Sofia Coppola: The Politics of Visual Pleasure is an assertive new book that reflects on dissecting the filmmaker’s work – and women’s stories at large
Anna Backman Rogers is sipping a cup of tea in bed with her cat on her lap when we speak on the phone. By all accounts, it’s a relatively peaceful place from which to reflect on the origins and central arguments of her critically significant new book, Sofia Coppola: The Politics of Visual Pleasure. But Rogers, recently returned to Sweden, where she’s now based as Senior Lecturer in Feminism and Visual Culture at the University of Gothenburg, is by no means parring back on her fervent defense of Coppola’s fierce intelligence as a storyteller, despite so many claims to the contrary.
The pervasive damage done by decades of male gaze-centric filmmaking and criticism, for Rogers, cannot be understated. It’s one of the driving forces behind her book – she even dedicated it, in part, to a fellow male scholar who wrote her proposal off as half-baked and inconsequential. “Coppola’s films are deconstructing the ways in which women are turned into surface, turned into image,” she says. “Which is precisely why her fascination with surface and superficiality is not superficial, in any sense of the word.”
Coppola’s attentiveness to the adolescent experience under patriarchy formed the basis of Rogers’ own scholarly interests when she was just a teenager in London herself, processing Coppola’s seminal film The Virgin Suicides. What others have written off as a collage of clichéd images subconsciously resonant of girlhood – an abundance of beauty products, pastel undergarments, glossy fashion magazine adverts – Rogers, instead, recognises it as proof of a subversive visuals master at work.
Here, we speak about what critics got wrong about the ‘pretty surfaces’ of cult classics like Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette, the double standards of contemporary auteurship, and why it’s high time to take women’s onscreen work seriously.
What did you see in Coppola’s approach to onscreen storytelling that struck you?
Anna Backman Rogers: The thing I came to understand from studying the images very closely is she’s somebody who’s extremely image-literate. The way in which she uses the image is very specific – what she references is always the recuperation of some kind of patriarchal language of the image, and she turns it around.
(Consider) the opening image of Lost in Translation. My first book cover was going to be the that, folded over onto the spine and back cover. And when the marketing department of Berghan saw that, I had this infuriating conversation along the lines of, ‘It’s objectifying, it’s sexist, and fetishistic’. I thought, ‘who are you to tell me, a feminist scholar who’s made a living of looking at these kinds of images and deconstructing them, what is a sexist image?’ Secondly, it might be helpful for you to know that this is a recuperation of a soft porn image by a photographer called John Kacere, so that’s already Coppola’s take on that image. The film’s title, Lost in Translation, appears over that image – you can’t read it in the ordinary context as a normal pejorative or clichéd meaning. It’s ‘lost in translation’. There was a whole host of really silly misunderstandings around the way in which the image is being used.
I’m writing a whole book about the politics of visual pleasure, and there’s this reactionary, conservative way of reading this image on the front of the book when, clearly, there are many ways to read it.
We want to believe we’ve reached a point where marketing teams assume the intelligence of a reader or viewer, but perhaps we’re not quite there.
Anna Backman Rogers: Most of my adult life has been spent studying these images. But maybe it’s not evident that, in the host of images she’s drawing on – soft pornography, Helmut Newton – she recuperates them in a feminist context. Actually, what she’s referencing are the images in which young women are steeped while growing up: fashion, advertising, makeup, beauty products, shampoo. But they’re also the kind of soft pornographic images that boys are always looking at. And you think, well maybe this is how I’m supposed to look. I think her references are so manifold and complex that, actually, the reading of her films as superficial, frilly, and frivolous are so entirely wrong. They’re the kind of films you have to return to, to have quite a deep and profound knowledge of image-making to understand.
Why do you think so many critics over the years have misconstrued Coppola’s interests as a filmmaker as centered purely on shallow, surface beauty?
Anna Backman Rogers: I think there’s a lazy assumption that, in order to be a clever filmmaker, you must have lengthy, witty dialogue. People are constantly meant to be sparring with clever sentences, things that people never come out with in everyday life. Coppola is a filmmaker who’s telling story with images, not with words. Sometimes the most important things that need to be articulated in a film, or what she’s getting at, are the unspoken things: the painful things that can’t be put into words. Loss is one of them, the transitions of adolescence to adulthood, and death.
I think she’s far above and beyond her peers in this way. She’s lumped in with Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, but she’s not this quirky, playful person… which isn’t to say her films aren’t darkly funny. I think she does possess a dark sense of humour, and that comes through imagery. What she’s investigating is the politics of the image and of the pretty.
“Her references are so manifold and complex that, actually, the reading of her films as superficial, frilly, and frivolous are entirely wrong”
What film shows this dynamic?
Anna Backman Rogers: The politics of Marie Antoinette have to be read through the costumes, through the fascination with the objects, because it’s about a woman being turned into an object that is traded among this hierarchical, patriarchal society, and this very strange world she’s thrown into. She’s a child, and completely unequipped to deal with these things. I think Coppola’s fascination with adolescence in transition moments obviously drew her to this story. But it was infuriating to see that all people could say about it was it was this frivolous, ridiculous, MTV/New Romantics-style music video that was modeled on Coppola’s own life. It was pathetic! Is that the best you can do as a critical reading? It deserved more.
