While much has yet to be written on Sofia Coppola’s film work academically, on a general critical level film discussion about the writer/director is limited to criticisms of gender and family Hollywood connections, which ultimately distracts the viewer from the original intertextual imagery of Coppola’s cinema. Through this essay “Sofia Coppola: Cine-poet,” I hope to distinguish the greatness of Sofia Coppola’s cinema that lies in the artist’s magical ability to interweave art history with film practice; creating filmic worlds of dense intertextual imagery that satisfies cinema’s purpose as a visual medium.
The term “cine-poet” originated within the realm of experimental art cinema – particularly the cinema of filmmaker Stan Brakhage, in which he sought to use celluloid film to facilitate the ideological primacy of “seeing” over “thinking:” to use the camera like an eye – to be seen with rather than through (James 29). Coppola’s work is an extension of this film philosophy, in which the filmmaker develops a specific, recognizable mise-en-scene that encourages the viewers to engage deeply with film aesthetics. In doing so, viewers change their preconceived understanding of how to engage with Independent Hollywood cinema, where one does read the film first with the mind (applying meaning) but uses their eye to read what the mise-en-scene provides about character and location information in relation to story progression. Coppola’s approach to character construction is unique in that the artist relies on establishment of location through intertextual visual imagery to reveal defining characteristics about her characters. Taking inspiration from her favourite photographers, Coppola creates iconic filmic worlds and locations defined by their use of color and soundtrack to document the changing personalized spaces of her protagonists. This essay will cover Coppola’s work from her first short film “Lick the Star” to her fourth feature film “Somewhere,” and in doing so, will provide close readings of her thematic patterns and aesthetic style that transcend all other critical engagement with her work thus far.
Coppola’s first film, the 14 minute black and white project released in 1998, “Lick The Star,” essentially provides the thematic and stylistic blue print for her later feature films. Simple in plot, “Lick The Star” is a product of its time: baby-doll feminine, grungy, and hazy in its depiction of four high school girls whose psychological torment against their classmates leads to a melancholic end. Aesthetically, “Lick The Star” is the beginning of Coppola’s unique cinematic language: sharp cuts and stark color compositions; an expansive, rhythmic audio soundtrack that compliments the film’s established narrative beat; and the extensive use of film montage to provide multiple perspectives of characters and context, similar to Cubist paintings. What is essential about “Lick The Star” is that it sets up a key relationship between the filmmaker and the viewer: “Lick The Star” allows the viewer to associate Coppola’s work with very specific thematic concepts. For example, the film opens with the protagonist sitting in the backseat of a car staring out the window, repeated later in “The Virgin Suicides,” “Lost in Translation,” and “Somewhere,” in which Coppola marks a character in physical and mental transition. In terms of visual familiarity, “Lick the Star” can be interpreted as a test run for “The Virgin Suicides;” the feature film makes use of similar settings found in the short film such as classrooms, suburban homes, empty neighborhood streets, and the private isolated chaos of a teenage bedroom.
Coppola’s first feature film, “The Virgin Suicides,” is an example of cine-poetry due to its make-up of dense intertextual photographic allusions, whereby Coppola openly references key artists who inspired her distinctive visual style. Credited as both writer and director, Coppola’s screenplay was adapted from Jeffery Eugenides novel of the same title. At its core, The Virgin Suicides mirrors the narrative voice of a Greek chorus, written in first person plural from the perspective of a group of teenage boys who – along with the rest of the suburban community in Michigan – become infatuated with the five Lisbon sisters and the breakdown of their family. While not explicitly referenced, Coppola’s film certainly takes on the collective Greek chorus style found in the novel, specifically the transferal of written narration into voice over audio narration. A large percentage of the narration dialogue is taken directly from Eugenides’ novel and what this allows for is a free play of the visual space. To simplify this concept: narration prevents Coppola from having to forcefully cram every written detail of the novel into the cinematic visual space, therefore leaving free room to play inside the frame and incorporate visual details that are essential for story progression – the rest of what the audience needs to know is provided by the audio track. This free room to play is what allows Coppola’s cine-poetry to thrive; viewers can recognize the visual allusions to photographic works that Coppola combines together to create her own distinctive style. The first photographer Coppola directly references is Bill Owens. As a photographer, Bill Owens gained popular critical attention within the American art world in 1973 with the publication of his book Suburbia. Utilizing a direct and straightforward black and white photographic style, each photograph in the photo-essay reveals the complexities of