There is a tendency in art house cinema towards the pseudo-intellectual. It is a tendency not merely to tolerate witless navel-gazing, but to actively celebrate it. To elevate its whiny introspection above all other forms of human activity. To revel in its portentous self-indulgence. To confuse its bourgeois posturing with grand tragedy and genuine insight. This tendency is best summed up by the films of Sophia Coppola.
Coppola’s best known film remains the Oscar-winning Lost in Translation (2003). Lost in Translation is a sordid tale of two wealthy Americans coming together in a foreign land and forging a bond of some kind out of their shared alienation despite the differences in age and life-experience. It is not really a film about love. Nor is it a film about cross-cultural alienation. In fact, it is not really a film about very much at all but it does have lots and lots of footage of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson looking vaguely depressed in the middle distance. Coppola’s skill as a director lies not in her understanding of the human condition, but rather her mastery of techniques used in art house cinema to create an aura of depth and thoughtfulness regardless of whether any actual ideas or insights are present in the text of the film itself. Indeed, it is telling that two of Coppola’s other films deal with the emotional lives of people who are effectively children. In the case of Marie Antoinette (2006) we have a film ostensibly about the ennui and alienation felt by a child-like Queen of France and in The Virgin Suicides (1999) we have a film that purports to be about the ennui and alienation felt by actual children.
Behind much of modern American independent cinema is the adult equivalent of a temper tantrum. Grown-ups who throw themselves on the ground and roll around screaming because they do not know what to do with themselves. They do not like their jobs. They do not like their families. They do not like their towns. They do not like their children. But they do enjoy staring wistfully into the middle distance while some pleasingly arcane piece of rock or pop plays over the soundtrack.
In a way, it is surprising that it has taken until 2009 for American film makers to realise the degree of similarity between the existential dramas favoured by certain strains of art house cinema and the simple coming-of-age tales favoured by much of children’s fiction. Wes Anderson – one of the acknowledged kings of middle-brow malaise – capitalised on these similarities by transforming Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (1960) into a tale of mid-life crisis and existential alienation. Spike Jonze continues this trend with Where The Wild Things Are, his adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s children’s book of the same name.