Political personas: advertising, politics, and promotional culture

Persona work – curating the self we present online and offline – connects to political culture in particular ways. Voter familiarity with processes of ‘self-branding’ has two effects. The first is increased literacy with how identities are managed, how flaws are covered up and strengths emphasised; a familiarity with the process of ‘spin’ presenting a curated image to the public. The second is an increased expectation – a demand, even – to know politicians as personalities. To know their lives, their families, their ‘behind the scenes’ thoughts, and to treat them as we treat celebrities.

The consequence of persona becoming central to politics is to position politicians and ‘audiences’ at the centre of politics, rather than policies and constituencies. The core concern of politicians becomes as much about managing their identities rather than making good policy.

Politics as a culture of promotion is nicely contextualised in an article in The Monthly from May, where Richard Denniss surveys the policy around the car manufacturing industry in Australia:

Once upon a time, governments employed communications advisers to help sell their policy ideas to the public. These days, governments more often employ policy advisers to help turn their communications message into new policy ideas. Such is the acceptance of this reversal among the political class that new policy initiatives are called “announceables” (Richard Denniss 2016, ‘Crunch time: Australia’s car industry has met policy failure head-on’).

The concept of ‘announceables’ points to how deeply enmeshed politics is with advertising culture; how much the logic of marketing and promotion is applied to political communication, and the extent that policies resemble promotional strategies. Untangling how politics has come to so much resemble advertising goes beyond the hiring of advertising executives and marketing experts by political campaigners.

vote_badgeFrom the outset, political promotion has been fundamental to democracy: since people have choice of who to vote for, and the people/parties offering that choice have to communicate what they offer. More than that bare fact, human beings are emotional, affective creatures. We build relationships based on feeling, we empathise, we invest more in people we identify with, and we are also failingly self-interested. So emotional persuasion, individualising messages, and personalising political figures is more effective in getting people to act (including vote) than simply presenting information. Add to that the non-compulsory nature of voting in the US and the UK – meaning that the communication battle involves not only convincing people what to vote for, but also to vote at all – and appeals to the emotions are even more important. Strategists need to look past the parameters of policy to connect with people who aren’t interested in the details and convince them to turn up at the polling booth. Strategies borrowed from advertising and marketing industries have proven highly successful in making that connection.

More broadly, for better or worse, both political promotion and advertising messages exist within an economy of attention where media messages saturate our environments. Competition for hearts and minds isn’t just between different options but also different platforms, and people are well versed in tuning out. One solution to this competition is to communicate in the most concise, efficient, and understandable ways possible. Both advertising and politics trade in base emotions – fear, desire, hope – and rely on symbolism, stereotypes, and sloganeering. Rational decision-making is wedded to gut feeling, and sentiment is peddled as a valid basis for judgement.

Control of the message and the ‘brand’ (or party) image – a match between encoding and decoding – is crucial to both politics and advertising. At the same time, authenticity of the message – claims being taken truthfully – is also crucial. People need to believe what they are being sold. But increasingly in the digital media age, with produsers, citizen journalists, omnipresent microphones and cameras, and interactive media channels, the control of messages is more difficult, and authenticity in this context doesn’t map onto highly controlled, didactic, one-way broadcast forms of communication. Authenticity in the digital age is grounded in individual messaging, two-way communication, and a tone of irony and self-awareness, which all involve less control over the messaging.

Finally, celebrity has become increasingly central to both industries – brand ambassadors are used to connect consumers in more ‘authentic’ and ‘organic’ ways, and politicians are framed and interpreted through the lens of celebrity culture, while celebrities throw their endorsement weight behind one candidate or another.

trump-overbiteAn interesting example to think through these issues is Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. In the initial stages of his campaign, he eschewed traditional advertising, and instead operated on a strategy of free publicity through making controversial claims, fuelled by his existing celebrity. And while he hasn’t really proposed workable policies, he has been taken as an authentic voice. He has traded a coherent policy platform for the appearance of authenticity, and operated on the mantra of visibility over substance.

