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  • Lost In Translation
    by Zettel at 14:55 on 27 October 2004
    Although most of you will have seen this by now, posted 'cos its just a brilliant film and it was less obtrusive to respond to a request this way than clogging up a thread with a long piece. Written as a full review - I'd normally go for shorter on WW.


    We can categorise films constructively in order to validate aesthetic comparisons. We more often do so lazily in order to file them away in ill-fitting pigeon holes to decide which Oscar they are up for. Film as product, not art.

    Good films defy this process, not by argument or polemic but simply by aesthetic aspiration and achievement. Lost In Translation is such a film. It is both very good and subversive in its challenge to lazy categorisation. It is very funny at times, but it is not a comedy. It is not a comedy because our laughter flows naturally from the truth of character and context not clever scripting. Its warmth and sensitivity is the consequence of truthful writing and film-making not their self-conscious intention. Indeed the broader funny moments in this fine film are its weakest artistically, as at times some of the humour cannot escape a legitimate qualm about racial stereotyping. They are less truthful. It is also not a love story in the traditional sense, still less a romance. The ultimate misunderstanding of this film would be to pigeon-hole it as a romantic comedy.

    LIT is a film about, among other things, intimacy and longing. It is about the marvellous randomness and inexorability of attraction. Its supreme aesthetic achievement is to show us true intimacy with no hint of voyeurism or prurience. We share but do not intrude, on the privacy of the two main characters. Even in the poignancy of the inevitable ending, their final intimacy is shown but not revealed. Aesthetically respected as private. Our characters keep this for themselves and from us. And it works beautifully. This is film-making of unusual sensibility and satisfying in its reticence and sensitivity.

    Bill Murray’s Bob Harris loves his wife and children and is never in fact, unfaithful to them. But one senses a longing in him for what it was to be in love. His relationship with his wife is defined by his role as parent. His attraction to Scarlett Johanssen’s Charlotte is irresistible but layered with ambiguity. How this deep attraction plays out is the moral core of the film and to her credit Sophia Coppola nimbly avoids all the yawning pitfalls. What distinguishes this film is the absolute consistency of its artistic and moral vision. It is here that the Japanese setting for the film enriches its texture. The flashy, tawdry, neon-lit images of Tokyo, indistinguishable in many ways from say Las Vegas, dwarf and marginalise the individual human beings with their shallow pastimes. The translation of the worst of American culture to post-war Japan is vividly displayed even down to the several indistinguishable hamburgers that you have to cook yourself. The ephemeral and alien setting is also critical: for at the heart of the film is an intimate relationship with a place to be but nowhere to go.

    Against this shallow, clamourous, transient cultural backdrop, Coppola allows her characters to develop a relationship of sensitivity and depth. It is a dangerous balance to sustain. Harris’s relationship with Charlotte teeters between considerate father figure to uneasy longing, with an undeniable sexual undertow. Apart from critical casting, of which more in a moment, Coppola keeps this emotional dilemma perfectly balanced, partly through editing as precise as a heartbeat. As if each, discovering a shared love of the beauty of cherry blossom, came to realise that to grasp it, or try to preserve it would be to destroy it. And they choose beauty over possession. The ineffable beauty of a flame lies in the seeing, not the touching. But the heat and warmth is still there.

    The paradigm of casting is when one feels that no one else could have done justice to the part. This is true of both Murray and Johanssen but for very different reasons. Technically Murray is slim, fit and looks sufficiently within calling distance of Charlotte’s age to avoid queasy unseemliness. But he is so much more. Those droll, blank, Jack Benny eyes seem to cry out for something to spark them with life. And could any other actor’s body language better display the accepting but slightly bemused resignation to fate and the way things must be, than Murray? The impressive surprise is his capacity to play what we might call ‘innerness’. We spend as much time inside the heads of the players here as watching their overt behaviour. Murray, with the minimum of fuss and apparent effort convinces us we’ve got it right.

    And so to Scarlett Johanssen. This much praised young lady is a luminous presence on screen. This is being, not acting. Instinct, not technique, though she obviously knows what she’s about. Be gentle with this natural talent dear Directors, replace the uncertainty of instinct with the certainty of technique and you’ll destroy the magic. Wild flowers can’t live in vases. It is not superficial to say that this actress has the most expressive mouth in movies. It conveys wryness, amusement, pleasure, attraction, irony, an eloquent, simple grin, and much more. When this girl smiles, the world lights up. Her lips, natural, but a paradigm of collagen aspiration, are quite simply eloquent. Usually one’s focus is drawn to an actress’s eyes or body language. But here it is the lips, not the eyes that have it. Also, unlike many beautiful actresses, Johanssen has a marvellous voice: clear and uncluttered; sexy and intelligent. Physically she has a casual, unconscious, almost adolescent defiant grace. From skateboard to bedroom with no break in step.

    The greatest compliment one can pay Murray and Johanssen, let alone Coppola, is that one simply cannot imagine this film working with other actors. Technically Murray’s ‘performance’ is the more professional achievement but it is Johanssen’s instinctive playing that gives credence to his technique, however subtle. One senses a real mutual respect and honesty, critical to the believability of their characters’ relationship.

    There is an emotional sensitivity and subtlety about this film that is far more continental than Anglo-Saxon in tone. It flatters rather than patronises its audience by displaying faith, in the way it was shot and edited, in their intelligence and perceptiveness in seeing the point. It is hard to imagine anyone other than Coppola from within the Hollywood tribe, financing and getting critical distribution for such an individual, unclassifiable movie. And boy does she make it work. Both in terms of its director and its characters, this is a quietly defiant movie. Coppola rejects the assumptions and lazy expectations of mainstream movies. Her two main characters do precisely the same in response to the unremitting cultural clamour of endless diversion around them. They are in it but not of it – both the idiocy of Karoake and stickiness of candy store sex leaves them gently amused but untouched. They see, smile, and simply choose to walk away. Thanks, but no thanks.