the American middle-class suburban landscape (art2art Exhibitions). Owens captures the private moments of each subject, such as the unseen messiness of a teenage girl’s bedroom, wives carrying out household duties in the kitchen, and children riding their bikes along empty neighborhood streets (Hirsch). Suburbia is often viewed critically as a blur between the photographic genres of documentary realism and social landscape, so the essay becomes the ultimate prism of seventies nostalgia (Morrill). Coppola’s second photographic influence is the work of Paul Jasmin. Coppola first met Jasmin when sitting in on his classes at Pasadena’s Art Centre College of Design in the early ‘90s, intending to become either a painter or photographer (Wallace). Jasmin’s photography is highly cinematic in that he was greatly inspired by filmmaker Douglas Sirk, the German filmmaker who popularized the genre of the melodrama after relocating to Hollywood from Nazi Germany in the 1950s. Unlike Bill Owens, Paul Jasmin’s work uses color to take seductive, erotic portraits of places and people that are both dreamers and devourer of souls (Elbies, City of Angels). However, similar to Owens, Jasmin contributes to the canon of American nostalgia as he uses the medium of photography to document the loss of innocence in his young subjects (OUT Magazine). Each young girl or boy that Jasmin photographs is a dreamer, framed in and around popular L.A haunts where each individual actively seeks the famous public life of a celebrity-artist (Strong). What “The Virgin Suicides” takes from both of these artists is the acute awareness of social place, whereby one’s surroundings dictate an individual’s approach to life. But it is when an individual feels disenchanted and distant from the surroundings they are in that the emotions of isolation and depression arise, which is the key element of Coppola’s cinema. Coppola makes use of spatial awareness, dreamy protagonists, seductive photography and saturated color to enter the private lives of her characters. By opening up the private world, her films ultimately become poetical in that they are a walkway into individual unconsciousness.
“The Virgin Suicides” makes the most of this nostalgic aura by also choosing to adopt the 1970s social landscape, even if Coppola chose not to replicate Owens’ black and white shading and opts for Jasmin’s photographic theatricality instead. The first opening images of the film suggest this. Fading in from a black screen, we see Lux Lisbon (Kirsten Dunst) eating an ice cream in the middle of an empty suburban road. She stares at something out of sight from the camera’s eye and, although we cannot see her point of view, we know it is slightly obstructed as she squints due to the glare from the sun. There is a great feminine beauty to this established image: Lux’s cherry pink t-shirt suggests a prettiness, familiarity and comfort within the landscape, where the trees are an incredible lush green and appear to be in healthy order. After Lux finishes eating the ice cream she walks out of the frame to her left, and Coppola lets the shot linger on the empty space momentarily. This semi-fleeting focus on space opens the film with what is to be a reoccurring image: each Lisbon sister will eventually walk away from life and leave the suburban community left to wonder about them. Coppola’s first sharp cut finds a woman watering her front garden with a hose, then cuts to separate neighborhood activities that can be taken straight from Owen’s work, such as girlfriends walking their dogs, kids playing basketball and two men in orange jumpsuits hanging a sign on a tree to be cut down. Coppola’s use of an electric color palette in each shot achieves both a pretty and hyper-real aesthetic. Slowly, a sound of an approaching siren can be heard, confusing the poetical linkage between the images: the quietness of the neighborhood is about to be disrupted – but why? The scene cuts to a close up of inanimate objects -perfume bottles, nail polish, make-up brushes and other assortments inside a bathroom, where Coppola’s sudden sharp palette change from watermelon pinks to an ink blue filter implies the impending darkness. A shy, almost husky teenage boy’s voice is heard saying, “Cecilia was the first to go.” Cut to a thirteen-year-old girl lying in a bathtub of blood, neighbors watch the suburban Lisbon house anxiously as Cecilia’s lifeless body is lifted into an ambulance. Through the opening montage sequence, Sofia Coppola suggests a sense of mysticism and romance about place (a suburban community), which is the ultimate starting point in her storytelling. Through establishing a specific setting and place, Coppola can focus in on characters with the same level of precision found in photography. After the opening credits, Coppola includes a shot of Lux’s face winking at the audience as her face is superimposed over a picturesque cloudy blue sky. The narration continues with “Everyone dates the demise of our neighborhood from the suicides of the Lisbon girls” – and this moment symbolizes two things. Like Jasmin’s work, the image of femininity is seen as alluring, soft and a product of dreams – but juxtaposition against imagery of suburban neighborhoods situates the dreams within the context of documentary realism. This fusion of photographic elements allows Coppola to allow each scene to play out in what seems to be real time, whereby secrets, gossip and speculation over characters arises naturally and merges with the metaphysical property of intangible dreams.
