie – or in real life – and say so little. Stephen Dorff spends the entire film like he’s half-asleep and I get that it’s part of the point, that he’s sleepwalking through his life (THE CAR WAS GOING IN CIRCLES!), but he doesn’t resemble a human being. His brother (Chris Pontius) and his daughter (Elle Fanning) are around him fairly often and yet he doesn’t talk to them. Or maybe we’re supposed to assume he does, but rather than showing us those conversations which could potentially be interesting and enlightening, Coppola just shows Dorff’s character staring at twin strippers pole dancing (not once, but twice!) for minutes upon minutes. Or we’ll have a scene where he and his daughter order room service from their Italian hotel room. Or a scene where he takes his daughter to an ice skating rink and watches her skate.

The point is: it’s possible to infer about a million different possibilities from these actions, but that doesn’t make it deep. It’s also possible to infer a million possibilities when I see two people’s body language on the subway. The point of making a movie about certain characters and certain situations is to limit the amount of those possibilities; this is called fashioning a story and fleshing out characters. Gus Van Sant makes films that are elliptical and can be read in many different ways, but he gives us characters with actions that are clear and leaves the motivations hazy enough so that we can try to figure them out. Even a film like Gerry gives us, after much walking, the issue of: would you kill your friend out of mercy? That is a thematic question that the film is asking us. I don’t know what the question is that Coppola is asking the audience in Somewhere.

The funny thing is that I think this could have been a fantastic film if a more interesting actor was in the lead role. Apparently the script, like Lost in Translation, was extremely short (supposedly less than fifty pages). What that says to me is that Coppola is relying on the actor to bring something to the film, especially since he’s in almost every frame of the film. But Dorff is such a non-presence in this film. He’s supposed to be one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, but he doesn’t carry himself like a Tom Cruise or a Johnny Depp. He just doesn’t have the weight of a movie star. And I think if Coppola had actually cast a Depp or a Robert Downey, Jr. or someone of that ilk, it would have elevated the film because we would bring our conception of those actors as movie stars with us.

The scenes with Chris Pontius are the only moments where the film comes alive because 1) he actually talks and 2) he has a sense of humor. Then we go back to the moments with Dorff and Fanning and we’re just aching for something, anything to happen that would give us any insight into their relationship beyond what we know about them in the first ten minutes of their interaction. We get no indication that Dorff is changing or their relationship is being strengthened and then somehow we have to buy this revelatory moment at the end where (SPOILER ALERT) Dorff drives his car until it runs out of gas and then starts walking. (Get it? He’s walking away from it all!) (END SPOILERS)

If it seems as if I’m being a bit dismissive of the film, it’s only because the film is dismissive of its audience. (Side note: And it has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that it’s about rich, pampered characters. Apparently the critics who find rich people uninteresting or unworthy of examination or unappealing have never read The Great Gatsby or don’t really like Batman.) The film has no interest in being entertaining in a conventional way, which is fine by me because I have no interest in conventional entertainments. However, the movie also doesn’t seem to be interested in engaging me in an intellectual way either. It’s a film that exists just to exist without context.

You know, the film that I was most reminded of when I was watching Somewhere was Vincent Gallo’s misunderstood The Brown Bunny. When we watch him travel across country for an hour, there’s an actual point to that; it’s meant to place us, the audience, in the character’s headspace and for us to feel the agonizing boredom of traveling by yourself across country. More than that, it’s also a film that builds to something. That infamous oral sex scene actually serves a purpose by entering us into the main character’s conflicted fantasy of being together with his dead girlfriend yet also struggling with her rape before her death.

Somewhere has the same somnambulant nature, but without building towards anything and without a scene nearly as complex and conflicted (and controversial) as the blowjob scene in Gallo’s film. It’s actually interesting that Coppola’s view of the “crazy” lifestyle of a Hollywood bad boy is that he rents two strippers who don’t get naked and then leave. This would have been a wonderful opportunity to provide us with some insight into just why his life is so numbing, by showing us the sick and twisted crap that is always at his fingertips.

I can’t tell you how disappointed I was by the fact that Somewhere left me cold. I wanted to love this film because I really wanted Coppola to make a strong comeback. I still find her to be an important voice on the Hollywood landscape, but I think she needs to see why Lost in Translation worked in contrast with Somewhere. One has an engaging lead actor and a storyline about a deepening relationship that we see develop; the other has Stephen Dorff and a relationship that doesn’t seem to undergo a change or have an arc. I can work and work and come up with a really good theory of what I think is happening under the surface, but I can’t point to the text of the film and use it to support any particular theory with confidence. Somewhere is an example of why a film can’t be all about subtext; if we don’t get enough of the actual text, then subtext is buried and meaningless.

I don’t know what I would recommend for Coppola to do next, but I would just hope she gets back behind the camera as soon as possible. I want to know if she’s interested more in being the kind of filmmaker she was when she first burst onto the screen or the one she’s been for her last two films.

(P.S. Probably my favorite aspect of Somewhere was that it was the first time since Francis Ford Coppola’s genius Tetro that I saw Alden Ehrenreich on screen, albeit way too briefly. Please, someone get this guy another lead role, he’s already given a brilliant performance and he’s destined to be a star.)

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7 Responses to “Frenzy on the Wall: Somewhere Goes Nowhere”

  1. CaylaNT says:

    Clearly, you dont understand art.

  2. netbook says:

    I don’t know what I would recommend for Coppola to do next.

  3. Dazza says:

    LOL, I feel as though I now have to also thank Noah for the good article 😛

    I sorta feel between loving and hating Somewhere. The symbolic bookends, particularly the final one, are awful awful awful. And, yeah, I think it definitely would have been a better film with some more narrative thrust. But I honestly did love spending time in that world with those characters. I did feel a connection and I could have happily watched another hour of them playing video games or miniature golf or whatever.

    So I feel utterly mixed on this one.

  4. Erik L. says:

    I would agree… After a huge beginning and wonderful start to her career, this is quite the letdown.

  5. Tyler says:

    When in the film do we learn that Pontius is Dorff’s brother? Did I miss something?

  6. Lisa S. says:

    What is a good and interesting. Contents of the film Would be valuable to an audience more or less.

  7. Jeffrey says:

    Somewhere was the biggest pretentious bore
    & dissappointment ever! At least in The Brown
    Bunny we get a BJ & in Antichrist we get a clitoris
    snipped off.

Frenzy On Column

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon