So I’m watching Somewhere on HBO and I’m thinking: really? This is the vision of debauched Hollywood? Where is Harvey Keitel’s Bad Lieutenant or the over-the-topness of Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond? In Lost in Translation (I know a lot of people like this film but I found it underwhelming even if quite beautiful and, at times, exquisite), Bill Murray might not give us a whole lot but his face, his posture, speak to a richness of experience and character — the romance of being an individual. In Bad Lieutenant, Keitel is, as the kids say but don’t understand, epic: he’s the stuff of myth.
But Stephen Dorff’s Johnny Marco? He is so, well, bland. He’s so everyday. In fact, there is nothing extraordinary about him — he doesn’t dress flamboyantly; he doesn’t have odd taste in sex (the strippers, well, they are odd but they just reiterate the banality of consumption); he doesn’t throw fits or tantrums. He’s just like you and me, only famous.
Fame, here, is not well earned. He’s not an amazing musician (he’s ok at Guitar Hero); he’s not a great actor lost in his characters. He is basically on American Idol or a viral YouTube video or he won Survivor. There is nothing fundamentally extraordinary about our stars today. It’s all so, well, banal.
This, alas, is what the film gives us — the banality of consumption. Sofia Coppola is not, and could not be, Billy Wilder or Abel Ferrara. She is the spawn of a new age, even if she comes from old school royalty (can you imagine Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in one of Sofia Coppola’s films?) The stars of today are, indeed, so well behaved. It’s to the point where when Tom Cruise gets a little nutty and jumps on a couch, he’s considered wacky.
Now look at Cassvates, Faulk, and Ben Gazzara:
Or Abel Ferrara on Conan — he is lit beyond belief, bigger and more deranged than the Spectacle (even if constituting it — it’s the constitution of the unattainable, of the excessive):
The decadence of yesteryear no longer glitters with either promise or romance. We are always already watched, always already judged. Throughout Somewhere, Dorff screws beautiful women simply because he can. It is neither depraved nor decadent. The girls are beautiful. They all seem to have fun when screwing. And yet it remains banal, a non-event, a blip on the radar.
Compare Coppola’s Dorff to the silly Vincent Chase of Entourage. The promise of Entourage is naive, the promise of Hollywood from the 30s with a hip hop beat: fame and fortune and women women women! Ain’t this the life, boys? Johnny Marco is Vince in 10 years: pussy is pussy, there to be had just like everything else, so what?
Somewhere is banal, no doubt. But that is precisely what makes it so beautiful, so pitch perfect: it is of the banal, the beauty and banality of the banal. There’s no ugliness. Reviews of the film claim it’s just beautiful people kvetching (I don’t think they used the word “kvetch,” however). But that’s the point — there is no ugliness. Dorff is the star of a new day and while the romance, and fundamental enigma, of the individual has disappeared, our loneliness has not. The extraordinariness of the ordinary has vanished but that doesn’t mean we don’t get lonely — or that there’s no beauty.
Coppola’s challenge here is monumental precisely because she doesn’t have monuments to reckon.