DON’T LEAVE, STAY HERE WITH ME.
WE’LL START A JAZZ BAND…
There are a lot of aspects of Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film Lost In Translation that don’t really hold up.
If you’re not familiar, it’s the story of two white, wealthy Americans who meet in Japan and strike up an unlikely friendship which begins to move toward romance: ennui ensues.
The film uses its metropolitan Japanese setting to emphasise the alienation felt by its two protagonists (Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson), plunging them into a culture so different from their own. And there’s nothing implicitly wrong with this structure; it’s an effective visual and narrative metaphor for the characters’ internal worlds. Bob Harris (Murray) is a past-his-best movie star, in Japan to shoot a whiskey advert and get some respite from a loveless marriage. Charlotte (Johansson) is a newly-wed college grad trying to find her place in the world while tagging along on her photographer husband’s work assignment. They both feel detached from their lives; like everything around them is strange and hard to comprehend. The film’s setting is a reflection of their isolation.
There is a thin line between ‘these people – who are not perfect in any way – find this place strange’ and ‘look how strange this place is, viewers’ which Lost in Translation does not always manage to tread. To put it bluntly, there are scenes which go beyond naive curiosity about Japan, through cultural insensitivity, and into flat-out-racist territory. There is one particularly egregious scene featuring an escort in Harris’ hotel room which hinges on ridiculing how Japanese people pronounce ‘r’ sounds when speaking English (and by the way, neither of the protagonists speak any Japanese). Funny stuff.
Mocking the race and education of sex workers aside, there’s also the tired trope of a romantic connection between a young woman and a much older man. Bob and Charlotte are both consenting adults, and their relationship is not explicitly sexual, but there’s still a somewhat uneasy dynamic now, watching in a post-#MeToo era: particularly as Harris is an aging Hollywood star.
So if you want to criticise Lost in Translation, then go right ahead. There’s plenty to criticise.
But one critique I’ve seen angled at the film that I don’t agree with is this:
Now, don’t get me wrong: I agree with the general statement that there is very little plot here in terms of action. What I disagree with is the fact that this is a problem.
Does something have to happen in film – in art? The narrative tension here is focused on the two characters and how they react to their changing relationship to one another. So does it really need a car chase? A villain?
Lost in Translation is about feeling lost. Being stuck in a rut and not knowing where your life is headed. And for all its flaws, it does that brilliantly. It offers a wide open space for the viewer to explore that feeling of isolation and loneliness. And, like in real life, the most significant thing that happens to these two lonely people isn’t a dramatic realisation or thrilling heist; it’s that they make a personal connection.
Music plays an important role in stressing this point. The soundtrack to this film is brilliant (and I picked it up on pink vinyl on Record Store Day 2019).
When our characters are alone, the instrumental soundscapes that follow them are sparse and often discordant. Kevin Shield of Irish shoegaze/noise outfit My Bloody Valentine put together perfectly discomforting tracks which play out alongside indecipherable subway announcements and the sounds of bustling crowds. Ambient pieces that reflect their feeling of being distant and alone.
But when they are together, the music is more harmonious. Like a key change, the human connection and romantic spark affect the way they experience the world around them. They sing karakoke and dance to light-hearted indie tracks like Phoenix’s Too Young. Positively euphoric after attending a party with Charlotte, Harris calls his wife back home in America from the hotel and tries to tell her about the party. “Oh and the music…” he says. Indeed.
So there are a lot of things about Lost In Translation that don’t hold up. But the way it intermingles its soundtrack with its narrative is sublime.
So what if nothing happens? It looks and sounds brilliant.
Songs about something for a film about nothing.