Why Lost in Translation pisses me off

Jesus Christ, I can’t sleep. And let me tell you why: I just spent $21 on the Lost in Translation DVD, and although the movie was passable when I watched it, the more I think about it, the more it really pisses me off. So, here we go.

There’s some saying about if you make people think they are thinking they will love you, but if you really make them think, they’ll hate you. And because Lost in Translation was getting a lot of buzz from who I consider The Wrong People here in the big onion, I basically wrote off the film as being from the former category. I figured it was some kind of John Hughes flick for the metrosexual world traveler who considers themselves unique because they do the same exact stuff as everyone else. But for some reason, it stuck to me; too many people were telling me to check out this film, and I needed the ultimate excuse to say that I wasn’t into it, which would be to actually see it and decide if I hated it or not. So while standing in line at Virgin and waiting for a cashier, I snagged a copy of the DVD, and gave it a run later.

I’ll admit that without the hype, without the examination, it’s not a bad film. Bill Murray does a decent job, and Scarlett Johansson is easy on the eyes. Japan is a character in itself, and the mix of high tech and feng shui against busy people and crowded masses gives the film a beautiful quality that makes it easy to watch. Everything flows well, the humor about the modern Japanese lifestyle gets a giggle or two, and the story progresses naturally. It wasn’t unbelievable, it wasn’t difficult to swallow, and it felt just like sitting in a plus-class American rental car with low miles on the odometer and no traffic on the road. Except for the ending, which I’ll get to in a bit, I had no real complaints.

But then, the ending. And I thought about this movie more and more. What was the direction? What was the story really about? I went to IMDB and read up a bit. I talked to a friend about it. I thought about it more. And then I slowly came to the conclusion that I was duped, I was burned in a way that wasn’t as extreme as if a Puerto Rican gang bashed in my front door with a pipe wrench and carted my electronics into a waiting van, but it still really pissed me off.

Okay, first of all, Sofia Coppola. There was a lot of hype about how great of a director she is, her gift, her vision, whatever. I saw her first movie, The Virgin Suicides, and I’ll admit that I am a little biased about this movie because I took a somewhat lukewarm second date to this film at the BAM and it was about the stupidest thing outside of a GWAR concert I could’ve taken a date to, and I never spoke to her again. But aside from her, I thought the movie was the kind of thing that only a critic could love, like a cinematic version of Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica. The only strong theme was the suicide thing in the family, and the setting looked okay for a period piece, but wasn’t like The Omen or something, but it wasn’t supposed to be. The story just unwound, and yeah, Kirsten Dunst was great and the deaths were tragic and slightly gruesome, but it wasn’t supposed to be an all-out bloodfest and it wasn’t much of anything once you pulled away the hype. So she spent six million on a movie that pulled in four million and everyone forgot about it, but the critics kissed her ass and everyone had high hopes for her next one. But nobody really said she had great talent or hope. This was like a hobby for her, something her dad did and she dabbled in it, and she lost out, but maybe next time.

So then next time comes, and of course everyone says she’s a genius for making this film, and it’s not her dad’s fame or her (ex)husband’s influence or anything else, and that’s just a coincidence. To everyone who said that, I invite you to carefully re-read the opening credits to the film. Under Executive Producer, you will see the name Francis Ford Coppola. That is not a typo. What that means is that her dad was the one with the checkbook, and she went to him and he gave the greenlight and he signed his name on the dotted bank-type line. Maybe the money didn’t come out of his pocket, but it came out of a pocket that he knew well. And with that, he got a certain conditionally, and he granted a certain degree of acceptance, and I’m not saying he was on the set making sure all of the pants were pressed a certain way, but if you say he didn’t have anything to do with her ability to make this film, you are obviously high.

So she made the film. And one quality that a lot of reviewers say is how this film doesn’t have direction. Not that she let the assistant camera operator block all the shots or whatever – what I mean is that the film isn’t an action-packed, line-by-line, total French Connection dash from start to finish. It’s all loosey-goosey, all relaxed, like sitting back and watching the world wind out. Bill Murray is very relaxed, very minimalist. There are long periods where no dialogue happens, where people sit and stew in their juices. This is all planned, People like this. Less is more, right? That is the *direction*.

What pisses me off about this is that instead of building character, the film tends to let you build the character. You fill in the blanks about how Bob and Charlotte work, what makes them tick. This isn’t a film in which the social causes or ulterior motives are written on cardboard signs and shoved in your face. In fact, it makes you wonder halfway through what the ulterior motives might be. And while you’re waiting to see if Bob Harris turns out to be a big prick or a nice guy or a romantic loser, you tend to put your own shit out there and build up the character yourself. I have to admit that sometimes, that kind of thing is a useful thought in film. One of the reasons for the brat pack film is that you could put the jock and the stoner and the loser and the princess and the pervert on the screen at the same time and then have people pick which one they were or they wanted to be. And in a strange way, that’s almost what Coppola tries to do here with the two characters, but it uses less choices.

But this is what pisses me off about it: the film, not to ruin it, is ultimately a chick flick. It’s meant to be consumed by the individual that will identify with the Charlotte character, who will sympathize with her loneliness and lack of direction in life and confusion about what’s next. It’s meant to sell to the forever temp that’s the office admin who wants to be a dancer or a writer or an actor or whatever else, who is stuck with the dork boyfriend from college that isn’t working out and wants the has-been movie star with the charming manners to be their next project. This film is almost the opposite of Pretty Woman, but instead of Richard Gere in a mid-life crisis, it’s a late-twenties woman who doesn’t know what’s next and wants to find the answer. IT’S A CHICK FLICK!!! It’s not a comedy. It’s not a philosophical discourse into what makes us work or what we have become. It’s another great big “I want a man to complete me so I can have babies and be happy and live a life that is in no means real” movie.

Another thing that pisses me off about this genius filmmaker is that this story is largely based on her personal life of sitting in a hotel room while husband Spike Jones went off to work, leaving her to wonder what to do with her useless art degree and no direction to get on with the next project. So she took her reality and added some daydream of a guy that was neat and fun and interesting and the white knight in shining armor and slapped it on top. Of course, I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t mention that in Summer Rain, I took the boredom of the summer of 1992 and added a woman that was total fiction that I wanted to meet at that time. Of course, it sold like 17 copies and didn’t win any awards, so I think I’m free to bitch about it.

The ending is stupid. The whole movie never really tells you what’s going to happen, knowing that you will expect them to get together but that they can’t be together and they will say goodbye and blah blah blah. And the ending, it’s like the rest of the film in that nothing really happens, and you have to walk away from it wondering “so will they get together? Are they changed? Will he go with the burgundy carpet?” And it makes you talk. And it makes you think you’re thinking. And really the movie did NOTHING except show you a bunch of pretty pictures of Japan.

Bill Murray did a decent job in this. But he got a hell of a lot of hype that this was his big “comeback” performance, and that’s a load of shit. Everyone was saying the same exact thing about him when he did Rushmore, and he’s just playing the same basic character, except maybe on half of a lude. He’s done a lot of good stuff, he’s not bad here, and he’ll get much more work in the future. But he’s not Jesus Christ out of the tomb after three days.

Why do I feel ripped off? Because I feel like Coppola did something analogous to selling empty boxes on eBay. She made this film and generated this hype that it was some great, life-altering experience, but all it does it preys on the insecurities and invulnerabilities of a soul-seeking middle class yuppie group of people, and falsely affirms them. It’s nothing but empty resonation, with some good shots of Tokyo in the background. I’m glad I finally checked it out, but now I’m going to have to unload this DVD.

Okay, time to go to sleep now.

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