Somewhere (2010)… or Nowhere

I collected a few thoughts on screenwriting, or fiction writing in general, from watching Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere” (2010).

The film was winner of the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival last year in the ‘Emerging Film’ category.  As daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, Sofia Coppola must have breathed films from birth.  She is also an Oscar winner for Best Original Screenplay with “Lost In Translation” (2003), which also brought her an Oscar nom in the Best Director and Best Picture categories.

While I had enjoyed her “Lost In Translation”, a sensitive, existential rendering framed in the context of cultural cacophonies, I sat through “Somewhere” feeling detached and unmoved. But I did make some mental notes on how to write better… especially when I compared it with another film depicting a similar theme, Mike Leigh’s “Another Year“.

I’ve appreciated the overriding intent of “Somewhere”, the portrayal of a pointless life in the midst of Hollywood stardom. Behind the façade of glamour is a sad man, failed in his marriage, aimless, smothered with ennui. The setting of the film is significant too. From the movie poster we see the iconic Hollywood hotel Chateau Marmont, a historic landmark that’s synonymous with fame and celebrity. That is where our protagonist, actor Johnny Marco lives, at the moment.

 

So here are some mental notes I made on writing while watching “Somewhere”:

1.  We all know it: Show, not tell. But too much showing can be force feeding.

Case in point: The film starts off with the sound of a car engine revving, then we see a black Ferrari come on screen from the left, circling round and go off screen.  We wait for it to come back, then go round and offscreen again. This goes on for, I forgot to count, maybe four times. Then it stops, and a man gets out.  We later find out he is the main character, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff).  Got it… his life is going in circles, heading nowhere.

But just to confirm that we are on the right track, we’re shown some more.  We see Johnny Marco so drunk he falls down the stairs and breaks his arm.  We see him lying in bed watching exotic dancers performing in front of him, only to fall asleep before they finish their routine. We are shown again another time, another pair of exotic dancers in his room, this time he gives a bored little clap. We see him womanizing, partying, driving his Ferrari aimlessly on the road. We see him being ushered to promo sessions and photo shoots, in unfeeling mode, and answer questions from the press.  And as if not enough pounding, we hear a reporter asking the explicit question, which by now has become so contrived: ‘Who is Johnny Marco?’

This is not just the first 30 minutes to set up the mood and character, this is throughout the film.  So I noted: once you’ve got your point across, move on.

2.  Stir up empathy, not inflict vicarious suffering.  You don’t have to drag your audience to the level of boredom to depict boredom. Like, we don’t have to be turned into stutterers before we can appreciate the struggles of a stammering king.  There is a scene where Johnny has to sit down and have his face plastered with goo to make a mold of an old man. We see him plastered bit by bit until his head is covered with goo.  The static camera then stays on this plastered head, as we wait with him for the goo to dry.  Lucky we are spared after a minute and a half.  I appreciate the long take if it conveys meaning in an aesthetically pleasing way, but here it is almost didactic in its expression of tedium and ennui.

3. Bring up a contrast. Yes, in this case, Johnny Marco’s 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) is a perfect foil.  Staying with her father for a short while before going to summer camp, Cleo’s life is nothing short of wholesome. She is angelic in her innocence and beauty; in contrast to her Dad, she is happy and purposeful. She figure skates, plays tennis, swims, cooks, does Sudoku, plays Guitar Hero and Wii with youthful vitality.  Johnny is mesmerized. Despite a failed marriage, Cleo is the best thing that happens in his life… and in the film as well.

