Sunday, February 9, 2014

Lost in Translation


Lost in Translation
Director: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi

I need to say this straight off the bat: I can’t write a normal review of Lost in Translation.  Expect precious little of what’s to follow to be my typical attempts at any sort of analysis of the filmmaking techniques, production design, or story symbolism.  Apologies if that’s what you wanted.

Right. On with it then.

I’ve only seen Lost in Translation twice; once, in 2004 after it came out on DVD, and just a few days ago for the 1001 Movies Blog Club.  Despite the decade since I last saw it, I vividly remember that initial experience.  It was late at night, I was a little tired, my then-boyfriend-now-husband had gone to bed, and I sat down to watch this film that my friend Dyami had been gushing over.  I really enjoyed it – I knew I would – but as it came to a close, I remember being overcome by incredible emotion.  I remember sobbing my way through the final scenes, then continuing to sob rather uncontrollably for at least another thirty minutes.  Something in this film had touched a nerve, a very raw nerve, that the lateness of the hour and my tiredness only exacerbated.  In seeing it for a second time, that nerve was not quite as exposed, but still there nonetheless.

Bob Harris (Murray) is a middle-aged washed up movie actor being overpaid to promote whiskey in Tokyo, Japan.  He forgets his son’s birthday while his wife FedExes carpet samples to his hotel room.  Charlotte (Johansson) is a college grad who majored in philosophy and now finds herself married to a photographer (Ribisi) and without any idea what to do with her life now that she’s tagged along with him to Tokyo.  Both Bob and Charlotte feel completely alienated by not only Tokyo but their lives, and this is enough of a commonality for them to strike up an unlikely friendship.

Bill Murray is so wonderful in this film, and I remember, at the time, that it was such a BIG FREAKIN’ DEAL in the media.  Everyone, and I do mean everyone, was all “holy F*%@ Bill Murray can actually act and express emotions and everything!”  He was nominated for his one and only Oscar for his role as Bob Harris, but something I’ve been thinking about is that no one should have been THAT surprised.  Frankly, Murray’s filmography for the ten years prior to Lost in Translation was building up to this, a perfectly seriocomic role.  In my opinion, it all starts with Groundhog Day in 1993, then goes on to Ed Wood with Tim Burton in 1994, then most significantly on to Rushmore in 1998 and The Royal Tenenbaums in 2001, both with Wes Anderson.  The fact that Murray was specifically choosing work that defied his early slapstick routines (he also managed to be in a Shakespeare movie before Lost in Translation) was apparent.  Since Lost in Translation, he has continued his relationship with Wes Anderson, becoming in some ways a grand duke of the indie film scene, and has also cultivated a relationship with Jim Jarmusch of all people.  I give Murray all the credit in the world for clearly seeking divergent film roles, because he is just wonderful when he tones down the stupid comedy and allows the sadness to peek through.  I’m not surprised at all that a generation of younger filmmakers have wanted to use him in their work. 

I don’t often write about it on my blog, but back in 2004, I was in a PhD program doing biochemistry research.  I was utterly miserable, but I hadn’t yet realized I was miserable.  (It would take another 18 months for me to finally face the issue and leave the program, moving on to something that DIDN’T take a jackhammer to my sense of self-worth.)  Like Charlotte, I was in my early to mid-twenties and I felt adrift.  And that night that I watched Lost in Translation for the first time, this film was an enormous trigger that managed to convey some of the hopelessness and lack of direction I was drowning in.  Although I still could not completely admit it to myself at the time, now with 20/20 hindsight I have no doubt that the minor breakdown this film gave me was because I identified a bit too much with the emotional message here.  When I watched it just a few days ago, the tears at the end were caused not by a current sense of angst in my life, but of remembrance; recalling just how emotionally draining and numbing those years in the lab were, recalling just how pathetic I felt then, how utterly useless and ineffectual I thought I was because my experiments never worked (not once, not ever, not even the goddamned controls did what they were supposed to do), how much of a failure I thought myself.  Quite frankly, this film isn’t the easiest thing in the world for me to watch, not because it’s bad or horrific, but because it has a way of pulling all those old emotions out to surface. 