    LIT has received deserved critical acclaim. However, one especially stupid qualification was that “not much happens.” Wrong. Two people listen to each other and discover each other and themselves in the process. They connect. My God, a movie for grown-ups? Whatever next. These two people decide to act in certain ways and accept responsibility for that choice. They assert: this is a possible choice, painful but necessary, and it makes sense. Actually making this choice demonstrates the reality of a possible way of feeling and loving. And for Coppola, the form and more importantly, mere existence of the film, testifies to the same belief.

    Zettel - February 2004
    See this and other posts at:
  • Re: Lost In Translation
    by Okkervil at 22:29 on 28 October 2004
    Wee, great review! I tried to write one on Amazon, but all I could manage was american-school-girl cries of 'ohmigod, ohmigod, this is so, like, good!' Anyway, it got lost after submission and I didn't save it, so that's the end of that.
    I thought I'd read enough reviews of the film, but yours seemed fresh- I'm glad you don't do what a load of reviewers do all the time now, (especially, but not specifically, music journalism like NME) which is to refer to loads of other stuff to give meaning, instead of using adjectives- so I read quite a bit that went on about 'Rushmore' or 'The Virgin Suicides', neither of which have I seen. So yours is easy to get along with.
    And, hey, Scarlett Johanssen need sticking up for too, what with floating accusations of non-acting, so like the man said: well done you.

    I loved this when I saw it first and made the mistake of not really thinking about who else I took to see it... the second trip was a little less...emphatic ('Pon returning from the toilet: 'What'd I miss' 'He SHAVED! With a razor that was too SMALL!' Cue lots of crawling around on the floor). So anyway, thanks!

  • Re: Lost In Translation
    by Zettel at 11:55 on 29 October 2004

    Glad you liked it, especially if it seemed accessible and fresh. I took a wide berth round Virgin Suicides (perhaps wrongly) but Rushmore was well worth a visit I thought; gently satirical and a little droll. And droll is like water in the desert of most Hollywood films.


  • Re: Lost In Translation
    by Al T at 12:16 on 29 October 2004
    Hi Z, congrats on a well-written and thoughtful review. On balance, I enjoyed the film - in particular I thought it evoked the loneliness of so much business travel incredibly well. However, there is one important point that I don't think you address above: is this film, with its lip my tights scene etc, racist? Could this be yet another film trying to convince us all of American global supremacy?

  • Re: Lost In Translation
    by WARD83 at 12:22 on 29 October 2004
    Thanks very much for posting this. The way you analyse the film is really inspiring.

    Everything I loved about it is described perfectly; the relationship being like a flame, Murray's accepting but bemused resignation to fate, the intimate but not intrusive atmosphere and the challenge to lazy categorisation ('laughter flows naturally').


    I also agree with what Okkervil mentioned, about not referring to other films to give meaning.

    It takes great skill to review a film of this nature so precisely (I just mumbled about the cinematogrophy and the soundtrack). Great work!

    Just wondering, does anybody here read film-magazines? I rely on friday's The Guardian only. Empire seems to have a fixation with Star Wars, and the numerous 'SUPER DVD!'-style publications seem to be very poorly written. Thank goodness for the Internet!

  • Re: Lost In Translation
    by Account Closed at 12:33 on 29 October 2004
    This is one of the most refreshing and relaxing films I've watched in a long time. No need for guns and explosions. No place for sudden, unnecessary sex scenes between the main characters.

    I also thought that staying in Tokyo to appear on that whacky show, so he would have more time with Charlotte was a powerful sacrifice!

    Only watched this film once, a while ago. I'm torn between watching it again, for entertainment's sake, or leaving the memory of this film that I have as it is.

    Nice review.
  • Re: Lost In Translation
    by Harry at 13:42 on 29 October 2004
    The best review I've read of one of my favourite films.

    Thanks for posting this.


  • Re: Lost In Translation
    by Zettel at 11:36 on 30 October 2004
    Hi Guys.

    It's great to see a bit of discussion developing in the re-vamped reviews area.

    Thanks. I agree with your qualm as I indicate in para 2: it is in my view the only misjudgement in an almost flawless movie. One could construct a convoluted justification but I think it was just a bad call. Too small and quiet a movie to carry the weight of your global cultural(or political) imperialism fears: for that look at virtually every other film out of Hollywood.

    The style you and James mention is essentially academic. I dislike and oppose the 'explain this in terms of someone else's views or something else' academic method. As a Philosophy undergraduate faced with the rock face of Wittgenstein's thought, my professor said always go to the original source and if you have to, struggle a bit: or as Wittgenstein himself once said: "go the bloody hard way!" You either learn to climb or take up another activity. It seems to me elitist and patronising to one's reader. Ideally a review should I think be entirely accessible to anyone on the basis of what you say and the reader's own experience and ability to think and share. Reference to other films should I think be very carefully used but it must create a connection others can share or you're talking to yourself. I read different reviewers and the guy in the weekend Times is pretty good - can't remember his name.

    Cheers (geddit?) Great name!
    See it again. Unlike many films - this one rewards re-seeing. There is so much to admire and enjoy in it. Think of it as a bit like one of those few books you have read and re-read. I often see films twice, sometimes bad films. OK I'm an anorak but unlike a book, you can't re-read as you go along.(And no, the re-wind isn't quite the same thing).

    Regards all




    So sorry to miss you off. I could learn the art of effective brevity from you.