Conversations about film

July 24, 2020

Lost in Translation




Jim Wilson: For the second edition of Collokino, I’m speaking with my brother Jeff (aka SHIMMER DUDE) about one of his all-time favorite films, Sofia Coppola’s 2003 masterpiece Lost in Translation. While the film tells the story of two Americans, Bob and Charlotte, played by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, both lonely and adrift, who discover one another in a Tokyo hotel bar, it’s also a reinvention of the entire romantic comedy tradition.


This is my second time watching the film, so I was looking around behind and to the sides of the central drama to find the subtler thematic elements. Actually, I suppose subtle isn’t the right word, since it’s not a useful description of Sofia Coppola’s style in general, which is, I think it’s fair to say, typically candid and demonstrable. Better, instead, I was looking for patterns and repeating signals that might speak to Coppola’s central intent. And so much of what I came away with is a constant emphasis on opposition, inversion, obversion, all the ways in which cultural and personal alienation set up these series of mirror images, as well as a repeated insistence on looking, on watching, and the subjective gaze, which I’d like to get back to later.


Jeff, I know this is like your one-hundred-and-second viewing of this, so your grasp of the film is surely firmer than mine. What is it about Lost in Translation that speaks so loudly to you? And do you think the Tokyo setting condenses, and magnifies, the ideas that Coppola is presenting, or is she using that particular city with other intentions in mind?


Jeff Wilson: “Hey, Lip them?” “Lip my stockings!”


Well, Jim, first off let me just say it’s a huge honor to be here discussing great films in front of all our adoring fans. Since I know that your grasp of the English language and non-MARVEL films is weak, at best, I’ll try to keep all my responses as simple as possible.


You know, my 102nd viewing of this film was a bit more analytical because of this project, so I’ll just start with what I first noticed: Scarlett’s thinly-veiled glorious backside (what, wait, can we edit that?) But seriously folks, to me, it all seems very centered on the concept of translation, and not foremost through language. The crux of the film is a study of Bob and Charlotte’s struggles to translate, or transition, from one phase of their lives to another, while also attempting to translate Japanese culture and language to something they might understand. Sofia Coppola deftly sets this story smack dab in the middle of Tokyo, not just for its unforgettable visual impact, but for its unique culture. It’s a culture which was once totally alien to Americans, but has, since WW2, merged culturally with ours. All of this makes it a perfect mirror to study Bob’s, Charlotte’s, and our own translations, and transitions.


I have always been very taken with Bob and Charlotte’s slowly evolving relationship. Between my pained, eternal infatuation with Scarlett Johansson, and my age-old reverence for Bill Murray’s humor and style, their relationship feels very personal to me. Simply because of those factors, the film works for me at a very high level. I did notice that their dialogue is interesting in what they don’t say. Just as Sofia uses her camera work to stray or focus your eye, the dialogue allows your mind to stray in what isn’t said, allows it to possibly be about you. You’ll notice that neither of them is very happy at all as the film works its way through the opening sequences. They are both fish out of water bumping around thru Tokyo, doing shit they don’t get or don’t really care about.


Jim: Though she’s hardly there yet, I can see little glimpses of the triumphant black-clad widow Scarjo would ultimately mature into, except the wardrobe designer sucks! Where are the co-polymers?


Coppola illustrates Bob’s and Charlotte’s alienation from their respective worlds with great economy. That single phone call Charlotte has with Lauren near the beginning is so telling. Lauren is obviously distracted and not listening, while Charlotte is having a hard time expressing herself, or translating her thoughts into words, and she gives up. Charlotte is searching for something, something neither she, nor we, can identify. Like Lauren, Charlotte’s husband John has little time for her, and she’s left mostly to her own devices, wandering around Tokyo alone. Bob, on the other hand, is very much wanted and fawned over by his Japanese handlers, though he makes little effort to disguise his displeasure with all of it. He’s instantly nagged by faxes from his wife, establishing a domestic situation back home in the States that, even with the details vague, it’s easy to see he’s not happy about it.


