Alexander Krasna

Afterthought on “Exiting Somewhere”


ISSUE 7 | LIES | AUG 2011

This article responds to David Richter’s piece, Exiting Somewhere: Sofia Coppola and the Excess of Bourgeois Asceticism.

Johnny Marco, the protagonist of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, is often behind the wheel. In these scenes, his profile is fixed before an ever-changing background as the world rolls past his window. The unrelenting progress of his Ferrari churns urban sprawl and desert landscape to a uniform blur, and we come to understand this perpetual movement as emblematic of a certain lifestyle. Existence for the bored and wealthy, it seems, is an endless stream of stimuli, bereft of significance and pleasure—a luxurious cruise in which the particulars of the journey are irrelevant, perhaps even antithetical, to its purpose.

In Somewhere, sexual gratification is essential to this sensibility. The plot enlists a parade of women whose titillating attempts to dislodge Johnny’s anomie are met with occasional enthusiasm but inevitable failure. The identical twin strippers who grin and twirl before him in his hotel room, the earnest fan whose physical appeal is not enough to keep him from passing out in her pelvis, his jilted Italian lover—these women are all performing before his lustful, overindulged gaze.

In last month’s issue, David Richter put forth the following interpretation of Somewhere’s lengthy shots: “It is a boredom of rapt fascination, in which we unsuccessfully attempt to ‘fully enjoy’ the reality of an image that persists in its presence, yet refused to yield any self-justification, or unfold into some more fully realized affective.” This reading, when applied to the film’s sexual element, grants a slightly different insight. The languid camera work is meant to evoke the mindless lust of the protagonist. Johnny Marco gazes with desire at several women, but that desire is never sufficient to dispel his ultimate boredom and unhappiness. During those static scenes, we are at first engaged by what we see on-screen, and then succumb to Marco’s ennui: these sights are old, even hackneyed by the time the scene changes and the gaze is trained on some new object.

But that gaze—which is mimicked so adeptly by Somewhere’s protracted, lingering shots—is complicated by at least one factor: his 11-year-old daughter, Cleo. In her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” the feminist Laura Mulvey posits a psychoanalytic theory of the role of women in mainstream film. The success of a typical Hollywood movie relies on what she calls the “male gaze”: an assumed male, heterosexual perspective. This transforms the leading lady (or potentially any on-screen woman) into an erotic object both for the film’s characters and for the audience. This interrupts the diegesis in the interest of offering a sensuous diversion, while inviting viewers to identify with the male protagonist and his sexual desire.

Thus, the “male gaze” of the spectator and the leading man are forever elided, creating a pleasurable tension based on male lust’s transcendence of narrative boundaries. Such a neat combination is most easily achieved when the plot calls for a female character to be a dancer, singer, or other performer, creating an excuse for “performance” scenes whose principal purpose is titillation. The implications of Mulvey’s paradigm flirt with taboo, however, when we are reminded that Johnny Marco’s consistent female companion, the woman whose ice-skating performances and handstands enrapture him, is not his sexual match but his own prepubescent daughter.

This is not to suggest that Somewhere is actually about incest—certainly Johnny Marco never makes a sexual advance on Cleo and does not struggle with the accompanying guilt. Rather, Coppola presents a man whose sexualized gaze struggles to conform to a reality in which his daughter, on the eve of her own sexual development, will soon be at the mercy of male desire. Marco acts as a symbol of our culture’s objectifying tendency, and his self-contempt marks the inability of such a view to accommodate the complexities of intimacy and fatherhood. By the film’s end, Marco is repulsed, at least in part, by his complicity in a system that will ultimately debase his own daughter.

Thus, much of Somewhere is devoted to establishing Cleo as a tween analogue to the women who populate Johnny’s sex life. Near the beginning, we see a bored Johnny Marco reclining on his hotel bed, staring listlessly at the aforementioned twin strippers who are shinnying up the poles erected in his room. This arrangement conforms to Mulvey’s concept of the performing woman. The scene is oversaturated with sexual desire—Johnny is presented with not one, but two identical dancers. They are situated before a mirror, as if to double the erotic effect and to illustrate a universe in which male lust is always gratified. This may very well be true, because—like the landscape outside the window of his sports car—women in Johnny’s life are seemingly identical, replaceable, and endlessly proliferating.

