Notes on the Atrocities Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...
Thursday, February 26, 2004
Lost in Translation is another movie I've considered for the coveted Grand Jeffy. Will it beat American Splendor? What's the rest of the competition? Ah, these answers and more as Movie Week continues.
Lost in Translation Directed by Sofia Coppola
After the credits run, the opening shots of the film show a chaotic downtown Tokyo from the window of a car. The images and sounds all come at the viewer in a wall--an unfiltered field of sound and light. Moments later, Bill Murray gets out of his car and is greeted by a vast number of Japanese handlers--he's a movie star there to shoot a Suntory Whiskey ad. Now things seem too close, too invasive, but at the same time too sterile after the swarm of the streets. Welcome to Lost in Translation, a movie that somehow evokes the dislocation of jet lag and culture shock.
The dislocation continues until the final two or three scenes of the movie. Coppola manages it by alternating between long shots that present scenes as incomprehensible jumbles and close ups that make you want to draw further back. If you've traveled half-way around the world, you'll recognize this feeling--it's the sense that if you could just focus your eyes properly, you could comprehend what they behold.
Into this context we are introduced to the two central characters, Bill Murray's Bob Harris, a fading movie star, and Scarlett Johansson's Charlotte, a recent college grad in her early 20s. They are privately suffering their own dislocation. Hers is typical of smart kids who have spent 15 years mastering an environment that no longer exists. His is typical of anyone who's spent 25 years living in the world she's just entered. One is scared of the future, the other that there is only past.
At its heart, the film is a romance, though the characters remain chaste throughout. It is the chastity that makes the film so delicious--where almost every other movie since 1975 would have thrown the two in bed by the end of act one, the social circumstance of their age keep them apart. So throughout the movie, they rest in that moment of possibility, when anything is possible.
Although the attraction is partly about age--Charlotte gives Bob vitality, Bob gives Charlotte confidence--there's a deeper attraction of two kindred spirits. This is where the movie shifts focus; although both characters feel desolation after their first encounters with Japan, this forms a point of connection they share throughout the film. In interactions with an American movie star and lounge singer, and with Charlotte's photographer husband, we see that these are two characters somewhat isolated from their own culture as well.
The film concludes where it began, with Bob in a car, headed back to the airport. This time, though, it's daylight. As the camera watches Tokyo pass by, the images seem composed, comprehensible. Buildings that were overwhelming in the first scene now look merely interesting. Feeling what Bob has just experienced (you'll have to see the movie for that), the buildings look now like old friends. Coppola completes the experience: having strained and suffered to make sense of a country, we suddenly see our own lives on the horizion and look back on this strange, scary landscape with nostalgia.