' Cinema Romantico: My Great Movies: Lost in Translation

Thursday, October 30, 2008

My Great Movies: Lost in Translation

The moment we first see faded American movie star Bob Harris (Bill Murray) he has just arrived in Tokyo to shoot an ad for a Japanese whiskey and is asleep in the backseat of a cab as it cruises the illuminated downtown streets of the country's capital. He wakes, examining his surroundings, and something in particular catches his eye. It is a billboard of himself, another ad for the same liquor. He rubs his eyes and looks again, as if to ensure it is real. These shots are not merely a gag. Here's a person dropped into a place where he doesn't know the language, doesn't know anyone, and all he can think is, "That's who I am? Why am I him? Why am I here? Why is that my life?"

We are introduced to our other main character Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) as she perches beside a window looking out over the sprawling Tokyo metropolis. Her husband (Giovanni Ribisi) sleeps in bed, snoring. She lays down beside him and gets him to wake up so he can put his arm around her. He falls right back asleep. The snoring resumes. She removes his arm. She sits back up. She doesn't seem to know what she wants, either.

What writer/director Sofia Coppola's film does know with complete clarity, however, is the term mid-life crisis really needs to be retired. You can be middle-aged or fresh out of college. You can be in your twenties, your thirties, your forties, your fifties, doesn't matter, and still feel confusion. It's why "Lost in Translation" isn't about a May-December romance. It's about two people of differing ages who happen to be in the same place - figuratively and literally.

Bob's wife back at home (who we only hear over the phone) sounds distracted and distant. She and Bob seem stuck in a holding pattern, a place where I imagine many unions wind up at a certain point, a marriage driven by carpet samples. The situation isn't bad but perhaps they are no longer bettering one another. Bob knows he should be doing a play rather than his advertisement, and advises his wife when he returns home he wants to start eating more healthy even though the way he says it rings of empty promise.

Charlotte's spouse is a slighty clueless but energetic photographer on location for some type of shoot. They have been married for two years and he appears to have an affection for his wife, though he refrains from showing it as often as one would hope. Notice the shot where she strolls by him in her underwear and he doesn't even look.

Bob and Charlotte Meet in the hotel bar though I would hesitate to term it Cute. They are weary and unable to sleep. She knows who he is but doesn't explicitly reference it. They make chit-chat and maybe it becomes a little more. They sense the similarities. "Funny, how your spouse doesn't understand the bittersweet transience of life as well as a stranger encountered in a hotel bar. Especially if drinking is involved," wrote the esteemed Roger Ebert (he gave it four stars).

Charlotte's husband goes away for a few days. She stays behind. Together she and Bob traverse the city, finding themselves in posh clubs, a karaoke room, a sushi restaurant where you (ugh) cook your own food, all leading up the film's pivotal sequence, set between the two characters late at night as they lay on a bed and talk. It's astonishing how the finest of film sequences make it seem as if time is standing still. The world suddenly exists only to show you the scene. Your mind and body shut down and when it's over you can't quite remember if you were even breathing as it unfolded. Revealing too many specifics of this one in particular would work to ruin it but one key element is that given its setting it easily could have gone in an obvious direction. It doesn't, and because it doesn't it becomes something monumental. Here are two people unified against against the threat of the one subject which no American filmmaker seems to chronicle more often and more expertly - isolation. Coppoloa explored it in her first film "The Virgin Suicides" and in her more recent "Marie Antoinette" and in this one. (Have any shots ever summed up the feeling of being alone in a giant city better than those of Johansson in the window?)

