Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Post-materialist values

My wife took me the other day to see Sophia Coppola’s latest movie, The Bling Ring. As everyone knows by now, it depicts – in a partly fictionalized and, according to the director, non-judgmental way, the daring exploits of a group of real high-school students (several young women and one young man) from the LA suburbs. Coming from well-off or outright rich families, a few years ago they achieved instant fame as they basked in streams of reflected Hollywood glitter. More specifically, they had walked into the lavish homes of celebrity actors and self-impersonators around Hollywood Hills while the proud owners were on business trips; and walked away carrying designer clothes and accessories valued at around 3 million dollars. Surprise, surprise – the gang were arrested after some of them were captured on surveillance cameras, and somebody (perhaps one of the many schoolmates who had heard them brag about their exploits and seen them flaunt many of the stolen goods) tipped off the police.

In her promotional interviews, Sophia Coppola zooms on the growing obsession with celebrities she wanted to bring into focus; and, as if in an effort to provide a supplemental object lesson along these lines, the novice actors who star in most of the main roles strike well honed celebrity poses in their own interviews and photos. But the movie seems to reveal a lot more. To me, the teenage criminals it depicts look like some sort of, for lack of a better word, meta-addicts. They are shown repeatedly abusing various illegal substances (in addition to alcohol and the legal performance-enhancing drugs they had been prescribed to help them function in and out of school). But this doesn’t seem to be their main problem. Rather, they seem to suffer from a kind of overall existential overload which has driven them into a state of subclinical delirium, a delusional condition in which they cannot quite sense the overall import of what they are doing – in this and that instance, and with their lives.

In this altered state of consciousness, the young thieves are normatively oblivious – in a way, “beyond good and evil” (though not exactly in the sense meant by the quasi-delirious German thinker who coined this clever phrase 127 years ago).  Though I have to admit that in one instance the male gang member does show himself capable of drawing an ethical line on the hardwood floor of Paris Hilton’s kitchily narcissistic residence – when he tells the female ring leader he accompanies that she cannot take Paris’s little puppy along. His accomplice, meanwhile, acts and thinks with the cool composure of a true psychopath; and is later off in some never-never land when she is apprehended and questioned by the police.

Incidentally, the protagonist in Coppola’s previous movie, Somewhere, seems to suffer from a syndrome similar to the one afflicting the “bling” thieves. He is a celebrity actor, not a fawning fan, but suffers from a similar existential overload. However, his celebrity status and chronic oversatiation drives him not to uncontrolled cravings and giddiness, but to utter dejection – and eventually to a tortured realization of his terrifying inner emptiness (which can be seen as illustrating the broader cultural syndrome highlighted in the title of Christopher Lash’s book, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations) . The members of the “bling ring” were immediately accused of craven materialism when they were exposed. But this knee-jerk public/media-driven reaction may be partly unfair. After all, the kids saw the value of all the items they took mostly in their non-material aspects – all the branding and celebrity-related associations they evoked. Still, the degree of degeneracy and depravity the movie shows is quite nerve-racking, despite Sophia Coppola’s best intentions – and it seems to reach far beyond the unhealthy cravings, obsessions, and lifestyle or self-expression choices of a few spoiled LA kids.

The whole coverage/promotion buzz enveloping the movie and its ostensible message(s) is, naturally, shot with paradox. Many of the articles and reviews related to it are festooned with ads for all sorts of objects of consumer desire and photos of celebrities; and Emma Watson (the British actress of Harry Potter  fame) who stars in the movie admits she is a bit uneasy that she is often expected to criticize consumerist and celebrity culture – while she must willy-nilly partake in the whole matrix. The original article on which the movie is based was itself written by a journalist specializing in celebrity and celebrity-observing teen culture; and the piece comes up on the Vanity Fair web site alongside the latest cover of the magazine featuring a bathing-suit-clad female celebrity stretched in a provocative pose (to say nothing of the links to lists of “10 best dressed” young actresses, actors, football players, etc. beckoning beneath the photo).

All this is understandable – if it is sometimes difficult to separate precisely good from evil even within totalitarian regimes, can we really expect this line to be clearly drawn under democratic consumerism? But there is something else I cannot quite wrap my head around. How can several bags of trashy-looking designer-branded clothes and trinkets (plus a few high-end watches) stolen from the glitzy home of just one celebrity be “worth” USD 500,000? The NYT movie review claims “the film is a riot of beautiful clothes,” and the homes of the hapless celebrities who had their valuables taken away (and in a few cases did not notice anything was missing) look “as opulent and exotic as Versailles.” But, please… It must be all about those non-material values I noted above. Those, as Ronald Inglehart once noted approvingly (in obvious disagreement with the less sanguine Lasch), have definitively displaced the crasser materialist values related to immediate survival and minimal comfort in affluent Western societies; or so it seemed before the financial crisis hit a few years ago, triggered by a different cascade of largely ephemeral, perhaps quasi-delusional, asset valuations.