In the opening shot of Sofia Coppola’s most recent movie, Somewhere, the camera sits in a single position revealing about a third of a race track in the California desert. A car enters the frame, circles around, disappears. The sound of the engine, off screen, diminishes, grows louder, the car reappears, circles, retreats. The sound of the engine diminishes, grows louder, the car reappears, circles, retreats. Over and over. You try to convince yourself that this is interesting. You’ve just paid $8.00 and dedicated two hours of your life. But really, it is boring. Almost annoying. Finally, just as you are considering leaving, the car stops. Stephen Dorff steps out and stands in front of the car. That’s all.
What transpires over the next eighty minutes is more or less more of the same. Long camera shots on routine, often tedious activities. Stephen Dorff plays Johnny Marco, a somewhat known B-actor living in the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, floating through that period of ennui after a film is complete and before its release. Apparently he is a big star in Italy but not much thought of here in the US. He is bored by the twin pole dancers he hires to entertain him in his room. Or maybe they are doing it for free, because others seem more taken by Johnny Marco than he is by himself, or than the audience is for that matter. We sit and squirm in our seats, wondering when something is going to happen, not yet comprehending that this is all there is going to be, and it is really quite a lot. Stephen Dorff is great to look at, a master of being the beautiful man who pretends not to know it, so accustomed to the world falling to his feet, he barely notices.
A young teenage daughter, Elle Fanning, drops in for a cursory parental visit. She leaves. The disembodied voice of an estranged wife announces over the phone that she is going away for some time. No notice, no explanation. The young girl is back. This time for longer. Johnny has to keep her until summer camp begins. Perhaps it is two weeks away, perhaps more. Time passes in hiccups. Father and daughter coexist. Hard to say who is more mature. My money is on the daughter. The awkwardness of too much contact, more than either would have garnered from the custody agreement, gives way to a few laughs. She cramps his style. He doesn’t score as often as he could; she disapproves, with an important stare, of the woman she finds at the breakfast table one morning. They don’t talk much; there isn’t much to say. They swim, play paddle tennis, drive around a lot. The car is really loud. Their emotional range is stuck as a broken gas gauge. They appear to register half full, but they are approaching empty.
Finally, on the drive to camp, the daughter cracks a bit. Her mother hasn’t told her when she’ll return. What will happen after camp? Ongoing life with father doesn’t seem a likely option for either of them. She climbs on the camp bus; they shout towards each other over the competing engines. Words of support, or regret, or love. We never know. They can’t hear each other, we can’t hear them.
Back in his room, in the seedy, aching debauchery of Chateau Marmont, everything is the same, except only now we understand what is missing. The daughter may have been only a minor blip up in life, but she was the only blip. All is flat again, and after the uptick, the flatness is more oppressive.
There is only one false scene in Somewhere. The most dramatic scene. Johnny on the phone, apparently with some former triumph, imploring her to revisit, crying out that he is nothing. At this point, it is stuff we already know.
Johnny checks out of the Chateau Marmont. He gets in his car and drives straight. Along the freeway, along a secondary highway. Along a rural road. Until he stops his car, gets out and walks. Straight. We don’t know where he is going, probably neither does he, but at least he is not going in circles.
After the movie ended I sat in silence. I felt like Johnny Marco (except for the being beautiful part). I am a middle-aged single man, an empty nester, my two children off to college. I pride myself on letting them go, letting them find their own way, giving them enough rope to get into trouble if need be, but never so much they forget they’ve got me for backup when they need it. But I miss them ferociously, gutturally, with an emptiness that is tangible, sometimes urgent. It gnaws me in odd moments, like the one watching Stephen Dorff walk towards / away from his destination. Once you have experienced the total immersion of being with, living with, molding and being molded by, your own flesh and blood, your own children, what’s left in life is just a long game trying to retrieve that vitality. After being a true parent, however poorly, Johnny Marco could not retreat to the craven familiarity of the Chateau Marmont. Now that my children are gone, I ask myself, over and over, what will I do now? How will I fill the space they have left in me? Can I fill the void with any degree of grace or meaning?