Sophia Coppola’s The Bling Ring is loosely based on the true story of a gaggle of spoiled Hollywood brats who took to breaking into celebrity homes and taking what they wanted. As Coppola tells it, the teens were motivated more out of boredom, a desire for proximity-by-proxy to the circle of fame, and a seeming lack of consequence than any malicious intent, wearing clothes and jewellery and adopting the irrational self-importance that attends reality-TV, everyone’s-a-star culture. Fittingly, as they inevitably get found out and hauled in front of the media for their crimes, the more spotlight-savvy among them flip the script leverage their 15 minutes of notoriety into genuine – if Z-grade – celebrity status.
As a piece of entertainment, the film is overly long and none of the characters are given depth beyond a glazed look of learned aspiration and a barely-held desperation that seems to drive everything they utter. Nonetheless, it works on some level as a careful study in the alienation of celebrity and consumerist culture (echoing with refrains from Coppola’s earlier films, especially Lost in Translation from 2003 and Marie Antoinette from 2006). More precisely, it is a film about consuming celebrity, where the voracity to have a piece of celebrity lifestyle extends to invading their homes, taking their clothes, stealing their jewellery, and adopting their excesses as though they are Hollywood birthrights. The voracity to consume the signifiers of success is matched only by the affected flippancy with which they are worn.
We see glimpses of the unique reasons each of these six central characters is drawn to deviance and celebrity obsession – the absent parents; being the awkward new kid looking for a way in; jealousy of the more popular friend – but each is shown as essentially the same drifting, disaffected soul. Each is seduced by the promise of their own minor celebrity – having cash to splash around, dressing like stars, their own circle of notoriety growing. Each is intoxicated by their proximity to already ordained celebrities and imagines them-self in that place. And each becomes more and more immune to the perversity of what they are doing, more and more distant from each other, and more and more estranged from a sense of self.
This sense of alienation is visually punctuated by one long single take scene, tracking almost imperceptibly, showing two teenagers breaking into and ransacking a reality TV celebrity’s house. (Within the logic of the film, it doesn’t matter who the celebrity is since each is as disposable as the next, blurring into each other, rising from and falling into the ranks of ‘everyone else’ with alarming ease.)
The house is all glass. Two teenage figures dart through intersecting rooms pulling bags from wardrobes and grabbing boxes from under beds. Lights flick on and flick off, all in plain sight. The shot is from a nearby hill, the house distant but in full view. The scene frames us as voyeurs, spying on ‘real’ lives from afar; fascinated, judgemental, and doing absolutely nothing. Insulated by distance, excited by proximity. A lot like watching celebrities play their lives out in magazine inches and websites and TV screens. We become the consumers, watching things of next to no importance but invested all the same. For two and a half uncomfortable minutes, we are the ones breaking into other people’s lives – other people whose celebrity extends far enough to be the subjects of a Hollywood film – and giving a shit what happens to them. It reminded me of an ant farm. One of those plastic contraptions, backlit, showing mindless insects scurrying about their work.
When ants are crushed they emit alarm pheromones that, somewhat paradoxically draw other ants to the scene, sometimes sending them into a seeming-frenzy if the scale of the destruction is big enough. Seeming only because of the activity; ants don’t panic. They crowd around the dead body of their colony-mate. Ant rubbernecking. The insect-gaze. Not out of curiosity or sadism, nor fear for their own fate; out of blind, automatic reflex. Coppola’s film – and this single shot break-in scene in particular – offers the Hollywood version of alarm pheromones. A crush-reflex. A chance to crowd around and pick over the body of the fallen, drawn in by the scent of things going wrong. I’m not sure if Coppola knows anything of ants, but she no doubt knows about the celebrity machine, and an ant colony seems about as good a metaphor as any to represent it. Wanting to know about their lives. Tapping on the glass waiting for something to happen. It doesn’t make The Bling Ring a good film, but it does stand as a cutting commentary on contemporary celebrity culture.