Fifteen Years Later, Still Lost in Translation 


Lost in Translation, reads the opening title, as if translation were a place, a city with streets to wander and delights to find, and the characters’ lostness—initially discomfiting—has grown pleasurable, a misadventure turned to fun, thanks to the company. At least we’ll have a good story to tell, we say on such occasions, but Bob and Charlotte won’t share this story with anyone—no one would understand. No sex, no scandal, nothing out of the ordinary. No, the story is one they’ll tell themselves, in the quiet of long days and nights: one of many stories from which our truer lives are made.

Fifteen years ago—half a life ago, if your life is the length of mine—Charlotte spotted Bob across the Park Hyatt Tokyo bar and smiled, recognizing. Not who he wasthough she knew—but the slump in his shoulders and the tired in his eyes, the evident fact that he was having just as strange and terrible a time as she was. He was a middle-aged movie star on his way to washing up; she was a twenty-something with no idea how to wade through the vast expanse of time—her life!—suddenly laid out before her. And I watched their meeting from the aching, wish-ridden world of adolescence, where every song came to occupy my bloodstream and every scene was a possibility.

we were perfectly aware, thank you very much, that we didn’t look like Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte. But man, did we feel like her

“It’s as if someone made a movie about my life,” I remember a friend saying of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, “only with none of the plot points the same.” None of the plot points were the same: we didn’t spend our days visiting shrines and gardens; we weren’t married to international photographers or befriending famous actors; we’d never wandered Tokyo’s arcades and karaoke bars and strip clubs. We’d never been to any karaoke bars or strip clubs, for that matter. We’d never stayed in a hotel, not a real one; we wore pilling sweatpants when we moped around our rooms, and we were perfectly aware, thank you very much, that we didn’t look like Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte. But man, did we feel like her.

In an interview, Coppola compared Charlotte’s breakdown to Franny’s in J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. Seeking spiritual enlightenment in the midst of a shattering depression, Franny reads The Way of the Pilgrim and repeats the Jesus Prayer; Charlotte listens to self-help tapes about the soul. Both seek to frame their angst in the context of a more elevated struggle, an effort that echoes throughout Western thought at least as far back as the Middle Ages when depression was known as “scholar’s melancholy.”

But there’s nothing scholarly or soulful about this: this constant irritability, this inability to eat (Franny) or sleep (Charlotte), this overwrought anguish brought on by the fact that nothing—not traveling, not talking, not the polite laughs we’re expected to offer nor the polite lies we’re supposed to tell—seems worth it any longer, worth the sheer, unbearable effort. Every little thing begins to seem incredibly, unfathomably stupid, but this knowledge doesn’t make our heroines feel any less stupid themselves.

“And the worst part was,” Franny tells her brother Zooey, “I knew what a bore I was being, I knew how I was depressing people, or even hurting their feelings—but I just couldn’t stop! I just could not stop picking.” Charlotte, too, can’t stop picking, but when she tries to find an ally in her clueless husband, to make light of her ill-tempered state—“Evelyn Waugh was a man,” she confides as if sharing a gleeful secret—she’s met with admonishment. “Not everybody went to Yale,” her husband scolds.

So there’s a wry, wonderful pleasure when Charlotte finds someone not to take her out of her unhappiness, but to meet her there. Bob, as played by Bill Murray, doesn’t need her to explain or elevate her state, doesn’t need her to snap out of it or lighten up or just relax. He is her co-conspirator, and she is his. They can be plain and miserable with each other, and they find their misery lessened along the way.

When I moved in with my boyfriend four years ago, Lost in Translation was the only overlap between his Tarantino-heavy assembly of DVDs and my stack of Richard Linklater. For a long time, we kept both copies, sitting side by side in the middle of our merged collections. A bet hedged against a breakup, yes, but it also felt right to keep both. The movie he’d seen and loved wasn’t the movie I had; the two physical copies were an accurate representation of the two movies that existed in the space between screen and mind, his and mine.

“Perhaps your favorite film isn’t the one that you like best but the one that likes you best,” writes Teju Cole in Known and Strange Things. “It confirms you on first encounter, and goes on to shape you in some irreversible way. Often, you first see it when you’re young, but not too young, and on each subsequent viewing it is a home to which you return.”

Watching Lost in Translation at 30, I’m on high alert for the ways the movie has changed; the ways I have changed. But the diminishments I half-expected aren’t the ones I find. Most of Coppola’s Japanese characters still toe the line, a very fine one, between merely flat and caricature—the joke of the sex worker’s accent still makes me cringe, not laugh. It’s easy to decry the film’s focus on two wealthy white people plying a foreign city like a proto-Instagram shoot. But what use or artfulness is offered by criticism that demands a movie or book or television show be another movie or book or television show entirely?

