LONELY PRETTY THINGS
Over at Forager 23
, a pretty good little debate is going on (with contributions by yours truly) as to the relative merits of Lost in Translation
. I didn't like the movie, and have said as much in the comments to that tread; having thus exposed myself as lacking in the ability to appreciate good art, and as a hopeless philistine unable to navigate the subtle turns in that masterpiece, I probably should explain myself....
I didn't much like Lost in Translation because of its attitude: the film seemed, frankly, condescending and overly smug. And that attitude drove me nuts.
Both the leads--Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson--play characters who are suffering from ennui of the most profound kind. And why? Murray is set up as a character beaten down by domesticity; he receives the fax from his wife regarding paint colors like a condemned man his death sentence. He loves his kids, sure; he even says so. But the joy is clearly gone. There Must be More to Life Than That, the house and the wife and the kids. Johansson is different. She has the attitude of the overpriveleged hipster; a kid whose conception of herself is based on being smarter, wittier, and more cospmopolitan than everyone else. She knows that Life Should Be Interesting, unlike the herds who mill about grazing superficially on the platitudes set before them. Watch her as her husband and the movie star talk; the banality of their conversation drives Charlotte insane both times. In other words, both characters have--from any reasonable standpoint--very little to complain about; and yet each is somehow still lonely and desperate.
Now, I don't think that movies (or books) need to have sympathetic protagonists. They don't. Nor do I think that movies (or books) need to fully explain the motivations of characters. Hey, the heart is a mysterious things; sometimes, people are just sad. And that would be fertile ground to explore. Why is someone who, by all appearances, has it all, so sad? What should we think about someone who chooses to be lonely?
Lost in Translation ignores these questions. It instead suggests that the characters are justified in their disdain of the world around them; that they are lonely and desperate not because they have chosen to be but because the rest of the world isn't worth their time. People people everywhere and no one with whom to drink. Every other character in the movie is held up for ridicule. This ridicule is subtle, but it is real.
The movie star is apparently uncultured, and a bit of an airhead; and for this we are invited to scorn her. Charlotte's husband tries to involve her--hell, he took her to Tokyo, presumably to spend time with her--but isn't worth her time. She blows him off repeatedly.
Look at the way it presents the Japanese. Bumblers, fools, incompetents. A five star hotel whose staff speaks pidgin English. Maybe such a thing exists, but I've never seen it in my travels (which admittedly, have not included Japan). Murray openly mocks the director and the photographer he works with, pulling dumb faces in lieu of trying to comply with what are likely sincere, if poorly explained, requests. The only Japanese--in fact, the only characters other than the two leads--to come across well are the hipsters; dude, they're like, smug and insular, just like me! And they look so cool!
In the end, Murray and Johannson are drawn together because only they understand the terrible burden each carries, of deserving better than they've got. They never climb out of the little towers they've built for themselves to engage with the world--they merely discover a bridge between them. Murray and Johannson wind up close to each other, but still as far away from the world as they each were at the beginning. This is the failure of the film. It's hipster escapism; it doesn't acknowledge that there might be limits to it's brand of elitism, or that loneliness can be a choice. MH, in the comments to J.W. Hastings' pie
ce, gets it exactly right: if either of the characters, or the movie, for that matter, had taken a step back from itself, it might have had something special.
This is, incidentally, why the Catcher in the Rye comparison cuts against Lost in Translation. Salinger doesn't endorse Holden's worldview; it becomes clear as the book goes on that while Holden is sincere in his beliefs, those beliefs are at least as large a cause of his grief as is the world around him. Salinger cares enough about its characters to be honest about their failings. He embraces this complexity and creates a lasting and interesting piece of art. Lost in Translation doesn't, and isn't.
Wrapping up: the usual caveats. Lost in Translation is a movie that does not spell out lots of things; I think it is unusually susceptible to multiple interpretations. My displeasure with the film perhaps says more about me than about the movie. Additionally, I don't speak Japanese; maybe if I did the Japanese come off better. Nor have I spent any time in Japan, though I have bummed around other parts of Asia by myself, which can be a disorienting experience. And the movie was very well put together, at the level of craft. Well acted and well shot, with a fantastic soundtrack. It's just that under the beautiful wrapping nothing of substance is there.
Finally, J.W. makes an interesting comparison of Lost in Translation with Punch Drunk Love
, the latter of which I loved as much as the former irked me. I can't really explain why right now, largely because I've never given it any thought. Something to think about....