In the earlier moments of the film, as we are acquainted with Bob’s and Charlotte’s circumstances, the film has a more traditional, fictional narrative feel to it, but as it starts to turn to the outside world of Tokyo, and Bob’s and Charlotte’s adventures in it, the film takes on a distinctly documentary quality. Throughout their night on the town, it feels like a camera following Bill Murray and Scarjo around Tokyo, witnessing the stages of their increasingly drunken reveries, instead of a staged and scripted narrative. Given that Murray is essentially playing himself, that’s a natural-enough texture to achieve. With Johansson, here in her first adult role, her ability to come off in such an authentic and documentary fashion is testament to her innate screen presence at such an early point in her career.


If you would, I’d love to hear you talk a little about that development from the personal and interior scenes with each of them, through their incremental discovery of one another, to the “outer” scenes with them careering through the Tokyo nightlife, and how Coppola frames those segments in various cinematic ways. And maybe a little about the music, which, I know, is a favorite topic of yours in film.


Jeff: “It’s Santori Time!”


While all the Japanese they interact with are kind and cordial, they strike Bob and Charlotte as odd (being American and all), and they aren’t able to translate themselves into the Japanese culture. Charlotte tries, Bob doesn’t even bother. Once they meet each other and have their glorious bar scenes together (“I’m planning a jailbreak, but first we have to figure out how to get out of this bar”), they start to not dread where they are and begin to translate, or transform themselves into a translatable form. Whether it’s through the universal language of music (from the initial party at Charlie Brown’s awesome house, to all the karaoke scenes), or the brute force of muscling through the language barrier at the sushi bar and the “brack toe” affair, and then the hospital, they start to interact with the entire city with energy and excitement.


“More than this? There’s nothing more than this.”


The cab ride back to the hotel after the karaoke scene, looking out the window at the passing lights, while pondering the pursuit of a perfectly impossible relationship, the pained expression on Bob’s face as he walks away down the hall after tucking in Charlotte, and carefully locking her door, really hit me. His cringe-worthy, drunken, late night phone call to his carpet-obsessed wife at the end of this scene really wraps up the web Bob is securely wound up in at this point in his life. For me the penultimate punctuation of this film is Sofia’s sublime, electronically scored taxi ride scenes of Bob and Charlotte staring at the passing Tokyo skyline. As I’ve mentioned this before to you, brother, in my experience these types of scenes are, if not invented, very much perfected here, into a form we are now familiar with, and is the signature atmospheric feel I conjure up when I think of this film. I’ve read that Sofia did a lot of pre-filming site scouting for her large assortment of Tokyo views, and it really shows. There is a texture laid down all around this film by use of music, pace and visuals of Tokyo that I see manifested in some very good films of late, but not sure if in one before Lost in Translation.


Let’s talk about music in film. You know, Jim, cinema is my second favorite art form because it really can be an amalgam of almost all art forms, including my favorite art form, music. And to me, any director who doesn’t take full advantage of music/sound in their films isn’t for me. Here, Sofia Coppola shows off her gifts right out of the gates with this film, essentially raising the bar on the use of music to elevate a film, mainly in mood, feel and texture. Think of this film without it. It is literally the number three character in the movie.


Jim: True, but we’ll have to disagree over the value of films without music.


I mentioned earlier wanting to talk about the subject-object inversion, but let me see if I can roll it up in a more general point about alienation, which I see as the central theme of the film, and a relationship I’ll theorize that this film has with its very particular time in history.


