' ' Cinema Romantico: Re-Visiting Somewhere

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Re-Visiting Somewhere

Sofia Coppola’s fourth feature film "Somewhere" was the most befuddling cinematic experience I had in 2010 – longer, probably. My initial reaction upon seeing it in the theater was that I did not like it. But by the time I’d hit the sidewalk after exiting the theater I was already wondering, Did I not like it because it was specifically designed to be unlikeable? A character, movie actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), who was – to use his own word – “nothing” spending the majority of a movie doing nothing to underscore that very point. An unwatchable life begets an unwatchable film, no? The more I suspected this was the case, the more I suspected Sofia’s genius may be light years beyond any of us. Aside from "Black Swan", there was no movie in 2010 I thought about more than "Somewhere."  

I was afraid to revisit it. I enjoyed its lingering sensation in my mind so much I feared a second viewing might jeopardize it. What if I saw something else, something new that ruined it all? Yet upon seeing "Melancholia", a movie which I both can’t stand and think is sort of brilliant, my mind kept wandering back to "Somewhere." Inevitably, I couldn’t help myself. I gave it a rewatch. And you know what, I saw something else, something new, but it didn’t ruin it. It strengthened it.

The film opens with Johnny Marco driving around and around in circles in his sleek Ferrari in the middle of nowhere. This may seem like nothing but, believe me, it’s nothing compared to the nothingness to follow. Eventually we arrive at a simple shot of Johnny sitting on his couch in his room at the famed L.A. hotel Chateau Marmont. He is smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer. That’s all. The film holds this shot for a few seconds short of two minutes. (Here I sense many people getting the same looks on their faces as NBC President Russell Dalrymple when George was trying to explain that Jerry’s potential Pilot about “nothing” would feature scenes of its main character reading. “Read? You read on the show?”) Bold filmmaking doesn’t have to come with an NC-17 rating or excessive, splatarific violence, sometimes it’s simply Stephen Dorff and a piece of furniture.

Eventually he falls asleep in, shall we say, a most delicate position with a lady. And I hardly think there is a more descriptive image of a man so out of tune to the limitless wonders of life than one of him falling asleep in that delicate position with a lady. 

Then a curious thing happens – he wakes to find his 11 year old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) looking down on him. He smiles up at her. Her mom has dropped her off. He takes her to ice skating practice. The movie settles down and watches Johnny watch Cleo skate to Gwen Stefani’s "Cool." Then he drives her home and drops her off. And the nothingness returns. And this nothingness seems to be even more distinctly nothing then the previous nothingness, and it goes on longer. It goes on 20, 25 minutes, and as it does you begin to realize what happened with Cleo. She was the ray of light. The breath of fresh air. The Gwen Stefani song on a jukebox full of vapid isolationist ambient music.

Eventually Cleo will return. And she stays. Her mom babbles something to Johnny about needing “time” for herself. Not that it’s a problem. Really, these later passages with Cleo are no different than the ones without Cleo except, of course, for the presence of Cleo, which sounds stupidly simplistic but actually says everything. Her presence changes her father. It’s so imperceptible it’s radical. It looks like the trickle of a garden hose but feels like an avalanche on Everest. He’s happier, more reassured, more in touch.

But then he has to take her away to camp in the desert. Being a Hollywood leading man he drops her off at the pickup point via a helicopter and as he says goodbye he calls out to her “I’m sorry I haven’t been around!” Except you barely hear it because it’s distorted and drowned out by the helicopter blades whirring. It’s debatable whether Cleo even hears it. One might argue it’s Bill Murray whispering something we can’t hear to Scarlett Johansson but just inverted, but I would say nay. It’s drowned out because Johnny’s words don’t matter without some action.

He returns home. He returns to some of the activities he and his daughter did together. He makes dinner for himself. He lounges in the pool. But it’s not the same. No spark. He’s returned to the nothingness, which he summarizes in the phone call where he says “I’m nothing.” Too explicit? Perhaps, but I reckon someone behind the scenes told Sofia she needed anything in this film that explicitly said something. We’ll let it pass. Then he checks out of the Chateau Marmont and he drives. He drives away from L.A. in his sleek Ferrari, away and away and away, on and on and on. But he can’t get all the way away because that dang-nabbed sleek Ferrari is just as representative of Hollywood as Hollywood itself, so he stops the car, gets out, starts walking, smiles, end credits. Whoosh!!!

I can’t describe the rush of jubilation and liberation I felt as the closing credits rolled and that music played. I think Gwen Stefani described it as “Hella Good.” It’s so, so easy to look at this film and initially assume nothing is there (mostly because nothing is there) but that is precisely because its intent all along is to truly show the discreet yet epic dividing line between nothing and something, how easy it is to unknowingly cross the border into one or the other, how difficult it is to make it back to the side on which you yearn to be, and how exhilarating it can be when you finally make it happen.

Pardon me very much, but I’m retroactively placing "Somewhere" in my 2010 Top 5.

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