Mapping Contemporary Cinema

The Bling Ring, 2013

The Bling Ring

Production Companies: American Zoetrope, NALA Films, Pathé Distribution, StudioCanal, TOBIS Film, Tohokushinsha Film
Distribution: A24 (USA) (Theatrical)
Executive Producers: Francis Ford Coppola, Emilio Diez Barroso, Darlene Caamano Loquet, Paul Rassam, Fred Roos, Mike Zakin
Producers: Roman Coppola, Sofia Coppola, Youree Henley
Screenplay: Sofia Coppola, based on “The Suspects Wore Louboutins” by Nancy Jo Sales YEAR
Director: Sofia Coppola
Cinematography: Christopher Blauvelt, Harris Savides
Editor: Sarah Flack
Music: Daniel Lopatin, Brian Reitzell
Cast: Katie Chang (Rebecca), Israel Broussard (Marc), Emma Watson (Nicki), Claire Julien (Chloe), Taissa Farmiga (Sam), Georgia Rock (Emily), Leslie Mann (Laurie)
Running Time: 90 mins.
Classification: Rated R for teen drug and alcohol use, and for language including some brief sexual references
Box Office Gross: domestic $5.8m/worldwide $19.1m
Tagline: Living the Dream, One Heist at a Time Continue reading

 
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Plot Los Angeles, late 2000s. Insecure Marc Hall is the new kid at a school for Hollywood troublemakers when he meets Rebecca Ahn. Rebecca and her friends Chloe, Nicki, and Nicki’s adopted sister Sam are obsessed with fame and celebrities, and Marc is quickly drawn into their world of designer fashion, star spotting at trendy nightclubs, and petty crime. Rebecca and Marc burglarise the home of an out of town classmate. Soon after, they do the same to Paris Hilton. Marc and Rebecca return to Hilton’s house on two more occasions with Sam, Nicki, and Chloe, occasionally bringing others along with them. They marvel at Hilton’s lavish lifestyle and swipe clothing, shoes and accessories. Over time, the group begins stealing from other celebrities, including Audrina Patridge, Orlando Bloom, and Lindsey Lohan, Rebecca’s idol. They steal cash, guns, and even artwork and fall into a pattern of burglary followed by celebration, often through drugs and alcohol. Eventually, the identities of the thieves, dubbed the “Bling Ring” are discovered through security camera footage and tips to police from schoolmates. The group are arrested and brought to trial, receiving varying amounts of jail time. In a televised interview after her release, Nicki discusses her post-prison life and capitalises on her new notoriety by encouraging viewers to visit her new website.

Adaptation and convergence Adaptations have been a fixture in the film industry since its inception. However, the start of the 21st century heralded a new approach. Film adaptations were no longer limited to books or even television shows. The 2000s saw films based on toys (the Transformers series), amusement park rides (Pirates of the Caribbean), and more. Films based closely or loosely on real events were also as popular as ever. A Metacritic article based on data from Box Office Mojo found that not only are sequels, remakes, and adaptations becoming more common, they are also better received by critics and audiences than original works (Dietz).

The Bling Ring is shaped by this dynamic context of intermedial adaptation. The filmwas released in June 2013, right in the middle of a year filled with high profile book-to-movie adaptations (The Great Gatsby, The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) and true-life stories (The Conjuring, The Butler, and 12 Years a Slave). The film is based on a 2010 Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales, “The Suspects Wore Louboutins,” which in turn was reporting on actual events, which were also being chronicled in an E! reality television show. The film adapts freely from this range of sources, pulling aspects from all in order to speak to viewers already conscious of the backstory, the references and the behind the scenes gossip. In order to fully understand The Bling Ring (and appreciate its numerous sly references and homages), it is necessary to forage through the extensive media coverage of the case, starting with Sales’ article. The aforementioned E! series Pretty Wild is also required viewing, if only for the dubious pleasure of seeing just how ridiculous the show will get.

Pretty Wild, originally centered around three wannabe-starlet sisters as they tried to worm their way into the Hollywood social scene, had just started filming the pilot when things took a turn for the dramatic: lead Alexis was arrested in connection with the group the media had dubbed “the Bling Ring” or “the Burglar Bunch”, wealthy Calabasas teens who repeatedly robbed their favorite celebrities. The Pretty Wild crew was there to capture it all. “Shut off the cameras,” an LAPD officer asserted on the morning of the arrest, and E! did—though only temporarily. As Sales explained, the story was “instantly all over the blog-o-sphere […] This was a narrative that you couldn’t make up” (Sacks). The media took notice, and before long Alexis was giving an interview to Sales, which she seemed to think was more of a celebrity profile than a report on a crime. The article was a hit, and by 2013 Sales had extended it to a book, The Bling Ring: How a Gang of Fame-Obsessed teens Ripped Off Hollywood and Shocked the World, that that went into even further detail. The story was everywhere, and seemed to resonate strongly with its followers, something that needs to be present for any successful adaptation (Hutcheon 85-95).

