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Movie Reviews:

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Well, it's been quite a while. As a matter of fact, I've been meaning to resurrect my blog for a while now, but between lots of papers and tremendous amounts of reading, I've been having trouble finding the time. Not to mention that I've been busy with a writing experiment (not sure if you'd call it an on-line novel, since it probably won't end up as structured or thematically consistent as a novel, even of the on-line variety, but I think it'll be close).

Okay, that's only half true. I also couldn't think of anything particularly interesting to write about. I guess, essentially, I've been looking for an excuse to start this up again, more than anything else. I think I found that excuse today. So, this is my attempt at blog-resurrection (which reminds me; I must talk to Dr. Jones and find out how she does her blog -- allowing others to comment, not to mention the ability to put up graphics and such, would be helpful).

Lost In Translation

During the last fifteen minutes of my Romantic Novel class, I was supposed to be discussing some of the finer points of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein with my fellow classmates. However, I wasn't doing this. Instead, I was debating the merits of the Sofia Coppola film Lost In Translation with my professor, Dr. Maier.

I feel that Lost In Translation is one of the most intelligent movies I've ever seen in my life. Dr. Maier, on the other hand, really didn't like it. So, we debated. I think I argued fairly well, but the debate struck me as an excellent opportunity to talk about something in my blog.

So, what did I see in the movie? What made me love it so much? Why did Dr. Maier dislike it so?

If you haven't seen the movie yet, be warned: This contains spoilers. So, go watch it. I'll wait.

*sits patiently, twiddling thumbs*

Done? Good.

The movie's premise, as I see it, is that Western Society has become dominated by technology, pop culture, and a blending of the two. People have trained themselves so that they only see the flashing lights, and hear the bells and whistles. Actual human communication has been supplanted by cultural and intellectual noise.

Japan makes a brilliant backdrop for this because, not only is it a non-English country, when it comes to pop culture, bells, and whistles, it's everything that Western Society is only moreso. The movie is uplifting, however, because somehow two people do, in the end, manage to achieve this connection.

The key to appreciating the film, and catching on to the theme, is to really listen to what the English speaking characters say to one another. I mean really listen. You'll realize that they're saying absolutely nothing of consequence whatsoever. Speech has become an echo of the cultural noise dominating the western world, as empty as the source from which it was modeled. They don't actually communicate with one another any more than they do with the Japanese-speaking characters with the language barrier between them. At best, the message becomes so watered down that it's next to worthless.

The movie plays with you. It leads you to think that Bob Harris and Charlotte are going to have a sordid affair. Even the characters think this. They both feel incredibly alone and isolated -- as social creatures, they need that human contact to make them feel genuinely human. So, they latch onto one another, hoping that they can use one another as an anchor amid this confusing sea of noise whose meaning is, at best, beyond their grasp. But merely spending time together, this is not enough to fill the void in their existences, because they still don't make that necessary contact -- all they can do is reach the feeling that the contact is somehow possible. They separately begin to think (again falling into the trap Western pop culture sets for us) that perhaps sex is the answer.

Then, the movie does a quick backpedal by having Bob sleep with the lounge singer. Carnal relations accomplished nothing; Bob's still just as alone as he was before. Jealousy arises between Bob and Charlotte briefly, but the point has been made -- sex is not the answer, no matter what an episode of Friends might tell you.

What Bob Said

The movie ends -- and here's the important point -- with Bob catching up with Charlotte in the middle of a crowded street. They stare at each other for a moment, and then he hugs her. Her eyes well up with tears, and he whispers something in Charlotte's ear, and she begins to sob quietly. Then he kisses her once on the lips (a rather long kiss, which I'll talk about momentarily), then on the cheek. Then they say goodbye, and leave.

We, the audience, never hear what he says. To me, we don't need to hear it -- more than that, we can't hear it, because it would be meaningless to us. But in that moment, they finally reach each other -- he talks, she listens. And whatever it is he says, it is exactly what she needed to hear. They establish that all-too-rare human contact that allows them both to feel human again; she receives the strength to move on with her life, he comes to the understanding that it's okay for him to reveal the vulnerability he usually hides deep within himself. Human, as individuals, make unique connections -- no two people relate to one another the same way as another two people, a complete rejection of the homogenous, conformist, "one size should fit all" social conceit of the West, where everyone is expected to buy the same CDs and watch the same pre-packaged television programs.

Basically, I saw whatever he whispered as boiling down to "You're going to be okay." Yet to summarize it like that, to generalize the message so, is also to miss the point of the movie entirely. Whatever was said was meant for Charlotte and only for Charlotte.

Dr. Maier, on the other hand, saw their relationship as sexual. She assumed his words were something to the effect of "another time, another place," setting up a tryst for the future. Of course, this requires one to ignore the lesson learned from the lounge singer (mentioned above), not to mention the scene with the japanese prostitute in his hotel room... or at least to interpret them both in very different ways. But ultimately, I think that her own viewing can't really be fully supported, mainly because of that last scene.

Catharsis comes into play here. Setting up a future tryst could not possibly cause any form of immediate emotional catharsis -- future catharsis, perhaps, when the tryst actually occurs, but not immediate. Yet Charlotte finally feels genuine human emotion -- she's able to achieve a cathartic purgation of her feelings of isolation and despair during that final scene. "Don't worry, we'll screw later" would not make someone cry in such a way. Something along the lines of "You're still a beautiful human being," told to someone who has come to believe herself to be something less than human, no longer able to achieve a genuine human contact with another, would.

Admittedly, my own interpretation is slightly weakened by that over-long kiss on the lips the two characters enjoy. In my mind, though, it's the final kiss on the cheek that's more important -- a kiss of affection, but not a kiss of lovers. Which is exactly what Coppola wanted to portray: She said in an interview that their relationship is meant to be "pretty un-sexual" -- "innocent and romantic," but more of the former than the latter.

Another thing Dr. Maier mentioned that she disliked about the movie was the way Charlotte takes no responsibility for her life. It is entirely empty, but she seeks external solutions rather than trying to fill her life herself. I think that, here, Dr. Maier is making a critical error: She's ignoring the title of the Film, Lost In Translation.

I dunno how many times it was drilled into my head as a child that, if I were to ever become lost in the woods, I was *not* supposed to wander around and look for civilization myself. That's just likely to get a body more lost. Instead, the best thing to do is stay put and wait until someone finds you.

Which is exactly what she does amid this confusing glass and concrete wilderness.

Dr. Maier ended by asking me whether or not I thought that the film's ambiguity (that is, the fact that the movie's message and theme is not obvious, that it is possible for someone to interpret the film differently than I did) was not a drawback. The more I think about it, the odder I find this question, particularly coming from an English professor like Dr. Maier. A flexible piece of literature that can be interpreted from a number of different angles, and from which different people can take away different things, is generally considered vastly superior to a straightforward text that can be interpreted in only one way. Why wouldn't a movie be judged in a similar manner?

I think the film is incredibly gutsy. In an age of blockbuster megahit special effects extravaganzas, it's a movie with an actual theme. And it explores this theme without resorting to sappiness. It's about dislocation, communication, and the modern human experience. It's about being lost and subsequently finding that connection you need to once again find your centre.

But maybe that's just my interpretation.

Well, there we go. A pretty good start at blog-resurrection, methinks.

EDIT (much, much later): Now that I've got a rating system, I might as well apply it to this movie, too. Just to be a completionist and all that.

5 Cute White Rats. Yeah, I think this movie's that good.

Jesse R enlightened the masses @ 5:42 p.m.


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