On “the bling ring”

Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring” is not fun to watch.

Maybe it’s because it’s based on real events: many of the lines are taken from actual recordings. This group of teenagers actually stole over $3 million of clothes, jewelry, cash, and drugs from the L.A. homes of celebrities. It actually happened, as absurd as it seems.

Maybe it’s because we know how it ends: the kids get caught and arrested.

Maybe, though, it’s mainly so disturbing to see because it’s unflinchingly true in its depiction of kids these days—myself included. We may not be thieves, but is our self-aggrandizing self-branding any less criminal in its shallowness?

In one scene, Emma Watson and her cohort of pretty young things sit at a booth in a glitzy downtown club, messing around with their phones and taking the occasional duck-faced selfie as they down their bottle service. Their smiles flash on and off with the cameras. To us in the movie audience, their studied aloofness comes off as uncomfortable boredom. They don’t talk, except to say “You look hot” or “Oh my god, there’s Kirsten Dunst” or “Get your drink in the pic!”

And the next day? “You were SO drunk last night.” A character uploads the pictures to Facebook and smiles: that was fun—or so it looks, in its digital encasement. Smoking cigarettes at the beach, they look less “cool” than “teenager-trying-to-be-cool”: the ripped jeans, exposed abs, careful poses. In dialogue, the vocabulary doesn’t develop much beyond “sweet,” “sick,” “wow,” “I’m down.” Neither do the characters.

None of us want to think that we are like these kids: that we would steal with impunity, play with other people’s money like a toy, treat the law like a school rule we can nonchalantly break. But Coppola reminds us that it’s not what they did, but who they were, that is most chilling. The characters never develop because there isn’t anything there to begin with. The movie isn’t a parody of this California subculture because there’s no substance to draw from. Instead it’s a straight-up reflection: this is what your life looks like, because all you care about is what it looks like. You live in an echo chamber of pretty things. Better Instagram it.

Most critics have emphasized the celebrity-obsession that the movie highlights, but the “celebrity culture” wasn’t what hit me (even with the documentary-like clips of paparazzi footage and TMZ news items and Facebook feeds). No: I squirmed in my seat because I’ve had those empty conversations, felt that hit of joy from looking at the Facebook pictures, struck those same poses while reclining in a club’s booth, drink in hand. On Instagram the next day, we look good, and our social network feedback loops reinforce what a fun time we had.

So why isn’t “The Bling Ring” fun to watch? Maybe it’s because just like the kids in the movie, we weren’t actually having fun.

OOF.

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