Perhaps out of all of Coppola’s five feature films, “Lost in Translation” is the clearest example of cine-poetry due to the direct correlation between the filmic world inside the picture and Coppola’s own personal life. “Lost in Translation” is more story than plot, where an American film star, Bob Harris (Bill Murray), finds himself in Tokyo, Japan, away from his family to make commercials for whiskey. On a break temporarily from acting, he meets a young woman at the bar of the Hyatt Hotel named Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), whose husband is a photographer on assignment in Tokyo. Feeling unsettled and confused about the man she has married, her own identity, and what career she wants to pursue, the age gap (Charlotte in her early twenties, Bob in his fifties) greatly compliments both personalities, in which Charlotte and Bob’s unsettled home life brings them together by experiencing city life that is foreign to them. Through this they engage in a deep, satisfying relationship that does not subscribe to the usual set of mistakes found in relationship film dramas or literature. As Coppola wrote the screenplay based on her experiences at the time (and her daydream of what it would be like spend time with Bill Murray) it is her process of inserting autobiography in between specific references to artists and fine art movements that enlighten the “Lost in Translation” experience. The first visual image of the film – a woman’s midsection wearing slightly see-through soft pink underwear lying on a bed with her back turned to the camera – recalls the Photorealist painter John Kacere, who has painted the sensually decorative details of women’s midsections and undergarments. The poetry of Coppola’s shot alludes to the use of the color pink more as a thematic undercurrent than mere stylistic detail. In “The Virgin Suicides,” soft pinks dominate the film’s cinematography, defining not only the feminine nature of the Lisbon sisters but working as an irremovable veil that prevented the neighborhood from seeing their true selves (Ehrlich). Coppola repeats the predominance of the color pink in “Marie Antoinette” as a symbol of playful attitude in the form of tiered cakes and expensive fashion materials and even in “Somewhere” to define Cleo’s girlishness, innocence, and longing for a meaningful relationship with her father (Ehrlich). What extends Coppola’s imagery further than Kacere’s paintings is that Coppola places Charlotte and her association with pink within a specific location. Unlike the empty block colored backgrounds of Kacere’s works, the first shot of “Lost in Translation” is inside a hotel room. The softness of the color tones suggest familiarity, comfort, and content with the surroundings and oneself – yet outside, in the city, such suggestions seem to evaporate. By firstly exposing the audience to the private realm of a woman, Coppola exposes the femininity that is both rejected and welcomed by different characters within Charlotte’s private sphere. In an early scene of the film, we watch Charlotte parade around the hotel room talking animatedly to her husband who is preoccupied and ignoring her. Charlotte is no source of entertainment to her man. Ignoring the messiness of the hotel room (smoking, knitting, photography) the scene suggests a lack of intimacy between the two characters that is later better established through Charlotte’s conversation with Bob in his hotel room. Contrastingly, in the karaoke scene where Bob and Charlotte sing together, Charlotte wears a bright pink wig. Despite the vibrancy of the wig’s color, Charlotte now uses pink to hide her image within a public space. The complexity of Kacere’s photorealist paintings is that the images do not need to be “explained” to the viewer, considering the content (female underwear) is an obvious image found in every day life (Rafaoui). Photorealism presumes that in our technologically-centered existence, viewers find value in precision and easy identification with a subject. (Rafaoui). “Lost in Translation” is precise in its depiction of character privacy. The underlying concern of cine-poetry arises through Coppola’s decision to supplement tell-all dialogue in favor of tonal aesthetic suggestion that she continues from “The Virgin Suicides” to “The Bling Ring.”
