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'The Bling Ring' and the new American Dream

Los Angeles Film FestivalSelena Gomez

Forget "World War Z." The true zombie movie this summer is "The Bling Ring."

Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, the film has the quality of a vacant stare, reflecting back a disturbing, unsettling blankness. The story is based on the real-life group of L.A youths who burglarized the homes of celebrities they ostensibly admired — an iconographic coterie that included Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton. Seeming to lack a conscience or sense of consequence, the gang grabbed tabloid infamy as a jaundiced apex of contemporary consumer/reality culture.

Over time, Coppola has become less interested in conventionally plot-driven storytelling and more concerned strictly with vibe and mood. So for all her typical emotional diffusion and passive, distanced style, coming from Coppola, "The Bling Ring" is a downright angry film, one rife with confusion, a vague disdain and a deep-rooted psychological unease.

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Her film, along with recent releases "Spring Breakers" and "Pain & Gain," is told with candy-coated aesthetics and an eye for the fabulous and sensational that creates a disorienting, disarming pop-art framework for the serious, disturbing ideas within. Hanging like an umbrella over these modern stories is Baz Luhrmann's maximalist interpretation of the 1925 novel "The Great Gatsby," a reminder that these issues of aspiration and collapse are sadly not new but part of an ongoing trajectory in American life.

These films examine the desire for more and find it a sign of spiritual malaise. Trying to fill the void with stuff just makes the hole bigger. The films also play with pleasure, the line at which the drive for endless fun spins out into a reckless desperation. Throughout Harmony Korine's "Spring Breakers," in which a group of college girls touches the dark side with a Florida holiday fueled and funded by a crime spree, the phrase "spring break forever" is heard over and over. Within the film's twisting, looping structure, what starts at first as a party-hard exhortation mutates into a no-escape threat of amplifying dread.

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These films also exist in a complicated matrix of fact and fiction, a sort-of/maybe netherworld where former "Harry Potter" star Emma Watson in "Bling Ring" and transition-age starlets Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson in "Spring Breakers" invert their wholesome professional personas by doing drugs and committing crimes on-screen. It's no surprise that these films, with their wish-fulfillment of acting badly, alongside their text-message concise dialogue and outrageous imagery, have such life on social media, all eminently .gif-able.

Hilton's actual house, the one with the nightclub room and pillows embossed with her face, plays itself in "The Bling Ring." In a further confluence of reality-based fiction and unflappable self-promotion, Hilton has been supporting the movie. She appeared at the Cannes Film Festival and the movie's Los Angeles premiere, even though she might easily be cast as one of the film's spiritual villains, emblematic of everything wrong with those kids and our culture. The film's tenor of deadpan satire rings painfully true even as Hilton remains beyond parody.

When Hilton herself appears for a cameo, the kids take notice of her in a club and decide to take a picture. Of themselves. She only matters, becomes real, for her proximity to them. The characters in the film talk of going by actress Rachel Bilson's house as if they actually know her, have dropped in to see a friend and not as if they have just committed a larcenous home invasion.

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A shot in the film of the gang darting across a hilltop, captured in dark silhouette against the glittering lights of Hollywood below, is at once playful and sinister. (Along with the eerie beauty of a robbery captured in a single, slow creeping zoom from across a canyon.) What if the latent hostility and violence that lurk underneath their crimes — I will obtain your stuff, own a piece of you and ultimately consume you — took a darker turn? It would take a shift of intention only a few degrees to retool their marauding band into a modern-day Manson family.

In another true-crime tale, "Pain & Gain," based on the kidnapping of a Florida businessman, a key line comes when Mark Wahlberg's character declares to his victim that it is not simply that he wants what the other guy has, he also wants that man not to have it. This idea that there must be have-nots alongside the haves may be an essential shift in American thinking. Instead of limitless expanse and prosperity for all, the pie is now finite. This conquering impulse is also at play in the recent film "At Any Price," in which Middle American farmers live by the mantra "expand or die."

That film perhaps missed with audiences because its farmland setting was in fact too traditional, lacking the snap and sex appeal of modern pop culture. Last year's "Killing Them Softly" likewise dealt with the same dispiriting realities of contemporary life as this current cycle of films but was just a bit ahead of the curve. That film's relentless central theme is that the federal government and local hoods differ only in a matter of scale. Its story of the aftermath of a robbery gone wrong builds to a climactic scene in which Brad Pitt's mobster middle manager declares, "In America, you're on your own," and a profane punch line in which he demands to get paid.

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For the work of Coppola and Korine to intersect seems logical, as they are close in age and both emerged from the same cross-pollinated world of film, fashion, art and music and have been key chroniclers of youth culture. A more surprising participant in this suite is the aggressively un-hip director of outsized entertainments such as the "Transformers" franchise.

If Michael Bay's idea of a small personal film still stars Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson and can't manage the intellectualized detachment of Coppola and Korine, the lumbering directness of "Pain & Gain" also makes the movie the least-mediated and arguably the most brutally honest of this bunch. Bay's film constructs a world in which almost no one behaves decently, as loutish dim-witted crooks go after brutish self-centered victims. "Pain & Gain" is an ugly and unpleasant movie about ugly and unpleasant people, made by someone not known for subtlety or nuance.

We are now in a world far beyond that imagined by Jay Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan and Nick Carraway, their Jazz Age vitality long since tamped into an old-world gentility, Luhrmann's best efforts notwithstanding. In "Spring Breakers," "Pain & Gain" and now "The Bling Ring," we are being confronted by the brutal shock of an emergent new value system, existing within the distinctly American tradition of self-invention.

"The Bling Ring" is periodically broken up by a whir of imagery of faces, parties, shoes, bags, stuff, reducing people to their clickability. All these films are grappling not only with the celebrity-industrial hall of mirrors of fame begetting fame and notoriety being a modern currency all its own but also importantly with how our base line of personal interaction is changing, leading to a world that feels less personal, less polite and less human.

If we are each the star in the movie of our own life, a condition amplified by the endless documentation of Twitter/Vine/Facebook/Snapchat/Instagram/YouTube, there may now be less room than ever for supporting players.

mark.olsen@latimes.com

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