Time will tell if Trump’s strategy will pay full dividends, but there is no doubt that his success so far is tied to both his canny use of marketing strategies, and the cultural climate in which advertising, promotion, celebrity and political discourse stitch together seamlessly.

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The changing of news and the rise of ‘content’

What counts as news has changed. The effect of the 24-hour news cycle to shift the paradigm from reporting best to reporting first has been well documented. The baseline of accepted journalistic standard has eroded. Talking head panels populate broadcast news – originally cable television, and increasingly the proliferation of digital free-to-air channels in Australia – framing opinion as equivalent to journalistic enquiry. The digital pages of online news outlets scatter op-eds and citizen-penned pieces among reports of world events and political machinations. Celebrity (mis)behaviours take up airtime, and celebrity guests are given airtime; both targets and arrows in the new sport of generating ratings and clicks. The sport of content.

Newsaper_stackDystopian narratives about the digital-ushered end of journalistic integrity, of ‘quality’ media, or of constructive public discourse piss me off. They give too little credit to the critical capacity of audiences, or the proliferation of alternate channels produced by blazingly intelligent and engaged humans. They lack generosity. But they are not entirely wrong. What counts as news has changed. Talking head panels do populate broadcast news. The digital pages of online news outlets do scatter op-eds and citizen-penned pieces among reports of world events and political machinations. And there seems to be a correlation – not causation – between the rise in the term ‘content’ and the qualitative shift in news. The broadened use of that term maps against an increase in opinion and ‘soft’ stories in news programming.

My reason for thinking such a correlation is interesting: the term ‘content’ is ontologically distinct. It has different connotations than terms like ‘film’ or ‘TV show’ or ‘website’ or ‘pamphlet’ or ‘book’ or ‘magazine’ or even ‘story’ or ‘report’. There is an implication of multimedia in the term ‘content’. Moreover, there is an implication of portability, of shareability. Content can be repurposed, cross platforms, cross audiences. It can be cut up and passed around. Describing news as content transforms a story into a placeholder; the term itself hollows out the substance of the stuff it describes. It is a thing to fill and be filled. What with matters less than how much, or how often. It is capitalist logic colliding with the new attention economy, underpinned by the fact that the web has no edges and no mass. It has only content to fill and be filled.

CNN_appAnd there creeps back the dystopian narrative. The web is infinitely more than placeholders and hollow spaces. But the web has also ushered in the era of content. Of course, the 24 hour news cycle began with the rise of  24-hour cable news channels in the US and then the UK, more than a decade before Berners-Lee created the language and protocol of the web. News tipped into content territory from those heady early days of CNN. But the web exploded the potential space for content, and the space produced demand, driven as much by advertising opportunism as consumer need. (The first use of the term content in the context of marketing appears to have been for a roundtable discussing the future of newspaper marketing in 1996, perhaps not coincidentally just as the web was looming as a legitimate threat to the audience – and the advertising revenue – of ‘old’ media.) And to charge advertising dollars, sites need traffic, and traffic is driven as much by newness as by quality, and so we arrive (back) at a content-driven online ecology; one in which what counts as news has changed, but there is an awful lot more of it.

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A most restrained film

A Most Violent Year is a crime film firmly in the 1970s vein – a low-key, meditative example of the genre. Watching it reminded me of the implicit set of expectations that I place on the modern crime film: an escalating series of elaborate confrontations culminating in a bloodbath. This is emphatically not what AMVY delivers. (Alternative title: There Won’t Be Much Blood.)

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In the hands of masters such as Schrader and Scorsese, this intensifying structure is intensely rewarding. Yet as a standard, it’s more of a crutch than a virtue. Continually ratcheting up the stakes isn’t how life works, and even criminality involves a large element of drudgery. Gunplay, despite its cinematic virtues, is a small and often negligible component.

