Post Millennial Malaise 23: Lost in Translation

In Which We Look Out Windows

I’m going to level with you, the name of this series is a lie. Yes it is ostensibly the sequel to my feature covering the movies of the 90’s, but it’s title is wack. For as contentious, volatile, and uncertain the 2000’s were I would not describe them as a malaise. Troubled, yes, but malaise implies a slumping of some sort. A languidly turgid path forward marked by muddling about. There isn’t much of that in the culture of the time, which was colored by bombast, spectacle, and rough hewn action.

Which brings us to Coppola (Sofia that is) one of the few directors to actually create the bridge between the 90’s and 2000’s when it came to concocting a particular form of ennui. A hushed, ephemeral touch that glances off objects and people in a fashion that seems to go nowhere and everywhere all at once. Coppola has the knack for making films that feel like they were plucked out of specific moment and glazed in an isolated space. Yes something like The Virgin Suicides takes place in the 70’s, but it could also be a story from any time.

Which leads us to Lost in Translation, a movie made in a very specific moment that never the less feels like a transmission from some far off epoch. A film embroiled in glances, uncertainty, and the malaise of gazing out at neon lights. It’s the kind of tumble into the big city void that mostly evaporated when the millennium changed over, but it’s a tumble also based on that premise as well. That even further in the future, in a real, global, technologically integrated world, there is still that longing, loss, and wish for human connection.

So who’s wishing for human connection here? On one side we have Bob Harris (Bill Murray) a washed up movie star turned to doing ads in Japan for a quick buck, and on the other we have Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) a recent college graduate who is dragged around the world by her photographer husband. Amongst life in Tokyo the two slowly begin to connect and form a bond as two people out of their depths in the modern world. Will it last longer than the few days they know each other? That’s up to the viewer to decide.

What’s interesting, from a career perspective, is that Lost in Translation feels like a spiritual follow-up for two different films that Murray and Johansson starred in. While there’s not clean narrative line to be made between Rushmore and Translation, it’s obvious to see that Murray has become supremely aware of his image in the intervening years, and his performance here is attuned to that knowledge of how close he was to becoming a has been. For Johansson she could be playing the same character from Ghost World, a young person still unsure about their future and romantic possibilities. Prodding around the corners of their life to find purpose and meaning.

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Such connections make the bridge from the Millennial Malaise to the Post here. This is a movie about the things that come after those experiences, and the answer is mostly disappointing. Wandering in a world that seems to isolate as much as it embraces. That the grand revelations of the past can sometimes lead us to nowhere specifically, setting one adrift in a world that is both mundane and mysterious.

If ever there was a director to capture this incredibly specific emotional space, its Coppola. With Suicides she demonstrated a key eye for the details of life. Totems that marked an individual’s personality, a keen sense of idiosyncrasy in the unknowable, and crate diving soundtracks sure to make all the indie kids swoon. Translation takes these elements and refines them even further, removing some of the cutesier turns (like onscreen text and flashy montages) for something closer to reality, but also just as removed.

The gauzy lens and saturated colors return here, but they are refracted through even more elements before. One would run out of digits trying to count the amount of shots that deploy light reflected through glass. Said disillusionment doesn’t end there. No there are dreamy images permeating through night clubs, pachinko parlors, bars, and restaurants through the whole thing. An entire metropolis for our lost souls to meander through.

And meander they do. Lost in Translation, for its relatively average running time is mostly a mood piece. The experience of being somewhere that looks like the world one comprehends, but isn’t. Indeed it takes thirty full minutes before our two leads speak directly to each other, but each moment of ennui inflected staring does the heavy lifting in making this unlikely couple’s relationship believable. 

That being said it is undeniable that the execution of said isolation is now more than a bit questionable. It’s one thing to make a movie about bumbling Americans in a foreign land, it’s another to turn a different culture into a series of almost blackout-esque gags. Coppola leans a touch too hard on “those wacky Japanese” tropes. From Bill Murray uncomfortably using an exercise machine, to Bill Murray constantly misunderstanding people through their thick accents, to Bill Murray constantly dwarfing Tokyo citizens (though granted Bill Murray is quite tall). It’s a whiff of not quite xenophobia, but let’s say condescension, that holds the movie down in retrospect.

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Thankfully the film mostly gets over that through Murray and Johansson’s performances and a shift away from being constantly confused by their surroundings. Once they two have a wild night on the town the world of Tokyo blossoms from a place of hostility to a place of opportunity, we see that the hackles had been raised too high, and their inability to make the most of their time abroad is mostly self imposed ennui chasing.

It has been a realm of much debate how romantic the relationship between Bob and Charlotte end up. Coppola smartly needles the thread of making it as romantic as the viewer wants to some degree. Her stylistic technique of constantly glancing off of one another allows her lost souls to be enveloped in uncertainty. They bond they form is obviously strong, but is questionably lasting. Would one last kiss or whisper be permanent, or lost in the neon of the Tokyo skies. Such ambiguity is where Coppola thrives, and even among the more questionable elements of Lost in Translation, it’s why the ending still stands out as one of cinema’s most notable.

Odds and Ends

  • I don’t have a fully fleshed out treatise or theory, but it could be argued that this movie is kind of a proto-vaporwave art piece. The hued neon, Tokyo setting,  and 80’s indie music certainly help.
  • As well as a critical darling this movie was also a huge hit, grossing over $100 million. It makes sense in retrospect given the nature of the two leads and director, but something this hushed and ambiguous crossing over into the mainstream feels notable.
  • The style in this movie is also representative of a very specific moment that disappeared almost as quickly as it arrived, which is the pre-HD era of the 2000’s. Everyone still has CRT TVs and blocky cell phones, but the future is lurking right around the corner. 
  • While Translation epitomizes the Sofia Coppola style, I think time has led me to finding Marie Antionette  my favorite film of hers.

Open for suggestions again for next week.