That reading plays such a significant role in how her work’s been marketed and to whom. You touch on this in your introduction: the way in which the innately gendered packaging of her films has worked against Coppola’s credibility as a ‘feminist auteure’, as an auteur in general. For what feels like forever, that label has been associated with men.
Anna Backman Rogers: There’s this notion of ‘the Great Male Artist’ that’s so ingrained in literary and film authorship, painting, sculpture. These are the important ones. It’s often an aside: ‘Oh you might want to look at the work of Agnès Varda’, who was doing new wave filmmaking before Goddard and the rest of them. But she somehow gets written out, or is the token woman.
What’s even more intriguing to me, as poststructuralism took hold as a theoretical, fashionable way in universities, suddenly we no longer have this notion of the author, of agency. Possibly I’m being paranoid, but this is right around the time women start to have their own money, their own bank accounts, have some sense of agency over their lives, and now they’re not allowed to author their own texts.
Coppola is fully in control of her work as an artist and she’s doing phenomenal things: Let’s examine it in depth. It’s this idea that the woman could be the essential force, be in control, subsume authority over a host of men working for her, that seems to be something that’s suddenly controversial. I wanted to look at the ways women are authoring their own stories. They’re doing important work in terms of taking things that have traditionally been patriarchal and turning them around.
Where do you stand as far as the criticism Coppola’s received, particularly around The Beguiled, that says her storytelling leaves out or is disinterested in more diverse perspectives, specifically women of colour?
Anna Backman Rogers: I think it’s indicative of the fact that we need more female film directors. We also need more women behind the cameras, DPs, screenwriters, film critics, film scholars. The burden placed on women who do make it to the fore, who are suddenly expected to tell stories that speak to all women, all of the time, is an impossible task. I’ve noticed as well that people say, ‘Oh, this is an amazing story about a black woman. Ava DuVernay should make a film out of it’. Ava DuVernay is fantastic. But she can’t be expected to make every film under the sun. We need more black female filmmakers.
Concerning the controversy around The Beguiled, I wasn’t surprised. I think Coppola’s relationship to whiteness is much more nuanced and much more complicated than people have given room for, particularly people with a Twitter account. But the move was, perhaps, clumsy in this particular climate… I think, from her perspective, the voice of Matilda (Hallie in Don Siegel’s 1971 version) in The Beguiled was not a voice in which she was allowed to be an articulate woman. The position Siegel’s film puts her in is fetishitstic. And this was Coppola saying, ‘I don’t want to replicate these things which I see as damaging’. I can see how it was problematic. It was roundly criticised by black, intersectional scholars. That criticism is valid. But it’s indicative of the fact that, continually, women are expected to be able to speak on behalf of everyone, everywhere, all of the time, which is an act of sabotage. You wouldn’t be able to write anything if you thought of all the people you could possibly be offending or leaving out.
What’s the reception been like from your contemporaries in film academia? What sorts of conversations has the book started?
Anna Backman Rogers: I’m the kind of person at conferences where people come up and either go, ‘Oh I hate Sofia Coppola. I don’t care. I’m not interested’. But I’ve also had amazing conversations with other female scholars. With The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, it’s really disconcerting to confront something that you understand so viscerally and you can’t articulate it.
I think I was about 21 when Lost in Translation came out. I knew so many girls at university who said, ‘Charlotte infuriates me but I also completely understand where she is in her life. I am completely lost and drifting. And I seem to have this sense of purpose and ostensibly come from the right background, I’m middle class, and have all these opportunities. But I don’t know where to go. I have a vague but pervasive sense of depression’. I think it’s quite evident in the character of Charlotte that she’s going through a very deep crisis to do with her identity of being a woman in the world. Coppola’s made so many films that resonate with women who are now in their 30s and 40s who, with every single film, deeply connect with something about it.
What does it mean to take a woman’s work seriously? How might critics make this a more intentional part of their own work in the industry?
Anna Backman Rogers: Women are more than half the population on earth, so start attending to women’s stories. Start really paying attention. Start really reading. Stop dismissing. It’s the same thing that’s happened to women’s stories coming out around #MeToo. Stop scrabbling to salvage your own view of yourself within your power and privilege. I think, ultimately, that’s an ethical act of care.
Yes, we need more female film critics, but on the other hand, we also need male film critics being held to account for the ways in which they describe women’s work. I don’t tolerate it with the people I work with, I don’t tolerate it with other scholars, and I certainly won’t tolerate it with critics. There are a lot of women out there working in the field of visual culture and film who will not tolerate it anymore, either. So they really need to pull their socks up.
Anna Backman Rogers is currently preparing a monograph on Lynne Ramsay, Simone de Beauvoir, ethics, ambiguity and cinema (Berghahn 2021), editing (with Laura Nicholson) a special issue on the figure of the female detective in television drama (MAI 2020) and preparing a short monograph on Barbara Loden's film, WANDA (under review). Later this year, she plans to host a launch for her book on Sofia Coppola at The Second Shelf, Soho, London.