February 26, 2004

Take One

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Since the Academy Awards are this Sunday, I’ll take this final opportunity to expand on something I wrote last time. Namely, that Lost in Translation should win Best Picture, despite the fact that it won’t. No one will be surprised when Return of the King wins the honor, but I, for one, will disagree with the Academy’s choice. Return of the King is undoubtedly a remarkable cinematic achievement that has considerable depth and vigor and is a worthier candidate than the remaining nominees. With better acting and greater thematic complexity than good vs. evil, than temptation and greed, I might consider it. Nevertheless, I don’t get to decide; rather, the Academy of about 6000 motion picture artists and craftsmen do, and the Return of the King’s astounding special effects, meticulous direction, and sheer popularity — especially since many of the Academy members have strong connections to The Lord of the Rings — will be enough to allow it to win the Oscar. But Return of the King is severely lacking in many other areas. A great film has to grow from the basis of a great and original screenplay, and Lost in Translation, having that, as well as the acting performance of the year, will always be a better, and more meaningful, picture in my mind.

Despite garnering critical acclaim and admiration from seasoned film critics everywhere, Lost in Translation unsurprisingly hasn’t come close to convincing everyone. A quick survey of chat forums and review postings online finds criticisms of the film, calling it “directionless,” “racist,” and “repetitive.” Michael Sragow of the Baltimore Sun insists that it “lacks the style or substance to be memorable.” Other complaints point to Coppola’s reliance on the audience to sometimes fill in the blanks, to infer, and to create. Despite some of these critiques being genuinely articulate, I think much of their reasoning is flawed due to the simple fact that they fail to recognize that a film does not have to follow conventional storytelling techniques to be successful. In less than 2 hours, Lost in Translation employs an innovative narrative method to explore issues of friendship, connection and disconnection, melancholy and yearning, and so much more.

During an eloquent scene halfway through the film, Bill Murray’s character, Bob Harris, attempts to sing karaoke, as he and his newfound and improbable friend Charlotte, played radiantly by Scarlet Johansson, explore the nightlife of Tokyo. He quietly and delicately sings a song called “More than this,” and its lyrics include, “Who can say where we’re going / No care in the world / Maybe I’m learning / Why the sea on the tide / Has no way of turning / More than this — there is nothing.” The moment, set against the artistic backdrop of city lights, is surreal, and it’s as if, aside from Bob and Charlotte, there really is nothing else. And there doesn’t have to be. We’re seeing an intimate relationship develop naturally and elegantly. The point is not for there to be a clear plot, but rather to appreciate the mood created by brilliant acting, outstanding directing, and dialogue that is natural rather than contrived, tender rather than insincere. The film title itself gives us a clue. One can’t put some emotions or ideas into words because the meaning will get lost. That’s why, at the end of the film, we don’t need to know what Bob whispers in Charlotte’s ear. The words are much more powerful left unsaid, especially because it is the one moment that is truly theirs. We have tagged along all through Tokyo, in the hotel bar, in strip clubs, at the swimming pool. We have seen the disconnection that Charlotte has with her husband and with her friend back home who is too distracted to hear her subdued plea for help. And we see Bob’s wrinkled expression of cynical sorrow as his wife is consumed with mundane carpet samples.

The relationship between the film’s main characters changes them, we can only assume, forever. In a short time, they have connected with each other, and made each other stronger and more passionate. The overall ambiance of longing and grief might be repetitive for some, but the film’s pace is deliberately leisurely, allowing the audience to wonder and to reflect. Is Charlotte attracted to Bob? Why do we feel like Bob assumes a father-like role towards Charlotte? The sentiments in the film are tangible but are presented in a brilliantly intangible way. The film teaches us not only of culture, but of what can happen when two lost souls come together, both full of disillusionment, but both full of potential. They take pleasure in each other’s company, and we can take pleasure in theirs. It’s compelling and imaginative, and though it won’t win on Sunday, it’s the Best Picture of the Year.

Archived article by Avash Kalra