Friday, December 16, 2011

Favorite Films #4: Somewhere

Who is Johnny Marco?

In Sofia Coppola’s fourth feature film Somewhere, the film’s protagonist in Hollywood bad boy actor Johnny Marco has just finished a photo shoot with a co-star who doesn’t like him. Walking from the photo shoot to a press conference, he is asked several questions during this press conference. Shot from a distance as it slowly zooms towards Marco, the scene is a great example of what Coppola is aiming for with her film as she remains focused on Marco and no one else. Then comes the big question as a journalist asks this big Hollywood movie star. Who is Johnny Marco? Marco’s response has him befuddled as it becomes a key moment of what Somewhere is about.

Following the big-budgeted and extravagance of Marie Antoinette in 2006, Coppola took a break as she gave birth to her first daughter Romy in November of 2006 and later gain a second daughter in Cosima on May of 2010. It was during this time as she became a mother, with her then-boyfriend in Thomas Mars of the French-indie band Phoenix, where Coppola drew inspiration from her new family life as well as the world of celebrity culture. While the plot of Somewhere is about a Hollywood bad boy actor’s decadent life style is changed by the arrival of his daughter might not seem like a great idea on paper. Yet, Coppola took this concept to exemplify into her own unique style.

While many would point out that Somewhere has a lot of similarities to another film Coppola did in 2003 in Lost in Translation as both films revolve around actors and are set in hotels as the two men deal with existential crises in their lives. The major difference between Johnny Marco and Lost in Translation’s Bob Harris is that the latter’s acting career is fading as he’s forced to make money by endorsing whiskey for two million dollars. The career of Johnny Marco is still thriving but is also lost emotionally. Unlike Bob Harris’ whose life has become one of disappointment and uncertainty, Marco’s own life has become one with no sense of direction. The opening shot of the film of him driving in his Ferrari as Coppola’s camera just stays still to see the car drive around the track a few times for the span of a few minutes.

That opening scene is a metaphor for what is going on with Marco’s life but it is also an indication that Coppola is changing gears a bit for her fourth feature film. Straying away from the extravagance of Marie Antoinette and the more structure-based approach of Lost in Translation, Somewhere is Coppola’s most minimalist film to date. With a budget of $7 million, a 44-page script, and full-on access to the famed Chateau Marmont hotel in Hollywood, Coppola was able to make a film that different but also similar into her previous explorations into alienation and self-identity.

The Chateau Marmont in Hollywood is a legendary hotel where lots of actors and celebrities lived and partied in while Coppola herself had a birthday party at the Marmont. Knowing its history and the hotel very well, Coppola chose to use the hotel as a character as well as a setting for Marco’s empty life as he’s surrounded by models, groupies, and many others that just want to hang out with him. Among the people who make cameos in the film are the band Rooney, that featured Coppola’s cousin Robert Schwartzman, as well as models Erin Wasson and Angela Lindvall, actor Alden Ehrenreich of Tetro, and a very brief but humorous cameo from Benicio del Toro who shares an elevator with Marco. The last of which is an inside joke of a supposed yet notorious tryst del Toro had in the hotel with Scarlett Johansson of Lost in Translation at the night of the Oscars in 2004.

All of these people that pop up in the place that Marco surrounds himself is part of the environment that he’s become trapped in. The film’s first 10-15 minutes, following the opening scene, features very little dialogue as it’s all about Marco’s own life. The idea of being a movie star that lives in a hotel where all of the things anyone could want is there. You want some fine food? Sure. Want all of the best kind of booze and drugs money can by? Why not? Want to have endless amounts of sex with a horde of beautiful women? What straight-laced male would not want that? Yet, Marco takes all of those things as he’s expected to as a movie star. All of it seems like a lot fun where his life is a party but what happens when that’s all it becomes?

That’s what Sofia Coppola starts to ask as Marco finds himself bored by the parties and the decadence that surrounds him while a chance to have sex with a groupie has him falling asleep just before he’s to perform oral sex on her. It’s as if his life has become sort of routine during his downtime when he‘s not making movies. He just wanders around in his black Ferrari looking for something as he would follow a gorgeous woman to her home for a possible tryst. Another moment of his shallow desire for sex is when he just got out of the press conference and asks a limo driver to stop at an apartment as he has a brief tryst with one of the twin strippers who would often entertain him in his hotel room.

Yet, all of those things in his life has him lost and unsure of what to do until one day he wakes up to find that his 11-year old daughter Cleo arrives signing the cast on his broken right arm. He also sees his ex-wife Laila who doesn’t seem to like him very much as she is aware that he probably broke his arm doing something stupid as he tells Cleo and Laila that it was just stunt work.

