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The Bling Ring and The American Dream

January 28, 2014 in Fauxscars, Literary Movies, Non-Fiction, Pop Culture, Women Writers

It’s amazing how close The Bling Ring is to its source material. The article, originally published in Vanity Fair and entitled “The Suspects Wore Louboutins,” does not judge the story’s subjects, a group of fame-obsessed teens who broke into celebrity homes and stole millions of dollars worth of goods. As any successful piece of hard journalism does, it leaves the readers to make their own decisions.

Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring takes on a similarly journalistic approach, mimicking exact lines and moments from the article down to outfits from the article’s pictures. In between these moments of accuracy are long montages of drug use, loud music, and thievery. You wouldn’t think that watching gorgeous teens break the law would get boring, but it does.

It is hard to know what to think throughout the entirety of The Bling Ring. Are we not supposed to get excited about seeing Paris Hilton’s real closet? At the end, as Marc faces his time in prison, I thought I understood that the film was showing us the price of celebrity obsession. But this was not the end. The Bling Ring ends with Emma Watson’s Nicki on a talk show, having just faced a short span in prison, cool as a cucumber and promoting her website.

Clearly, Coppola and Nancy Jo Sales, the author of the Vanity Fair article, have opinions about the real ‘Bling Ring.’ Sales said in a Q&A about her article that, “I think, like all stories that capture this much attention, there’s something very evocative of American culture. A friend of mine said, ‘This case implicates us all.’” As an investigative journalist, Sales doesn’t express these views in her article, but leaves the reader to come to their own conclusions. Films are typically more editorial, but Coppola has chosen to present only the facts. The result is voyeuristic and stunning, but it’s hard to feel any investment in these characters or their story. We don’t find out enough about the individual people to understand what would push them to make such poor decisions, nor enough to really feel sympathy for them. Though The Bling Ring is admirably close to its source material, its lack of emotion or editorializing created a film that is beautiful, but also boring and a bit empty. Perhaps this might have been Coppola’s point all along — to show an exclusive world that many aspire to join and how insubstantial and dull it all really is.

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If you hated to love The Bling Ring, let us know. It is nominated for in The 2014 Literary Fauxscars for “Best ‘Guilty Pleasure’ Adaptation.”  If you think it should take home the award, share your opinions in the comments section or on Facebook and Twitter. #Fauxscars

Culture Shock: places are strange when you're a stranger

July 26, 2010 in Uncategorized

I went to a college that I often compared to a boarding school, but boarding school graduates compared it to summer camp.  We were coddled, gently incubated to adulthood in a single-path Ohio village.  Our dining hall had a “continuous feed” policy.  Our health center offered support groups for socially isolated students.  Our professors regularly granted extensions for existential crises.  It was a place apart, with the remote location, Gothic architecture, and demographically limited population you’d expect in a period piece, a horror movie, or a combination of the two.

Given that my college experience combined the odd and the infantilizing so frequently, when my study-abroad materials raised the possibility of “culture shock,” I considered it an overstated concern and a welcome diversion.  Junior year was the perfect time to go abroad – I had just begun to internalize the limitations of my campus, to reduce my worldview to a population excessively concerned with the social capital of obscure indie rock bands, or their ability to express the inherent inadequacy of language in a fourteen-line poem.

To prepare myself intellectually for my abroad experience, I took a course on 18th century travel narratives.  We covered the requisite Boswell, Johnson, and Smollet, but also the landscape-mirroring-emotion letters of Mary Wollstonecraft.  In retrospect, I wish I’d devoted more attention to descriptions of more dramatic culture clashes – Passage to India, Wide Sargasso Sea—or the science-fiction narratives on my brother’s bookshelf.

