Know Less, See More

By James Mannarino
‘Years active’ is a figure that’s endemic to the Wikipedia pages of people in the entertainment industry – it isn’t included in the profiles of politicians, businessmen/women, painters, novelists or engineers – just people involved in film, music, and television production. It’s a revealing bit of information, as the ways in which people start careers in entertainment are interesting and vary greatly; this somewhat ambiguous figure will most likely lead you to discover when, and more importantly how, they got their start.

Sofia Coppola It’s also an indication that entertainers have two separate lives – non-active and active – and what they’ve done as active people is all that matters. However, in the case of Sofia Coppola, who was born in 1971 and has been ‘active’ since 1972 –as Michael Corleone's newborn nephew in the famous baptism scene in Godfather Part 1 – her whole life matters. Born to Francis Ford Coppola, who was fast becoming a Hollywood institution, she started her life at the inception of Coppola fame. So, it’s clear how she was able to start making movies, and it can absolutely be said that her films and their themes, characters and plots are products of her personal history. This maxim, however, generates preconceived notions that cloud objective interpretations of her work.

Critical analyses of her filmmaking often implicate this upbringing, emphasizing the notion that her films are products of a child of celebrity culture trying to paint a picture of how fame and incessant privilege bear on the soul. This emphasis is understandable, as every influence of an artistic work should be weighed in its analysis. The downside is that it leads many to dismiss Somewhere as redundant - just another lame exposé of celebrity ‘woe is me.’ It would indeed be a trite and tired work if this were the point of the film. Yet such a dismissal falls short, is reductive, and impedes appreciation of what is a well-made, if however subjective, film about a father and his daughter.

Somewhere’s Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is at first glance a boring character that we’ve been confronted with countless times: the over-indulged and wildly successful celebrity playboy whose every desire is at his fingertips, yet his myriad insecurities prevent him from truly enjoying any of it. While not incorrect, this is a cursory understanding of Ms. Coppola’s Johnny Marco, who, through clever direction and unapologetically expositive scene structure consistently evolves into a believable and authentic character.

This authenticity is illuminated delicately, requiring a strong focus on the subtle details of Johnny’s interactions. When a masseur unexpectedly gets completely naked while giving him a massage, he doesn’t react negatively or with anger. His somewhat neutral reaction of nervously laughing it off, finishing his beer, and awkwardly waiting for the masseur to get dressed and pack up his things reveals a character who is generally content and innately calm enough to not lose his cool – the result of such an easy lifestyle. Clearly, there hasn’t been a reason for him to get worked up about anything in a long time.

 Late in the film, Cleo (Elle Fanning) leaves for camp after spending a number of weeks with Johnny. Her abrupt absence clearly elicits his normal feeling of emptiness and in desperation he calls her mother, his ex. On the phone he tearfully exclaims, “I’m fucking nothing,” and she tells him to “do some volunteer work or something.” This sarcastic response conveys the satiric nature of this exchange, and is delivered with a level of exhaustion that seems to mirror the audience’s presumed feeling that this is frustratingly predictable.

These and other such scenes build a refreshingly balanced celebrity character that doesn’t pander – we aren’t supposed to feel that Johnny’s life is especially difficult or appealing. Sophia Coppola knows this culture – she’s not against it, for it, or striving to make you envy or detest it – she’s simply applying it, effectively, as a framework for telling a story.

This drawn-out, expositive cinematography (Harris Savides): Zodiac, American Gangster) and scene structure also facilitates the impeccably understated performances delivered by Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning. Johnny really doesn’t say much, and neither does Cleo, yet so much is communicated between them, and to the audience, via gestures and expressions – most strikingly through expression of their eyes. Johnny pleads for understanding, begs forgiveness from his daughter and she responds with empathy, pity, and even fascination; without dialogue, these exchanges are their most powerful and affecting.

It has been a long time since I last saw Lost In Translation and The Virgin Suicides. Perhaps this is why I don’t view Somewhere as an element in the apparently monotonous portfolio of Ms. Coppola’s work, but as its own entity. It isn’t just another banal exposé, or one more annoying attempt at making me realize that even millionaire celebrities have feelings. It is a smart, well-acted, and unique film with an accessible plot. While Somewhere won’t appeal to everybody, it should be separated from the ‘active years’ of Sofia Coppola and evaluated based on its substance and her skills as a truly innovative filmmaker. 

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About The Author

James MannarinoAfter graduating from Saint Joseph's University in 2008, James Mannarino began doing freelance television production work in NYC.

He had the opportunity to work with Roadside Entertainment on the ESPY Awards, as an Assistant Editor, and as a PA on The Celebrity Apprentice, among several other projects and internships.

James is currently focused on coordinating outreach strategies and establishing partnerships for Raindance New York.


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