Through the process of adaptation of Antonia Fraser’s biography entitled Marie Antoinette: The Journey, Sofia Coppola crafted an intricate, New-Romantics and New Realist inspired retelling of history in “Marie Antoinette.” As Coppola has mentioned herself, Fraser’s biography was the preferred historical resource for the film’s screenplay as the book aimed to present Marie’s own point of view of her transition from Princess of Austria to Queen of France rather than a removed, masculine presentation of what life might have been like (Faraci). In discussing the narrative development of Coppola’s film, one should not feel the need to hastily read up on Marie Antoinette’s history before viewing the film- the opposite impulse should be considered. Coppola’s intent lies in reversing the tradition of period films, in which young characters adopt an “adult” stance removed from any sign of teenage nature. “Marie Antoinette” exposes French politics, societies attitude towards gender, and marriage for a fourteen-year-old girl. Therefore, cine-poetry in “Marie Antoinette” develops from Coppola’s trademark technique of using location as a narrative tool to define a character’s emotional state. Coppola directly cuts off any direct tie to preconceived historical opinions about Marie Antoinette by closing her film before the character’s famous beheading. By choosing to document the female transition from teenager to woman, from Princess to Queen, Coppola removes Marie Antoinette from the grandiose, violent historical moment she has become legend for allows the film to stand on its own level. In denying viewers the opportunity to arrive prepared with knowledge of Marie’s life and what they know of her, Coppola’s film likens itself to the fashion of the Nouveau Realisme (New Realists) art movement. The New Realist movement began in Europe in 1960 and dissolved by 1970, and artists sought to expand outside the realm of fine art (a skill they thought was dying) in favor of responding to the new consumer society through assemblage, conceptualism, collage, and experimental poster art. The New Realists pioneered the technique of “decollage;” instead of gradually building up an image by adding fragments to it, one cuts away pieces of an original image to project a new message (Stremmel 15). In terms of specific correlations, one can understand “Marie Antoinette” as decollage of the iconographic, impersonal history of Marie Antoinette as a young woman that has been relentlessly promoted globally. Coppola’s film is truly experimental in the filmmaker’s process of assembling together various montages of Marie Antoinette’s early and later life. It is the distinctive editing and visual style of “Marie Antoinette” that departs the film from the entire genre of period filmmaking; in which Coppola smashes the detached, cold and instructional straightforward approach to historical biography. Like Xanadu in “Citizen Kane,” Coppola uses a self-contained location (Versailles) that defines the lives of the characters within the filmic world. “Marie Antoinette” is not informative about facts and details about the political period, but a self-governing, architectural island of Marie’s world (Ebert).
The evidence of such poetical decollage occurs midway through the film, in which Coppola demonstrates the transition from teenager to woman within specific location most effectively. Compare the two following montage sequences. Firstly, Marie Antoinette’s (Kirsten Dunst) luscious and magnificent birthday party at Versailles. With boats that sail past guests that light her initials up with fireworks, hundreds of guests crowd over tables to gamble with dice or cards, falling over each other in drunken hysterics, where food delicacies pass around on silver trays as guests dip their fingers straight into hot pink icing and take giant bites into birthday cakes while letting the ingredients drop all over their clothing. Marie Antoinette is the center of each character’s attention and wins each of her gambling games. Coppola’s choice of the New-Romantics 1980s-era “Ceremony” by New Order track overlays a personal element to the scene. Coppola’s first understanding of the historical era was through her awareness of popular British bands like Bow Wow Wow and Adam and the Ants who took costume inspiration from French Incroyables in their album covers and stage performances. Coppola combines her own teenage impressions with Marie’s, in which the Ceremony’s lyrical content of a man’s vulnerable misunderstanding of a woman’s love provides rhythmic support to the visual content. Coppola clearly suggests the overall mood of the moment: an excited, teenage frenziness and over-celebration of one’s own birthday, where the need to perform a job role is currently at rest and one can enjoy her own self and femininity. Not yet a Queen, Marie can frolic and indulge herself how she pleases, as she is granted the freedom to do so. The realist collage that Coppola sets up here does contribute to the already known imagery of Marie’s relentless spending and disconnect from the peasant class, yet Coppola deconstructs this imagery in a later montage. After having her first child, Marie Thérèse, Marie Antoinette moves out from the Palace of Versailles to the Petit Trianon – a small château that is located on the grounds of the Versailles Palace. Despite Marie Antoinette’s attempt to move away from the increasingly chaotic, claustrophobic atmosphere of the Palace, she still remains disconnected from the French public. In a montage sequence that is our first introduction to the Petit Trianon, Coppola films Marie Antoinette wearing a simple, bright white and cotton summer gown – starkly different from the corset-figured, restrictive gowns in sunny yellows, watermelon pinks, and pastel blues Coppola has shown Marie wearing previously. This gown Marie has designed her own self, rather than employ a dressmaker to capture her vision. Marie is free to run across the grass, run her fingers through the petals of flowers, hold feathers from farm animals to her daughter’s face; laughing and enjoying a child’s engagement and wonder of life’s simple details. While previous scenes have opted for stylized lighting, here Coppola captures the way the soft sunlight filters through the tops of trees and falls onto the faces of her characters, illuminating them under a natural light similar to techniques used in “The Virgin Suicides.” As Marie walks her friends inside the Petit Trianon, she announces proudly ‘Welcome to my little village!” Through gardening, playing, and creating a location space that is utterly her own, Marie Antoinette has the opportunity to get in touch with something more real than the political world she was thrown into. She has the spatial freedom to grow as a woman and as a person where previously she had been so excited and enchanted by “luxuries” of commodities, this has now been replaced by the intangible qualities of kindness, humor, and requited love. In having only her daughter around her, Marie understands that she has responsibility to another human. This echoes a moment right near the film’s end, in which the Parisians storm the Palace of Versailles with flaming pitchforks in protest of the Queen. Marie illuminated by the scorching orange fire bows down to them on her balcony – using no words she communicates to the public the new understanding of responsibility and heartbreak over the failure to arrive prepared to the role and the prestigious location of Versailles. Cine-poetry exists in in “Marie Antoinette” through Coppola’s break from instructional retelling of historical topics.
