Lost in the Movies: The Favorites - Lost in Translation (#98)

The Favorites - Lost in Translation (#98)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Lost in Translation (2003/USA/dir. Sofia Coppola) appeared at #98 on my original list.

What it is • A tone poem of a movie, Lost in Translation contains worlds although little happens onscreen. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson at her most lush) is visiting Tokyo with her filmmaker husband. He's distracted by work, she doesn't know what she wants to do yet with her life, and when he leaves for a few days she finds herself lonely and disoriented in the strange urban landscape and luxurious yet slightly unreal hotel. There she meets Bob Harris (Bill Murray), a morose aging actor in town to shoot a whiskey commercial. They become fast friends, sharing a bemused yet curious perspective, and perhaps they even begin to fall in love. The film, which follows Charlotte and Bob through nocturnal excursions (kitschy karaoke bars, anarchically surreal arcades, mellow pot parties) and daily adventures (a graceful Air-scored excursion to Kyoto, Bob's hilarious cameo on a zany game show), was highly acclaimed and awarded (including an Oscar for writer/director Sofia Coppola's screenplay). But it seems to have as many detractors as it does enthusiasts, detractors who find it pretentious, boring, smug, meandering, and so forth. Well, they're wrong.

Why I like it •
The film works at a certain frequency, but if you don't tune in to it, its charms will probably escape you. There's also some noise that can get in the way - Coppola's (and hence the characters') outlook is somewhat elitist and self-satisfied, and if you can't get past that, then the movie's appeal will be "lost in translation" for sure. But if you can take the good of the characters with the bad and then proceed to find that place - that place that arises when you have a moment to spare and take a look around you as if for the first time, when you're on a bus looking out a window or going for a walk through a neighborhood you've never seen before; or you're sitting outside and noticing a detail on the sidewalk or across the street or in a landscape that somehow escaped your attention until this quiet moment; when you're talking to someone, getting past the point of overfamiliarity until suddenly, with surprise, their face takes on a new, and seemingly more honest, character...well, then you've found the key to Lost in Translation's magic. It also works if you're in a romantic frame of mind: I saw it in theaters, and liked it but didn't consider it great - only when I viewed it again, on video, at a time when I had a crush on one of my classmates, did it truly weave its spell. I watched it over and over in the next few days, in a dizzying loop. My nascent infatuation went no further than Charlotte's and Bob's, but since then this film has been one of my favorites.

How you can see it • Lost in Translation is available in streaming and on DVD from Netflix. A clip from the film is featured at 3:00 in "Reality Cinema", Chapter 31 in my video series.

What do you think? • Are you one of the fans, or one of the haters? Is this Sofia Coppola's best film, and if so, why? How much do you credit Bill Murray, and the comedic elements, for the film's success? Have you ever had an experience similar to that in the film, and if so did it impact your enjoyment? What do you think was whispered at the end of the film - do you buy the You Tube translations?


Previous week: La Haine (#99)

Next week: Celine and Julie Go Boating (#97)


Mike said...

Damn it I'm a week behind! Haha I've got the La Haine dvd in the mail today so I'll watch it soon and post a comment on that post. As for this movie its been sitting in my Netflix instant queue forever, hopefuly I'll be able to see it today or tomorrow. I think I'll like it, I don't mind 'slow/pretentious' movies altough I don't know how a movie starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson could be boring. Oh well.

Unknown said...

I love this film and have felt that it is BEFORE SUNRISE if directed by Wong Kar-Wai. Coppola certainly likes to linger on beautiful people photographed in gorgeously-lit places much like Wong does. They also seem to have an affinity for sad people at a crossroads in their lives and unrequited love.

Wonderful chemistry between Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray. They play so well off each other and I really felt like we got to know them and therefore cared about what happened to their characters over the course of the film.

I wonder how much of the film is autobiographical as much as been made about Giovanni Ribisi's character being a riff on Coppola's then-husband Spike Jonze and Anna Faris' character supposedly a riff on Cameron Diaz.

Joel Bocko said...

Mike, can't wait to hear your thoughts there (and on this) and I'm thrilled you're following along... I don't know how a Murray/Johannson movie can be boring either! Have you seen any other (younger) Coppola movies, and if so did you like them? I haven't seen anything since Marie Antoinette (not sure if she's had two since then, or just one) but of the first three, I think Lost is the best.

Joel Bocko said...

(Deleted version of this said "overkilled"; it was supposed to read "overlooked" which completely changes the meaning of the paragraph. Damn iPhone autocorrect!)


