The Bling Ring’s impossible challenge for us is to reject the moralizing. We feel superior to the teenagers because of the celebrity issue. The four girls and boy represent our worst fears for the future (or the present): a world inhabited by increasingly vapid people sutured to social media.
* * *
Rarely do films present a withering critique of a society and culture without offering a trace of moralizing. Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (2012) sidesteps commentary by proceeding without satire and self-consciousness. The story is based on an article by Nancy Jo Sale for Vanity Fair. You could criticize the film’s seemingly absent viewpoint or center, as many critics did. Or you can ignore the way the gang of teenage thieves are depicted by Coppola and do the moralizing yourself, as Sally Quinn did in the Washington Post. She speaks for an audience left speechless.
Her first shot across the bow:
The culture is rotten. What is so stunning about “The Bling Ring” is the total lack of guilt, shame, remorse, or even fear.
is followed by:
The sheer magnitude of excess, greed, and narcissism is on a scale that is overwhelming.
Then Quinn steps back to the existential ground when, a long time ago, humans took responsibility for their transgressions:
“Crime and Punishment” this is not.
Then comes the coup de grace:
Forget values, ethics and morals. They don’t exist in the world these kids occupy. The tragedy is that they represent a much larger part of the population, obsessed with fame, glamour, money, and possessions. They don’t even worry about consequences. Ultimately, they are all sentenced to prison. Whatever.1
Yes, yes, yes. This is how we feel.
How did the world descend to this tenth circle of hell? Then it’s only a matter of time before the usual suspects get the blame placed on them: parents, social media, teenagers, celebrities, Hollywood, a godless society. Then there are specific perpetrators, one of whom is featured in the film (as a victim of the robberies), Paris Hilton.
The Bling Ring’s impossible challenge for us is to reject the moralizing. We feel superior to the teenagers because of the celebrity issue. The four girls and boy represent our worst fears for the future (or the present): a world inhabited by increasingly vapid people sutured to social media. The four girls and one boy become the apotheosis of our worst fears for the future: a world inherited by increasingly vapid people saturated by social media. Our natural moral superiority continues unabated as we gain satisfaction when the thieves get caught, probably delighting in the teenagers’ complete lack of self-knowledge or their inability to detach themselves from their egregious actions. They didn’t think they were committing crimes. They almost seem to have felt that they had been invited into the celebrities’ homes. Here’s the locus of our sick feeling after watching the film. The new generation is unable to gain any degree of self-consciousness, an important tool to creatively respond to the reality imposed on us by society. We may even feel smug about their unapologetic reaction to being caught and not overly worried by the one to four years sentences in jail. We want to separate ourselves unequivocally from this crew. Partly, our response may come from feeling that there’s no justice commensurate to their actions. And there may be nothing to stop future bling rings. We just continue to moralize into a cultural vacuum. The most important thing, though, is to remove ourselves from the teenagers’ vision of the world. The words of Sally Quinn echo in our minds, which might absolve us of any responsibility for the teenage thieves’ actions.
* * *
Recently, I wrote an article on forms of celebrity worship and stalking in the films Strangers on a Train (1951) and The King of Comedy (1982).2 The intensity of our society’s celebrity chasing, I noted, increased dramatically during the 30 years between the two films, reaching celebrity obsession levels with Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro). Thirty years later, the Bling Ring teenagers appear and make Rupert Pupkin look like an innocent if not a piker regarding celebrity devotion and fantasia. Two scenes in the respective films offer a quadrant where the respective celebrity pursuits overlap.
- Rupert and his girlfriend, Rita (Diahnne Abbot), barge into Jerry Langford’s (Jerry Lewis) home in Connecticut acting as if they’ve been invited for the weekend. Initially, and importantly, the episode strikes us as another of Rupert’s fantasies. The trip to Connecticut stems from Rupert’s imaginary conversation with Jerry when Jerry invites him for the weekend. This sums up Rupert’s universe: the separation of reality and fantasy is dissolving. What had been harmlessly masturbatory becomes a determined course of action.
- Where Rupert entered but did not break into Jerry’s house, even made himself at home, so certain he was of that invitation, the Bling Ring crew breaks into houses uninvited but act as if they lived there and could take anything. Brazen breaking and entering becomes an act of total immersion. The money and merchandise they stole nearly pales beside the experience of becoming part of the celebrity’s life. Rupert has a motivating force: appearing on The Jerry Langford Show, which leads him to his most flagrant act, kidnapping Jerry. The internal dynamic of the Ring subtly initiates their individual desires: for instance, which members look better in Paris Hilton’s clothes and jewelry. Their crimes accrue. The millions of dollars in cash and merchandise that they stole pales beside the experience of becoming an intimate part of the celebrity’s life. Wearing Paris Hilton’s shoes (even the lone boy does!) becomes their greater, higher end. Who looks better with which piece of jewelry? At the same time, more people in their circle know about the Ring’s activities. It’s not long before they end up in jail, as did Rupert.
