2017 Film Essays

‘The Bling Ring,’ Recontextualized in Post-Election America

Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring takes place in 2008-09 and was released in theaters in 2013. Yet, when future audiences look back at the film, they’re likely to focus on another year entirely: 2016.

Speculative fiction aside, how can a movie be interpreted as representing a time after it came into being? It’s easier when considering a longer arc of history (a task difficult for a generation with an attention span shorter than that of goldfish) — not years, but decades and centuries. Chuck Klosterman’s brilliant treatise on criticism and canonical thinking, But What If We’re Wrong?, observes that seemingly monumental occurrences will flatten out over time until only one moment from an era looms in the collective imagination. “If you don’t believe me,” he writes, “try to find deep analysis of American art from the middle nineteenth century that doesn’t glancingly reference the Civil War.”

If something cannot represent an era, audiences can construe it to presage an era. While making predictions about the lifespan of art is an inherently futile task, I wager The Bling Ring will likely enjoy a second wave of appreciation (a 60% Rotten Tomatoes score shows a fairly even split among critics) when the distance closes between it and the event for which it will come to be defined by: the election of Donald Trump. This moment in time marks, among many things, a radical shift in policy as well as psyche that will bear heavily on the art of the age.

To be clear, this is NOT one of the dreaded “[X Piece of Art] Is Responsible for Trump” hot takes that have flooded the internet for two years now, nor is it another “[Y Piece of Art] Is More Relevant Than Ever.” I’m also not making the argument that Coppola predicted Trumpism like a soothsayer hovering over a crystal ball. Rather, The Bling Ring shows that she picked up on some of the tremors which eventually led to a sociopolitical earthquake.

The crimes committed by the titular gang of thieves are quintessentially of their time. Using details gleaned from social media and the nascent internet celebrity gossip industry, a group of teenagers successfully determine when celebrities will be away from their posh homes so they can rob them. The acts lend themselves to interpretation within the paradigm of the “how we live now” subgenre of domestic drama, the strained social problem story that makes sweeping statements about contemporary life in a desperate play for topicality. Unsurprisingly, they tend to place blame at the feet of the new, which is usually wielded by the young.

From the perspective of a 2013 viewer or reviewer, it’s easy to see how the millennial angle could serve as an entry point past Coppola’s well-manicured surfaces. She gets her fair share of laughs from the characters’ inane antics, be they texting in the club rather than talking to each other or strutting their stuff on a webcam while lighting up a bowl. (The latter is real, and I had to see the proof to believe it.) Yet the film isn’t really about that, nor does Coppola particularly care to recreate the exact environment of Great Recession-era teenage culture. The pop soundtrack features several anachronistic tracks, which could just be a music supervisor oversight — or, not to get too Room 237 here, Coppola did not want the film moored to a moment in history.

The Bling Ring also came out amidst a sea of films about class conflict — Spring Breakers, Pain & Gain, At Any Price, The Purge — made in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The film does contain an element of redistributive riches since the star-crazed burglars take excesses of clothing and jewelry that their victims don’t even notice missing. The grouping felt natural at the time, especially considering that Coppola’s two prior films (Marie Antoinette and Somewhere) gently critiqued the milieus of the rich, famous and powerful. But the Ritz-Carlton Robin Hood narrative doesn’t really hold up; it’s more of an ideology foisted onto a story where the robbers keep the riches for themselves.

None of this is to fault the original reception of the film. No one could know what they didn’t know. But now that we’re in the middle of a massive societal upheaval, it’s time to readjust the way we think about The Bling Ring. Coppola is not casting a backwards glance to show the perils of a lust for stardom taken to dangerous places by new technology. She’s looking forward, examining how the bling ring robbers are a prototype for a dangerously reconstructed self.

For Coppola, this isn’t about pearl-clutching in the wake of human trust erosion or the collapse of social capital. Norms have been rewritten altogether. The self is now pure narcissism, responsive only to capitalistic ego massages. It’s not just that the characters are shallow — they are completely hollowed out. They elevate celebrity worship to frightening new levels by seeking not merely to imitate or appropriate from them. These teens ultimately want to deplete and replace them.