Cleo’s arrival into the story would mark a change in tone for the film where the audience gets a chance to see Johnny Marco as a father. The use of Cleo into the story is inspired by a couple of features. One is Federico Fellini’s short Toby Dammit, for the 1968 omnibus film Histoires extraordinaire with Louis Malle and Roger Vadim, that is about an alcoholic Shakespearean actor who helps a young girl retrieve a ball where he would have a surreal moment. The other film Coppola was inspired by is Peter Bogdanovich’s 1973 film Paper Moon about a con man’s relationship with an orphan during the Great Depression.

The key scene where Marco’s newfound awakening about his daughter, whom he doesn’t see very much, is when he watches practice an ice-skating routine. Though he fuddles around with messages on his phone just as it was starting, he then looks at Cleo do her routine in complete awe. After that scene, they’re in his car driving as he couldn’t believe how good she is while he asks her how long she’s been doing it. Her response made him realize how clueless he is as it’s clear that through all of his work and all of the other time not working where he parties. It’s not to say that Marco is a bad father but rather one that realizes that he hasn’t been around very much for her.

When she appears a week later with luggage as he learns that Laila has gone to a treatment center following a breakdown of sorts. Johnny decides to take Cleo in before she’s set to leave for a summer camp in Nevada where she would join him on a trip to Milan for an awards ceremony. For Coppola, the awards ceremony scene is a chance for her to make fun of the cheesiness as Cleo looks at her father in amusement as he’s surrounded by beautiful women in skimpy clothing dancing around him as he’s confused by what’s going on. While the trip would feature wonderful moments where Johnny and Cleo stayed at a very posh suite that had an indoor pool and such. It becomes unpleasant due to the appearance of an Italian mistress who would later have breakfast with the two as Johnny is forced to see the disapproving gaze of Cleo that looks eerily similar of her mother.

Elle Fanning’s approach to playing Cleo is truly remarkable to watch in the way she reacts to her father’s lifestyle and the world of movie stardom. Yet, she’s sort of detached to that as Fanning’s performance is quite observant to the way she sees her dad doing interviews and deal with people that wants to hang out with him. Still, Fanning makes Cleo into a kid that a lot of people could relate to as there’s a liveliness to her character that isn’t showy. Fanning’s portrayal of Cleo makes her into a very engaging character that ends up grounding her dad to be in his best behavior despite the fact that he’s very flawed.

For Johnny, having to deal with all sorts of groupies and people with his daughter around only gives the impression that he’s not a great father though he is trying very hard not to be a complete asshole. Yet, it would add to the realization that he’s going through a period where his decadent lifestyle hasn‘t made him a lot of friends. Throughout the entirety of the film, Johnny gets these mysterious text messages that calls out on him being a jerk and such. During one particular scene, he does a promo photo shoot with a co-star (Michelle Monaghan) who really doesn’t like him at all while it’s obvious from the dialogue that they had an affair. For Johnny, it’s an indication that he’s starting to wake up from this life as he finds himself in strange situations such as having to get a massage from a male masseuse who strips down naked much to Johnny’s horror.

One key scene of his own existential crisis is this simple scene where he’s working with make-up artists for an upcoming film. It’s a very simple scene where Coppola and cinematographer Harris Savides goes for a simple shot of Johnny being wrapped around this makeup and no one is around while the camera slowly zooms for a close-up What he would see is revelation of what Johnny is to become if he keeps going with his decadent life as Cleo’s appearance gives him a chance to break away from that lifestyle.

Once Cleo is at his apartment, she makes some changes at the place as the only other person hanging around with Johnny is his longtime friend Sammy who definitely enjoys Cleo’s company. Whether it’s playing video games or painting little things on a Guitar Hero controller, Sammy seems like the cool uncle that Cleo would’ve enjoyed. Cleo also acts like the mother of sorts for her dad and Sammy as she makes Eggs Benedict for them which they totally enjoy as they help make a list of what to bring for camp. Cleo’s presence grounds Johnny as he devotes his time to her as he helps her shop for items while finally getting a chance to not feel followed by the paparazzi.

Among the intimate moments that Johnny has with Cleo is when a Chateau Marmont employee sings a lullaby for Cleo following their return from Italy. There’s also a great scene where Johnny and Cleo are underwater in the pool as it’s the only scene where music is played for this moment that isn’t displayed on location. The song that Coppola chooses is a demo of the Strokes’ You Only Live Once that is titled I’ll Try Anything Once as it’s just Julian Casablancas singing to a keyboard for the song. It’s a very tender and touching moment between father and daughter as they lie in the hot California sun while Cleo later tells her father about Twilight which is a reference to the fact that Coppola was considered to direct the two-part Breaking Dawn films for the franchise.