4. Put the character in the context of a story, even though it is just a character study or that it is static. For the viewers to appreciate the character on a deeper level, they must see the person in various predicaments, which are missing here.  Without a story as vehicle, we only see a two dimensional character.  I thought of Mary (Lesley Manville) in “Another Year”.  Very similar to Johnny here, Mary is a sad and utterly despondent character.  Also, like Johnny, she is going nowhere even at the end, where she is spiralling further down the hole of loneliness.  Not unlike Johnny here.  Yet I found “Another Year” appealing because the other significant characters continue to show us their life story. The foil there is Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen). Through the four seasons, we see how they treat each other and deal with life, and relationships are being depicted. It is still a character study with no major dramatic climax, yet the film can hold my interest because I am watching Mary through the frame of Tom and Gerri’s story.

5.  Throw in a dash of humor, even though especially when your character is in utter sadness.  Unlike “Lost In Translation”, “Somewhere” is almost devoid of humor. A laugh or two is probably the fastest way to dissolve the audience’s aloofness. Back to “Another Year”, Mary is not a lovable character. She is delusional, dependent, aimless and weak.  As audience, we are impatient with her unhappiness, because we feel she is solely responsible for her plight. But humor disarms our critical stance and gently prods us to sympathize her.  Her character does not change and become loveable at the end, but we learn to be more gracious and give her some allowance.  We find that it is not so static after all, for we the audience, unknowingly, have been changed.

~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

***

CLICK HERE to read my review of Another Year.

CLICK HERE to read my review of The King’s Speech.


Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

19 thoughts on “Somewhere (2010)… or Nowhere”

  1. I haven’t seen the film, not being even nearly the film afficiando that you are :), but I can so relate to what you are saying in some literature! “Too much showing feels forced” for sure! I hate that, like the author is trying to impress me with his/her narrative. Not impressed. Also, I loathe vicarious suffering in any form, film or novel. I guess causing us to feel true empathy would be extremely difficult, and hence, the power of the skilled author or actor.

    Did you happen to see any of Downton Abbey on PBS of late? Our family so enjoyed that, even though it was perhaps a bit trite in some ways.

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    1. Bellezza,

      I have great respect for Sofia Coppola, and I know this one comes with some acclaim, although I’ve read a few less impressed reviews as well. But to be truthful, I don’t think this one matches her previous work, “Lost In Translation.” The more I think about it, the more I feel that, just like sex or violence could be gratuitous on screen, there could be gratuitous ‘art’ as well, literary, visually, or in mixed media.

      Yes, I’ve followed “Downton Abbey” and have thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m just surprised that they would let us wait for the rest of the story, which, I suppose, they haven’t really finished writing yet (?) How can that be?

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  2. Arti, I very much appreciated your analysis as I am not really able to say what makes a film work or not, which can be a bit frustrating. This was EX-tremely helpful. I love learning from other writers, and my time was very well spent here.
    A post to come back to in terms of my own fiction-writing, and one that just might have turned on my critical switch for the next film I see. So glad I found you.

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    1. Deborah,

      Thank you for your kind words. I’m happy to share my thoughts on films or books, or whatever that piques my interest. But I’m truly gratified to hear from others who find my post helpful. I’m always eager to exchange views with my readers. Hope to hear from you again, and I’d stop by and visit your blog definitely.

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  3. This was an intriguing way to review; loved the structure…what merits good writing….(always looking at that stuff!) Also enjoyed the clarity with which you rendered this.

    I really enjoyed LOST IN TRANSLATION for its being a little “off”, well, definitely not the run of the mill at that timeand even so, the actors (maybe not Scarlet) saved it, or rather made it more than it was. Nevertheless, I always felt Sofia got lucky on that one. Sometimes, it’s timing.

    But with this one, it sounds flawed, from your editor’s eye. So i’m going with it and won’t bother to look for it unless it pops up free somewhere on cable.

    I am not familiar either (really, where is my film awareness lately?) with Another Year but am now intrigued.

    Hollywood needs you.

    PS Did NOT use light box on the pear picture in my blog (didn’t respond there yet, having let my corporate life superseded my real and writing life this week – not good!) Anyway, we have a beige counter in our kitchen and the north sun spills in there at certain times, just right enough that pictures can work.