Which is definitely a bit of a testament to the film, because I was working in a biochemistry research lab and Charlotte was in Tokyo for a few weeks.  Not exactly the same thing.

It’s very difficult for me to be objective or analytical about this film.  This is a much more subjective experience for me, as I just watch this and feel.  I feel Charlotte’s depression as she tries to tell her friend she doesn’t know who she married only to have the friend blow her off.  I have also had a friend during this time in my life who was a bit like Bob Harris, someone who, although a generation apart from me, I connected with and who I got along extraordinarily well with and who made me forget, albeit for short periods of time, how much sadness I was really hiding.  Although an argument can be made, depending on your frame of mind, that Coppola pushes the relationship between Bob and Charlotte to the brink of sexual tension, and I honestly do not think that I ever had *that* kind of relationship with my friend, I relate yet again to understanding the feeling of respite caused by an unlikely friend. 

This movie.  This movie was my early to mid-twenties.  The deep seated denial that I was sad (I wasn’t supposed to be sad, I was in biochemistry PhD program for crying out loud), the feelings of hopelessness and uselessness that almost consumed me, Lost in Translation brings it out in a beautiful, sadly poignant way.  On the surface, my story is not at all like Charlotte’s, but Sofia Coppola knew what she was doing, knew that her particular story of cultural alienation could really strike far deeper. 

This is not a movie I can watch lightly or “have on in the background.”  I’m in a much better place now than I was ten years ago, but the experience in the lab was a bit emotionally scarring and I still struggle with some of those feelings of loss of self-worth (and I have a feeling I will always feel like something of a failure).  Lost in Translation is a film that reminds me of that phase of my life, for better or for worse, and while it makes me happy to know I’m not there anymore, this movie has a way of reminding me just how painful those years were.

For the record, I think this movie is awesome.  It just strikes a bit too close to home for me to watch it with any regularity.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10, and apologies if you actually wanted me to talk about the movie rather than whinging on about myself.


  1. Well, if it is any comfort, I have friend who work with molecular biology who tell me similar stories.
    In any case I think it is a great movie who can trigger such emotion and this is certainly a movie that touches on some basic concepts of human connection and lack of same.
    I love this film and have watched it a dozen time, but then again I have no painful relationship with it. It is one of the few movie where I have actively sought out the location and it is truly awesome.

    1. Apparently, the dirty little secret of grad work in the sciences is that it sucks and is soul-crushing for everyone. BUT NO ONE FUCKING TALKS ABOUT IT. It would have seriously changed things for me if I didn't feel so utterly and completely alone in my suffering. Only once I made the decision to leave did people start commiserating with me, saying that yes, they felt that way too. And in the years since, I've heard from MANY MANY people that their experience was similar to mine.

      That makes me mad. Because I was so adrift, so sad, and so isolated.

      But apparently, so was everyone else.

      I don't regret for a second my decision to leave, but if I had some support - ANY support - if I hadn't felt like my struggles were mine and mine alone and I was somehow wrong and off and different, when in reality most were suffering, it would have made a difference.

      Why the hell don't people share this?

      But yes, good movie.

    2. I used to spend two years in the basement of the physics department designing and conducting experiments in a wind tunnel. It was tedious, but also fun at times, except when the other departments closed down my experiment because the particels from my smoke machine contaminated the optics lab and the electronmicroscope, so I had to spend 3 month and my entire budget on building a chimney. I was mighty proud of my work, although conducted in stark isolation, and we started setting up a PhD program around it, only then to find out that my results were utter bullshit. A different branch of litterature could have told me that, but too late. I got my degree, some nice LIDAR cross sections of wind flow and a nice job outside academia and never for a second have I regretted skipping the PhD program. I pulled the plug in time or I would have been in your shoes.
      Now I have a side job as an external on a university and I have grad students doing projects. I find that one of my primary obligations as a supervisor is to make sure they limit their scope into what is actually manageable and get through it with a good experience and so far, knock knock, none of them have failed. Fortunately the university I am associated with favors group projects and it helps the students support each other.