He is a wretched outline of a man, and he knows it, and this knowledge compounds its cause. Of course, he’s also our hero

Trying to meet the movie on its own terms, I see the most cartoonish of background characters (the sex worker, the talk-show host known as “the Japanese Johnny Carson”) as playing the one-note roles expected of them—the characters are playing these roles, that is, not the actors. Bob’s Japanese handlers, the director of the commercial, the photographer at the shoot—all operate within the absurd framework of the fame industry, and that rickety scaffolding, more than any of the people who prop it up, is one subject of the film’s deconstruction.

Another is Bob. In each of his interactions—whether with director and photographer or with a shower head, an exercise machine—the joke’s on him. He is the stereotype, the caricature, sketched in only the faintest strokes: the Porsche-shopping fool fumbling his way into a mid-life crisis, the once-ambitious artist selling out, the dumb American who doesn’t know the language, the oafish john, the cheating husband, and the absent father. He plays golf against the staggering backdrop of Mt. Fuji and walks routinely, joylessly, after his ball. Bob ignores both fans and faxes from his wife; he barely leaves the plush nowhere-land of the hotel. He is a wretched outline of a man, and he knows it, and this knowledge compounds its cause.

Of course, he’s also our hero. He’s given, both by the script and by Murray’s soul-scraping performance, a depth denied to almost every other character, from the Japanese hotel employees and businessmen to Charlotte’s sycophantic husband and the ditzy American actress played by Anna Faris. The latter is as caricatured as they come—“We both have two dogs, and we both live in LA, so we have all these different things in common”—but she’s only the most outrageous piece of evidence, among many, of the unforgiving eyes with which our protagonists, mired in their respective crises, see the world.

This distance felt by Charlotte and Bob is literalized in the phone calls they make and receive: to Charlotte’s friend, from Bob’s wife and agent back home. The voices coming through the phones are low, a little staticky, hard for the moviegoer to hear. What they say hardly matters. They can’t cut through the atmosphere surrounding our main characters, whose brutal moods terraform a planet just big enough for two.

Coppola has called Lost in Translation a “valentine” to Tokyo, though she should know better: her love letter is to her own experience of the city, where she spent time in her 20s, and not the city itself. This isn’t a flaw but an essential feature, the reason for the movie’s being and achievement. “There’s no such thing as setting in fiction,” a teacher of mine used to say. “There’s only point of view.” The Tokyo of Coppola’s movie is a city that exists only in the minds of its protagonists: glittering, elusive, unsettling, exhilarating. The movie before us could take place anywhere. This fact can be deployed as a criticism, but it serves as the film’s beating heart. Lost in Translation isn’t a portrait of a place nor even of people, but of the shimmering space around and between them, a diptych that grows singular as it goes.

Returning to the movie, I feared that this relationship, too, might be diminished by time: both the length of time that has passed since the movie’s release and the moment of time in which I watch, weighted with a hyper-vigilant attention to all that can go wrong between older, more powerful men and younger, less powerful women. But Bob’s interest in a woman 20 years his junior strikes me as even more gentle, even less sexually charged, than it once did. Credit is due to Murray’s veteran presence, but credit is due, too, to Coppola’s faith in the specific story she is bent on telling, its details and its ambition.

Both Bob and Charlotte are perfectly aware of how it looks, of the dull and ancient narrative that would claim them, of the clichés that would hem them in. So is the film they occupy. “Movies are not about what they’re about,” as Roger Ebert used to say. “They’re about how they’re about them.” Lost in Translation goes about its well-worn plot with a tone neither sinister nor saccharine, trying to convince the viewer of neither the rightness nor the wrongness of its central romance, but simply of its plain, particular existence.

Art is made of stronger stuff than straw

In the course of doing so, the movie makes the admirable argument that qualities like softness and quiet are as deserving of rigorous artistic attention as their more bombastic, violent counterparts: a light kiss can be as meaningful as wall-slamming sex, a smile can convey more than a monologue. Why not be tender when we can? We know how it looks, yes, and yet. Bob tucks Charlotte into bed—she sleeps, at last—and departs for his own; he carries her down a hotel hallway like the child, we are reminded, that he has.

Is this complex? Is it nuanced? Is it the kind of complex, nuanced relationship we are told, by so many straw men, will be banished from our art and our lives in the cleansing flood of the MeToo movement? Art is made of stronger stuff than straw. Good and lasting art is more than capable of locating and excavating just such tenuous relationships; movies are, in fact, a grand arena in which we might examine our uncanny wants, our sudden and inexplicable loves. The relationship between Bob and Charlotte might sound, in summary, like a cheap fantasy—the aging man in search of vitality, the young woman in search of devotion—but summary is the opposite of art in general, of this movie in its unforgettable particulars.

“A woman must continually watch herself,” John Berger writes in Ways of Seeing. “She is almost continually occupied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.”