These days, when major news stories are often discussed in terms of their cinematic potential, adapting the Bling Ring story into a film was almost natural. “It was clear,’ Sales wrote that “the appeal of the Bling Ring story was not just the wealthy kids; it was one of those stranger-than-fiction tales that hits the zeitgeist at its sweet spot, with its themes of crime, youth, celebrity, the internet, social networking […] reality television, and the media themselves, all wrapped up in one made-for-TV movie (which didn’t exist yet, but would)” (qtd. in O’Hagan). That made-for-TV movie was a Lifetime Original that was largely ignored, but is still important when considering the journey from tabloid story to Coppola’s major motion picture. Coppola’s selection of the Bling Ring story for her film is telling. The story was recent enough to still be buzzworthy, and centered on popular cultural themes like celebrity, wealth, and crime. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, someone has to be making a movie about this.’ It just had so many elements to make an entertaining movie but it also had something important about our contemporary culture in it,” said Coppola of the Vanity Fair article (Miller).

This begs the question: is The Bling Ring an adaptation of a magazine article or a movie depicting true events? The opening credits tease with both options, with text proclaiming “based on the Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales ‘The Suspects Wore Louboutins’ “, immediately followed by “based on real events.” The Bling Ring is not known as an “adaptation” the way a film version of The Great Gatsby or The Perks of Being a Wallflower might be. Most viewers know that it was based on true events, and some know about the Vanity Fair article. But since it was not based on a well-known work of literature, a play, or a TV show, filmmakers didn’t have to worry about rabid fans searching for any inconsistency in the story. The story itself was not old or well known enough to cause much concern to anyone other than those directly involved, and anyway, it had been reported on and gossiped about so much that that any retelling was to be taken with a grain of salt.

Nevertheless, Coppola’s adaptation stays fairly true to Sales’ article and to Pretty Wild, even lifting dialogue and scenes directly from those sources. Coppola often commented to journalists that her rich source material saved her from having to stray too far from the contours of the actual story, stating “[t]hey wanted to steal Paris Hilton’s dog. I couldn’t even make that up,” (Kaufman, 2). Viewers unfamiliar with Pretty Wild might fail to notice that some of the movie’s more outlandish scenes, like Nicki’s opening monologue about Karma, the daily call of “Girls, time for your Adderall!”, and the homeschool lesson about Angelina Jolie, are actually taken almost verbatim from the TV show. Furthermore, one of the investigators for the case also served as a consultant for the film. Coppola obviously attempted to keep the film as truthful as possible, though Alexis still called it “trashy and inaccurate” on Twitter (Kaufman 2).

Adaptations have long been considered secondary art forms to the original subject matter (Cartmell and Whelehan 2-3). Even successful adaptations like The Lord of the Rings trilogy, will always be discussed in the context of the books, and “bad” adaptations will be hounded “by emotive words such as ‘violation’, ‘vulgarization’, and ‘betrayal’, all emphasizing what has been lost rather than what has been gained,” (Cartmell and Whelehan 3). Similarly, true-to-life films are almost invariably picked over for any deviation from the known ‘facts’. However, as already noted, the 21st century welcomed new forms of adaptation from far-flung corners of the media, including board games, video games, and viral stories like the Bling Ring. The Bling Ring exemplifies this new type of adaptation that tells a story across multiple media platforms. When handling a viral story like the Bling Ring, different aspects of media are able to feed off one another to allow the story to grow and help their own version reach the maximum audience. The Bling Ring case had been rising steadily in the news with each subsequent burglary, but it wasn’t until 2010 that it really blew up. In February the Vanity Fair article hit newsstands, in March Pretty Wild premiered, in May Alexis pleaded no contest to a felony charge, and in June she began to serve her sentence. At this point, the public, paparazzi, and reporters were all captivated by the case. The frenzy around the story had faded by 2013, but it was still recent enough for Coppola’s movie to revive interest. In May of that year both the film and Sales’ book were released, and in June a Dateline NBC special about the Bling Ring aired. 2013 was also peppered with numerous behind-the-scenes articles about the film and “Where Are They Now” retrospectives about the group.