These moments give Johnny a sense of fulfillment as he turns down offers to be with groupies or do anything that relates to his decadent lifestyle. When he drives with Cleo to Las Vegas for her camp trip, he notices that Cleo is upset over her mother’s breakdown as she isn’t sure when she’s coming back. Johnny does what any father does in comforting her while cheering up by having him play craps as she watches. Later the next day, Johnny takes Cleo to her camp taxi via helicopter to see her leave. The scene has the helicopter still roaring as Johnny screams through the noise that he is sorry for not being around more though Cleo couldn’t really hear him. While it’s a scene that is sort of inspired by Federico Fellini’s I, Vitelloni where Moraldo, through Fellini’s voice, says goodbye to the town he had lived in. It’s a scene where Johnny starts to admit his faults as a father as he watches his daughter leave for camp.

The film’s last 15-20 minutes show the outcome of what Johnny has just endured in his time with his daughter. Like Bob Harris from Lost in Translation, both characters by the third act get a chance to look at themselves in the mirror. Unlike Harris who starts to unravel, following his intimate conversation with Charlotte about his own faults as a husband and father, into a world of self-loathing. Marco starts to go into something much deeper as he’s all alone in his apartment with no one around him. Having to cook for himself and wander at a pool by himself, it’s an indication of how pathetic his life prompting him to give Laila a tearful phone call. In this call, he states that he’s fucking nothing as it’s a revelation of what he is.

This is where Stephen Dorff’s performance really shines in the way he exudes all of the guilt and selfishness that Marco has displayed. It’s a performance for an actor who knows this world to exemplify the idea of fame and how empty it can feel. Dorff brings a bit of humor to his character while also making him flawed for the stupid things he does. When he’s playing dad, Dorff makes Marco into a character that becomes more grounded and responsible. It’s the performance of a lifetime for the actor whose career had been shaky where he was one of the hot young actors of the 1990s and then languished in the 2000s through a series of flops and bad choices. Fortunately, Sofia Coppola never forgot him as she wrote the part of Johnny Marco with him in mind as it would be his comeback role as well as the best performance of his career. Particularly to a character that is un-likeable at times and is kind of a schmuck who would redeem himself.

All of these revelations and existential questions that he faces finally forces Johnny to take a step into adulthood. In a lot of ways, the film is a coming-of-age film but not towards child but on a man becoming a man. This step that Johnny takes has him deciding to leave the Chateau Marmont for good. When the film was released in Britain in late 2010, film critic Mark Kermode gave the film a very negative review as he snidely says that the film’s plot is nearly similar to the Eagles’ song Hotel California where the last line Don Henley says is “you can check out anytime you like but you can never leave”. Unfortunately, Johnny doesn’t follow what the song says as he’s leaving for good into this sequence of him driving in his Ferrari onto the California highway.

Where is Johnny going at this point? Unlike the opening scene where he’s driving in circles, Marco is going onto a road where he’s not sure where’s going. He then stops the car as the phone rings again which is likely the mysterious person sending another text. What Johnny does is walk away from his car and walks down the road smiling as if he’s leaving his old life behind to go into a new one as the film ends. Of course, it’s likely that Johnny goes back to his Ferrari and sells it so that some other rising star can have it. Plus, it’s Johnny finally realizing that being a father is more important than getting wasted at parties and such.

The way Sofia Coppola approached this film with a premise like this is to create long scenes where it’s all about figuring out how Marco would react to these situations without any dialogue. Due to the minimalist nature of the film, Coppola was clearly aiming for something is more reminiscent of European art films. Particularly the works of Michelangelo Antonioni and Chantal Akerman in terms of them shooting lots of long scenes with very little dialogue. Akerman’s 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, about the lonely life of a widowed single mother and her daily routine in the course of three, was a film Coppola was influenced by the way Akerman chose to frame everything. Notably in the small scenes of Cleo cooking and how Johnny lived in his life such as the small scene of him at a restaurant eating and smoking cigarettes all by himself.

The film also had a look that was sort of different from anything Coppola had done as she employed the work of renowned cinematographer Harris Savides. Known mostly for his work with Gus Van Sant and the haunting digital camera for David Fincher’s 2007 film Zodiac, Savides was a major break from the more looser camera work of Coppola’s regular cinematographer in Lance Acord. With Savides at the helm, Coppola went for much more controlled and fluid kind of camera work that was more ethereal rather than be dream-like in her previous work. The look of the film was also more tinted to complement the sunny world of California as one of the things Coppola and Savides did for this look was borrow the lenses that her father used in his 1983 film Rumble Fish that she also had appeared in.

This approach gives the film something that was very different in its look from the way Marco enters the hallway as models walk towards him had something that was very static-like where it’s a bit blurry while the back of Marco’s head remains in focus. Yet, the models would finally be in focus as Marco continues to walk towards the hallway to exemplify that world that he lives in. Coppola’s direction has going into new risks as for being more hypnotic than she did by not employing a lot of hand-held cameras where things are often shaky at times. There’s a lot more of her just having here keep the camera there so that the audience can just soak in what they’re seeing.

