The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Vuitton: Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, Publicity Rights, and the End of Narcissism

  

Sam (career check-forger and safecracker): “I don’t know, maybe it’s a sense of resentment because they make it. I watch them from across the street and hope they have a good day. Today it’s theirs, tonight it’s mine… I just dig stealing. I like it.” Bruce Jackson, Outside The Law: A Thief’s Primer (London: Macmillan, 1969), 11.

“Since capitalist morality is integrated with the structure of money, periods of inflation are always strongly sensual.” Kenneth Burke, Attitude Towards History (1937), 218.

***

Reviewing Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Pauline Kael wrote: “There hasn’t been as excitingly American a film since The Manchurian Candidate.” In a similar spirit, we might say that there hasn’t been as excitingly American a film as Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring— (if we conceive of its “exciting American-ness” as a commitment to documenting pathologies of celebrity culture) since Robert D. Siegel’s 2009 brilliant Big Fan. Alternately, we might say there hasn’t been as excitingly American a film since Nick Gomez’s 1996 overlooked masterpiece New Jersey Drive, if we conceive of The Bling Ring’s “exciting American-ness” as a function of its fidelity to the transgressive sanctity of the teenage joyride. Strangely enough, critics on the Left have not greeted The Bling Ring with the enthusiasm that one might expect. In the paragraphs below, I try to make the case for Coppola’s film as a profound neo-Brechtian meditation on the contradictions of contemporary capitalism, winding through the wilds of Intellectual Property law and the short, unhappy life of the psychoanalytic theory of narcissism.

Drawing inspiration from the real-life exploits of teen outlaws Rachel Lee and Nick Prugo in 2008 and 2009, The Bling Ring charts a path from boredom and anomie to the narcotic thrills of illicit access to the forbidden kingdom of celebrity abundance. Lee and Prugo’s fictional doubles, augmented by a band of Calabasas misfits, quickly move from jiggling the door handles of luxury cars at night to TMZ- and Google Earth-aided robberies of the dream homes of young Hollywood’s A-list celebrities. The aim appears not so much to acquire the unattainable markers of wealth and status (although that is certainly an important motivation), but to play house in the forbidden domestic interiors, to inventory and catalog the glittering fetish objects lurking in the walk-in closets, to experiment with breaking and entering as a kind of sympathetic magic.

Formally speaking, The Bling Ring is a study in measured repetition, minimalism, self-discipline and intentionality. Coppola is particularly interested in the relationship between transgression and repetition, abandon and control. The Bling Ring is especially insistent on the tension between the eros of the present moment, and the drive towards electronic capture of current pleasure for the sake of retroactive enjoyment—perhaps the central dilemma of our contemporary neurotic complexes. Every act, however incriminating, is accompanied by a “selfie,” a Facebook update, a text. There is something anhedonic—not to mention lonely––about the relentless documentation. For whose sake are these actions being archived, and what kind of archive is being absent-mindedly created by all of these inscriptions, filings, and punching of virtual time cards?

***

“Uncut diamonds, artistically speaking, may be legitimately taken away from their idiot-possessor, provided the thief will well and truly cut them, thus giving them a new brilliance. This is not a theft, properly speaking; rather, it is a duty. It is good that diamonds should be stolen, be they yours, ours, or another’s provided only—this is essential—that the new possessor exhibits them to better advantage.” E.F. Benson, “Plagiarism” (1899).[1]

***

One (perhaps fair) complaint about The Bling Ring is that it is boring. In its own way, it is true: The Bling Ring is boring. At a certain point, however, as John Cage and Andy Warhol and Lauren Conrad all made a point of teaching us, boring becomes interesting. Walter Benjamin once observed that the best storytellers adopt a “chaste compactness” that “precludes psychological analysis” in order to lull listeners into a state of relaxation. The highest form of this trance-like state of receptivity to narrative, for Benjamin, is boredom: “the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.”

Alexis Neiers, a “bling ring” associate (played in The Bling Ring by Emma Watson in a performance so rich in dialectical ludicity that it ought to be the subject of an entire special issue of The Drama Review) would no doubt question Benjamin’s chicken-and-egg equation. Neiers recently suggested that it was precisely Coppola’s refusal to give the “bling ring” members any sort of identifiable dramatic “arc” that had resulted in the creation of so boring a film:

“I actually haven’t seen it yet, so I don’t want to be that person who criticizes a movie without seeing it first. Having said that, from the looks of the trailer and a lot of the reviews I’ve read, the characters are supposedly quite one-dimensional… Where is the arc?”[2]

Throwing shade with the effortless grace of Elvin Jones applying drumstick to ride cymbal (“All I know is that if they made a movie about [Sofia Coppola] and the only thing that she does is ruin the Godfather franchise, she probably wouldn’t think that was fair and the audience would find it kind of boring”), Neiers’s comment is telling. Speaking about The Bling Ring to an addiction-and-recovery website, peddling herself as a “brand” via a highly marketable uplifting narrative of youthful prodigality and adult redemption––her own example points to the very redundancy of any cinematic deference to the “arc” imperative. “Arc” imitates life.