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    1. oh,

      Ah… sure, nothing like natural light. Just like Vermeer would have it.

      As for “Lost In Translation”, I admit it took some acquired taste to fully embrace it. But since it carries a story, or rather, the story carries the theme and the character development, it can draw our attention and convey the meaning as well. I think Bill Murray is the key to its success. As for “Somewhere”, I know my opinion differs from many critics, definitely the jury of the Venice FF. But… that’s how I feel, and I should be honest about my response.

      As for “Another Year”… do see it. It’s unfortunate that it only attracted one Oscar nom, and that’s director Mike Leigh’s original screenplay. You might like to read my review here: https://rippleeffects.wordpress.com/2010/10/05/another-year-2010-2/

      Lastly, Hollywood? A mid-life fix… just might work. 😉

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  4. You are very good at this, Arti. (Finally, I’m here, been wanting to read this for days.)

    I haven’t seen this one, but with everything you wrote, I agreed! I have often wondered how on earth film makers know if something is going to work or not! Will it be enough? Will it be too much? I think this is where editing comes in. But if a movie is doing too much showing (yes!), and that is much of the movie, and the screenplay, you can’t really edit that out.

    “Lost in Translation” is one of my favorite films, and was THE favorite for a long time. It’s not the topic or the screenplay or any particular aspect of it that makes it my favorite. It’s the utter restraint that is perfectly rendered, giving it a powerful punch that comes from the inside out. I think I’ve told you before how I feel about restraint. 🙂 (I say facetiously.)

    I like what you’re doing here, which is to reflect on the film making and writing, as a writer. Inge and I have been talking about this in the context of her book group. The other women are not writers, and she wants to talk about books from a writerly perspective. She is entrenched in Virginia Woolf at the moment and wants to talk about her writing strategies! I guess I’m going to have to read some VW so we can talk about her craft. 🙂

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    1. Ruth,

      You know, if we haven’t had so many obvious showing prior to this, the plastered head scene just might work marvellously… When the whole human face is covered with goo, and what we hear is just the breathing from his nostrils, what is existence and the bare essence of life? This could be an effective couple of static minutes… unfortunately it was just another repetition, for me anyway. I know the film comes with high acclaim from some top critics, like Roger Ebert. So what I have posted here is of course, my own take. But I hope my analysis here has shown too that my reaction wasn’t just rash or impatience.

      Anyway, I went into the theatre with certain expectations. Getting writing tips weren’t any of them. But of course, it just shows how we can glean from any circumstance to improve the writing craft.

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  5. Oh, Inge and I saw “The King’s Speech” — I need to go back and read what you wrote about it. I wish we could sit down and admire it together. What brilliance.

    .
    Ruth,

    I’m so glad you could enjoy TKS with Inge together. Yes, wouldn’t it be cool if we could sit down and talk about it? So much for virtual reality… we need real life sharing! 😉

    Arti

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  6. Arti, I’m so glad I have discovered your blog. I truly appreciate your thoughtful insights into film — really going beyond the gut of simply watching to understanding and analyzing a film — and more than that, what goes beyond the film and into it. I don’t know your background in this topic, as I’m new to your blog, but I can say from all I’ve read, I think you are an astute critic and must bring more to the table than a love of movies. If you don’t have that background, then you are rare and wonderful indeed!

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    1. Jeanie,

      You are most generous with your kind words. Books, movies, the arts, and ideas… I want to say it’s passion that’s the driving force to sharpening one’s skills and insights. But without encouraging comments like yours, truthfully, I wouldn’t be motivated enough to continue on my own for these past four years. Again, thank you for reading and taking the time to write down your comment. 😉

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  7. Your reference to the “long take” just sent me back to read again a good bit of the original material by Todd Seiling, the NY times article, and all that. It was just as interesting, and worth the time.

    I love the phrase “gratuitous art”. That can be anything from too much detail to “big words” that grate and jar and stop the narrative flow. In my current piece, I had “ubiquitous” tucked into a sentence, and after a couple of re-reads threw it out. It was formally correct, but hurt more than it helped.

