A little way into Lost in Translation (LIT) as Bill Murray was going through his paces, he reminded me of an old news item I’d seen in the early ‘90’s. An item actually so long ago I can no longer remember if it was real or if I dreamt it. Whatever - in this memory George Bush senior is visiting China and is shown round a high tech factory. In wide shot, we see a picture of him as he enters a room full of Chinese technicians. As his Chinese hosts gesture and explain what’s happening, Bush peers out anxiously at the scene. In the close-up that follows the master shot we see his face clearly and that it divides into two expressive halves. In the lower section his lips are bared back into a rictus, a forced smile which suggests an attempt at the sort of expressive control demanded by convention and protocol, to show that he is engaged and interested in what he is looking at. But in the upper section of his face his eyes have this look of a threatened incomprehension. He doesn’t get what’s happening, he doesn’t understand all these funny little fellahs agitating around his knees. Or, perhaps old George was thinking of the ordeal that lies ahead in the evening to come. The 39 course Chinese banquet where he will have to ingest matter that possesses few of the qualities that Americans normally associate with food. Food that can choke you.
As with George Bush so with Bill Murray, LIT is a litmus paper from Hollywood marking the psychic chemistry underlying the basis of US foreign policy. Aggressive incomprehension. OK some people need no introduction or reminder of this psychic reality but it is worth pausing to think about the nature of the writer director of LIT, Sofia(wisdom-sic)Coppola. As evidenced here her work is representative of the experience and ambitions of a totally assimilated ‘second generation’ American. Her father’s films drew on his innate cultural experience and still had a residual italianate character. Daddy’s films, Hollywood in form, were invested with and exploited Italian American cultural experience. By the time we get to Sofia, this world hjas slipped off the map. Even in its superficial trappings, it is abandoned territory. With Sofia the new sensibility is of the shopping mall and the hotel room. Her film, and as writer director of LIT it is her film, gazes upon a world which she can shoot, she can buy sell and possess momentarily but which otherwise interests her very little.
At heart LIT is a travelogue tricked out with a couple of running gags. Gags such as - hey! Japan is weird - and we keep having this bunch of stuff happen - like its really funny you know - the thing is the japs - how d’ya know what’s going on - in their heads - you know. The second gag revolves round the portals of communication from home: like - like Bill - keeps getting these calls and fax right up his ass - stuff from his wife - like he can’t relate to it - in this weird Tokyo shit just doesn’t make any sense.
Intentioned or not the film depicts the brutal banality underlying US relations with other cultures. Minds brainwashed by suburban monogamy and homogeneity the American psyche is unable to comprehend the other. Unless strangeness is artfully arranged( Like flowers -hey the Japs are into that stuff) to accommodate their gaze the American feels trapped in a menacing and threatening environment. The response of LIT to ‘this other’ is at two levels.
At the level at which the film itself was conceived, the script written and developed, shot and edited - the response of LIT in structure and form is to target the Japs and the Jap culture as the butt of the joke. Deterritorialised within the vehicular language of Hollywood film scripting, the Japanese and their culture are characatured and ridiculed as being rigid frantic and utterly bizarre like Monte Python TV. The internal response contained within the film is that the two characters Bill and Scarlet(I’m sticking with their real names) being sensitive souls, in the face of this otherness, retreat to the sanctity and sanity of the hotel/asylum. They hide in the ensuite bedrooms and the American bar where they find comfort amidst the familiar and reassuring trappings of American corporate culture - a cultural milieu in which I suspect Sofia also finds comfort in times of stress.
In this comfort zone you can watch goofy Jap TV to confirm how right you are to be where you are. In the hotel room, Scarlet and Bill find each other and in each others company address some of life’s problems. Strange to note that as we watched Bill (or was it Scarlet?) channel hop the TV a scene from La Dolce Vita appears on channel and we see Anita Eckberg and a cat on screen. So Sofia has been to the video store or maybe raided Dad’s video collection to check out Italian neo-realism. Is this some sort of acknowledgement of LIT’s pedigree, a nod to the masters - a statement of her ambition?
Then I wondered if she had also checked out French new wave. A disconcerting thought occurred to me as I pondered other potential intellectual markers. I wondered if somewhere in the conceptual bowels of Lost In Translation there lurked Sofia’s attempt at an homage to Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour? A frisson of anticipation took hold of me when Scarlet got on a train to leave Tokyo during a travelogue section of the film. I wondered where she was going. Is she going to Hiroshima? So she and Bill can talk about important things back in the hotel room? To my relief Sofia wisely avoided sending her protagonist to Hiroshima. Sofia settled for sending her to the safety of Kyoto where Scarlet indulges some harmless Temple watching and spies a coffee-table wedding of a beautiful Japanese couple.
Actually Scarlet’s character even in terms of the films limited ambition to aim no higher than Bill’s amusingly receding hairline, is mildly disappointing. As a recently graduated philosophy student she is not allowed mention of a philosopher and confines herself to bobo questions to Bill relating to the great unknown - the American suburban marriage and its progress through time to the arrival of kids.
In sum LIT is a terrible movie but a dark parable. I don’t think anything is lost in translation its all there if you need any more dark Hollywood parables.
Adrin Neatrour Jan 2004