Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation. 2003.
Lost in Translation. American Zoetrope/Elemental Films 2003.

Before watching the movie:

I’m struggling a bit to describe my understanding of this movie in a way that doesn’t sound like it came straight from the blurb. Two Americans played by big stars find each other in Tokyo in an independent movie, and those and still other reasons, form a difficult-to-classify relationship.

Much beyond this description has been drowned out by Bill Murray’s presence in what’s definitely not a comedy, even though by now it should be easier to accept that he’s pretty much sworn off comedy and this is his thing now (or at least until he gets an award for it).

After watching the movie:

Bob Harris was a movie star in the 70s. Thirty years later, the best work he can get is to fly to Japan to do whiskey commercials. Charlotte came along on her husband’s trip for a photography gig because she had nothing else to do at home. Bob has fallen out of love with his wife. Charlotte feels forgotten by her husband. They’re staying at the same hotel, and are drawn to each other not just as anglophones in a foreign land, but as two people in life crises. Over the course of their week in Tokyo, they bond in a way not even they quite understand.

What struck me about this movie is how much of the dialogue is flat. Hardly anything spoken is itself memorable or interesting, it just serves the scene. Which demonstrates how good screenwriting isn’t just what the characters say. Every conversation has a narrative purpose, and its place in the plot is what makes it meaningful. The art isn’t the words, the words are the brushstrokes building the bigger picture. So while Bob’s occasional wit keeps things interesting, it also pulls attention back away from that and onto the words. I wouldn’t be surprised if Lost in Translation ironically translates very well.

Another way the flat dialogue pushes the art is by requiring the acting to tell the story. Scarlett Johansson demonstrates her skills at raw emotion, and Bill Murray is no slouch at the subtlety. Bob seems pretty much tailor-made for Murray, as an actor who used to be big who would now prefer to be doing something meaningful like plays instead of following the much more lucrative path of cashing in on his former glory.

To wonk about relationships for a moment, I’m almost of two minds about how the couples in the film should proceed. First, while it flies in the face of the romantic tension of the film, I do think that Bob and Charlotte should attempt to repair their marriages. Our culture loves to tell stories about falling in love, but never really cares about the work involved in staying in love, for two years or twenty. However, I don’t think it will work. In service to the Bob/Charlotte relationship, nothing is shown of why they married their spouses, leaving only all the reasons they don’t want to be. I do think it’s possible for people to change to the point that they are no longer compatible, or for the initial rush to wear off and realize they never were compatible, and there’s a point where working further to fix a relationship would just be a waste of time, and the couple should separate. That’s the kind of ambiguity stories never go near.

This film seems fairly dull on the surface, but the art and emotional tension drew me in anyway. Sometimes I felt lost without a translator, but that’s what the internet is for. It got an R rating for being independent and having one brief scene in a strip club that it could have almost done without, but it’s otherwise surprisingly clean for a story flirting with infidelity.

One thought on “Lost in Translation

  1. Mark Wood June 3, 2014 / 7:29 am

    I do think a lot of marriages collapse because, as in the movie, the stories partners tell themselves come to focus on why they want out and ignore why they got in. Unfortunately, if a film is going to delve into how hard it is to be a marriage partner, we seem to have a choice only between infidelity and sappy reunion in the final scene. 😛 Please write something better.

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