The connection between this and In the Mood for Love is very strong; in some ways I see this as kind of an "American director does 00s Asian cinema" movie the way a lot of young American directors shot European New Wave-style films in the late 60s, when Europe was hot and Hollywood was not. Though my sample size is still way too small, on what I've seen I like Asian cinema, pound for pound much more than American (or European) cinema this past decade, which might explain why this is one of my favorite (relatively) recent films!

One aspect of the film which sometimes gets overlooked - I don't think I even mentioned it above - is the screenplay. Ironic when you consider that's what won the film it's only Oscar! Still, praise understandably settles on the performances, the photography, the direction - yet despite the story's loose, wandering feel there is actually a very nice rhythm and structure to the way these two characters gradually, casually, and convincingly come together, and eventually, if not entirely, drift apart.

Shubhajit said...

"But it seems to have as many detractors as it does enthusiasts, detractors who find it pretentious, boring, smug, meandering, and so forth. Well, they're wrong." Haha, you've succinctly expressed your love there, Joel :D

Anyway, on a more serious note, I belong to neither of the 2 opposing camps as regards to this film - maybe because its been a long time since I watched this film. Your heartfelt review of this film - and it sure has number of very strong takers - has made me interested in going back to it. Perhaps I will sometime.

Joel Bocko said...

This is a movie that's definitely worth revisiting (especially if you didn't hate it the first time!). As I noted myself, I enjoyed the film in theaters but considered it relatively minor. Only on later re-viewings did I fall under its spell.

But it's one of those movies where, despite its quiet simplicity, there's so much going on: it's a poignant romance, a sensuous tone poem, and a pretty funny deadpan comedy (I love Murray's appearance on that Japanese talk show) all rolled into one.

Oh, and though I didn't mention it in the previous comment I'd put money on Ribisi being a Jonze riff (especially since Coppola has said the story is based very closely on a platonic romance she had with a middle-aged action star at a Tokyo hotel in her early twenties; though she refuses to name him). And I'd put double whatever I put on that, on the Farris character being a Cameron Diaz knockoff (after Jonze shot her in Being John Malkovich). Diaz must be one of the LiT-haters lol.

Jeff Pike said...

This is also one of my favorites. Nobody has mentioned it specifically, maybe because it's so obvious, but Lost in Translation has also got a really excellent soundtrack, with some amazing marriages of images and music.

Joel Bocko said...

Yes, definitely both the songs used and the score itself. (Coppola also does wonders with Air in Virgin Suicide.) I love My Bloody Valentine, and both the use of "Sometimes" and the original music by Kevin Shields just do a wonderful job creating this ethereal mood that's so hard to sum up in words. Maybe more than any other movie I've seen, this is essentially a mood piece about communicating a certain way of feeling, in the moment, a bit woozy and disoriented, yet romantically inclined (in the broad as well as specific sense of the word). The way one usually feels during those times that one remembers for years afterwards as being a really "alive" moment. And music, as always, plays such a huge part in that.

Joel Bocko said...

It also strikes me, rather oddly, given the point we both just made about the film being so musical - that it's also kind of a novelistic film in a way. It doesn't ape novelistic forms by any means - so much is unarticulated in this movie - but it goes for what might be called novelistic aims: carving a sense of character and consciousness out of a specific time and place. (It helps that there seem to be correspondences to particular books; A Room With a View comes to mind.) A novel would do this with detailed descriptions, both of concrete objects and actions and also of characters' thought processes and feelings. This film does it by lingering over moments and allowing room for a lot of seemingly tangential details and moments which add to the texture.

Unknown said...

Speaking of music as a massive Jesus and Mary Chain fan, I was particularly taken with the prominent use of "Just Like Honey" at the pivotal moment in the film! That's the most exposure they had in years. Coppola used just the right song at just the right moment.

Jeff Pike said...

Joel, in terms of its literary forebears I will have to look at it again with some of your ideas in mind. My first thought is that it fits pretty neatly with the wide swaths of MFA fiction looking to Raymond Carver first, those ambiguously elliptical but intricately concrete pastiches, usually short stories, and which I love! (thinking of Kate Braverman, Mary Gaitskill, Jayne Anne Phillips, short story writers all)

Joel Bocko said...

None of whom I've read, so no comment there haha! The approach to romance seems very literary though - there's a way movies approach strangers falling in love (even when platonic, like Brief Encounter), and a way literary fiction does - in movies, there's usually more a passionate, less wistful feel. That's why Translation reminds me of the Forster. (Or Brideshead Revisited, which I'm just reading now - the romance on the ship, although the relationship between the characters has a history, definitely reminds me of Translation. And wow, I was halfway through typing this when I remembered the 'Evelyn Waugh' gag from the film! Maybe its not a coincidence?).

