Take What You Want: Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring

June 26th, 2013 by | Tags: , , ,

One thing I really like about TI’s “Front Back” is that he shouts out UGK at the top of the song. It’s not just a regular shout-out, either. He’s explicitly and purposefully trading on their fame by shouting them out as legends and then placing himself and others in the ranks of the “UGK alumni.” “They’re the greatest, they’re legends, and I studied at their feet,” in other words. It feels like he’s snatching a cosign, instead of suggesting or accepting one, because most people are much more subtle about it.

Either way, that stuff really counts. It adds to the verisimilitude of rap songs, something that’s important since these guys are implicitly playing a role on wax and believability makes all the difference. TI’s shouting out UGK on a song with UGK, and that’s got heads rubbing their chin and going “Pocket full of stones… yeah… yeah…” It connects the two in your head, especially so in the case of “Front Back” because the cosigned and cosigners are on the same track together. If you recognize and accept the one, you should do the same for the other.

It happens all the time. Yelawolf said “Bitch, you know I got Bun B in the front seat and we got these boppers on the chrome!/ One time for ya boy Pimp C: POCKET FULL OF STONES!/ Yeah, I got a pocket full of stones ’cause I fell off my dirt bike in cargo pants” on “Good to Go” because it was a way better choice than “I’m a white dude but I like raps too, plus these other established dudes like me and I like them.”

In a scene early on in The Bling Ring, three characters drive to the beach while blasting Rick Ross’s “9 Piece” (NSFW video here). It starts around the line that goes “MJG, bitch, I got 8Balls” before segueing into the Suave House shout-out and eventually fading out. It really tripped me out, because while I could see the cast of the film–abstractly wealthy kids in Calabasas, CA–banging Ross on their way somewhere, I had a harder time believing they’d be specifically yelling the part that shouts out 8Ball & MJG or being into anything Suave House. That feels like inside baseball to me, the rap equivalent of making a joke about Cypher from New Mutants. It’s prejudice, obviously, but my mental picture of that specific type of person doesn’t really involve them being into Memphis rap. I’m not particularly into the song (there are better MJG/8Ball references to be had elsewhere), but I liked seeing that specific stretch of the song in the movie. It’s Ross showing off his bonafides, bonafides that are entirely fictional and thus remarkably apropos for this movie. He’s an actor acting as if he has the cred his forebears do, and the actors in the film are buying into his hype and using it to generate hype of their own, or maybe just to get hype.

The presence of that song in the beginning came back into my mind further into the movie, as I was beginning to realize exactly how much of the soundtrack would be rap songs that I own or have intentionally enjoyed (Twelve rap songs in all, including Frank Ocean, and I knew seven and would have heard an eighth if I still listened to leaks). Like TI borrowed cred from UGK, like Ross borrowed from 8Ball and MJG, The Bling Ring borrows cred from rap music. There’s a lot of dance music in the movie, but the way the rap music is deployed (Kanye’s “Power” plays over the type of scene you’d expect, Frank Ocean’s “Super Rich Kids” plays over the credits, “All of the Lights” has a singalong, “212” plays in a hip club context) it’s associated with edginess, victory, the good life, fabulous crime or violence, and almost everything else that particular sort of rap is associated with.

A lot of the reason I like Rick Ross’s Teflon Don as much as I do, despite not really messing with Ross on a regular basis, is that it’s full of well-told tales of guilt-free and consequence-free crime. Ross-the-character does what he wants when he wants, and there’s something very enjoyable about that. It draws people in, myself included, and that aspirational aspect is part of why Ross is so much of a success.

The Bling Ring clicked for me when I realized that the celebrity culture Sofia Coppola was indicting has a similar effect on the cast of the movie. They want to be on, and the people who are most visibly “on” are Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Kirsten Dunst, and Megan Fox. There’s a similar type of aspirational motivation at work, and it’s easy to draw a line between, say, my wanting that confederate flag belt Andre 3000 wore in the “Ms. Jackson” video or watching a video of 2 Chainz getting robbed in San Francisco and Becca Ahn–played to the hilt by Katie Chang–taking note of the latest star to get caught drunk driving and wanting to wear what Lindsay wears, even if she has to go into Lindsay’s house to get it.