Sofia Coppola returns to photographic simplicity and cine-poetry in her fourth feature film “Somewhere,” released in 2010. “Somewhere” features a plot that can be summed up in a single sentence. After his estranged wife leaves his daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) in his room at the Chateau Marmont one morning, actor Johnny Marco (Steven Dorff) is forced to accept paternal maturity and responsibility while experiencing an emotional crisis of his own. It is in this film that Coppola most explicitly references the artists that inspired her vision – particularly the influence of Los Angeles-based artist Ed Ruscha. Inside of Marco’s hotel room, a painting leans against a wall. Simplistic in design, the words “COLD BEER BEAUTIFUL GIRLS” is stenciled onto an image of ink blue and grey clouds. This painting by Ruscha (in which the title is the same as the stenciled words) produced in 2009 suggests the entire tone of the film – one that can be simply read and is not built on illusion. “Cold Beer Beautiful Girls” perhaps does not sound too poetic – a privileged lifestyle of celebrity excess is now considerably cliché – but what is poetical about the film is the transition Marco undertakes in understanding himself outside of his recognizable, established celebrity image reserved for the press conferences and photoshoots that take place inside the Chateau Marmont.
Ruscha’s credibility as an artist began in late 50’s Los Angeles. during which the artist’s study of ordinary, commercial objects rejected the favoured stylistic process of Abstract Expressionism of the period (Muller 14). Words and phrases are at the center of Ruscha’s works, and are often set against simple colored, stained backgrounds or landscapes; this allowing Ruscha to conjure up a world of associations (Richards 6). Ruscha is most famously known for his photographic documentation of Los Angeles’ metropolis landscape; of lonesome overlapping highways, apartment buildings, swimming pools, car culture, and the Sunset Strip. Coppola’s “Somewhere“ isn’t so much a replica of Ruscha’s playful word associations, but clearly inspired in Ruscha’s photographic approach to recording and documenting the Los Angeles metropolis and iconic culture. In particular, if one were to set aside the narrative development in “Somewhere” and observe each frame as standalone photographs, one would see a remarkable likability to Ed Ruscha’s book Sunset Strip. In 1966, Ruscha photographed the entire Sunset Strip in Los Angeles by attaching a Nikon 250 camera to the back of his truck, shooting in real time while driving the two mile strip (Richards 44). The length of Ruscha’s film dictated the final form of the book, in which each page is joined together and unfolds to a length of twenty-seven feet and reveals an exact model of the street on both sides of the paper (Richards 44). Coppola reproduces this photographic approach and actual process in “Somewhere” specifically due to the great artistic collaboration between herself and cinematographer Harris Savides. It is particularly evident within the closing three minutes of the film that one can see such an indirect reference to Ruscha. With the camera positioned at a high angle following behind Johnny Marco’s black Porche, we follow his car as he drives away from us along Los Angeles highways in search of his daughter Cleo. Savides and Coppola both favor long and uninterrupted shots throughout the entire film, and this rhythm suggests documentation of real time – like Ruscha’s approach. By avoiding condensing Marco’s driving time along recognizable Los Angeles highways, Coppola establishes a sense of place and spatial temporality as Ruscha did in Sunset Strip and mirrors his portrayal of a driver who has no time to ponder and instead relies on the highway signs for guidance (Richards 46). As Ruscha stated himself, “Los Angeles to me is like a series of store-front planes that are all vertical from the street, and there’s almost nothing behind the facades” (Richards 46). “Somewhere” encapsulates this exactly. Johnny Marco as an actor is unsatisfied, emotionally spent, and lonely, confusing the fulfillment of love and spiritual contentment with alcohol binges, fast women, and drugs. As the film progresses, Johnny Marco learns what it means to be a father. That is when the façade of the successful disappears and actually comes into being. Coppola’s cine-poetry arises in Marco’s last drive through Los Angeles to find Cleo, in which the character reverses his misunderstanding of his sense of place within the city to one that supports a sense of closeness between himself and his family.
In creating her own unique photographic approach to cinema, Sofia Coppola has created multiple cinematic worlds that are defined by fine art and photography inspirations as opposed to over-used, repetitive film patterns.
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