Psychologists, literary scholars, and international studies counselors throw around the terms “defamiliarisation,” intercultural awareness,” and “negotiation phase,” but they are all talking about the newcomer’s confrontation with a novel environment.  The first shock of a “foreign” sensory experience – the dense scent of Bombay’s airport, the preemptory “sorry” in a crowded Dublin street, the first mouthful of French headcheese – has the makings of a vivid, and entirely individualized, description.  The writer’s vocabulary is drawn from the language and experience of the host culture.  Here’s an illustrative passage from Fred D’Aguiar’s “A Son in Shadow,” where a Guyanan bride encounters English weather:

The first morning I opened the door that autumn and shouted “Fire!” when I saw all the smoke, thinking the whole street was on fire, all the streets, London burning, and slammed the door and ran into his arms and his laughter, and he took me out into it in my nightdress, he in his pajamas, and all the time I followed him, not ashamed to be seen outside in my thin, flimsy nylon (if anyone could see through that blanket) because he was in his pajamas, the blue, striped ones, and his voice, his sweet drone, told me it was fine, this smoke without fire was fine, “This is fog.”

Travel literature produces these salient encounters – Sloane Crosley’s description of an encounter with Portuguese circus clowns in her latest essay collection is the first that comes to mind.  Specificity is not a handicap, either — Bill Bryson has made a career of highlighting the finer points of contrast between England and the United States.  Still, given the globalization of culture, the increased accessibility of international travel, and the propensity of memoirists to dash abroad, I am concerned that, just as expatriate communities live in their native tongue, just as the Grand Tour followed an itinerary, so today’s traveler/readers are losing their ability to cast off established frames of reference.  In other words, I fear that the contemporary writer has been limited to seeking food in Italy, prayer in India, and love in Indonesia.

If our planet has become overly familiar, then science fiction is an ideal platform, a means of approaching our world as alien.  The man-from-Mars trope is classic, but the graphic novel Black Hole, and, sigh, yes, even the Twilight series, lends a sparkle of originality to the well-worn terrain of lust in the American Northwest.

Of course, I may be underestimating today’s authors, just as I underestimated the unmooring I felt during my second month in Ireland.  Plenty of writers – Tolstoy foremost among them – have made the familiar strange without resorting to science fiction, surrealism, or writer-seeks-self narratives.  If you’re interested in estrangement of familiar, I recommend Cortazar’s Autonauts of the Cosmoroute, Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates, or a viewing of PBS’s “Culture Shock” segment on Huckleberry Finn.

Do you enjoy reading descriptions of culture shock?  Do you think that a glut of travel narratives compromises a writer’s ability to be original?  What was your most shocking moment abroad?  I’ll be writing more on this next week, so let me know.

Mad Men: Advertising, New York City, And The American Dream

March 21, 2010 in Uncategorized

Photo by Rainbow Media, AMC TV

We recently covered one aspect of 1960s society with our article on counter-culture and the influence of writer and merry prankster Ken Kesey.  This week we turn to AMC’s hit television show Mad Men to help illustrate another, more mainstream, side of the American coin.

A friend of mine once described  Mad Men as being about “nothing more than a bunch of white men drinking, smoking, and sleeping around.”  While this may appear true to a casual viewer – and certainly, much has been made of these less savory aspects of the series – Mad Men is about so much more than the characters’ vices.  It is at once an exploration of our culture of consumerism, a study of the lives of several representative characters, and a portrait of the rapid changes that shook America throughout the 1960s.

In our newest feature article, Paul Millward takes a look at advertising culture and the significance of the American dream, a phrase that has become so common that it has almost lost all meaning.  But with a little help from Mad Men and Millward, it becomes possible to see how advertising appeals to the same portion of the human psyche that is willing to invest in something like the American dream.  Consumer culture is only one type of wish fulfillment, yet it represents our near constant need to always seek out something more, something greater, something forever beyond our grasp.

If you’re anything like me, there is no such thing as too much Mad Men.  However, even a veteran watcher like myself can appreciate a new, fresh take on the much-discussed show, which is why I suggest you take a moment this week and read Millward’s ode to Don Draper, New York, and the dream merchants of the 1960s with his piece Mad Men: Creating a Perfect World on the Avenue of Dreams.

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