- Rupert’s fate is unclear. Can we believe what we’re shown? He’s been released from prison and writes a book, which leads to his hosting The Rupert Pupkin Show. Given his predilection for fantasizing, his triumph may not be real. If he does become the success that he always wanted to be, the audience has to feel queasy. The alternative is nearly as disheartening: Rupert can’t differentiate his fantasies from reality, as we had seen when he believed sincerely that Jerry Langford invited him to his Connecticut home for the weekend.
- The Bling Ring crew are given prison sentences, but we are denied satisfaction that any justice has been done. They served specific terms in jail but seem unaffected, save for the boy who we last see on a bus to prison in orange clothes. One girl, in fact, ends up in the same jail as Lindsay Lohan, completely negating the assumed effects jail time would have on a teenager. One of the teenagers wasn’t brought to trial despite her being involved in every robbery. The leader of the Ring, Rebecca (Katie Chang), seems to be agitated by the way prison limits her connection to the celebrity ethos. Compared to Rupert’s response to his punishment, lost in a fantasy with no way out, the Bling Ring girls, especially, seem to have had their wild desires of incidental fame barely slowed down.
* * *
After seeing The Bling Ring a few more times, it seems less about the robberies or the motives for these specific criminal acts. Rather, the film is primarily about how we respond to their crimes and lifestyle and, specifically, to the emptiness we feel at the end. What do we make of this culture? How should we feel? Have we wasted a colossal amount of time participating in the celebrity the Ring craves? Is it time to declare the death of the American future? Is it worse than global warming, in that the latter might be affected by our efforts to stop it? Do we get any lessons from the film? Can The Bling Ring be aesthetically viable by avoiding the morality of its content or remaining indifferent toward the Ring members’ actions?
We want so much to declare our feelings against the teenagers’ activities, just like the Washington Post review. How much satisfaction can be gained from this? Who will attest to our own moral position? Perhaps the film argues that individually we can do very little about the overwhelming obsessive interest in celebrity culture. Turning off the television or not going to the movies seems a feeble, delusive act. Thirty years after The King of Comedy, television shrinks before the social media used by the Bling Ring (as movies shrunk in the 1950s with the surge of television viewing). The Bling Ring effectively ties the teenagers’ action to their gadgets and devices. Undo the latter and you might weaken the former. What point is there in trying to arouse public indignation over celebrity culture? It would be an unpopular war, starting with attempts to control the social media and the devices used by nearly everyone.
* * *
The adults may be more embarrassing than their thieving children. One might reasonably come after them, as did the parents of victims of the Colombine High School shooting. At ground zero are the parents of Nikki (Emma Watson) and Chloe (Claire Julien). The mother is home-schooling the two, as well as Nikki’s younger sister, their course of study based on the writings of The Secret by Rhonda Byrne, with its power of visualization and Law of Attraction. The Secret is ensconced in the lifestyle of the fairly wealthy who want to be fabulously and famously rich, and Coppola makes it the center of the film, perhaps to give us some relief (comic) from the actions of the Ring. She may also want us to visualize the connection between the strained striving for popularity and success and the celebrity house robberies. They visualize themselves in the clothes, shoes, and jewelry of the people they most admire.
In an article in Salon, Daniel D’Addario speaks of The Secret and of the Law of Attraction as being “baked into American life.”3 We are nation of cults and self-help gurus. They provide a protective bubble for people who can’t accept setbacks when the world unravels. Nikki is partly protected by sharing some of her jail time with a celebrity she wanted to be. In fact, there seems little distance in emotion, desire, and sensibility between the Ring and its victims. Rupert Pupkin would jealousy look at this world and wonder why Jerry Langford could harshly respond to Rupert at the Connecticut house: “Then you’re going to have idiots like you plaguing your life?”
Could Paris or Lindsay summon this vitriol?
* * *
All images are screenshots from the film.
- “The Bling Ring: Lives without Values, Ethics or Morality,” Sally Quinn, The Washington Post, June 28, 2013. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-faith/the-bling-ring-lives-without-values-ethics-or-morality/2013/06/28/5f02ff72-df63-11e2-b2d4-ea6d8f477a01_story.html [↩]
- See https://brightlightsfilm.com/doubles-anyone-celebrity-stalking-in-strangers-on-a-train-and-the-king-of-comedy/#.Ymq-s2jMLos. I note the progression of our interest in celebrities from 1951 to 1982. The principal impetus was television, which created an intimacy with the seemingly remote participants in television shows. Television didn’t create the infatuation but accelerated our fantasies. [↩]
- “From ‘Bling Ring’ to Oprah, ‘The Secret’ Lives On,” Daniel D’Addario, Salon, June 18, 2013. https://www.salon.com/2013/06/18/from_bling_ring_to_oprah_the_secret_lives_on/ [↩]