The dramatic “arc” that verifies a person’s personhood might also be thought of as the dominant expression of contemporary liberal ideology, which insists that a “life” is unrecognizable without an “arc,” but that some lives (however punctuated by suffering, trauma, and recovery) aren’t lives at all.

Asked to describe The Bling Ring’s message for young viewers, Paris Hilton (a victim of the “bling ring” crimes who appears as herself in several scenes) invents a moral takeaway out of whole cloth, deferring to perhaps the oldest of American ideological investments, the Protestant work ethic: “There’s so much more to life than all of these possessions and everything. And if you want those things, you’re going to have to work… just like I did.”[3]   

Shakespearean comedies end with a wedding; Hollywood “social issue” films end at the courthouse. Transgressing the formula that organizes the latter tradition throughout the film—refusing, that is, Neiers’s demand for an “arc” or Hilton’s confabulation of an uplifting “message”––Coppola finally honors it, but in a highly ironic and ambiguous gesture. At The Bling Ring’s conclusion, the protagonists confront the law: some of the stolen goods are returned, and a judge hands down some prison sentences. But Coppola does not plot out this trajectory in service of punitive superego satisfactions, nor out of some latter-day deference to some informal Hays Code. What doesn’t happen, miraculously, is any sort of soapy catharsis, an angry monologue, a crescendo of emotion, a bottoming-out.

The film’s structure remains faithful to the “bling ring” experiment: premised upon the question of whether it is possible to enjoy oneself, and for how long, for how long at a given time, what to do with the disappointment that invariably follows, what the limits of escalation might be. The law, here, functions simply as a limit. The Bling Ring takes no joy in punishing the teens. Its moral economy is oriented towards different concerns, different questions. Thus we would take issue with Bret Easton Ellis’s Twitter evaluation of the film as  “surprisingly conservative and yearning for analog,” a “finger-pointing movie shaking its head about Those Crazy Kids Today…” It is hard, in fact, to recall a recent film less conservative, less nostalgic for the good old days, less judgmental about the much-maligned Millennials.

***

The village of Hollywood was planned according to the notions

People in these parts have of heaven. In these parts

They’ve come to the conclusion that God

Wanting a heaven and a hell, didn’t need to

Plan two establishments but

Just the one: heaven. It

Serves the underprivileged, unsuccessful

As hell.

Bertolt Brecht “Hollywood Elegies” (1941-47)

For non-celebrities then, the right of publicity is essentially a “right without a remedy.” Even where a non-celebrity plaintiff can establish a claim, problems in establishing damages will foreclose an effective cause of action. For some analysts, this is considered a good thing, as they deem it “folly … [to] extend the right of publicity to non-celebrities who cannot demonstrate that their identity has any significant commercial value.”[4] K.J. Greene, “Intellectual Property Expansion: The Good, The Bad, and The Right of Publicity” (emphasis added).

***

 

It would not be surprising if future historians look to The Bling Ring as evidence of a culture absorbed in a chaotic flux of meaning, and a crisis that circled around two linked terms—“personhood” and “value.” In a capitalist moment premised upon anxious temporary fixes to the problem of “personhood” and “value,” a new centrality is enjoyed by the legal doctrine called the “right of publicity.” The “right of publicity” covers the legal question of whose semiotic personhood has value, and whose does not.

Perhaps the easiest way to dive in to the world of “publicity rights” is to consider the news links that appear on the right-hand margin of a popular “right of publicity” website as a kind of conceptual poetry:

Rihanna files $5 million lawsuit against Topshop for unlicensed t-shirts/Donald Trump seeks $400,000 in cybersquatting case/Lindsay Lohan sues Pitbull and Ne-Yo for use of her name in song lyric/Hollywood Reporter article on Right of Publicity and alleged Boston bombers/Chubby Checker files lawsuit against Hewlett Packard for unlicensed “Chubby Checker” mobile app/Can Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas stop a third party trademark application for “Flying Squirrel?”/Tim Tebow and potential Right of Publicity legal action against MY Jesus T-shirts/Apple objects to In Icons’ plans for a Steve Jobs action figure/Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino sues Abercrombie & Fitch on Right of Publicity grounds/Nelson Mandela’s licensed clothing line, 46664, his ID number while in prison/Kim Kardashian sues Old Navy over a lookalike in advertisements/Disney files for “SEAL Team 6” trademark, the name of the elite special forces unit that tracked down Osama bin Laden/Charlie Sheen tries “Winning” through cease and desist letters/Marilyn Monroe rights sell for a reported $50 Million/Cypress Hill member sues Rockstar for use of his life story in Grand Theft Auto/Axl Rose sues Activision for $20 million over inclusion of Slash character and Velvet Revolver songs in Guitar Hero game/Bob Marley to become the top grossing deceased celebrity? Predictions of $1 billion by 2012/Supreme Court refuses to hear Major League Baseball appeal over fantasy baseball and use of stats/Evel Knievel, Kanye West settle lawsuit.[5]

$50 million here, $50 million there: pretty soon you’re talking about real money.

