You either love Sofia Coppola or hate her. Here's why.

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Dec. 28 2010 7:33 PM

Sofia Coppola

You either love her or hate her. Here's why.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

In the past two decades, Sofia Coppola has been publicly laughed at, booed, and wept over by Quentin Tarantino —treatments that, in the ledger of Hollywood fame, add up to something slightly short of canonization. But her greatest talent may lie in inciting small-scale culture wars. Last week, the Los Angeles Times described her recent film, Somewhere, as "a kind of road movie of the soul, a delicate, meditative look at a particular state of mind in a particular time and place." The New York Post, that same day, wrote, "[I]magine a film called 'Wanna See Me Crack My Knuckles?' " Both are typical reactions. With their dreamy self-absorption, flickers of romantic transcendence, and fabulous indie-rock soundtracks, Coppola's movies seem to come as missives from some never-ending sophomore fall, a kingdom ruled by moody young folks who have read Rousseau but never seen the inside of a tax return. Their appeal is a question of taste, but rarely of negotiation. On God, lifestyle, and Coppola, we are a divided nation.

It doesn't help that Coppola's body of work often seems divided on itself. Her first feature, The Virgin Suicides (1999), was a braid of gauzy romanticism and Midwestern gothicthat, in pace and sensibility, followed the footsteps of Blue Velvet-era David Lynch. Lost in Translation, which earned Coppola the allegiance of Moleskine-toting aspirants across the land, moved toward ruminative transition shots and hand-held work that she and others said was inspired by early Wong Kar-wai—though Coppola's burnt-out deadpan shared little with Wong's high, ecstatic burnish. In 2006, she cast herself anew again with the pop-pomo bedizenment of Marie Antoinette. Coppola likes to say she makes films for her friends, not for the market (inner-circle vanitas or indie cred?), but given her wide-ranging style, it is fair to wonder whether those friends are more fickle than any box-office tastemakers ever could be.

What drives Coppola's work, beyond ambition and the vagaries of moody youth? Look closely at her movies and a surprising answer emerges: From The Virgin Suicides to Somewhere, Coppola's films are striking for their steadfast, targeted attack on the culture of Hollywood. And although this common thread at first looks incidental to her project, it runs to the heart of her divisive reputation. Coppola's insider criticism of Hollywood, her disdain for the industry that her own career relies on, leads her into a strange territory between hypocrisy and candor, privileged lament and fearless protest. This indeterminacy gives her work the back-and-forth flicker—and intrigue—of a lure in water. But it also leads her to a site of unusual cultural tension. As both a beneficiary of creative privilege and a critic of it, Coppola has become a lightning rod for authenticity questions more broadly haunting American culture since the last boom era. Her problematic attack on Hollywood is the reason why these quiet and parochially minded movies stick so sharply in the nervous system of their time. 

In many ways, Coppola's films are strange vehicles to lay claim to this warpath. Yet a disposition against Hollywood was part of her creative education from the start. Coppola was born during the making of The Godfather, a process Francis Ford Coppola found so hellish and unpromising that as soon as it was done, he decamped for France and started taking writing jobs for cash, convinced that his career as a director was ruined. It wasn't, of course, but he never ceased to flee from the horrors of the movie business. Sofia grew up mostly in the Bay Area, where he'd landed during a previous escape from Hollywood. As a young girl, she traveled as his filming demanded, playing a few bit parts in his movies along the way. In this last capacity, she fell into her first and last substantial acting job, playing Mary Corleone in The Godfather Part III.

That effort became notorious. The Chicago Tribune, in one of the least damning dismissals offered, described her as "an absolute blank." After a short foray into film school, Coppola distanced herself from movies, taking up modeling and fashion designing instead. And although her flaming wreckage of an acting career has since burned out in public consciousness, the idea of her unseriousness persists. When Coppola returned to moviemaking in the late '90s, it was along a path consistent with her reputation: Her early projects took stylistic cues from teensploitation flicks (the quintessential "unserious" Hollywood genre for someone of her generation), but they also carried a new, more aloof undertone. The question that appeared then is one that has lingered until this day: Is Coppola's outsider act, her tenor of detached idealism and quiet disdain, something she came to on her own? Or just a pose?

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This is a doubly sticky question given Coppola's Hollywood privilege. Her father has executive-produced all of her features—a luxury, it is fair to say, that many aspiring writers and directors would trade their proprietary screenwriting software for. And yet her work is obsessed with the idea of creative constraint. Coppola's first feature, The Virgin Suicides,was based on the 1993 debut novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, and it traces the short lives of five doomed teenage sisters in the '70s through the eyes of neighborhood boys. Beneath the surface, though, the book is an elaborate metaphor about creative life: The girls are searching, through their dreamy creeds and rooftop trysts, for transcendence ("When she jumped, she probably thought she'd fly," a neighborhood kid says after studying the first suicide's diary, which contains a poem about trees).