In her article about the story for the Los Angeles Times, Amy Kaufman writes that “[r]arely has there been such a heady, almost Mobius strip-like intersection between real life and celebrity culture, TV and film as there has been over the Bling Ring. The real-life protagonists and an ever-growing circle of Hollywood types who have sought to capture or capitalize on their escapades have intermingled in strange, sometimes disturbing, ways”. This merge of different media—from print to television to film—helped each individual project attract more attention. Would Sofia Coppola have discovered the story without Vanity Fair? Would Pretty Wild have gotten any attention without Alexis’s prosecution? Would tabloids have taken as much notice if Alexis had not been cast in a reality show? There is no doubt that the symbiotic relationships in the media helped create the right atmosphere for an adaptation like The Bling Ring to be successful. By adapting from various sources of media, Coppola was able to ensure her film had maximum exposure and appeal to audiences. The 21st film market is getting more and more competitive, and for a film to survive it needs a strong hook. The Bling Ring story had been newsworthy for over three years, and Coppola’s adaptation and use of the connected media helped the film become a success.

Consumerism and celebrity worship Consumerism and tabloid culture play a huge part in the plot of The Bling Ring, which reflects the role that they play in the lives of modern teens. In the film, characters post pictures of themselves wearing stolen merchandise online, and brag openly to their friends. They use social media and gossip sites like TMZ to find out when celebrities are out of town and where their houses are. They look at magazines and websites devoted to celebrity culture and covet what they see. They want expensive clothes, “the beautiful, gorgeous things” that Bling Ring member Nick Prugo described to Nancy Jo Sales (Sales 3). They are products of a consumer culture, and they call their heists “going shopping” (Sales 2).

Perhaps the best scene exemplifying the convergence of consumerism (mostly in the form of fashion), social media (mostly in the form of Facebook), and celebrity worship (mostly in the form of gossip sites and magazines) is the opening sequence and title credits. The film opens on a darkened shot of several teenagers climbing into a gated yard. They are obviously young, not professionals, but they seem to know what they’re doing. Though their hoods are pulled up, they are otherwise dressed like normal teenagers. They try a few doors, and a loud song kicks in as they finally make it inside. The leader, cool and collected Rebecca, smiles at the others: “Let’s go shopping,” she states. The next few shots show hands grabbing at brightly colored underwear and sparkly trinkets, pulling furs off hangers, stuffing garments into designer handbags. Shots of shelves lined with shoes and tables strewn with jewelry and makeup are intercut with images of teenage Facebook pages (“Wanna smoke a bluuuunt?” captions a photo of a blonde in a crop top, sticking her tongue out, while another picture shows a girl wearing a hat we have just seen her steal), TV footage of starlets posing on the red carpet, and Marc walking towards the courtroom flanked by paparazzi. A girls steals bottles of pills from a medicine cabinet, another finds a wad of hundred dollar bills. The teenagers, laden with loot, are seen leaving on grainy security camera footage, one even carrying artwork under an arm. The jewelry is revealed to be police evidence. The last images of the opening sequence establish the setting, Calabasas, California, as well-off—the houses are large and manicured—but not ridiculously wealthy, like the mansion the teens were just seen burglarising. The song fades out, and the sequence ends.

This scene establishes major themes of the movie, as well as major issues in contemporary culture that let the story resonate so strongly with audiences. The Bling Ring depicts an American society obsessed with celebrities and objects. Of course, the characters take their obsessions to an extreme, but it’s still an uncomfortable truth. Coppola places images of the crime and its consequences alongside possible motivations, like the appeal of celebrity life represented by the starlets, the desire to present an image of coolness and affluence represented by the Facebook photos, and the allure of all those beautifully-shot things. Coppola displays the objects with an almost sensual veneration. Rows of candy-colored shoes and piles of jewel-toned bags seem to pop off the screen; the Louis Vuitton monogram is paid loving attention by the camera; the shiny blackness of a Chanel shopping bag gleams like patent leather. The way Coppola shows it, it’s easy to see the appeal of the items, and why, in the right atmosphere, they might drive teens to crime to acquire them. The last work of acclaimed cinematographer Harris Savides, The Bling Ring’s cinematography and content helps audiences to understand the appeal of designer fashion and the celebrity lifestyle. “I tried to show it in a real way and make all the stuff they were into look seductive, so you could understand why they were into that stuff,” Coppola explained. “So I’m kind of showing it like candy. And [with] the story and the way it ends and what happens to them, hopefully it’s not glorifying it. You kind of overdose in the end” (qtd in Freidlander).

