Sometimes the facts of the matter just don’t add up. The sum of human knowledge being what it is, the Internet benefiting us near total access of poetry, literature, philosophy, and music, and yet Kim Kardashian is among the most famous Americans on the planet. Triumphant geeks in apotheosis boast of their roles in the Information Age, and that said product is now our nation’s largest export. What does it say about our society when the most famous people in America are merely famous for being famous? I know politicians are liars and crooks, athletes dopers and cheaters, movie stars knuckleheads and pop stars vain divas but pretty, plastic women lounging on tacky furniture and behaving vacuously are hardly an ideal alternative. The state of heroism in America has never been in such dire shape. Does our fascination with “reality” stars reflect our own base qualities, that of unbridled consumerism, obsession with material wealth, and mediocre humanist ambitions? Will “keeping up” in our hyper-capitalistic society be now and forever making enough chump change to appropriate the latest fashions instead of to understand evolving thoughts and ideas? Accepting this spiritual vacuum while sucking down our venti foam-free nonfat lattes, should we ironically tweet this quiet longterm apocalypse on our iPhone 5 or just Facebook “like” it?
Bling, Babes, and the American Way
These questions are explored but not answered in Sofia Coppola’s new film, The Bling Ring, which depressingly enough is based on a true story. The narrative, sadly, is pathetic, our characters hapless victims of the glossy sheen of fashion rags and TV gossip riffraff. Set in Calabasas, California (embarrassing disclaimer: this is a five-minute commute from the author’s hometown in Los Angeles’ West Valley), High School transfer student Marc (Israel Broussard), a quiet, sexually ambiguous teen with ruffled handsomeness, abandons new-kid-in-town pariah status for a friendship with Rebecca (Katie Chang), one of the said victims of target-market trash, but also a bit of a bad girl. At a party they steal a car and joy ride, taking the cash and credit cards with them. Later upping the ante, the break into an acquaintance’s residence making off with the house Porsche.
Teenagers, while bored and sulky, can also be enterprising, and googling the address of Paris Hilton (out of town in Vegas), they locate her house in the Hollywood Hills. Paris has no alarm system, and bright as a falling star disintegrating in Earth’s atmosphere, has conveniently left the key under the doormat (remember: based on a true story!). The two then romp through her digs, the dresses, the shoes, the unbelievably awful decor (being Paris Hilton’s real crib this is arguably the film’s major meta moment). Later at a nightclub they boast of their audacity to beautiful loser babes Nicki (Emma Watson), Sam (Taissa Farmiga), and Chloe (Claire Julien). They want in on the bling and further burglaries are undertaken with minimal regard, not only to moral considerations but also humdrum ones like keeping a clean trail so as not to be apprehended by the police.
You know they are going to get caught. But this isn’t a film about thieves’ derring-do or slick detective work. It’s about our present-day culture and the pathetic turn our values have taken. The girls worship celebrated non-entities, but failing to be as famous or glamorous as them, seem to believe the Chanel handbags and Ferragamo heels have some talismanic power. That the luxury goods were pilfered in the celebrities’ homes conspires all the more intimacy onto the acquisitions. But a bag is just a bag, even if these kids are too naive to understand it. There could never be enough designer swag to fill their lives because the emptiness that they’ve glimpsed is too vast for them to begin reckoning.Corrupted bubbleheads the bling ring ladies might seem, I’d argue they earned their notoriety… Click To Tweet
I am not sure how to interpret Sofia Coppola’s handling of the events. She tells the kids’ rise and fall quite straightforwardly, never quite judging the girls even if she makes it okay to laugh at them. There is no arc to the characters– they don’t learn from their mistakes or evolve as human beings. They are without meaning or purpose, and when your heroes fail basic tests of humanity, it means your film fails too. That said, The Bling Ring is not a bad movie. And it is not necessarily forgettable. It exists as a mile marker on our collective road to lamentable insipidness. It’s well-made, a nice little package of popcorn fluff with a hint of salty social commentary. Nevertheless, beautiful banality is still, in the end, banality.
The ill-conceived attempts to have designer label goods is hardly an American phenomenon. Famously, for several decades, teenaged girls in Japan have blemished their reputations with “compensated dating,” entertaining lonely lackluster salarymen in karaoke bars so they might have their own beloved Louis Vuitton purse. Rank materialism is not even an American invention– aristocrats the world over throughout thousands of years have been doing a lot worse to serfs, slaves, and laborers in order to finance their privileged extravagances.
American society is more stratified today than it has been for almost a century. With the death of the middle class accelerating, so has one of the pillars of American belief, mainly the one that declares hard work lays the foundation for success and respectability. That concept, though always more a myth than a reality, has never seemed less true when the average citizen considers today’s corporate hegemony and our declining status in the power structure. It’s telling then that the girls being home-schooled in the movie are not being taught the five paragraph essay or complex algorithms. Their main instruction comes from the bestselling self-help blather, The Secret, and its dubious, unprovable argument that positive thinking is the difference in life between success and failure. But believing you deserve success because you’re special is not exactly how Thomas Edison invented the light bulb.
The real life Bling Ring gals are quite famous now, infinitely more so than you or me, no matter how much work we’ve put into our careers. Very few of us can boast of being the subject of a Vanity Fair feature and biopic made by a Hollywood auteur. Many of the girls have their own wikipedia pages. And if they play their cards right the silly creatures might even coast on those fifteen seconds of fame a good twenty years on low-standards cable networks, making enough dough so they won’t ever have to heist their bling again.
The American Dream is a malleable, personal vision, best described by Thomas Jefferson in 1776 as “the pursuit of happiness.” Corrupted bubbleheads the bling ring ladies might seem, I’d argue they earned their notoriety better than the Kardashians and Hiltons ever did. At least they took some chances and did something, as wrongheaded, misguided, and rapacious their actions might have been, it wasn’t nothing.
That’s more than you could say about plenty of American heroes today.