Sunday, May 22, 2016

Favorite Films: "Lost In Translation"

The first time I went to Tokyo, I was drowning in a sea of tears that, like Alice, I had cried for myself, not knowing why, and as I wandered through the towering, endless city, whatever sadness I felt gave way to curiosity and fascination.  Tokyo was such a strange wonderland that I let go of what I did not need.

For days, I was adrift, surrounded by endless noise and movement, and yet none of it made any sense: street signs, advertisements, anything written or spoken became irrelevant.  I could be surrounded by everything and yet embraced by nothing, and it was revelatory.  I did need to pay attention to anything, I could just let it wash over me the way, maybe, a child does, wide-eyed and eager yet utterly alone even while surrounded.

Even the smallest pleasure of eavesdropping on conversations was futile, so instead of trying to discern the meaning of it all, I focused only on the experience.

In Tokyo, the only possibility for a foreigner is to live in the moment, to be so taken in by the incomprehensible sights and sounds that nothing else seems to matter.

When I finally returned, dazed and awed, into the thudding comprehensibility of everyday life at home, I tried to explain what I had felt in Tokyo, how my sense of dislocation was so overwhelming that all I could do was give into it and let it define me, even for a little while, but (like Alice again) I was unable to say what I meant; it had to be felt.

Sofia Coppola's dreamy, wondrous Lost In Translation lets it be felt.  This near-perfect reverie gives form to the strange magic that Tokyo seems to hold for many: Only when you arrive do you realize how lost you are, and how the only way to find your way back to yourself is to fist succumb to the he hazy, dizzying incomprehensibility of it all.

Lost In Translation is about two specific people, a movie star named Bob Harris and a young woman named Charlotte.  The movie star (played by Bill Murray, a real-life movie star) has too much of everything, especially experience, while the woman (played by Scarlett Johansson, before she was a movie star) has very little of anything, especially experience.

But they are both tired, physically and emotionally.  Somehow, they've become invisible in their own lives, and it has started to wear on them.  They have become fixtures in the lives of the people around them, as functional yet anonymous as a desk lamp.  They know they should matter more to people, and they know that people should probably matter more to them.

They both have ended up at the singular Park Hyatt, and the hotel is as much a character as Lost In Translation as they are, with its modern, dimly lit halls, its automated rooms with floor-to-ceiling walls that open up onto the sprawling, infinite city sixty floors below.  The hotel is as quiet and safe as a cocoon, which is kind of what it becomes to both Charlotte and Bob.  But after a while, it becomes too quiet, too safe, and when they break out of the shell they emerge in Tokyo.

For a while, Charlotte and Bob are on their own and they keep running into each other in the hotel, so they come to the conclusion that since they are both alone in Tokyo, they might as well be alone together.  That's how they spend their time together, against the city as it glows and hums at night, visually shouting out the messages that everyone around them understands but that make no sense to Bob and Charlotte.

The only thing they can do is what Tokyo requires: to be with each other in the moment.  Lost In Translation does not insist that they fall in love -- he is in his 50s, after all, and she is in her 20s -- but neither does it insist that they don't.  It's possible.  During their few days together, maybe anything is possible.

Lost In Translation is the rare mainstream American film that does not depend on a traditional plot or story structure.  It has a beginning and an end, but is mostly middle, watching its characters closely (and, it's impossible not to note, beautifully), seeing if and how all of this time alone with their thoughts will drive them to change, will result in any hard-won realization.

There is a moment toward the end when, perhaps, they do come to some conclusions.  Famously, the movie does not let us know for sure, because when Charlotte and Bob finally part, Coppola muffles their conversation.  We hear him whisper something to her.  We see her react.  But the movie does not reveal exactly what he says, or exactly how she feels about it.  Only Charlotte and Bob know for sure.  For a movie that spends so much time luxuriating in how wonderful it can feel to be disconnected, how satisfying it can be not to understand what is happening around you, its ending makes perfect sense.

Make of it what you will.  Just like everything else in life.

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