Special Review: “Lost in Translation” – A Personal Valentine’s Day Reflection
Produced by: Sofia Coppola & Ross Katz, Stephen Schible (co-producer), Francis Ford Coppola (executive producer)
Written by: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi, Anna Faris, Akiko Takeshita, Fumihiro Hayashi, Catherine Lambert
Music by: Kevin Shields
First off, if you’ve been tuning in or wondering where the heck I’ve been since last Tuesday (you were, weren’t you, admit it), well, then I’m glad to let you know that I was just sick for a little over 4 days. Luckily, this overlapped with the weekend, and so I only missed two work days (and a birthday celebration, unfortunately). Melancholy about my own body’s tolerance for the common cold aside, I did get afforded a long break from work, which I spent eating ice cream to soothe my sore throat and watching some fantastic movies. Luckily, I am better now, despite a persistent cough and some clogged ears, and am ready to get writing just in time to do a holiday review!
It’s nearly Valentine’s Day of course. Before my sickness hit, I had long contemplated reviewing the film Blue Valentine, just to be spiteful towards the holiday spirit, but I had also contemplated something mushy like Sleepless in Seattle, too, which I own primarily due to the fact that my mom bought a second copy, forgetting she had the first. (Also how I came to own The Breakfast Club, though I had asked for that one!)
But in my sickness, I got a nostalgia pang for Japan. I lived in Japan for 3 years thanks to the military back in the late 90s (my dad was Air Force), and my grandmother is also Japanese, so I’ve truly missed the culture (mostly the food, though that was sated by going to the local ramen house nearby). When 13 Assassins didn’t quench this thirst for all things Japanese, however, I stared at my movie collection for a while and realized how long it had been since I last saw Lost in Translation. What perfect timing!
In a way, the movie is perfect for someone in my position this time of year, not just because it’s nearly Valentine’s Day, but also just because of where I personally am in my own life. Though both characters in the film, Bob and Charlotte (Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson), are married and I am not, they are both lonesome, and both feel as though their lives have come to an abrupt stop, even though they are at completely different stages in their respective lives from each other – Charlotte just having gotten out of college and Bob on the verge of a midlife crisis.
I first saw this film just before I started college back around 2005, having heard a lot of great things about it, but having never seen it largely thanks to a rather graphic but brief visit to a strip club that the characters take in the film, causing my mom to basically forbid me from watching it, despite my legal adulthood. (I was such a good kid…)
It was around this time that I had become a bit more of a social, outgoing person. It was also a time when my parents were separating. One would be correct in guessing whether there was a correlation between the two, but possibly not from the correct perspective – I was a terribly repressed person up until my first semester of my high school junior year, having grown up in a terrible environment thanks to an abusive father, and so the separation (and eventual divorce) was certainly a liberating period for me. I grew to think that I was finally beginning to understand where my life was going.
However, I did eventually sneak the film – not for the rather bizarre bit of nudity included, but truly because I was on the verge of discovering film as art at the time and wanted to be “in” on this critical hit. I found myself being deeply touched by the film. It was one of the first of the new wave of indie films that were becoming big hits around the time it was released, and it was also one of the first truly “mature” film-lover films I had seen that had turned me onto film as a serious subject. (Also, yeah, I wasn’t nearly as obedient as I said, I guess, but I did eventually confess, all on my own, so it’s all good! Thanks for buying the movie for me anyway, Mom!)
The wonderful thing about Lost in Translation isn’t the fact that it simply acknowledges its characters existential crises, however. Lost in Translation concentrates on these characters and allows them to share their similar feelings with each other, even though each comes from different ends of life. And in watching the film, it almost seems to acknowledge our own anxieties. Here they are, strangers in a strange land, and instead of seeing adventure and great opportunities up ahead of them, like most movie characters would, they instead see something all the more common in people today: loneliness, meaninglessness, and then their recognition that they’re just longing for someone who feels the same as they do. (And you don’t necessarily have to go to a foreign country to feel the same way about your own life, either.)