Derived from the uniquely American notion of a “right to privacy,” famously created ex nihilo by Samuel Warren and Louis D. Brandeis in an 1890 law review article, the “right of publicity” was worked out by UCLA law professor and pioneering Hollywood intellectual property attorney Melville Nimmer in a 1954 essay. The “right of publicity” quickly became an organizing frame for a wide variety of tort claims pursued by celebrities against entrepreneurs who sought to profit from unlicensed deployments of famous faces, personas, catch phrases, and voices.

The “right of publicity” case law history is almost impossible to believe: ranging from a foundational 1937 case about the unauthorized use of the photographic image of performer Sarat Lahiri in an article about sideshow “Hindu rope tricks,” to a fight over a 1984 Dior ad using a Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis impersonator at a fake wedding for “the Diors” (shown hobnobbing with the real-life personages of Gene Shalit and Ruth Gordon). The conceptual limits of the “right of publicity” can be seen in the most legally complicated contemporary cases: on the one hand, the question of compensation for the use of likenesses of unpaid college football players by video game companies, and on the other hand by efforts to regulate the legal Wild West of online “murderbillia” auctions.

The “right of publicity” forces us to ask some difficult questions. How does one decide who is a “celebrity,” and who is not, especially since the rise of reality TV? How does one evaluate similarity and difference in popular forms where so many people look more or less like one another, imitation is universal, and cultural producers freely share common tropes (what the law treats as scènes à faire, aesthetic materials so ubiquitous as to belong, effectively, to the public domain).

In a Hollywood regime that, since 1909, has operated under the aegis of “work-for-hire” and the legal fiction of “corporate authorship” (which means, in plain English, that cultural workers are presumed to be handing over all lasting property rights in the things they create unless otherwise specified) what kind of science fiction future lurks wherein corporations own the rights to our very personalities? Alternately, what would it mean if courts find the unique personas of celebrities to be descendible as a matter of inheritance law? There is something morbid about this, a haunting of the living by the dead. On a different register, what are the implications for First Amendment freedoms of a robust “right of publicity” regime? The law protects the “parodic” and the “newsworthy,” but these terms are hardly self-evident, and a legal challenge can take years and millions of dollars to resolve. What chilling effects take root in the meantime?

Reading The Bling Ring against the recent history of the evolution of the “right of publicity” allows us, I think, to read the film’s broader meanings as a guide to the wobbly surface of contemporary capitalism.

This is no arbitrary link. Several protagonists of the actual “bling ring” were reported to have sold their “life rights” to the producers of the film on the basis of Nancy Jo Sales’s 2010 Vanity Fair story—well before the legal business attending the alleged robberies had been settled. Because there is much confusion about the current state of “Son of Sam” laws that prohibit criminals from profiting by selling their stories, “publicity” or “life” rights are often commodified and monetized via the more innocuous-sounding mechanism of “consulting fees.”

While researching the film, Sofia Coppola and her producer, Youree Henley, reportedly met with Neiers and her mother, arriving finally at a sum of $100,000 for the “life rights” of the Neiers family.[6]

Complicating matters, Neiers was at the same time wrapping up filming on a reality show, Pretty Wild, for the E! Network (scenes from which also pop up in Coppola’s film), a show that soon began to seek viewers’ attention by foregrounding Neiers’ deepening legal troubles. Making the whole story more farcical, several of the adults involved in the legal and law enforcement aspects of the case also signed “right of publicity”-related agreements while they were still involved with the case. In fact, Sales implies strongly that Prugo’s defense was mishandled by a fame-seeking lawyers hoping to cash in, and observes that the state’s prosecution was severely hampered by LAPD detective Brett Goodkin’s attempts to leverage his involvement with the case (Goodkin plays himself in The Bling Ring and was paid $12,500 in advising fees while the case was still active).[7]

***

“For Rosalind Krauss, video was the medium of narcissism because video could not be about its own materiality or formalism, could not be reflection, but only reflexive. Digital then being the duller medium of composition. We are coded, we encode: we encode, we are coded. Thus, we compulsively return as zombies, to the possessive case, to an I for an I.[8] Vanessa Place, “Zombie Poetry,” 2013.

