Slowly, Going Somewhere

Sofia Coppola’s 2010 film, Somewhere, opens on a barren landscape where a solitary black Ferrari races in a circle, over and over again. Finally, the car eases to a stop. A man in sunglasses, a ratty t-shirt, and worn blue jeans emerges from the driver’s side: movie star Johnny Marco—between jobs, light on obligation.

Johnny fills his ample free time partying, trying, with limited effect, to stave off boredom. Early in the film, he drifts to sleep while twin-sister pole dancers perform in his hotel room. Later, he falls asleep during a sexual encounter at a party. It’s unclear what exactly Johnny wants, or whether he even knows for himself.

It is difficult to describe boredom, at least in a way that does justice to its many forms or explains just why it can feel so unbearable. For me, it often manifests as restlessness, an urge to do something, while also being utterly dissatisfied with the options at hand. Suspended between a will-to-do-something and a will-to-do-nothing, I end up bouncing between mindless, superficial activities—watching YouTube videos, scrolling through Instagram—which don’t satisfy me in any real way, but offer a respite, if only for a few minutes, from boredom’s oppression. I’m still bored, but now my boredom is mitigated, made bearable. This behavior isn’t uncommon. Studies on boredom frequently conclude that most people don’t like to sit alone with their thoughts; some will even go to unexpected lengths to avoid doing so. Boredom isn’t just superficially unpleasant; it can be more profoundly perturbing. Without distractions, boredom lays bare the facts of one’s life, potentially a depressing, even destabilizing, experience. Somewhere is, in large part, a film about boredom.

The film follows Johnny as his daughter enters and exits his life, with a focus on his frequently-banal lived experience—which, as Tomas Hachard observes in Passing Time: Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere,” is vintage Coppola. Somewhere, Lost in Translation, and Marie Antoinette all contain characters with excessive leisure time. Her films, he writes, have always “been more interested in how characters experience events in their lives than what is being experienced.”

Still, something about the tedium of Somewhere is different. While Coppola’s other films communicate their protagonists’ boredom, careful editing ensures viewers are not themselves subjected to the same experience. Somewhere rarely employs this kind of expository shorthand. Hachard writes, “It is only in Somewhere that Coppola’s presentation of the passing of time cinematographically matches up with how her characters experience it in the script: as relentless, mundane, and sometimes overbearing, but also, most commonly, as completely lacking in variation.” This stylistic decision manifests itself in numerous long takes and real-time scenes: not one, but two pole dances; Johnny circling in his car; his daughter’s entire ice-skating routine. Here, the audience is not just intellectually privy to Johnny’s experience of time, but actually experiences it for themselves.

The effect heightens in the absence of non-diegetic sound or music. Coppola’s earlier films use music liberally, but Somewhere again distinguishes itself with its sparse soundtrack and score, further immersing viewers in the slow (and silent) drag of time right along with Johnny. In one scene, Johnny has a cast made over his face for an upcoming film role. In the studio, the technicians cover Johnny’s head in a thick, lumpy grey goo and leave him for 40 minutes for the mixture to set. When the technicians leave, the camera holds and, for a minute and a half, zooms, slowly, in on Johnny’s head. The only sound is Johnny’s slow, repetitive breathing, which marks the passing of every second.

Of course, these types of editing decisions always influence how viewers engage with a movie. Action films, for example, use fast cuts, particularly during fight and chase scenes, to build excitement and tension that mirror the characters’ experiences (this can occasionally veer absurd; an infamous scene from one of the Taken films employs 15 cuts in a six second-long sequence in which the protagonist jumps a fence.) It is less common to emphasize the silent, the slow, and the mundane, presumably because these bore the audience—not a profitable approach. Somewhere is so boring at times that it can be hard to weather. But it brings the audience into Johnny’s ennui, and sets the stage for a rupture: his daughter’s arrival.

Cleo, a child from a previous marriage, just appears, one day, outside Johnny’s hotel room door. She’s visited before, but on planned weekends, as part of a split-custody arrangement. This time, she’s been unexpectedly passed along, and her mother asks Johnny to take Cleo until her upcoming summer camp. Cleo’s very presence makes Johnny self-aware in a way that isn’t usually required of him. As her father, Johnny has to consider which aspects of his life are appropriate for 11-year old Cleo to see, and most of it—the pole dancers, drinking, smoking, partying and casual sex—is not. During Johnny and Cleo’s trip to Italy, a woman spends the night with Johnny and stays for breakfast the next morning. At the breakfast table, Cleo’s pointed looks at her father make it clear that this woman is unwelcome. His returning gaze and slight nod of the head seem to acknowledge the point, while also asking Cleo to just let it be—at least this once. Witnessed, Johnny begins to break from old routines.

A music-backed montage pointedly evokes the change. These few minutes, in which the viewer watches Johnny and Cleo swim in the pool, play ping pong, and talk about the books Cleo is reading, the Strokes’ I’ll Try Anything Once playing lightly in the background (one of Somewhere’s few non-diegetic pieces of music), are arguably the film’s most enjoyable to watch. Time doesn’t drag achingly by; it passes with pleasant ease—and one suspects this is Johnny’s experience as well.

Yet his essential problems persist, a fact underscored by Cleo’s inevitable departure to summer camp. Her new absence, juxtaposed against the clear memory of her presence, sharpens Johnny’s awareness of his own dissatisfaction, throwing him into an even deeper melancholy. He has few close relationships, a largely unfulfilling career, and exerts almost no agency over his life, which makes him surprisingly incompetent for a man his age, which Cleo’s comparative faculties made strikingly clear. One morning Johnny awakes to find Cleo has whipped up eggs benedict. In another scene, she orders ingredients from the hotel kitchen to make mac and cheese from scratch. While she’s clearly used to taking care of herself, Johnny lives, in many ways, like a child: Staff wake him, tell him the day’s appointments and obligations, ferry him between airports, events, and hotels, cook his meals. Johnny is not accustomed to being responsible for himself, in ways both large and small.

After Cleo leaves, Johnny decides to cook for himself. At the sink in his gloomy kitchen, he pours a too-large mass of spaghetti into a strainer, and goopy overflowing noodles spill into the sink; he made the whole box, not realizing this is too much for a single person. Alone at his table with a plate of bland pasta, the pathetic nature of Johnny’s life couldn’t be more conspicuous. So what is he going to do about it?

Already, the attempt, however disheartening, to make dinner represents a meaningful reclamation of agency. It’s not a huge success, but it’s a start. Moments like this—that is, failures that nonetheless bode well for the future—pop up with increasing regularity towards the film’s end. Johnny tries both to reach out to his ex-wife and to apologize to Cleo for being an absent father. Neither go well; he is rebuffed by his ex-wife and his apology to Cleo is poorly-timed, likely drowned out by helicopter blades. Regardless, the instinct—to reach out to the people around him, to make amends with his daughter, to accept his responsibility as a parent—imbues the future with promise.

As many of us turn to movies amid stay-at-home orders, Somewhere might not intuitively appeal. Who wants to watch a boring movie about boredom when they’re bored? Moreover Johnny’s extreme boredom is only made possible by extreme privilege, calling to mind the celebrities who claim “we’re all in this together” on Instagram while riding out the coronavirus from the inside of a mansion. But Somewhere goes beyond mere escapism; as rendered in the film, Johnny’s boredom attunes us to the unexpected meaning of our own, as it makes conspicuous time’s passage, asking us, point blank: so what are you going to do about it? ▩

Missy Gerlach is a videographer based in Portland, Oregon.

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