On paper, the film-music moment of the week doesn't sound all that brilliant, or as if it'll go down as one of the filmmakers' most memorable, but it is and it will: Johnny Marco (played by Stephen Dorff), newly famous actor, drifts off to sleep while identical twins pole dance in his Chateau Marmont suite.
It isn't just what Sofia Coppola shows you that makes this moment so great. It's what she shows you compared to what almost every other director would have shown you, given the same material.
Most directors, for instance, wouldn't have dreamed of using a song like the gruff, platonic "My Hero" by the Foo Fighters as the music for a pole dance, but it's the kind of oddly literal selection the dancers themselves might have made to go with the candystriping theme of their routine. Recently on Fresh Air Coppola said she found the choice "funny": "I thought [it]was funny -- them in their candystripers performing to 'My Hero' as he's broken his arm." She also told Pitchfork she wanted to move away from a soundtrack mentality and instead "wanted the characters to really be listening to music."
There's something about the twins' style of dancing that really captures the ennui. This is not the gravity-defying pole dancing of Cirque du Soleil or even amateur night at the strip club. There are no Pussycat Doll athletics. No attempt to portray anything as complex as seduction. Instead, there's some junior varsity choreography and perfunctory jiggling of butt cheeks. Mystery is at a minimum, as if tanning bed bulbs and hydrogen peroxide had long since burned away all the twins' Freudian darkness.
Richard Beggs is Sofia Coppola's longtime sound designer (her dad uses him too) and the squeaking of the twins' hands on their portable poles is a very Beggsian touch. His work is always a thoughtful mix of the authentic and the poetic, and there's something about the prominence of that squeaking that makes me think he included it as more than just a realistic detail. It gives the twins some humanity. It calls attention to their hands. They're working. That sound makes it harder to objectify them, even though they're inviting us to do just that.
The real centerpiece of this scene, though, is Johnny Marco's bored expression as he watches the twins dance. Coppola confidently lets her camera linger on his face, grafting our gaze onto his so we can not only witness his slow-motion decision to let sleep prevail over horniness, we can actually feel the pleasure and the vacuousness of his life. In that calm, neutral way of hers, Sofia regards his face as he slips into oblivion.
(There goes her hero.)
A few scenes later, Marco is sitting alone in the stands of an ice skating rink, reading text messages while his eleven year old daughter, Cleo (played by Elle Fanning), receives a private lesson. When she performs run-through (to Gwen Stefani's "Cool"), Marco's attention gradually shifts from his cell phone to his daughter's movements on the ice. Once again, he is watching a dance, but this time he's captivated.
The juxtaposition of the two scenes is unmistakable. Cleo's innocence seems all the more luminous next to the false innocence of the twins; her beauty is devoid of all calculation or insistence. Wordlessly, Coppola conveys that Johnny is realizing how much his daughter has changed, matured while he wasn't looking. His choices are cast a new light and we wonder whether his womanizing lifestyle suddenly feels strange now that he can see that his daughter is ramping up to womanhood herself. In this way Coppola seems now to be crafting meta-moments ander touch seems ever lighter; she has a gift for arranging and slowly rotating things in a way that reveals their loveliness and complexity.
Legendary editor Walter Murch has said there are two kinds of filmmakers : the "black box" filmmaker and the "snowflake" sort. Black box filmmakers worship structure and prefer to make decisions in advance. They control every nuance of the film down to the smallest detail and interpret all meaning on behalf of the viewer ahead of time. Snowflake directors, by contrast, make films in order to see what will happen in front of the camera, allowing meaning to emerge from the singularity of the moments they record. With its loosely structured, ephemeral scenes, Somewhere is proof of Coppola's mastery of the snowflake style; this film gathers weight and form as chapters accumulate, like snowfall, and at this point, the same can be said of Sofia's entire career to date as well.
Here's hoping it snows again soon.