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Hit and Myth: The Bling Ring and Free Samples

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Two new films comment on issues of youth, identity and a mythological Los Angeles, where hopes and dreams are sorted, destroyed, or sometimes ironically realized by those who are infamous, photogenic, and troubled.

The Bling Ring, written and directed by Sofia Coppola, is based on a true story about a group of high school students in the San Fernando Valley who repeatedly rob celebrity homes, taking jewelry, clothes, cash, personal photos, and artwork--a plunder with a final worth of over three million dollars. The film was inspired by Nancy Jo Sales' 2010 Vanity Fair article "The Suspects Wore Louboutins." The ensemble cast includes Katie Chang, Israel Broussard, Emma Watson, Claire Julien, and Taissa Farmiga as the teenaged thieves.

Coppola doesn't delve deeply into motivations, other than the gang seeks to emulate celebrity style -- just because. Much of the film inhabits the ritual aspects of the robberies and a primal desire to attain what celebrities own. In that sense, it centers on hero worship and mythology. The celebrities are seen by the teens as gods and goddesses; the gang covets celebrity status purely for "the lifestyle," a term that reflects a need to steal both "style" and personal story. The "Burglar Bunch" attains social status with their peers by taking celebrity stuff. They brag about it at parties. They post pictures of themselves holding the reality stars' loot on Facebook. They take "selfies" on cell phones while posed in the beds of celebs, while wearing haute couture and bling. Those who were burgled include Paris Hilton, Audrina Partridge, Orlando Bloom and Miranda Kerr, Brian Austin Green and Megan Fox, Rachel Bilson, and Lindsay Lohan.

The strongest scenes are the ones in which we see the closets of celebrities as glittering hidden treasure rooms -- and the pirate-like teens who grab the plunder. In mythology, treasure is often discovered at the end of ordeals or tasks, or a completion of a quest. These teens have no quest, and so the acquisition of treasure bears no meaning for them. They only want more. In myth, treasure, a symbol for inner life, is usually guarded by terrifying monsters. In The Bling Ring, mere security cameras guard the stars' homes. The monsters seem to be the teens, as the ending depicts some of the gang without remorse or real transformation; one member tries to launch a reality show career based on her newfound Bling Ring notoriety.

Another recent film set in Los Angeles is Free Samples, written by Jim Beggarly and directed by Jay Gammill. It features a spirited 20-something female protagonist, law school dropout Jillian, played by Jess Weixler. The plot involves the floundering Jillian subbing for her "one friend" Nancy (Hally Feiffer) as an ice cream truck worker. Hungover, Jillian fulfills her promise to work at the truck window. She encounters many Angelenos who come for the advertised chocolate or vanilla "Free Samples - Today Only."

The name of the ice cream company is "Mike's Dream." We never learn who Mike is, but the filmmakers seem to comment on dreams, personal and collective, through each encounter Jillian has. For awhile, it's as if working alone in the hot truck has given Jillian oracular powers; she's dispensing fortunes, with forthright candor. Nancy's brother (Jordan Davis) pops up, but Jillian manages to divulge that the rest of his family is gathered at his apartment for his intervention. She tells Wally (Jason Ritter) that his band is not good. Tex/Albert (Jesse Eisenberg) drops by to ask Jillian out to dinner, and recounts a secret story that he's never told anyone before: that he experienced a soul exchange. Eventually, Betty (Tippi Hedren), an aging actress whose nickname was "The Beauty" in her heyday, stops in for a sample. "The Beauty" seems to be related to the Aphrodite archetype. Betty likes the ice cream truck because it reminds her of when she was thirteen. Betty reminisces about her showbiz past, and especially her romances. As she sits with Betty, Jillian can see a future -- of possibly ending up alone.

Twice in the film, Jillian thinks she sees someone she knew at Stanford Law, a woman named Paula. But it's fleeting; she's not sure. Somewhere, Jillian has a boyfriend named Danny but there's an estrangement. It's his birthday. She feels she should call him. But she doesn't.

The ice cream truck, in its temporary location in a vacant lot, represents Jillian's liminal status; she's in between places professionally and personally. A recurring motif is broken communication; Jillian's cell is not working and the one pay phone she finds on the street is out of order. The ice cream truck's colors are blue and white -- sky colors mixed with clouds, a nod to the celestial. Even the swirling ice cream Jillian serves could be seen as cloud-related.

In the third act, many threads come together, and in unrealistic ways -- further expression of the dreamy quality in the film. Eventually, the elusive Paula (Jocelin Donahue) walks up to the truck window to order a free sample. Jillian explains why she quit law school ("I'm a little lost"), and that L.A. is the perfect place to be untethered, to float among the stars. Jillian doesn't know what she wants to be; she's tried music, painting...

But then Danny (Keir O'Donnell), the estranged boyfriend, shows up, on his way to Hawaii, with a story that breaks Jillian's heart. She seeks solace from Betty, who's nearby in Apartment 2B, after Danny leaves. Betty now serves as the "wise woman," on hand to shepherd Jillian through the pitfalls of heartbreak, to let Jillian know that you can come out on the other side.

Both movies consider the setting of Los Angeles as a place where dreaming and identity are interwoven. In The Bling Ring, teens dream of the celebrity lifestyle, and attempt to steal it. In Free Samples, old dreams dissolve, but new ones swirl into formation with a promise of a fresh future, one day in an ice cream truck. Together, the films offer a chance to consider the differences between "stolen" dreams and "free" ones.