Is Coppola speaking from personal experience? The family she was born into could clearly set a person up for feeling emotionally secluded from typical life. In fact, there is a line of dialogue from the movie that, I think, cuts straight to the heart of it. After a brief moment of discontent between the duo Bob coldly says to Charlotte, "Isn't there anyone else to lavish you with attention?" That fascinates me to no end. Again, one can only assume the Coppola name allows for much attention to be lavished while growing up. How else did she get the role in "Godfather 3" (only to lavished with the bad kind of attention afterwards)? Please don't assume this is a critcism of her. I fervently admire her work and talent but I still have to wonder if the line is autobiographical. Did she take it to heart and return to it when writing this movie? And if so, opening yourself up like that, laying it on the line, is something for which I have an even deeper respect.

Bill Murray's performance was rightfully commended. He earned an Oscar nomination. There were some who called it his best performance (critic David Edelstein termed it the "Bill Murray performance we've been waiting for: 'Saturday Night Live' meets Chekhov"), a sentiment with which I strongly agree. Yes, you could see the genesis for this character, an older, sadder man with regrets and his convictions now slowly being stripped away, take shape in "Rushmore" but this time around it was a full-on examination. He is hilarious, of course, but you probably knew that even if you haven't seen it. In this he finds another layer. For instance, there is the moment at a photo shoot when he's pleading with his agent via cellphone to get him out of Tokyo and the signal cuts out and he swivels around and delivers a look that is simply one of the funniest things I've ever seen. But it's more. We've seen that sort of look before from Bill Murray but never has it been tinged with such gloom. Ordinarily in those moments the Murray character is just exhausted with the other person, the one who caused the look, or with the situation, but this time you can see he's exhaused with himself.

Scarlett Johansson shows she is at her best when not trying too hard. She never fights to win our approval, perhaps because the character of Charlotte is not sure she approves of herself. She says her husband calls her "snotty" - consider her facial expressions the first time they encounter Anna Faris's severely ditzy actress who is staying at the same hotel - and she doesn't exactly dispute this assessment.

The end has wrought much discussion. Bob is in a cab, after exchanging weak goodbyes with Charlotte, headed for the airport. But he sees her walking the Tokyo streets and asks the cabbie to stop. He jumps out and catches up with her. He pulls her close. They embrace. He whispers something in her ear. But what? We don't know. We don't hear it. You can tell he's whispering, but the soundtrack is purposely muffled. Murray himself has explained "It's between lovers" and the esteemed Ebert wrote the characters, by that point, had "earned their privacy". There are those who have made the claim of listening to it in slow-mo and hearing what was said. I propose a different theory. Often the most important moments from our past stay alive in our head only as images. Yes, words were spoken and perhaps for awhile you can recall them but time passes and the dialogue is forgotten. An example: I'm currently outlining a screenplay based on my summer of 1994 when I traveled to Atlanta for the National Lutheran Youth Gathering. There is one moment I have always carried with me. For reasons too long to explain I was with alone with a youth group from a different church in Ankeny, Iowa and we were rushing from our hotel, through the city streets, toward the Georgia Dome where the convention's opening ceremony was taking place, and I was walking alongside a young girl on whom I had developed a crush and would eventually take to my junior prom, when it started to pour rain. We cut through a nearby mall. My speed increased slightly and I pulled ahead of her. As I did, she reached out, grabbed hold of my shirt, and pulled me back toward her so we could continue walking together. Eventually, we left the mall behind and got to the Georgia Dome and so on and so forth. I'm positive there were words exchanged on our way there, and on our way through the mall, and once we arrived at our destination, but I sure can't remember them. I can, however, fourteen years later, still vividly see her pulling me back by my shirt.

In a few years time Charlotte won't remember what Bob said to her. But she'll damn sure remember the embrace.

I often turn to "Lost in Translation" on lonely nights and on days when I'm home sick and during times when it seems like not just myself but the world as a whole is out of sorts. You can probably guess then I've been thinking about this movie a lot lately. People might say it's a sad movie. I don't think it is. Yes, it has sadness in it, but if I'm not feeling so hopeful I like to watch a movie where the characters may feel sadness, as well as confusion and isolation, but also manage to remember, as Bob says to Charlotte, "You're not hopeless."

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