There are several sequences, usually after a break-in, that show the characters wearing their stolen goods and posting them to Instagram and Facebook. They’re showing off. They take incessant pictures while in the club when they aren’t spotting celebrities. They vamp in front of each other and the internet. Coppola, in conversation with Lee Radziwill, said, “When I go to a concert, everyone is filming and photographing themselves and then posting the pictures right away. It is almost as if your experiences don’t count unless you have an audience watching them.”

She means it as an indictment, but I don’t see it that way any more. A line from Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past comes to mind, Jeff Bailey saying “Nothing in the world is any good unless you can share it.” It’s my favorite movie and that’s one of the lines that’s stuck with me the most since I first saw it in school. It works for romance and friendship alike. Sometimes you want to share something’s majesty because you love someone else and want them to have that experience and sometimes you want to share it because you want confirmation that it’s dope. The two are twisted up with each other, almost to the point that the difference between them is academic. It’s selfish, sure, in a way, but utterly natural and sensible.

The Facebook shots in The Bling Ring struck me as being a clever way to show what was happening, instead of just saying it. What do you want to do when you get something new? You want to wear it immediately, you want to show it to people, you want them to compliment it and tell you how cool it is. It’s a twist on the quote from Out of the Past, but not much of one. When I finish this piece, I’m probably going to send it to a few trusted friends to read, and my hope is that they’ll enjoy it. After that, I’ll put it on this website. I don’t have to–I wrote this because I needed to organize my thoughts on the movie and essays are the easiest way to do that outside of conversation–but I want to share it. From sharing comes conversation, support, and a gang of other things I’m invested in.

All of this would be well-executed, but hollow, if not for the actors in the film. Chang’s Becca impressed me the most out of all the cast. There’s an emptiness to her that I enjoyed, a sense that she does things simply because she wants to do them, and consequences aren’t even on her radar. It isn’t heartlessness, though that was the first word to come to my mind, so much as “might makes right” played out on a different battlefield. “But I want it” as golden rule. She’s remarkably pretty, almost distractingly so, and I think that only adds to the effect. She’s the picture of a modern femme fatale. (Jane Greer’s Kathie Moffat is the classic femme fatale for me, for very similar reasons.)

Israel Broussard’s Marc is a close second for me. He’s more or less the main character of the film, and Broussard balances the anxiety, love, and fun of the character very well. There’s a brief glimpse in the trailer of him dancing and goofing off with the girls, and he’s got a specific pose and smile that’s split between being goofy and loving life that killed me. The webcam scene, everything about the shoes, all of it felt real in a very warm and welcoming way.

There’s a lot of intentional comedy in The Bling Ring, more than I expected. The introductory shots of Paris Hilton’s house got a rising laugh out of the audience I saw the movie with, as we realized that 1) Hilton’s face is all over her house, like a musician who only plays his own records when he invites people over and 2) she has a lot of stuff. It felt like every scene in that house revealed a secret door, hidden box, or drawer full of jewels on top of all the ridiculous possessions that dot the house.

At one point, in a scene that struck me for its use of color as much as the (mostly-silent) acting, we watch a character eating while sirens play in the distance. The camera stays still as we watch the eater, their family, and pets going about their business. It clicks for us before it does for them–cops are coming. The scene goes on almost uncomfortably long, though it was probably just thirty seconds or a minute. It’s put-a-smile-on-your-face funny.

I didn’t find myself disgusted or troubled by the Bling Ring. I expected a little friction between my prejudices, tastes, and the movie itself. I was surprised to see aspects of myself and my friends reflected in these characters. Claire Julien’s Chloe was the most street-smart of the gang, and also the one most likely to be like “Hey, bitches” or use slang a certain way. Emma Watson’s Nicki was a lot of fun, too, a girl who rolls her eyes through life and its obstacles while looking for a chance to get big by any means. I know and have known Marcs, Beccas, Nickis, and Chloes.

My reaction to The Bling Ring was way more positive than I expected. I bailed out of Girls pretty much as soon as Lena Dunham asked her parents for rent money, but this movie full of pretty people doing petty things really worked for me. They go to the bad school in town–Becca for dealing drugs, Marc because he was home-schooled and needs to catch up–but their school is much nicer than the good schools where I’m from. They’re young, well-off, and if you know the real story, you know how little jail time they got for stealing millions of bucks worth of stuff. There’s a lot in here that should’ve ruined the movie for me, but the aggregate and execution were on point. The Bling Ring is a low-key feel-good crime movie, like Rick Ross’s lyrics, where people do big things for the sake of doing them and brag about it later.