AMVY narrates a series of obstacles in a man’s life without funnelling the viewer into a situation of increasingly tense situations. This is more of an anthropological crime film, as it isn’t afraid to dramatise the minor tribulations of staying straight in a black-hearted world.

The film is set in 1981, during a bleak winter at the height of New York’s crime rate, conveyed by a muted, rusty, muddy palate that suffuses and suffocates the city. We always seem to view mouldering, hazardous locations through disused back entrances, choked with broken glass, like something out of a Rudy Giuliani For President! ad. (Incidentally, where the hell are the Twin Towers? Given the film’s $20m budget, it wouldn’t have been hard to put them back.)

We follow protagonist Abel (Oscar Isaac), head of Standard Oil, as he attempts to secure a loan for new premises. His wrangling with financiers coincides with an investigation against his company for financial fraud, coupled with hijacking dramas instigated by his rivals. What initially seemed a sure thing for Abel soon collapses under the weight of multiple accusations.

As the city reels under the hammer blows of crime and recession, Abel struggles to remain honest in a world that rewards duplicity. Like the Biblical Abel, he is undeservedly set upon by a corrupt world. This differentiates the film from The Godfather, whose protagonist is irredeemably swallowed by the swamp of Mafia corruption; in contrast, AMVY never completely loses faith in Abel’s inherent virtue.

Given this affection, the criminality that impinges upon Abel’s family life is seen as an undeserved yet inevitable aberration. When his wife Anna Morales (Jessica Chastain) finds a gun in their front yard from a thwarted home invasion, the rigid division Abel has tried to institute between domestic and professional worlds is erased.

While watching AMVY, my reaction was heavily influenced by plotlines of the more visceral, high-octane crime film mentioned earlier. Surely when he secures this loan, I thought, the real action will begin. But this is no Heat or Carlito’s Way. In the gunfighter-crime world, bureaucratic details such as financing are only ever background information. But this is a smaller-scale take on the low-level sacrifices that must be made to succeed in an industry riddled with corruption.

While the film’s aims are quiet and restrained, it carefully connects the lives of those embroiled in criminality with our own. It’s a welcome antidote to the superhuman heroes of outlandish yet enjoyable crime dramas.

Tim Roberts

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Thoughts on The Lady from Shanghai and noir

Orson Welles’ 1947 masterpiece sticks in my mind like a barbed spear. It’s my favourite Welles, despite being (like almost all his films) shredded by overzealous editors. Many grace notes were lost, such as the virtuoso opening tracking shot through Central Park, and the film is fragmented as a result; but even RKO’s most savage cutters couldn’t deodorise erase the sweaty claustrophobia. While Touch of Evil (1958) has a more quintessentially ‘noir’ plotline, it doesn’t have quite the same tenacious grip on my imagination.

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Shanghai concerns a doomed love triangle (is there any other kind?) between Michael, an Irish sailor (Welles); Elsa, a beautiful woman with a dark past (Rita Hayworth); and her polio-stricken husband Arthur (Everett Sloane). Michael and Elsa soon become embroiled in a virtually incomprehensible murder plot, orchestrated by the sexually repressed, deeply creepy Grisby (Glen Anders). Or so he thinks, the fool.

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In Shanghai, sex is always deeply weird and/or illicit. The extremely tight framing and harsh lighting highlights every male sweat glands in the vicinity, while Hayworth shimmers over these pathetic, decaying figures like an angel reimagined by Goya. As Arthur and Grisby leer and cackle over Elsa’s impossible beauty, Welles’ cynicism about human sexuality is laid bare.

 

It’s testament to the paramount importance of mood in noir. No genre has been so confused with its moth-eaten collection of stock props. A Bugsy Malone-esque pastiche of gangster movies is still a gangster movie of sorts. Any old trifle about a downtrodden team triumphing against all odds is still a sports movie. A cowboy shooting his nemesis makes a western. But noir’s not a shopping list – real classics of the genre can only be made by perverse spirits, which is why so many neo-noirs fail as homages.

