Thursday, April 24, 2014

CANON OF FILM: "LOST IN TRANSLATION"

LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003)

Director/Screenplay: Sofia Coppola



PERSON: Can you believe "Lost in Translation" got all that acclaim.
ME: Yeah, it should've won the Oscar.
PERSON: What, you liked it?
ME: Of course, best film of the year!
PERSON: It was boring. I kept waiting for Bill Murray to get with the girl-
ME: You missed the movie.

That's a version of a conversation I've had numerous times on "Lost in Translation". I've never written about the film until now, and yet, it's probably the film I go to more than any other from the last decade, and have watched and re-watched the most. That was a common reaction people had to the film at the time, there were even reported fistfights in video stores over the film, with some thinking the film's enjoyment depends in a large part on whether one saw it on a big screen, or at home on TV. Those are the literal facts of the reaction, and yet they seem, and they are completely the wrong approach to take when discussing the film.

The right approach, is to discuss the more emotional side of the movie. This presents another problem, because it isn't the typical emotions of cinema that we're aware of. Instead of love or lost, or desire, it's those, not-so-dramatic emotions, the banal ones. Those generic emotions that we feel day-to-day, alone, privately; the kind that we have when there's no one around to discuss them with, or who can understand. Like being strangers in a strange land, especially one where you don't even speak the language we are alone most of the time with nothing but our own thoughts. That's the situation for our two leads. Bob Harris is one of Bill Murray's greatest creations. Forget about what would've happened if this role fell into the wrong hands, 'cause there are no other hands this role could've come from. He's an aging movie star who earning a quick $2million dollars going overseas to Japan to shoot a commercial for a popular brand of whiskey, and he hates himself for it. (A practice that's actually quite common for Hollywood actors.) "The good news is the whiskey works," he barely quips at one point to Charlotte (Scarlet Johansson), at the hotel bar late one night. She's along for the ride with her husband, John (Giovanni Ribisi) who's a music photographer, shooting a band on location. She's not necessarily in the way, as much as she's not really needed, and spends most of her spare time in her hotel room. She's just graduated from Harvard with a philosophy degree, and still searching for herself and identity, and similar to a later role Johansson played in Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona", she mostly only confident in knowing what she doesn't want, at least in regards to her husband's career and life. Maybe part of why she went on the trip was to begin searching for herself somewhere else; she's clearly not intrigued by the young waif actress, Kelly (Anna Faris), which represents the other side of fame, that they run into at the hotel, and surprisingly, neither much is John. He's not interested in cheating on Charlotte with her, but not in the same way Bob isn't much interested in cheating on his wife with Charlotte. As a performer, while Kelly might be on, Bob is off. He can be funny, and occasionally is, but he's not interested in being the center of attention. Even the film's most famous comedic scene, the commercial shoot, where a raving Japanese director seems to be giving a lot more direction than the translator gives to Bob. Bob is caught in the center of a funny situation, and is only trying to get make sure he's giving what the director wants.

I think what might confuse audiences is that, the film, strangely, feels like it's going towards something, and at times, a frantic pace. Not emotionally in the characters, but they continue to spend time with each other, hang out, have new experiences, meet up at restaurants and places, or stay in and watch "La Dolce Vita" on TV. Because of past films, we expect these experiences to lead towards a revelation, usually that the two characters are in love, or meant to be together. Yet, sometimes people do all these things with people without sexual expectations, don't they? They would, and they do, and yet, because it's a movie.... That's the real brilliance of the film, in how it quietly transcends those expectations, and then evaporates them completely, as the film won't let itself get caught up in the structure of the plot, and instead, it quietly carves it's own path. Moving slowly and cautiously observing at certain times, while stopping for a small hint of human comedy another. Bob and Charlotte are two people emotionally at the same point and place in time, and emotional feelings and genital emotions have little to do with each other. Sex is of course a possibility, but it is in most instances. Besides, it's a lot easier to find sex, than an actual human connection. When sex does become involved, it takes very little for them to get over it, 'cause there wasn't anything to get over. They don't expressly say what connection the two are to each other, at least not out loud to us. Much is made and rumored of the final whispered line of dialogue that Director Sofia Coppola, didn't write. Whatever it is he said, it's between them, and that's fine with me. Two reserved people who form a makeshift friendship, should have secrets between them.

What is their connection? Two lost souls, strangers in a strange land is good enough for me. One's made decisions and knows what he's gonna do next, and this is a stop in his life. The other has a whole life ahead of her and she has no idea what to do with it yet. "You are at once, both the quiet and confusion of the heart." to quote Franz Kafka. Both Bob and Charlotte epitomize that feeling, and they empathize with each other and the film is a dive into those emotions and feeling in a way no other film has done before. Maybe no other film could. Sofia Coppola won a Screenwriting Oscar for the film, and became the first American woman to get a Best Director nomination. Sonme critics note the father/daughter subtext, and in some ways that she's literally been in the shadow of celebrity and fame her whole, since as a baby, she played the newly-baptized and born Mary Corleone in "The Godfather". Fame is her common motif through all her films and she seems to have been studying it anthropologically all her life, and while her other films are great themselves, this one stands out. Perhaps, there's a lot of her in Charlotte, and the two sides of fame and as she observes it from Bob and her husband's point of view, she's contemplating where she might fit in. Of course, the great thing about "Lost in Translation" is that at the end, it allows for all of us to pontificate on its meanings more, and see things in the characters that we relate to. That doesn't mean that their broad blank canvases, they aren't, in fact quite the opposite, it means that they're deep enough that we can sympathize with them just the same. The same way the aging star, and the young wife can sympathize with each other, even if it's just for a brief time in a foreign country.

Hmm. "...The quiet and the confusion of the heart."- I wonder if that's what he told her?
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