    3. For what it's worth I think the exact same dirty little secret of grad work applies to the humanities, too. I don't know this from first-hand experience, but my father graduated with a Bachelor's in English, married my mom, and started working on a Masters in English. When mom got pregnant with me, he dropped the grad work and got a real job, but he always said later that it was kind of a relief, because he hated the program. He probably used the phrase "soul-crushing" a time or two. Instead of working on experiments that never yielded usable results, he was reading and interpreting literature and then butting heads with thesis advisers who disagreed with his interpretations and dug in their heels that they were right and he was wrong. Fun stuff!

      I think the reason so few people talk about it is because it's hard to express it without coming off like sour grapes; there's a real fear that people will think you couldn't hack it in the grad program and that you dropped out because of your own failings, but you're blaming it on the system failing you. Obviously that's crap, but, you know, easier to avoid the issue by just leaving it all unspoken and undisturbed. But good for you for opening up about it sincerely - I hope somewhere out there a cinephile biology or chemistry major considering doing a PhD program reads your post and gets another side of the story.

      Lost In Translation is totally great. And honestly, at the end of the day great art is about the universals of the human condition, as told through specific well-chosen details. It shouldn't strike anyone as odd that someone who struggled in a PhD program would relate to a story about someone struggling with directionlessness in Tokyo. When a story is unrelatable on a plot elements level AND on an emotional level, that's when something weird is going on.

      - Sunny D

    4. I just wanted to say that I really appreciate what you lovely gentlemen had to add to this conversation, mostly because it makes me feel, yet again, as though my struggles were not necessarily atypical, that there wasn't something inherently wrong or maladjusted about my approach to my work, that the reason nothing worked for me wasn't perhaps solely my fault. Being completely honest, there are days even now where I still feel like it was, that it WAS just me, that I was somehow inept and "to blame," that I was incompetent, but the more I talk about those years, the closer I feel myself to permanently accepting that I don't need to shoulder all the blame.

      And yes, Sunny, I VERY much appreciate that a movie whose plot has nothing whatsoever to do with grad school struggles speaks so much to my own personal experience. That says so much about the emotional themes in the film, that I was able to read my own story into it to such an incredibly depth.

      Happy end to the story: I became a high school teacher and I'm a rockin' chemistry teacher (my husband gets jealous of how often students say positive things about me) and I'm the head of our science department and I present at statewide conferences and I've put in applications to present at national conferences. I don't miss the lab for a second, and I strongly believe that i was not meant to be there. I was meant to be in the classroom. It all turned out for the best, it just took half a dozen years or so to shake out.

  2. I don't think they get really withing sniffing distance of sexual tension. Their relationship reminds me of an obscure song called "The First Lady of Delaware" by the equally obscure group The Seymores. The line before the chorus is, "Sometimes I wonder, well, if you were ten years younger where we might meet." To me, that's what's going through their heads all the time--if only I was/you were 25 years younger/older.

    Beautiful movie. Sometimes we get these things that just resonate, or meet us at the right time.'s the song:

    1. Yes, definitely, "if only I was 10 years younger/you were 10 years older" is the much more overt statement about their relationship.

      This *is* a beautiful movie. "Lyrical" fits it well. Quiet, contemplative, emotional... Gorgeous.

      I'll give that song a listen.

  3. I completely understand how a movie can strike a nerve. I've talked before about how the end of Field of Dreams really hit me, having lost my father just a few years earlier. I didn't have an experience like yours with Lost in Translation, but then neither character was one I particularly identified with, either.

    1. I think, as film-lovers, we all have "those movies" that affect us in an overly subjective way based on our personal experiences. I can only imagine what "Field of Dreams" is like after you've lost your father.