Vicious

Take the Wachowski Brothers’ sexy but vapid Bound (1996), essentially a mulch of noir tropes. There’s femme fatales, bloodied banknotes, fall guys, prison stints, etc. All the ingredients are there … but it ain’t noir. Yet Basic Instinct (1992) is the greatest modern Hollywood noir due to its sickening spiral of gluttonous lust, founded on a fascinated revulsion for human addictions.

While the criminal element of noir is seen as its defining feature, but it’s actually a red herring – the genre’s really about neuroses and the damage they do to people’s psyches, where chaotic desires leak poisonously from men and women’s rancid souls. It’s just that criminality’s the most fertile soil for growing these noxious fruits.

And that is why I dislike procedurals, that genre that parasitically subsists on noir’s cred. Once you know roughly how a police department works, procedurals are all the same. Those doing the spadework are invariably boring, and the criminals are dumb or faceless.

The Asphalt Jungle (1950), for example, is a humourless defence of benevolent authority; the superbly shot He Walked by Night (1948), charting the extended pursuit of a criminal through city and sewer, has its incipient noir atmosphere deracinated by its detached perspective and bland pieties about ‘the long arm of the law’. Snore.

Of course, not all films can be about desperate, irredeemable people helplessly engulfed in psychological vortexes of their own making. But in this neurotic’s view, they’re the best.

Tim Roberts

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The Salvation (2014)

Mads MikkelsenOh, Mads.

Mads, Mads, Mads…

What a face.

A face you could fall into, swim around in, cut yourself on the craggy bits and the snaggletooth, get overwhelmed, and wonder how you’ll ever make it out again.

Leading man in Danish filmmaker Kristian Levring’s multicultural Western The Salvation, Mads Mikkelsen is a magnetic screen presence, and his well of inscrutable expressions almost carry the film into the territory of memorable updates of the genre. Almost. It is underwritten and overacted to just the right degree, steely stares and furtive glances standing in for expository dialogue. The problem is that there is too little to expose. The story is predictable from the off, and proceeds with inexorable steadiness towards a by-the-numbers set-piece ending in which everyone who deserves it dies, along with the requisite few collateral damage. What is perhaps most remarkable about the film is how many of the characters unambiguously deserve their comeuppance. It is a film without subtlety in sketching it’s bad guys.

The Salvation (2014)And this it where I think the film overreaches and falls flat: To make a modern Western, a genre nearly as exhausted as the dry desert setting, needs of something to say, a message or a metaphor or a reason to trot out the familiar tropes (and there is every last one of them in The Salvation, from the stagecoach hijack to the rocky mountain manhunt, all the way down to the base motivation of oil money. At one point I felt like hollering “black gold! Texas tea!”). The Salvation has nothing much to say, other than to say it with style. It plays like a 90 minute showreel for a Western; a director showcasing their eye for dust and detail, their literacy of the roll-call of tropes, their polish at representing rugged edges. But it never becomes a fully formed film in itself, feeling more like a series of earnest and well executed references to other films, or a glossy teaser to an idea of a deeper, denser story.

Sidenotes

1) The cinematography is of the highest order. Jens Schlosser’s camera moves effortlessly through burnt out buildings and grassy plains, zeroing in on the subtlest twitches and flinches and darts of expression on the actor’s faces, carrying so much of the narrative weight. Sophisticated camera movement is complemented by unusual lighting choices – markedly unnaturalistic at times but rarely jarring, and always serving the mood of the moment. Unfortunately, Schlosser’s work is undermined by sequences of clunky, ghostly CGI – buildings awkwardly pasted onto backgrounds or oil rigs stuttering by as the camera pans back over a landscape. The unevenness of these visual elements is a great shame.