“The new narcissist is haunted not by guilt but by anxiety… Acquisitive in the sense that his cravings have no limits, he does not accumulate goods and provisions against the future… but demands immediate gratification and lives in a state of restless, perpetually unsatisfied desire.”[9]  Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism (New York: Norton, 1979).

***

The paradoxes of the “right of publicity”––and the The Bling Ring’s focus on its protagonists’ relentless self-documentation––suggest that it might be appropriate to conclude with the question of narcissism. 2013 will be remembered, after all––among other distinctions––as the year in which the category of “narcissism” was slated to be dropped from the psychotherapeutic bible, the DSM.[10]  (A hue and cry following the announcement of narcissism’s proposed termination led to its re-inclusion in the just-published DSM-V). But why were the DSM‘s compilers initially convinced that narcissism had become obsolete?

Perhaps narcissism is changing. Perhaps this is one message delivered to us by The Bling Ring. 

One source of humor in The Bling Ring is the spiritual investment of the Neiers clan in the New Thought/prosperity gospel narishkeit of The Secret: that hodgepodge of Mesmerism, Christian Science, Bruce Barton, and Eastern metaphysics that captured that media’s imagination at the crest of the housing bubble. It is hard to imagine a more classically narcissistic creed than that peddled by The Secret’s life coaches and hucksters.

It is not The Secret’s idiotic vision-boards and cheerful stupidity about the real conditions of social and political life, though, that confront the viewer as the most dangerous ideological mutation documented by The Bling Ring. It is the terrible atomism, the sense that a utopian project could even be erected around the mysteries and pleasures of solitary acquisition. Here, I need to be careful: I do not wish to slip into vulgar anti-consumer polemic that is the common coin of the Left. With James Livingston’s recent Against Thrift, I am much more interested in the potentials of a Marxist commitment to the pleasures of shopping, to the horizons of self-expression and self-display often found in commodity culture (not to mention that shopping for today is an eminently more socialist act than saving for tomorrow).

Nevertheless, we need to come to terms with the present state of narcissism: what Peter Sloterdijk calls the “new solipsism,” an adjustment of “homo alphabeticus,” accustomed to self-objectification in “ego-technological” forms like diary writing to a new regime of “interfaciality” (a moment in which we relate to ourselves, and to others, via the “close-up,” the exchange and intercourse of faces, the “self-care cycle,”).[11] Sloterdijk reminds us of Elias Canetti’s prediction of a society in which “every person is depicted, and prays before his own image.”

If this narcissism has become our universal condition, then the challenge for the Left is to think about how it might be mobilized towards collective ends, to hear James Brown’s “I wanna kiss myself” as a revolutionary slogan. Such a project is suggested by Adam Kotsko’s Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide To Late Capitalist Television (a text that could as easily be called Why We Love Narcissists). Kotsko, asking why we are so drawn to Don Draper, Tony Soprano, and Homer Simpson, proposes that our fascination is not driven by wish fulfillment or identification with the aggressor. TV sociopaths, Kotsko proposes, allow us to ask: “What if I really and truly did not give a fuck about anyone?”

By allowing us to work out, experimentally, the incommensurability of total devotion to self-actualization and commitments to “the inescapably social nature of human experience,” TV’s meditations upon extreme forms of individualism compel us to strengthen our vision of what a sociality worth fighting for might look like (beyond lamenting the friendless bowler or pining for the Victorian village green). What Kotsko is arguing, I think, runs directly parallel to the questions Coppola asks in The Bling Ring: What is the current arrangement of the way that we are collectively permitted to want things? Who decided that? What are the pleasures and what are the pathologies of this arrangement, and what would it mean to want different things in different ways? Why is it the young woman who is so often made the avatar of putatively dysfunctional wanting, and why do we seem to take so much pleasure in humiliating her? Most profoundly: why are we so anxious as we approach the things we want?

Or, as Johnny Paycheck once asked: why must the most luscious peach be always out of reach, and the one you can’t have, you desire?


[1] Quoted in Paul Saint Amour, The Copywrights: Intellectual Property and the Literary Imagination (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003).

[3]  “Forget Versailles: When Sofia Met Paris” Mickey Rapkin, Elle. June 13, 2013. http://www.elle.com/fashion/celebrity-style/paris-hilton-home-fashion#slide-1

[4] K.J. Greene, “Intellectual Property Expansion: The Good, The Bad, and The Right of Publicity” 538), Chapman Law Review, Vol. 11, No. 3, 2008, 538. Greene cites Alicia M. Hunt “Comment: Everyone Wants To Be A Star: Extensive Publicity Rights for Noncelebrities Unduly Restrict Commercial Speech,” Northwestern University Law Review, Summer 2001, 95 Nw. U.L. Rev. 1605.

[8] Vanessa Place, “Zombie Poetry.” http://academia.edu/2778743/Zombie_Poetry

[9] Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: Norton, 1979), xiv.

[11] Sloerdijk, 98.

 

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