Joel Bocko said...

Yeah that's a pretty sublime musical moment there, J.D. What did you think of Coppola's later films? I've only seen Marie Antoinette.

Mike said...

Well I finally got around to seeing it, and wow. As I predicted it was not boring, far from it. Really I felt completely absorbed every second. There were none of the typical romance movie clichés which is part of what made it so compelling. This is my first Sofia Coppola film, and I'm interested to see some more. Anything you could recommend?

For some reason, and I might be alone on this one, but this film reminded me of 25th Hour. Both are films in which the city they take place in play a huge part in the narrative. Both have very natural feeling dialogue. Both avoid the clichés of their genre. And both are overall pretty sad with ambiguous endings. Idk.

Oh and the funniest scene for me was when Bill Murray was doing the whiskey commercial and the director kept yelling at him. And any time Murray and Johansson are on screen together you just can't look away. They have that straight-up naturalistic chemistry. The script which allowed them to act more realistically was also great.
Overall great movie.

Joel Bocko said...

Glad you liked it Mike - I'm sure we won't see eye to eye on all the Favorites, but so far 2 for 2. Interesting comparison there; both films came out around the same time (well, a year apart) and both capture a kind of weary, disoriented post-9/11 mood, 25th Hour way more obviously of course. If you haven't yet, you might want to check out the "Reality Cinema" chapter of my clip series, 32 Days of Movies, where I sampled both films. They definitely both form part of the same cinematic landscape in my memory/imagination.

And yeah, the chemistry is amazing, which is kind of surprising when you think about it (would anyone have associated these two before this film?). But it just works.

STinG said...

I never get this movie's being called 'overrated'. In my opinion, it stands up as a great picture who can elicit a feeling of alienation and loneliness better than most pictures - and all on the basics of image and performance that is the very foundation of cinema.
I haven't seen any of Sofia's other pictures, but this is definitely a favorite of mine, up there with most of her father's work on my list.
It's definitely also the movie that allowed Bill Murray to begin to move from the Ghostbusters smart-alec role (though Bob still has a bit of smart-alec humor in him) to the guy who's out of touch with his surrounding world - similar to Steve Zissou or Broken Flowers. Definitely the film that turned his career around.

Most of all the whispers, I never cared what it was. I saw some of the YouTube translations, but don't remember and don't really think it matters. It's just some natural looking farewells. And it worked as a natural farewell to me, a bit of mystery, but nothing to get crazed about.

Joel Bocko said...

STinG, agreed that the gesture is more important than what's said. Funny, I don't really remember the You Tube translations either. Except that they were all different from one another!

As for Murray, while this is the film that clinched his transition, I think it began with Rushmore, where we see him begin to morph into the middle-aged melancholic role he's played so well for the past dozen years or so. (I've even seen some point to Groundhog Day for the roots of the transition, although maybe it was there all along, beneath the smart-alec.)

To both you and Mike, as noted before I haven't seen Somewhere but I liked both Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette. The latter strikes me as a grand folly kind of film; I'm not really sure it has much of a point but it's quite enjoyable. Virgin Suicides is a fascinating feature debut; it was one of the first films I wrote up on the blog, and while I find Translation a more cohesive picture, there's definitely "something" about Virgin Suicides that's hard to put your finger on. All of Coppola's films have a kind of dreamy, swooning aesthetic that I find intoxicating and highly cinematic. It surprises me too that many seem to reject her vision.

Sam Juliano said...

I was never a fan of the film, and used the "P" word more than a few times to access it, and posed it showcased style over substance. Still the cinematography is arresting and Murray does what he's supposed to do. Enjoyed the thread here immensely, but four viewings still couldn't do it for me. Great post as always!

Unknown said...

Joel: I liked MARIE ANTOINETTE and the daring, jarring use of contemporary music in a period film. I haven't seen her last one - SOMEWHERE - as I was turned off by the criticisms that it was basically the West Coast/California answer to LOST IN TRANSLATION but having seen Elle Fanning in SUPER 8 and how amazing she was in that so I should really give it a go.

Joel Bocko said...

Sam, yeah I know you're not a fan - was wondering if you'd show up! It's ok, we forgive you. ;)

J.D., a "West Coast answer to Lost in Translation"? Hmm, weird, especially since it's a father/daughter tale!

I get Elle Fanning mixed up with Chloe Moretz I think - in fact I'm pretty sure I thought it was the latter in Super 8...

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