Image and depth The teens in The Bling Ring are so wrapped up in appearing wealthy, famous, and powerful that they are detached from real life, unable to comprehend the consequences and dangers of their actions. Everything, from the clothes they wear to the photos they share with friends, is carefully maintained to present a certain view to the world. Stealing the clothes of various celebrities not only brings them closer to fame, it also helps them improve their appearances. “When the Ring members go out to party, they don’t photograph the celebrity patrons or even each other. They take selfies: the kids are their own paparazzi” (Shaw). The celebrities they idolise are as much false personas as they are, but that’s beside the point. The goal is the production of an image, carefully cultivated and uploaded to Facebook, which they present to the world. It’s sometimes difficult to connect to the characters in The Bling Ring because they seem so shallow and narcissistic, all surface and no substance.

Funnily enough, that’s the same criticism that has been heaped on the film by critics. Most critics agree that while it is timely and visually stunning, The Bling Ring fails to flesh out its characters or take a stand on their actions. Many complained that it’s unclear whether Coppola is condemning or glamorising her characters and their choices, especially considering the almost reverential way she depicts the pilfered objects. Claudia Puig of USA Today writes that “The Bling Ring is the cinematic equivalent of the vapid, superficial kids it features — all visual panache and minimal substance”. However, it can be argued that this vapidity is a comment on the emptiness of a culture that overvalues the self-image (portrayed through meticulously refined Facebook pages, Instagram feeds, paparazzi snapshots, and staged reality TV), and that giving the film more depth would destroy some of its authenticity. The film doesn’t give its audience any guidance on how to feel. Like its subjects, it’s more focused on images than morality. As Nicole Rupersburg writes, “[t]his is Coppola’s most highly stylized film to date, largely because there isn’t a message here: the style is the message”.

Nick Prugo, Bling Ring member and main informant to the police whose quotes form the backbone of Sales’ Vanity Fair piece, insists that the group simply wanted expensive clothing. Though there is probably more to the story than just a desire for objects, it was a major factor. The characters in The Bling Ring have similar motivations, but its clear they want to do more than just possess glamorous items: they want to show them off. They take pictures and upload them to social media, and they show off their conquests to their friends at parties. The group spends so much time looking at images or capturing their own that they never consider the consequences of their actions. “How the film follows the Bling Ring is Coppola’s commentary on it […] it’s not about having experiences; it’s about documenting your experiences so obsessively that you don’t realize you’re having them” (Bartyzel). In this way, the teens are actually quite similar to the celebrities they covet, existing only in the eyes of their viewers. They may be shallow, narcissistic, and vapid, but they are also products of a culture that values these things. The Bling Ring holds a mirror up to that culture, and shows rather than tells.

References

Bartyzel, Monica. “Girls on Film: The Bling Ring is About All of Us.” The Week. The Week Magazine. 21 June 2013. Web. 19 November 2013.

Cartmell, Deborah and Imelda Whelehan. Screen Adaptation: Impure Cinema. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Print.

Dietz, Jason. “Are Original Movies Really Better than Derivative Works?” Metacriric. 21 April 2011. Web. 5 January 2014.

Freidlander, Whitney. “Fashion Steals Bling Spotlight.” Variety 320.7 (2013): 20. Web. 5 January 2014.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Kaufman, Amy. “ ‘The Bling Ring’ comes full circle for Alexis Neiers.” Los Angeles Times. 24 May 2013. Web. 5 January 2014.

Miller, Julie. “Sofia Coppola on The Bling Ring, Emma Watson’s Kardashian Dialect Training, and Which of Her Films She’ll Allow Her Kids to Watch.” Vanity Fair. 12 June 2013. Web. 5 January 2014.

O’Hagan, Andrew. “So Many Handbags, So Little Time.” London Review of Books 35.12 (2013): 19-20. Web. 5 January 2014.

Puig, Claudia. “ ‘Bling Ring’ is shiny, but ultimately emotionally cheap.” USA Today. 14 June 2013. Web. 5 January 2014.

Rupersburg, Nicole. “The Real and the Bling: The Bling Ring beckons the Age of Authenticism.” L’ecriture Film. 21 July 2013. Web. 5 January 2014.

Sacks, Rebecca. “Q&A: Nancy Jo Sales Dishes on the Bling Ring.” Vanity Fair. 5 February 2010. Web. 5 January 2014.

Sales, Nancy Jo. “The Suspects Wore Louboutins.” Vanity Fair, March 2010. Print.

Shaw, Julia. “Looking Into the Abyss: Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring.” Acculturated: Pop Culture Matters. 18 July 2013. Web. 5 January 2014.

Written by Lucy Saldavia (2014); edited by Guy Westwell (2016), Queen Mary, University of London

This article may be used free of charge. Please obtain permission before redistributing. Selling without prior written consent is prohibited. In all cases this notice must remain intact.

Copyright © 2014 Lucy Saldavia/Mapping Contemporary Cinema

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