    And of course there’s pomposity. I don’t know quite how to describe it, but you know what I mean – too many dependent clauses, overblown vocabulary, the use of the subjuntive. When I read a pompous writer, I’m more aware of the writer than the text. Maybe in film-making, pomposity is what leads us to be aware of the person behind the camera.

    And I’m finally learning to break some rules to gain some authenticity. People don’t speak in complete sentences, for example, and making them do so rings false.

    You’re perfectly describing something I’m learning and something William Zinsser comes back to again and again in his books on writing – stories have to be rearranged, compressed and honed to give them dramatic shape.
    Otherwise, they can be one big snooze. 😉

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    1. Linda,

      You see, a key element is ‘time’. We’d like to make the best use of our time, even though we’re advocates of ‘slow blogging’. That we’re patient with chewing and digesting shows that we would not compromise quality. But truth is, slowness doesn’t necessarily mean quality. Sure good food takes time to prepare, but not every time we spend hours in the kitchen is worthwhile. The gratuitous category might just be found here.

      Anyway, regarding our word use. I would not hesitate to use ‘ubiquitous’, but probably would with more showy words. However, I must emphasize, it must be read in context too, and the particular source. Just for movie reviews, e.g., where you find your article is the best prediction of the language use. It’s more likely that I’d encounter more than three syllable words in the NYT, than say, on Mental Floss.

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  8. I’m also loving the structure of this post, and the way it helps you get to the guts of the movie. It sounds to me like this is veering too close to a written story and away from what film does best – action and interaction. In a novel, you can have a bored protagonist expressing his boredom in all kinds of interesting ways (think Proust or Beckett). But internal perspective is something that is so hard to render in film, unless it’s cleverly done in relation to other characters (which you talk about). As you know, I don’t mind a slow, contemplative film, but I think a couple of minutes of watching someone’s face plastered with glue isn’t really about contemplation in any valuable way….

    .
    litlove,

    “But internal perspective is something that is so hard to render in film…” that is just too true, and something I’d learn in the first lesson of screenwriting. It’s ironic in a way, to have to use words to describe something visual, which in turn would reflect what is unsaid… ok, before this gets too complicated, let me just say ‘thank you’ for sharing your interest in film and your view here.

    P.S. Proust is on my TBR list.

    Arti

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  9. Oops I meant to put ‘goo’ rather than ‘glue’! I wonder what I can have been thinking? 🙂

    .
    litlove,

    Freudian slip? Scenes like that could hold us so tight like glue, making us feel trapped… just like the character, encased in goo.

    Arti

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    1. Litlove’s comment and your response remind me of that old saying used to describe something that is stultifying, suffocating and slow – “It was like watching paint dry.” Or goo.

      We’ve all seen those films that resemble that film of paint, haven’t we? 😉

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      1. We’re a patient lot, aren’t we? So, it’s not a matter of slowness. But as Ruth said, maybe some honing in editing might do. Taking out some other parts, this might just work more effectively. For when would we get the chance to experience in real time in a dark cinema the bare essence of existence: breathing?

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  10. I saw this on a work-night. The cinematography got me through it but once Sofia started blathering during the q&a afterward, not only did I nod out, but I started to snore. You nailed it about the script. I thought “Lost in Translation” worked but I seriously question if Sofia would have any Academy Awards for screenwriting were she not a Coppola. I do think she’s a talented director, but her screenwriting strikes me as so weak. “Marie Antoinette” was also particularly painful to endure.

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    1. lameadventures,

      Ha… as I typed in your name, yes, that sure was a lame adventure for you, wasn’t it, sitting though this film and the Q & A. As for some people’s name being more influential, that we can only speculate… really can’t predict anything, can we? That’s why we tune in year after year to watch the awards ceremonies… the spice of life.

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