Their choice of targets matters. The bling ring mostly steals from celebrities who are famous for being famous — Paris Hilton, Audrina Patridge, even Lindsay Lohan, whose public breakdown began to overshadow whatever notoriety she had from The Parent Trap or Mean Girls. These stars are more accessible to the average consumer since the separation between them and us is not supernatural talent but status. In the world of The Bling Ring, social standing is a commodity that can be bought, traded and — yes — stolen.

A blurred line exists between these “reality show” celebrities and actual reality, one that confounds a media illiterate generation which accepts artifice as inherent. (Coppola herself doesn’t exactly help this by giving Paris Hilton a brief cameo in the film.) We rely on these figures for the vicarious thrills of their lifestyle. They, in turn, invite viewers behind the façade, promising intimacy but delivering a consumerist-constructed fantasy. What is theirs is ours, or so it seems in a world where the mysterious private lives of our authority figures become increasingly public. Because the people grant them their status, there’s always the risk that the people will try to take it back from them.

Crucial to Coppola’s interpretation of their crimes is the fact that the bling ring robbers originate from Calabasas, an exurban town on the fringes of Los Angeles. (Among the director’s films, the setting is closer to the oppressive suburban Michigan milieu of The Virgin Suicides than the posh Chateau Marmont of Somewhere.) Confined to a community of model homes, these teenagers find two-pronged satisfaction in their Hollywood break-ins. It allows them to both be part of the lifestyle they crave and put those celebrities in their place by outsmarting them. Many leave their houses without security or alarm – some even with the door unlocked. The Bling Ring exploits these stars’ faith in social trust by showing just how exposed they make themselves.

Watching from the post-election era, there’s a parallel with the populist rhetoric of Donald Trump’s campaign for the forgotten Americans. With one key exception, of course: Trump pledged to use his knowledge of the elite upper crust to steal for his fans and supporters. The Bling Ring used their knowledge to steal for themselves.

Narcissism is another key to unlocking why The Bling Ring resonates in a Trumpian landscape. Optimistic observers point to the rise of LGBT visibility and the democratic uprisings in the Arab Spring as evidence that our better angels would prevail on social media. The selfie-obsessed self-promotion was just a bug that we could iron out as the technology gained a greater foothold in society. Coppola sheds such idealistic notions. Narcissism is a feature of social media, not a byproduct.

This becomes clear upon the criminals’ arrest, particularly in several revealing moments that played more as comedy upon release. As Emma Watson’s Nicki Moore (herself based on low-rent reality star Alexis Neiers) gives an interview to exonerate herself in the court of public opinion, she continuously rebuts interruptions from her mother (Leslie Mann’s Laurie) to bring the discussion back towards their talking points. “Mom, this is MY interview,” she snips. While being interrogated by police, the ringleader Rebecca (Katie Chang) asks if the investigators have spoken to the victims. After he answers in the affirmative, she straightens up in her chair and opens her eyes wider to ask, “Really? What did Lindsay [Lohan] say?” And finally, in the film’s closing scene, Nicki turns a post-jail time interview around by breaking the fourth wall and instructing viewers, “You can follow everything about me and my journey at nickimooreforever.com.”

We’re living (at least at the time of publication) in the social media presidency, one that is frightening in many ways — but put policy aside for a second. Our Twitterer-in-chief guides the country’s debate with 140-character missives reflecting how everything comes back to his ego. The Pulse shooting? About how he’s right and deserves congratulations. The Russian election hacking? About perceived threats to the legitimacy of his election.

We’re entering an age where diplomacy becomes subordinated to the will of the unchecked ego, and it will force a large-scale reassessment of how society interacts with social media. From the promises of modernity arose two horrifying world wars, prompting the intellectual movement of post-modernism. Whatever arises from the rubble of this election’s realignment is still unknown at this point. But this school of thought could grow to encompass and reclaim The Bling Ring as a paradigmatic depiction of the era. As the time between 2008, 2013 and 2016 grows comparatively smaller, the film will only loom larger.

Follow Marshall Shaffer on Twitter (@media_marshall).


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