Eva Green2) Eva Green puts in a haunting, charged performance as the mute female lead Madeline AKA ‘The Princess’, convincingly motivated despite never being able to speak that motivation. With limited opportunity, Green elicits a depth of pathos lacking from most of the rest of the characters.

3) While the film’s liberal use and cursory exploration of the tropes of the Western is more deflating than anything else, framing the killing of a ten year old boy and rape of a young mother on a stagecoach as little more than to grease the wheels of a chilly revenge narrative feels both cheap and exploitative. While Mads does his best in the time allocated for the requisite mourning scene, it is far too disposable in the scheme of the film overall to feel justified as an inciting incident. Women and children may justifiably be depicted as vulnerable in the Wild West, but they still need to be treated as characters of emotional consequence rather than plot convenience.

Watched on digital projection at ACMI, Wednesday 14 January 2015.

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21 Jump Street and casual sexism

21 Jump Street (2012)The 2012 remake of TV classic 21 Jump Street has all the makings of terrifically entertaining escapism, undone by one throwaway moment at the 95 minute mark that brings the real world crashing back in. A beat no more than ten seconds of screen time underlines how casually insidious certain ideas of sexual politics are in contemporary society, and how the tropes of popular cinema can normalise the objectification of women. It comes at the start of the climactic car chase, when the viewing brain is in full popcorn-munching, explosion-loving, romp-through-the-streets-with-reckless-abandon mode. Channing Tatum’s gun wielding undercover cop rebuffs a young girl’s out-of-the-blue sexual advance with the line “You’re really hot, and you’re really slutty, and it’s awesome, but I gotta shoot people right now.” It is a cheap gag; one disposable moment among so many one-liners. But being so easily thrown away in the noise and swirl of a chase scene in an otherwise progressive blockbuster highlights the extent to which problematic sexual politics remain par for the course.

First, some broader context. The film a big screen reboot of the popular if decidedly hokey cop procedural TV show of the 1980s. The original show might have faded into Nash Bridges level obscurity – re-run on European cable stations and late night summer scheduling – were it not the launch pad for Johnny Depp’s surprising leading-man career. The premise sees fresh police academy graduates assigned to go undercover in a high school to track down a drug ring; complications of the legal, romantic, and teenage angst variety ensue. But in the hands of Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, and an assured supporting cast, it becomes that rare beast – a film based on an existing property that nods to the original while still stamping its own distinct style. The script also it manages to balance a playful self-referentiality and genuine pathos with interesting and largely well-fleshed-out characters with believable motivation.

The main players fit identifiable archetypes while being filled out with qualities that invert expectations. And for a buddy comedy cop film, the lead female role is complex, independent, and given relatively strong agency alongside the save-the-day male leads. Brie Larson gives the role even more depth beyond the nominal romantic interest. It also handles issues of teenage sexuality and the intellectual capacity of high schoolers with surprising deftness, which may be why the casually sexist line in car chase so jarring.

The context of the scene is the inevitable action climax: the heroes have made their breakthrough by unmasking the drug ring leaders (on prom night no less), but things have gone horribly wrong and they are now simultaneously running for their lives and trying to apprehend the perps. Hill and Tatum’s not-so-undercover cops jack a limousine to chase the fleeing drug ring mastermind. In the back of the limo is a drunk girl, waylaid on her way to prom and woken from her stupor by the wild street ride. This is a girl we have seen before fleetingly as one of the group Hill’s character hangs around with at the school. Her character has a name – Lisa – but that she is part of the earlier narrative barely registers, nor does it matter. She is there for the gag, and frankly she could be anyone. As Tatum’s character stands shooting at a car in front through the sunroof, Lisa tries to unzip his fly, repeating that she is ready to party. He slaps at her hands but she keeps going, urging “Just stay where you are!” His response: “I’m not playing! I’m trying to shoot people, will you stop! Just for two seconds! You’re really hot, and you’re really slutty, and it’s awesome, but I gotta shoot people right now…” And then the grand punchline as Lisa replies “You think I’m hot?!”