This illusion is shattered when the scene cuts to him waking up to his daughter writing her name on his arm cast and drawing a heart. Soon after, he watches her manipulate her nimble form in an ice-skating routine; her flourishes present a naïve version of the pole dance shown scarcely a minute before. As with the strippers, Johnny looks on with a mix of boredom and detached amusement as his daughter glides and spins for his approval. After a series of dramatic leg-lifts that seem especially adult, his smile fades and he furrows his brow. His male gaze has been interrupted, challenged even, by what it is taking in. He has been made abruptly aware of Cleo’s imminent sexual maturation, a process that seems to have begun entirely unbeknownst to him. On the car ride back to her mother’s house, he asks when she learned how to ice-skate. Her unflinching response: “I’ve been going for three years.”

Cleo’s repeated brushes with her father’s sex life are a source of permanent tension, a fact that serves to dismantle the assumed male gaze by inflecting it with the perverse. A reporter asks, “Who’s Cleo,” referring to the name on Johnny’s cast. The tone of his question hints at some imagined scandalous liaison, one that befits the actor’s macho persona. Here, we see our protagonist not as a womanizing villain, but as a product of a culture that assumes, even demands, his misbehavior. Johnny glances down at his cast—at his daughter’s name written in childish cursive, at the other names scrawled in debauched imitation of the original, at the heart that now seems symbolic of a different kind of love. He purses his lips and sheepishly admits that Cleo is a child—his child.

It is at moments like this, when incest casts its ominous shadow upon the details of their interaction, that Cleo and Johnny’s relationship must alter its outward appearance. Cleo often plays mother to her own father, who is happy to be infantilized. This may be an unconscious attempt to dispel any suggested sexual undertones, to reach an equilibrium of sorts; the midway point between a sex object and a doting matriarch may be a well-intentioned daughter. Cleo prepares eggs Benedict for Johnny, loses graciously to him at Guitar Hero as he takes puerile pride in his victory, and makes polite conversation with his friends who come over to play. In this world, women were created to serve him in either the bedroom or the kitchen, and he cannot seem to conceive of a scenario in which they can demand something of him in return.

Ultimately, however, he buckles under the weight of a reality that has locked him in the same performing role. Any satisfaction he receives from the pole dancers writhing before him is negated by the fact that he, too, is reduced to an object by the gaze of the public. After all, he is an actor. His duty is to assume several roles on-screen, to be a male parallel to Mulvey’s performing woman. Even in his “private” life he is a kind of actor, one that performs the role of “actor”—he must fulfill the expectations of a voyeuristic culture and engage in the decadence that his celebrity demands. In fact, his drunken fall down the stairs that occurs at Somewhere’s start is in keeping with the debauchery that should characterize the life of a successful Hollywood star. This fall breaks his arm, making his symbolic castration a result of an objectifying gaze turned back upon its source.

There is a point at which Johnny, overcome by self-loathing, calls his ex-wife and cries. “I’m fucking nothing—I’m not even a person,” he says. This is a subtle admission that his life has been a prolonged contrivance. The excess that surrounds him—both the actual excess that arouses his bourgeois guilt (as presented by Richter’s analysis) and the erotic excess that marks his personal life—has overtaken and defined him. His pathetic relationships with women hint at a greater disappointment. They are characteristic of a true depressive, someone whose inability to understand or respect others stems from a deep-seated discomfort with his own identity.

Johnny’s sunset walk at the end is in keeping with this performance. Even after both he and Cleo weep and confront their dysfunction, his only recourse is to live one of Hollywood’s hackneyed roles: that of the contemplative protagonist severing his connections to the world of luxury and pleasure in order to really think about his life. But this contemplation, this anguish—is this yet another example of him squirming under the watchful eyes of a prying public, another character he feels compelled to act? Coppola’s cynical nod to the cinematic tradition, then, reveals that performance does more than arouse; it deceives. Try as he might, Johnny cannot escape the strictures that have marked his life thus far. Even his symbolic rejection of his mediocre past amounts to nothing more than a tragically empty gesture, a simple alteration to the script.

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