The camera turns to and from Charlotte in her solitary scenes, enacting this doubled vision: now we see her, now we see what she sees, now we see her again—but is it her, or what she imagines she must look like? Charlotte walks through crowds in Tokyo; Charlotte ties a slip of paper to a tree in Kyoto. Charlotte watches monks chanting and we watch her, as she does. “I didn’t feel anything,” she says, near tears: she knows how the scene was supposed to go, and that wasn’t it.

I’m reminded of a sentence in Franny and Zooey, when Franny breaks down in a restaurant bathroom, sitting on the floor of a stall with her knees tucked together and her hands over her eyes. “Her extended fingers, though trembling or because they were trembling, looked oddly graceful and pretty,” writes Salinger, but who’s saying this? An unknown but omnipresent narrator, yes, sure, most likely, but I’ve long harbored the unshakable thought that it’s Franny, seeing herself even as she weeps. As women have been taught and persuaded to do, Berger argues, for a very long time, the ability instilled in us by the broader culture but heartily abetted by art, by books (like Salinger’s), by too many movies to count. We know how we look.

I’ve known that despair. There’s nothing pretty about it

Charlotte—married to a photographer, spending her days between the hotel’s mirror and window—surely does. And Coppola uses that window as a picture frame, that mirror as an accent; every shot is a glamour shot. Charlotte, like Franny before her, is a wealthy, white avatar of a depression that does not pummel only the wealthy and the white. In Negroland, Margo Jefferson’s memoir of growing up in black society’s elite echelons, she describes how she and her peers “had been denied the privilege of freely yielding to depression, of flaunting neurosis as a mark of social and psychic complexity. A privilege that was glorified in the literature of white female suffering and resistance.”

It’s hard not to read glorification into the camera’s lingering shots on Johansson’s beautiful, sorrowful face, on her artfully semi-nude state. (Who on earth wears just underwear and a cardigan at the same time?) “Film always argues yes,” the critic Renata Adler says in her essay of the same title, meaning that movies can’t help conferring desirability on whatever they depict: even on violence, in Adler’s estimation, and definitely (easily, obviously) on the bloodless, gore-free pain of angst and ennui and their harsher iterations. It’s hard to feel squeamish about wounds we can’t see.

But what else would I have the camera do? I’m contradicting my own dictum, asking this film to be another one. The movie is what it was, but I’m not: the house has grown smaller around me after all. I could clock the distance between fifteen and thirty in my own semi-annual depression: its occurrence, remission, occurrence again. Something bridles in me, this time around, at Charlotte’s exquisite, well-kempt despair. I’ve known that despair. There’s nothing pretty about it.

I might know better, but that doesn’t mean I don’t find my throat clenching when Charlotte’s does, don’t find myself meeting Bob’s blank stare with my own. I’m in a strange city, too: my boyfriend—now fiancé—got a job here, and I tagged along. The country and the language are still mine, but I’ve lost some deeper mooring in the move. The last few months have been rough, casting me back to my overwrought 15-year-old self, my flailing early twenties. It’s easy to wish some glamour or some grandeur into this struggle, though I know of no such thing. I know that Charlotte’s condition, and mine, is as medical as it is existential, that it’ll pass. That knowledge doesn’t do either of us much good.

Something is lost in translation, not between languages but within them. We can’t make ourselves understood even to those who share our lives or our beds. We can’t quite hear, in turn, the world around us, the story running under our days. Like Bob at the commercial shoot, we’re sure we’re missing something. We’re sure there’s more. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” Charlotte says, but knowing what you’re supposed to do doesn’t make it any easier to do it. “I’m getting paid two million dollars to endorse a whiskey,” Bob says, “when I could be doing a play somewhere.”

We can’t make ourselves understood even to those who share our lives or our beds

Watching Bob and Charlotte’s story, which once felt like mine, I realize that people do these things at home, too—arrange flowers, perform water aerobics, play arcade games, sing karaoke, slump over a hotel bar listening to syrupy lounge music—but it can take travel to make us see them as a camera might. It can take travel, or it can take a breakdown, or it can take coming out of one, to heighten our awareness of the world’s absurdity and transcendence. Bob and Charlotte’s romance isn’t only with each other—the surrounding world is returned to them, the scrim lifting. The difficult becomes funny again, and the commonplace becomes sublime.

This is the gift, still, of Lost in Translation: I turn the movie off and return to my own life, where I find it just a little more shimmering than I left it as if seen through a lens or scored by a soundtrack. I walk to the post office through burnished leaves; I think to put the radio on while doing dishes and sing along. Risk exists in the glorification of any pain, great or small, but what about its end? The daily life, the pleasure of rising to the ordinary world after weeks or months of darkness, could do with a little glorifying.

Film always argues yes, but life doesn’t. We must make that case for ourselves.

Mairead Small Staid is a poet, critic, and essayist living in Minnesota.

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