Curve balls come, of course, and, having come out of my shell so late into the high school game, it was also around this time that the reality of college dawned on me, that it was going to be a completely new experience for me all over again, and I would be leaving behind a period in my life where I felt I had only just settled. And while I had the backup of my best friend and his roommate, who also became a reliably close friend, I began the process of retracing my steps back to that shell I had left behind, and not too long before, either. Questions like “What are you majoring in?” and other school/career-related questions quickly became existential crises, and every bit of counselling I received was a dagger through my sensitive ego, as if I wanted complete control and yet could not seem to manage it on my own, at the same time.
It was at this point that I began to really identify with the Scarlett Johansson character, Charlotte. As I had largely concentrated my life on the broad subject of “English,” she, too, majored in the equally “useless” major of Philosophy, and up to the point at which the film takes place, she hadn’t really done anything with it. People had been asking me, “Are you going to be a teacher?” An answer in the affirmative was the furthest thing from the truth of what I actually wanted to be, and even though “film critic” was more truthful, I often felt as though it was far more implausible and unimportant than teaching.
Of course, here I am, over a year and a half out of school and, like Charlotte, not doing anything with my degree. While I have a job that is keeping me alive, my education has seemingly transformed into a hobby with over $19,000 of debt behind it, and God only knows what kind of future lies ahead for me. Charlotte at one point visits a Buddhist monastery and laments the fact that she felt nothing. As a Christian, I do believe that God has a plan for me, but even so, there are times when I feel as though when people ask me, “What do you do?” I’ll eventually be giving the same answer as Charlotte does in the film: “I’m not sure yet, actually.”
Strangely, though I’m far closer to Charlotte’s age, I can also begin to feel as though I’m starting to somehow identify with the Bill Murray character, Bob, as well. Though Bob has already been married for the same number of years I’ve been alive (25), and though he has had children and has made a life of doing what he loves (Bob : acting :: Me : writing), he has also come to a point in his life where he has seemingly run his course and can go no further.
Bob was a famous actor back in the 70s and 80s, possibly into the 90s, but it’s clear now that his brightest days are behind him, as he’s now doing commercials for a brand of whiskey that he can’t even really endorse truthfully. (“This is not whiskey. This is iced tea,” he laments at a photo shoot.) At one point, Charlotte asks him a hard question in return: “You’re probably just having a mid-life crisis. Did you buy a Porsche yet?” Of course, these days, there’s a new phrase that is being tossed around for people who are at the same stage of their lives as Charlotte and I: the “quarter-life crisis.” And I’m worried that I’ve fallen into the crowd, unheard, and unseen.
Luckily, the film isn’t simply one morose moment trudging into another, as it gives hope to dreary characters like Charlotte, Bob, and myself. Director and writer Sophia Coppola’s choice to keep the characters together and yet never let them sleep together or, more improbably, run off into the rising sun together illustrates that two people can make each other happier, even if only for a period of time. More permanently, they can also enable each other to be more adventurous and more courageous the further their relationship develops, all without falling into the trap of destroying or uprooting the life they have already planted and cultivated for themselves.
Though there is a clear attraction between the two, as there was clear meaning behind the final largely unscripted and silent scene they share together, it’s a platonic and far more universal attraction. They are smart enough to know that they need more than just sex and passion to be satisfied and comforted. What they provide each other is the strength to keep moving forward through the hardship, providing companionship in their shared loneliness and mutual understanding of each other’s anxieties – both silently acknowledging they need to work with their respective spouses through each action and inaction when they are around each other.
The profound relationship between the young Charlotte and aging Bob is one that you’re not really going to find in your typical Valentine’s Day romance film. While it’s certainly unwise to take any film as the sole guiding light of your life choices, Lost in Translation is one of those incredibly personal films that I find tremendous power in. Sleepless in Seattle props up the the romantic but unrealistic hope that there is always the perfect person out there for you if you just believe, and Blue Valentine serves as the counterpoint in recognizing the awful truth of a seemingly perfect romance’s ability to wither and die.
Of all the romantic films I’ve come across, however, only Lost in Translation offers something truly worth remembering if you’re feeling lonely on this totally manufactured and overall trite holiday: Love doesn’t always mean romance, matrimony, and being together forever. Sometimes it’s simply a person who comes into your life for a moment of time and knows exactly what you need whispered into your ear.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4.5 / 5