21 Jump Street limo stillAs gags go, this one is particularly cheap: girl doesn’t notice life-threatening gunfire because she is too concerned with mythologising prom as the ‘best party ever’ and too vain in the face of a compliment. But there are far more problematic ideas simmering below the surface here. ‘Slutty’ is used as a backhanded compliment, directly aligned with ‘hotness’, as a desirable thing for a young girl to be. I don’t want to suggest in any way, shape, or form that female sexuality should be repressed, but ‘slut’ is a loaded term and in this context is becomes a powerful synonym for the objectification of women – not only as objects to be looked at but objects to be used for sexual pleasure (if only there weren’t pesky gunfights to be had). Lisa’s sexual desire is also not shown as something she wants for herself, but something expected of her – she wants to suck cock because that’s what you do at a prom party. This notion of displaced sexual desire is underlined by the fact that throughout the film Tatum’s character has been shunned by Lisa’s group. Under the logic of earlier scenes, she wouldn’t want to be anywhere near his cock. Here her desire is not her own but a role given to her by society (i.e. the screenwriters). To make matters worse, she is shown as investing disproportionately in how Tatum’s character values her looks (“You think I’m hot?!”), further transforming her sexual desire into something that functions for – or because of – the male character.

I’m sure people would argue that I’m making a mountain out of a blowjob gag. Maybe. I doubt the screenwriters, directors, actors, producers or anyone else involved in the production lost any sleep over whether or not to include this scene, if anyone noticed a problem at all. It’s all part of the fun, isn’t it? Can’t I just take a joke? And no doubt there are cases where people behave in such a way. Kids might not be having gunfights out of the sunroofs of limos, but at prom nights all over the world such sexual encounters are bound to happen. The question remains though, why script it into a multi-billion dollar blockbuster comedy when it adds nothing to the plot? Can’t escapist entertainment also be an escape from the kind of representations of women that casually reduce them to objects? There is already enough of that in the reality we fumble our way through. This is a world in which the governments of Western democracies are still voting against measures to close the pay gap between the sexes. A world in which what women can and can’t wear is still being legislated (mostly by men). A world in which critics of the representation of females in gaming receive death threats. A world in which women I love fight and push and face shit every day to be treated as equal. The limo scene in 21 Jump Street may seem minor, but it speaks of the normalisation of these ways of talking about and representing women. It isn’t a stretch to see a link between countless moments of objectifying, dismissing, labelling, and stereotyping in popular media and the institutionalised and sedimented attitudes that license cultural oppression.

I’m wary of objecting to representations of other people on their behalf, imposing my perspective of what is acceptable or not in representing sexuality, or adopting the role of comedy police. As a white middle class male I need to recognise that not only have I been privileged in the life-path opportunities afforded me, but that moral outrage is precisely one of those opportunities that needs to be carefully measured to not be abused or taken for granted. All that said, it still stands that in the moment of watching 21 Jump Street I found reference to a teenage character as a desirable combination of slutty, hot, and awesome – as though it were the most self-evident thing in the world – arrestingly objectionable.

I have a problem with ‘slutty’ being a measure of a female character’s worth as much as I have a problem with it being used as an insult hurled on city streets. I have a problem with film characters being written in to be punchlines for sexist gags. I have a problem with throwaway lines that demean and objectify women. I have a problem with this kind of offhanded sexism in cinema. It undermines us all on a narrative, cultural, or humanist level. So as a gag, the limo moment adds next to nothing to 21 Jump Street the movie, but it does leave a whole lot of takeaway; namely just how far we still have to go in representing gender on screen.

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Ant colonies and The Bling Ring (2013)

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.

The Bling Ring 1As 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.

The Bling Ring 2We 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.

The Bling Ring 3This 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.

Ant_Farm_1When 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.

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