One last point: The Bling Ring has a title that derives from BG’s “Bling Bling,” featuring the Big Tymers and Hot Boys. The entire point of the song is getting something new and showing it off to the squares. “I pull up in a Expedition, they be like ah no, no, no he didn’t!/ Tattoos and fast cars, do you know who we are?” It would’ve been entirely too on-the-nose to fit it into The Bling Ring, even moreso than “Super Rich Kids,” but you know what? It’s the movie in miniature.

I often think of rap culture as being a black and brown thing, something we co-created and co-own with just a few others, but that isn’t really true now that we’re decades past the origins of rap. This stuff bleeds into the culture, whether it’s Miley Cyrus with golds in her mouth or a movie about a real group of burglars sporting a name that derives from one of the hottest songs from 1999. It’s bigger than hip-hop.

Related links:
Sofia Coppola’s Journey Into the Heart of Low-Culture Darkness, by Emily Yoshida
In Conversation | Lee Radziwill and Sofia Coppola, on Protecting Privacy
Girls in Hoodies Podcast: The Bling Ring, This Is the End, and Rape Jokes, with Molly Lambert, Tess Lynch, and Emily Yoshida
“Compton, USA made me an angel on angel dust” [Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city] by me
Sofia Coppola and Brian Reitzell, by Carrie Battan
-Rick Ross – “BMF”
-Rick Ross – “I’m Not A Star”
-8Ball & MJG – Pimp Hard”
-UGK – Pocket Full of Stones”

Similar Posts:

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook Post to Reddit Post to StumbleUpon

4 comments to “Take What You Want: Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring”

  1. This is sort of off-topic, but since you mentioned it, how do you feel about the confederate flag? It’s been my understanding that it’s a flag associated with slavery and makes people uncomfortable. I got into an internet-argument (I know, unhealthy)with a guy who claimed that it was all in the past and even people of mixed races from the south brandish the stars and bars because it “represents the south”, not racism anymore. I tend to disagree but I’m a dude who’s lived in New England all my life. So as a black man who grew up in Georgia? How do you feel about it?

  2. Sofia Coppola does a lot more funny things than her reputation suggests. Even back in Lost in Translation, and not necessarily that mean actress send-up in the middle of that movie. Mind you, I kinda hate that movie, even if I think Coppola’s a great filmmaker, so its entirely possible that I misread things thinking “this has to be meant to be funny, right? It’s certainly not working as profound.”

  3. @Aidan: I like it in terms of visual design, the resilience it has had over the years, and as a symbol for rebellion, but it represents a poisonous, ugly, unforgivable time in American history and the continued fetishization of it is gross, inextricably rooted in white supremacy, and anyone who says “Heritage Not Hate” or “History Not Hate” has no idea what they’re talking about. I appreciate the edginess of a black artist rocking a giant belt buckle with the flag on it, I’m less impressed by Lil Jon and them draping themselves in the flag but I appreciate the devaluation of its power, but I grew up around too many people who use it as a shield for their terrible opinions to really be down with it these days.

    You don’t gotta be racist to hang up the stars and bars in your truck or house, but I’m definitely not gonna spend a lot of time with you, because you’re definitely suspect.

  4. The only reason for rap’s continued popularity is disaffected white/”privileged” people. Being surprised about the characters’ affinity and (purportedly) “inside” knowledge of hip hop is as sensible as being surprised by the comic book fetishism of the bulk of the Wu Tang Clan. Or, to put it nicely: the only people who I’ve ever met on this planet with encyclopedic knowledge of artists such as Apache, Brotha Lynch Hung and Esham are white people (and Europeans, at that!) Even the prime providers of torrented 80’s-90’s independent mixtapes are white/”White” (seriously, I had to literally beg a Swedish guy for a download of a DJ Whoo Kid “Are You That Somebody?”/”Gimme Some Mo'”, blend, because I couldn’t find a black owned or run website that would part with it for anything less than $10 US).