Since Coppola is also known for creating music soundtracks that creates a certain mood to a film. Coppola forgoes that in her approach to minimalism by not employing a soundtrack but rather have a lot of it played on location. With the exception of the Strokes demo on that pool scene as well as a cover of the Platters’ Smoke in Your Eyes by Bryan Ferry in the closing credits. The only other piece of music that isn’t played on location is at the opening and closing scenes which is Phoenix’s two-part song Love is Like a Sunset as its first half plays to the sound of Johnny’s Ferrari engine while the second half starts to play once the ending starts to come in.

The film is essentially an exercise in minimalism not just in its presentation of the story and script wise. It allowed Coppola and her collaborators to experiment with the technical elements of the film as the editing of Sarah Flack allows Coppola to figure out the rhythms without going into fast-paced cutting. The sound design work of longtime Coppola family associate in Richard Beggs helps set an atmosphere of the way the engine sounds similar to some of the elements in the Phoenix song. Beggs’ work also allows the locations to play up naturally such as the intimacy of Johnny’s apartment during its more silent moments as well as the sound of the Hollywood streets outside of the hotel.

This approach to minimalism is something that Coppola obviously knew would challenge the audience to see films in a way that most mainstream film viewers will find to be very tedious and pretentious. Due to the fact that it has a very European feel to it with a lot of scenes that essentially plays out in long takes. It’s a film that much prefers to take its time by being very methodical in its pacing so that the audience can observe everything that is happening. Due to its lack of dialogue and unconventional approach to storytelling, it’s a film that definitely annoys people which is no surprise that the film has received a divisive reaction from both audiences and critics.

For those who look at the film with a very positive reaction, there is a big reason why Quentin Tarantino and his jury at the 2010 Venice Film Festival chose the film to win the Golden Lion that year. Tarantino stated that it was a film that kept lingering in his head during the duration of the festival as he and his jury kept talking about it. Tarantino is right about the fact that the images Coppola produced for Somewhere. There is a very haunting quality to the way it looks and feels because there is a natural quality to the way Coppola can make this man’s seemingly dull life into something very entrancing.

Somewhere doesn’t try to be some grand film or a mushy tale of a father-daughter tale. Yet, it’s also the kind of the film that doesn’t try to be too arty nor be very showy at what it aims for. It’s a film that knows what it is without trying to go for any kind of conventional plot devices or use expositions to tell a story. It’s a film that prefers to keep things simple through sound and images to tell this story of a Hollywood bad boy’s life being changed by the time he spends with his 11-year old daughter. Through Sofia Coppola’s vision, it becomes more than what the film suggests as Somewhere is a total indication into why Sofia Coppola is among one of the best filmmakers working today.

© thevoid99 2011


Stevee Taylor said...

Awesome review! I know that this is a film that is definitely not for everyone, but I loved it, for many of the reasons you put in this post. I particularly loved how metaphoric the opening scene was. It was just a brilliant, quiet film, which we don't see too often.

I love Sofia Coppola, too. I can't wait until she makes another film! Her films are so romantic without actually having any romance in them.

thevoid99 said...

I heard rumors that Sofia is going to make another film about these young Hollywood thieves who stole from the likes of Paris Hilton and such.

I'm not really sure about that one although I wasn't excited about the premise of Somewhere either. Maybe she'll make something different in that story though I hope she does her vampire film or her Charlotte Rampling project.

Courtney Small said...

I heard so many mixed things about this film that I ended up placing it on the back burner. Looks like I may need to finally get around to watching this film. Excellent write up by the way.

thevoid99 said...

@CS-It's not an easy film to watch since it's a filmmaking style that is very un-American. Yet, there is a lot about that film that intrigues me. I didn't really think about even writing an essay on this film up until last month when it was on TV. I realized that there was a lot more to it.

It's a film that is easily mocked and will have people spout very ignorant comments about how similar it is to Lost in Translation but they will do it at their own peril.

Anonymous said...

I don't know why but I just could not get into this film as much as so many others could. However, I do think that Dorff and Fanning are great together in every scene they have and carry this film the whole time. Good review Steve.

thevoid99 said...

@Dan-Actually, the review is in the link below. This is an essay about the film.

There's a good reason why it's not for everyone. It's because it's a film that doesn't play by the rules while it has a look and style that is very foreign to American audiences. It's worth revisiting though the outcome will probably be different after repeated viewings whether you like the film or not.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful essay! I learned a lot here. Much of this is what I love in this film, but you've noticed things I didn't even think about. The third to last paragraph is the reason I'll keep talking about the greatness of Somewhere to anyone who'll listen and why I'm so mad at the audiences.

thevoid99 said...

@filmandcoke-I'm glad someone else like me got the film and understood its brilliance. I think it's one of Sofia's best films as I hope to write another essay about one of her films soon.