Sunday, July 7, 2013

Bling things

It's a pretty big tribute to Sofia Coppola that I have loved exactly one of her movies that I've seen in the theater, yet I still view the release of one of her movies as a major theatrical event.

That movie I loved was Lost in Translation, and it was nearly ten years ago that I had this transformative visit to the movies. Lost in Translation was my #1 movie of 2003.

Yet somehow that did not translate to a theatrical screening of her 2006 follow-up, Marie Antoinette. I guess I believed the negative hype and stayed away. When I later caught it on video, I was mesmerized. Not to the same extent as when I saw Lost in Translation, but enough that I felt like I should never doubt Sofia again.

Then came Somewhere.

But I was still excited enough by Coppola's potential that I prioritized seeing The Bling Ring in the theater, which is what I did on Monday night. A couple different thoughts occurred to me while watching it, so I thought I'd break them up, subheading style.

Hilton week

Who would have guessed that I would see two movies within one week that featured Paris Hilton?

Although I hate to draw attention to it if you missed it, last Saturday I wrote about how The Hottie & the Nottie was not nearly as bad as I expected ... and possibly better than that. I went on to explain that Hilton showed enough shrewdness to subtly undercut herself here and there, which flies in the face of this image we have of her as an unapologetic narcissist.

Well, consider it 2-for-2 after The Bling Ring.

Hilton is a character here to the extent that the mischievous teenagers at the story's center break into her house a half-dozen times over the course of the narrative. She actually appears on screen once as well, seen across the room at a club.

The thing that interested me is how she again walks that fine line between glorifying herself and poking fun at herself.

Over the course of the film there's a good ten minutes of footage that purportedly takes place inside Paris' house, though it seems very unlikely that her actual house was used as a set. What's notable is how close this probably is to what the inside of her real house looks like, with entire rooms devoted to her jewelry and other types of excess that should seem to be the kind of thing that qualifies as the "secret shame of the rich." (This is, of course, assuming that Paris has any shame, which she may not.)

However, what really caught my eye was that the walls are adorned with pictures of Paris -- framed magazine covers, vanity portraits, you name it. The characters even comment on it. "Look at me, I'm obsessed with myself" the place screams. And Paris signed off on that.

There's also a moment when the characters find Polaroid pictures of Hilton doing ... well, you don't know what, but they ask "What's that all over her body?"

As much as I tend to read this in Paris' favor, perhaps it's really just that she's so into self-promotion that she doesn't even see it as something to feel embarrassed about. Modesty has never been her strong suit.

A less extreme Spring Breakers

I knew going in that the movie would share something in common with Spring Breakers, one of my favorite movies so far this year.

Both movies feature young (high school vs. college-aged) girls getting in way over their heads in the partying lifestyle. Both movies feature characters who seem blind to the mounting consequences of their actions. (I guess that's kind of the same thing.) And both movies feature actresses breaking away from the clean-cut entertainment properties (Disney, Harry Potter) that previously defined them.

Only, The Bling Ring is the movie you make if you aren't entirely ready to go for it.

As much as I did really like The Bling Ring, it feels pretty "safe" compared to the rawness of Breakers. That movie is kind of like The Bling Ring turned up to 11, exploitative, sexual and violent where Bling Ring is comparatively elegant and tasteful.

However, both films are clearly tapping into something that interests us right now: the criminal aspirations of clean-cut, and sometimes wealthy, young women. The thing that struck me is that in both films, the young girls either listen to or sing along with hardcore gangsta rap. Part of being a 21st century post-teenage girl, apparently, is wanting to be an early 1990s black man in Compton.

Where credit is due?

One of the first things you notice when watching The Bling Ring is that it is dedicated to Harris Savides, the DP who was working on his second project with Coppola when he died last October.

However, in reading a review of the movie afterward, I wondered if one particular shot that was credited to his great eye was more a feat of photography or a feat of staging.

It's definitely one of the most arresting moments of the movie. Two of the main characters break into Audrina Patridge's house -- again, probably not actually her house -- and their B&E is captured from about the view of a helicopter hovering in place maybe 150 feet up, at angle of 45 degrees from the house. The shot goes on for two minutes as the two characters rummage through, turning off lights in one room, turning them on in another, filling up their bags with trinkets and treasures and eventually meeting again on the ground floor to exit.

It's breathtaking filmmaking, but is it a greatness that should really be ascribed to Savides? Or was that just a way for this critic to honor the dead?

It's not a rhetorical question I'm asking -- I'm really curious. It's a similar question to whether you credit the cinematographer in an unbroken take like the kinds you get in Before Midnight. And my answer is: it depends on whether the camera is moving. An unbroken take is a feat of both acting and cinematography in a movie like Children of Men, where the camera must move in addition to the actors saying all their lines and hitting all their marks. But in something like Before Midnight or 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the camera is just still, taking it all in. In fact, the DP could have set up on a tripod and just walked away.

The unique thing about the shot in The Bling Ring is that it's not something you're getting from a tripod. Well, most likely is that the camera is on a tripod somewhere on the side of the Hollywood Hills, a spot that has the desired angle on the house below. It only looks like it's taken from the world's most stationary helicopter because there are no other landmarks in the camera's peripheral vision to suggest it's on the ground.

So does Savides get credit for thinking up this shot? Or just for executing it? And in a way, aren't we most impressed that the actors did the things they were supposed to do while the camera was running?

Maybe he's getting credit for the slight "ebb" effect the camera seems to have -- it's still, for sure, but is it moving in or out ever so slightly? I can't say for sure. It could just be an optical illusion.

Ultimately, though, I think you can credit Savides in the same way you can credit the director for things you're not sure if he (or she!) did. Film is the ultimate collaborative medium, which means that no one person ever takes full credit or full blame for anything. And if Savides contributed anything at all to one of the most interesting shots I've seen in a film this year, then he deserves credit.


Jandy Stone Hardesty said...

Since you say it's not a rhetorical question, I'll make up an answer.

I would say the cinematographer still deserves some credit for static long takes with lots of choreographed movement like the one you describe (I haven't seen the movie yet), simply because he (or she) has to make sure everything is lit properly as the actors move around the set, and make sure the camera maintains the proper focus throughout as people move around. Now, in a long shot like this, the focus may not matter as much, but still. I doubt you could just set the camera and leave, because as people move around, you may have to adjust things subtly to maintain picture quality throughout the shot.

Vancetastic said...


Only in researching my own post about The Bling Ring to comment on another blogger's post about The Bling Ring did I realize that I had failed to respond to your comment. My bad, four months later!

Hope you've seen Bling by now. Those descriptions of the DP's ongoing responsibilities even during a static shop are very convincing. Appreciate it!