Tuesday, September 21, 2004

MOVIE WEEKEND 2: LOST IN TRANSLATION

I’ll say right up front that this movie was not made for me. This film relies almost entirely on the ability of the audience to empathize with Scarlett Johansson’s character, and it becomes almost impossible to enjoy if your psychological make-up/attitude/background/alignment are not close enough to bridge the gap of feeling between Charlotte and everyone else. I would probably have loved this movie, another words, if I didn’t think she was a whiny bitch that won’t take responsibility for herself. I really liked many things about this movie, but I felt shut out of its core.

The street scenes of Tokyo were fantastic, and worked to build the bright but alien/alienating atmosphere that was obviously indented. Bill Murray was funny for the 15 minutes or so that he was supposed to be (the scene in the hospital waiting room was hilarious). Certain scenes really worked (the phone conversation in the tub was chilling; the Porsche pronunciation parlay was subtle). And the ending evoked “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (the MOVIE) in a mostly good, but slightly problematic way (more on this later).

The problems start with the dialogue (or lack thereof). There was a stiffness and lack of genuineness to much of the dialogue, and, I believe, this contributed (along with a sense that it might possibly be “deeper” to do it this way) to the fact that so much emphasis was placed on communication through heavy silences. The problem in writing this way is that it places a LOT of faith in your actors’ ability to communicate effectively in this manner, and this is not easy. Johansson is, in my opinion, just not up to the task, and, perhaps surprisingly, neither is Murray. They don’t fall on their faces, but I just don’t think they ultimately bear the burden that these silent passages place on their abilities.

Murray is not as much of a problem as Johansson because when he’s being funny (which is a chunk of his screen time) he is undeniably entertaining, while she has nothing to do but brood and occasionally converse. The movie is also centered on her for most of its length (with a subtle shift towards him at the end) and more time is spent fixedly watching her character, and creating a situation where the movie lives or dies on her performance. My theory about Scarlett Johansson (formed while watching “Ghost World” for the first time) is that she comes off as the girl you think is pretty, but that you think other people see as plain, so you feel “special” for being attracted to her. The thing is, that’s what everyone thinks. But having this preconceived nature is a useful bit of equipment to bring to roles, so I find her generally interesting as an actress.

Her character Charlotte, if I’m reading her right, is actually more Enid than Rebecca, though - if Enid had gone to Yale and delayed her crisis of self-worth a few years. Charlotte is Prozac Nation fallout – certain she is superior to everyone else because a) she’s smarter and b) she suspects she has more depth somehow, but is faced with the dawning realization that she is ill equipped for anything important in life (true feeling, living life, finding fulfillment). We are supposed to know this because a) Hubby John tells us she’s a Yale graduate, b) Hubby John tells us she feels superior to everyone else, c) she tells someone on the phone she doesn’t feel anything, and d) she hangs out by the window a lot, silently not doing anything (like, you know, feeling or living). This is a lot of telling, and a lot of assumptions to be made in a performance vacuum.

When moments of understanding come, they often “strike” from nowhere. Bob telling Charlotte in the restaurant something like “sorry, I didn’t know I was the only one around keep you entertained” (damn, I wish I could remember the exact phrase). This is kind of a slap in the face to Charlotte and the audience, who didn’t know Bob was feeling this kind of thing (I didn’t at least – and I know, this was mostly defensive posturing, but it seemed to come out of nowhere). And then there’s the embrace at the end.

I love the book “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and I think the movie, though thoroughly compromised of course, acquits itself fairly well. The ending is the obvious hot spot illustrating the difference between novel and movie: instead of Holly running off to Africa to resume her pantheonic role as free spirit (which the end of “Almost Famous,” with Kate Hudson playing the most thinly veiled Holly Golightly rip-off in history, gets exactly right), the characters embrace on the street suggesting that they could live happily ever after. One of the beauties of this scene, however, is that with a little thought, we realize they won’t, and the scene becomes not a pat Hollywood ending, but an endearing character moment, as the two connect on some level, even though the DON’T have a future together. Odd place to put THE END, but hey – Audrey Hepburn can sell anything.

Lost in Translation delivers us the implied ending of this scene as the actual ending. Bob and Charlotte, who previously come hesitatingly together, inadvertently wounding each other, come together again and embrace, happy with the moment of connection as something to carry on with them, even though they will likely never meet again. The movie is about the collision of the two major change of life crises – youth to maturity, and productive years to old age, and the glimmer of recognition as two ships pass each other against the backdrop of an alien and unfamiliar seas. As such, this ending works just fine, although by setting itself BiT as a point of comparison, is comes off lacking. Charlotte is Holly Golightly robbed of the transcendence of the human spirit, and Lost in Translation is “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” robbed of its lost but shining star (and through this, its meaning).

2 Comments:

At 3:01 PM, Blogger David Fiore said...

Wow Todd--couldn't disagree more with you on this one, but I think you're right that, unless you're 100% on board with these characters, you aren't gonna to leave the station with this film...

I wrote a bit about this movie when I first saw it (and then a bit more--in connection with Cerebus!--here), but, for guy that's been going around describing it (along with PunchDrunk Love) as my favourite film of the millenium (so far!), I really haven't said enough! Thanks for reminding me that I should buy it, watch it a few hundred times, and then really tell the world what I think of it! (a lot of it is bound up with my investment in the tradition of "American Silences" in American art & lit. described in this book by J.A. Ward--plus my understanding of how the tradition relates to Hollywood melodrama and romantic comedies--so, again, I think you're dead on target in your highlighting of the importance of the gaps in the conversations... it's so weird how these things can affect people in such diametrically opposed ways, don't you think?)

Dave

 
At 3:42 PM, Blogger Todd C. Murry said...

I can easily see how someone (who is not me) might like this movie. There are some films that seems like the ante has been raised on any opinion, so that you’re either gonna win big or go broke. There does seem to be something powerful in this movie that I may just have been incapable of appreciating in my current mental iteration, leaving me with the feeling of void in the movie’s center, where others may see something sublime. That would have changed my view of everything else about it, including the performances.

 

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