The NY Times sniffs at Sofia Coppola

16 December 2010

The Sunday New York Times Arts section is typically full of generous articles about movies designed for those of us who love film — but not so Dennis Lim’s article this week about Sofia Coppola.  Let’s see if we can sense … oh, let’s call it the slight whiff of patronizingly sexist disdain here in his first paragraph:

AT 39 and with four features to her name, Sofia Coppola finds herself caught in something of a double bind — the predicament of the auteur whose constancy risks being seen as predictability, or worse.  Her admirers detect in her work a good eye, impeccable taste, an exactitude with indistinct moods and feelings.  Her detractors claim that her frame of reference is narrow, that she makes the same film over and over again.

Lim continues in the next paragraph:

By her own admission Ms. Coppola’s first three movies — “The Virgin Suicides” (2000), “Lost in Translation” (2003) and “Marie Antoinette” (2006) — constitute a trilogy about young women on the awkward verge of self-definition.  As her critics see it, the problem is not just repetition but a kind of solipsism.

As much as I love his side-stepping use of these unnamed “critics” and “detractors,” let’s set aside the patronizing air for the moment to ask whether he has seen anything other than Marie Antoinette.  (And I hasten to add that I really liked that film, though I know some didn’t.)  How, Mr. Lim, can anyone characterize her first two films as about “young women on the verge” when The Virgin Suicides is at least as much about boys who look at and admire a group of unknowable sisters, and Lost in Translation is about a relationship between a shlubby, aging actor and a woman less than half his age?  Deep into the article Lim recounts Kirsten Dunst’s exasperated response to this charge at Cannes several years ago:  “Observing that ‘mopey-man movies’ often get a free pass, Ms. Dunst suggested that there is less tolerance for feminine introspection.”  That’s the very least one can say about movie-makers’ tolerance for male solipsism.

Most of all, Lim casts a skeptical eye on the fact that Coppola is the “supremely well-connected daughter of Francis Ford Coppola” and that this has dictated her interest in filming what he calls “the luxe life.”  (Again, have you seen the decidedly middle-class The Virgin Suicides?)  No one doubts that her family ties have helped her, but they didn’t bring her the multiple awards she’s received, including a Golden Globe (for Lost in Translation) and the Golden Lion (for her current film Somewhere).  And I ask you, Mr. Lim, have you ever described Jeff Bridges, Michael Douglas, Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland, Jaden Smith, director Jason Reitman, or even Coppola’s cousins Jason and Robert Schwartzman as the “supremely well-connected son of …”? 

Turning to Lim’s sexist and patronizing dismissals, let’s tick through some of his charges:

  • Her work is predictable
  • Her work is somehow about herself
  • Her work is solipsistic
  • She got where she is due to nepotism
  • Her films only portray the cloistered elite, because that’s all she knows
  • She is well known to love fashion, “which seems to have contributed to a perception that there is something frivolous about her films” (we here at Feminéma LOVE the use of the passive voice!)
  • She has responded to past criticism by turning her film Somewhere into a minimalistic film about a male perspective
  • Her films are “delicate”
  • Coppola displays a “lack of awareness” about her films as a group, a lack of awareness Lim calls either “blissful or protective” (hang on, she’s both solipsistic and blissfully unaware?)

Great job, Dennis Lim!  Let’s hope that your own supremely well-connected work with The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Moving Image Source, the Museum of the Moving Image, The Village Voice, The Village Voice Film Guide, the National Society of Film Critics, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the 2010 Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, and many film festivals including New York, San Sebastian, Vancouver, Tribeca, and South by Southwest Film Festivals — to name only a few I found online — permits you to continue to offer such useful assessments of one of the very few top-shelf female directors in the world.  The New York Times does it again!

8 Responses to “The NY Times sniffs at Sofia Coppola”

  1. […] reading here: The NY Times sniffs at Sofia Coppola « Feminéma […]

  2. servetus Says:

    Wow. He’s criticizing her because her work is excellent? This proves what I’ve always thought about women’s work — men will only praise it if they can find a flaw in it. If it’s really strong, it must suck.

    [OK, another radical statement. I must have had too much to drink last night.]

    It’s beyond me how you can say Lost in Translation is not about the Bill Murray character’s mid-life crisis. For crying out loud.

  3. Rob Says:

    I quite like Sofia Coppola’s work (although I can’t say that I loved Marie Antoinette), but two things struck me: (1) almost all of these same comments were regularly made about Antonioni (solipsistic, same film again and again, loved fashion, films about a cloistered elite), but were mostly considered positive qualities. Same film again and again = auteur, no? and (2) that her love of fashion “seems to have contributed to a perception that there is something frivolous about her films” is not the passive voice. It’s a past infinitive. her love of fashion seems to contribute, her love of fashion seems to have contributed. It is, however, an “agency-free” construction that passes the buck. Beautiful looking blog, by the way, which I got to when I found the “Little Dorrit” post.

    • didion Says:

      Wow, thanks so much for an even better comeback to these charges against Coppola, Rob. And you’re right — I’m using the term passive voice sloppily here to refer to Lim’s lack of attribution of that criticism (you understand, I just finished grading a whole lotta badly-written research papers). Most of all I appreciate the kind words!

  4. adam Says:

    I think you missed the point of the article, conflating the other critical voices that Lim references with his own.

    And to suggest that Coppola did NOT get to where she is through at least some nepotism is silly.

    • didion Says:

      On your first point, Adam, I respectfully disagree. To be sure, Lim is never overtly aggressive in his own criticism, but neither does he offer much in the way of description of why Coppola’s work has been so admired by critics and awards committees; in general he offers a more passively critical analysis by means of staying focused on problems with her work. Read the article again. I certainly give him every right to be critical (I love being critical, after all) — I simply felt that 1) he’d described her films in erroneous and simplistic ways to suit his criticism; 2) he’d gestured at the idea of being even-handed but wasn’t; and 3) this kind of sniping is unusual in the Sunday Times.

      And on the second point, of course I would agree nepotism played a role in her career! In fact I say explicitly above “No one doubts that her family ties have helped her, but they didn’t bring her the multiple awards she’s received, including a Golden Globe (for Lost in Translation) and the Golden Lion (for her current film Somewhere).” My larger point is that nepotism doesn’t explain why her films have been so celebrated. Would anyone have said Jean Renoir’s success as a director resulted from his being the son of the celebrated Impressionist painter? Nepotism helps these people get their foot in the door; it doesn’t negate these individuals’ later critical successes.

  5. […] like, Why should I care about some rich actor’s ennui? I’ve written before about the suspiciously sweeping criticism leveled at Coppola: for example, although he attributes these complaints to unnamed “critics,” Dennis Lim […]

  6. […] a new film, I’m (unusually) reluctant to offer criticism. I’ve written before about the oddly harsh critical question marks thrown at Coppola, criticisms that seem to waive her track record and accuse her of focusing too exclusively on […]

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