In Coppola's hands, this creative flight becomes a path of escape. But what, exactly, are her characters running from? The Virgin Suicides hits all the major touch-points of the Hollywood high-school genre film—the locker scene, the classroom sequence, the football practice—but each one is shot more cynically than the last. It staggers toward its ending with a scene in bile-colored light at what appears to be a villa in the hills, where a smug mogul in a tux raises his glass to toast the partygoers' power-holding feats. Nothing in the movie's portrait of the beige, recessionary Michigan suburbs got us to this grim terminus, spun out of a few passing sentences in Eugenides' book. The scene gives viewers a taste of the creatively moribund future the suicidal girls avoided. With its moneymen and tuxedos that future looks, to an odd degree, like Hollywood.

To watch these final minutes of The Virgin Suicides is to feel a little sick inside, and not just due to the Veblenesque tableau of the party. There's something smug about an effortlessly realized mainstream movie by a debut director (Coppola had just turned 28 when it premiered at Cannes) dumping on insider privilege. And there's something haughty in so generously nurtured a filmmaker suggesting that young, dreamy girls are having their creative impulses smothered by public expectation. Is she wrong to raise these complaints? Turn one way, and Coppola looks like a self-indulgent hypocrite and trader in fashionable angst. Turn in the other, and she's a refugee from Hollywood's creative strictures and humiliations, a patron saint of sensitive ambitious types who's fighting, from the perch she has, for less industry and more art. The experience of watching The Virgin Suicides is the experience of commuting back and forth between these two views.

That feeling has gotten more plangent and daring in each of her ensuing features, starting with Lost in Translation, the 2003 story of a tensely platonic encounter between a creative young woman, Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), and a jaded actor (Bill Murray). Lost in Translation is set in Tokyo, mostly in a swank hotel. But with its meandering and big-windowed interiors, constant car travel, trendy Pacific Rim cuisine, and flux of groupies and yes-men, the world it conjures looks like someone's nightmare vision of L.A. Several of Charlotte's movements through the movie (movements here being a relative term) are efforts to escape a citizen of Hollywood, an actress and soi-disant fan of "Mexican food and yoga." Charlotte is also put off by a hip-hop artist who goes on about "involving the beat so it, like, sounds hella large on the track." These are not rueful complaints about commercial culture. They are regionalisms, skewered. And although Charlotte's young husband is sometimes described as Coppola's take on Spike Jonze (the fremde Kind director she was briefly married to), the character, with his polo shirt and blazer, ass-clown shades, and I'm-not-listening-but-we're-chill niceties, seems more archetypal than that. "I moved to Los Angeles when John and I got married, but it's so different there," Charlotte laments at what's supposed to be an introspective climax. This isn't so much a story of self-discovery as a tale of loss, and, in such moments, a specific one: Charlotte had what she wanted. Then she moved to Screenland, and it floated away.

Without this specificity, Coppola's complaints dissolve into general malaise. With it, we know just what she's fighting for. Like The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation is obsessed with the idea of creative integrity—"I tried taking pictures, but they're so mediocre, you know?" Charlotte laments—in an environment where everyone is constantly onstage, or trying to be. It's not an accident that the movie's most vivid, moving scene takes place in a glass-encased karaoke pod. This is a film in the tradition of Nathanael West and David Lynch—artists whose work is animated by a fear of giving in to Hollywood, of getting lost in the jungle of groupthink, illusion, and schlock that honks and buzzes south of the Ventura Freeway.

Coppola's awkward perch on the boundary of this jungle gives her films their outsize relevance. The late-boom period in which Coppola rose as a filmmaker was the era of the hipster, Jonathan Franzen, and snark—styles of upper-middle-class invective that grew out of prosperity, social irony, and the vast proliferation of gourmet olive oil. What they shared was a mode of self-criticism so unstable that, in certain lights, it flickered into arrogance and self-indulgence. Coppola's criticism of Hollywood mirrored this phenomenon. When she gives us, in Marie Antoinette, the allegory of a young queen claimed, blinded, and ultimately discharged by forces of celebrity and parochial culture, she is mounting an attack against all-devouring Hollywood. When we identify her with that queen, we see a complainer who perfectly distills the compromised critical style of our era.

Coppola has described her current film, Somewhere, the story of an 11-year-old girl (Elle Fanning) and her dissipated movie-star dad, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), as "a portrait of today's L.A." She does not seem to mean this flatteringly. The movie starts with a long shot of Marco grinding his sports coupe in circles through the desert, less a metaphor for L.A. life than an autopsy of it: Strip away the miles of man-made greenery, the lifestyle vanities, the celebrity thrills—in short, the deep-seated illusions of the place—and this is what you're left with, Coppola suggests. Her camera pores unsqueamishly over the grim, smoggy expanse of western Sunset Boulevard; the wash of mindless parties; the over-rehearsed pole dancers who stand in for the looming specter of the porn industry. Marco's only reprieve is his daughter, through whose youthful creativity he can start to enjoy the town's illusions once again. To an extent, this is the movie Coppola has been striving to make through her whole career, a showdown between a smog-and-agent-addled moviemaking machine and the dreamy creativity she's worked up to confound it. But whose side is she on, really? It is not giving away too much to say the movie ends as all Coppola movies end: The character packs his things into a fancy car. Then he gets out of there.

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Nathan Heller is staff writer for The New Yorker and a film and TV critic for Vogue. You can follow him on Twitter.

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