I think that on one level, Lost in Translation works as an exercise in perception, casting one character, or set of characters, as a subject observing another character, or set of characters, as an object, and how that dichotomy can be easily flipped around, and around again. I think particularly of the subjective American perception of the Japanese, through Bob’s and Charlotte’s eyes, though of course they’re the strangers, or objects, in the gaze of the Japanese, in whose country the film takes place. It’s a delicate balancing act Coppola does especially well at maintaining, allowing the viewer (and sometimes the characters themselves) to laugh at everyone, and see the strangeness in everyone. I know that Sofia Coppola was greatly influenced by the films of my dear favorite, the late, legendary Belgian auteur Chantal Akerman, of which the two-way liminal space between subject and object in this film is a great example.


There’s then, as well, the quality of self-alienation seen between the various Americans, and here I’ll single out the character of Kelly, played brilliantly by Anna Faris. She’s a bubbly, self-absorbed airhead, a type familiar to any American, a rising young film star relying on little more than her physical appearance to achieve greater success. While she’s certainly a glaringly odd character that Charlotte can make no connections with, her oddness is only magnified by the broader Japanese context in which the Americans and the Japanese observe her. She is to the Japanese perspective, I imagine, what the zany Japanese TV host is to the American perspective – exotic, bizarre and completely baffling.  What is untranslatable isn’t only between separate cultures, but within cultures as well. Kelly’s strangeness is all the more strange when viewed in the setting of a foreign country, where she’s actually the foreigner. It works that way for all the American characters, but her place in the story seems especially about that one point. And I want to add that observing alienation, what is not translatable, is the point of this film. The relative success or failure of overcoming it is not Coppola’s concern.


I was also reflecting on the time this film takes place, in that immediate post-9/11 era. Though there are no references to it in the film, there was at that time, in the US anyway, an overwhelming impulse to both acknowledge and break through different things that separated us, that kept us apart from one another, to be…well, impulsive, to live more incautiously, to lunge over fences. I think this film is framed, and viewed, whether it intends to be or not, by the cultural zeitgeist of the time.


I want to end with your thoughts on the ending, of the several attempts Bob and Charlotte make to say goodbye to one another, and what it is about the final attempt that works, and why, if you think it does.


Jeff: Ah, the ending, the ending, old boy.


The extremely awkward, initial attempts I’ve always felt actually served to really highlight the crux of the dysfunction in their relationship. How intimate and “deep” can their goodbye be when, in many ways, they haven’t allowed their relationship to get that far…except it kind of has. It’s at this point that I truly wondered how the heck is she gonna end this film? Sofia then puts Mr. Murray back in the cab to think and then pulls out a refreshed, Tokyo version of Casablanca when he spies Charlotte wandering through the throng and goes up and mutters something into her ear. What it is we don’t know (trust me, I’ve turned it up very loud; all I hear is something about chaps and a sombrero). Whatever it is, it obviously fills Charlotte with hope or joy or at least closure. It also makes Bob feel completed, relieved, and seemingly quite happy. For me, the fact that we don’t know what is said makes the whole thing timeless in a way that is always open to a different interpretation (translation, if you will). It has incredible staying power in my mind. In fact, this whole film has always remained very memorable to me.
I always find myself fascinated with Sofia’s ability to get across a certain type of idea in films that, to me, others often fail at. Trying to pigeon hole any of her films into a certain genre never quite works, or fits. And if there’s one thing I’m certain of, all truly great films are singularities.


Jim: What Bob says to her is, for me, meaningless, since you can’t hear it. For all the film is concerned, he says nothing. What’s important is they arrive at a place where what they shared is meaningful and can be remembered positively, a way I think we’d all like to remember those frustrated, confused, and fleeting relationships we’ve had that don’t fall within conventional boundaries. It’s a genuinely sweet ending, with no extra sauce.


Jeff, I want to thank you for bringing this great film to Collokino, and speaking about it with your refreshing brand of cheeky mirth. Even as brothers, we’re often in different worlds when it comes to film, but there are those for which we both share an abiding affection, and this is certainly one of them. As I’m sure you’ll agree, there isn’t a Sofia Coppola film I’ve seen that isn’t brilliant, and this is probably her most iconic. Thanks again, dude, and enjoy my jacket, which you stole.