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Lost in Translation: …

Posted by Ronak M Soni on January 27, 2010

This post ariginally appeared at PassionforCinema.

Still from Lost in TranslationIf Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation ever claimed to be the adaptation of a literary piece, that piece would be T. S. Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’ (after getting rid, of course, of the Biblical connections).

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

And, you know what? It might well be doing justice to the poem.

The movie begins with Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and Bob (Bill Murray) in Tokyo, feeling completely alienated from their lives. A hard time they have of it, the city hostile and the people weird. Their spouses gall, sore-feeling, refractory. There are times they regret… but they have nothing to regret. This is their life. At the end, they prefer to be by night, with fans and stupid friends making them mutter in their own ears that all this is folly.

Then one day they come down to their temperate meeting. “Wet, below the snowline, smelling of vegetation.” They move on, meet again and again, going to a tavern, a strip-club, a karaoke session… but there are no answers, so they move on.

And arrive, not a moment too soon Finding the place; it was (if I may say) satisfactory. The exact nature of their epiphany, the whole third stanza, I won’t explain, except to say that Coppola – as, in all truthfulness, Eliot – never explains it to our brains.

But that’s just incidental. The only reason I thought of the poem after seeing the movie was the line “it was (you may say) satisfactory.” Lost in Translation is, in fact, a movie that is completely cinematic from conception on. See, the power of the movie doesn’t come from the actors, at least not for me. True, the acting is good, the chemistry is beautiful, the storyline borders on sublime, but somehow those things took a back seat for me. Each frame had some sort of weight. I don’t know, really, but… this could have been a silent movie and I’d have enjoyed watching it almost as much, inasmuch as I enjoyed watching it. All the voices are somewhat muted, not completely there, like they sort of aren’t the point. Maybe this is what Ozu is like. I haven’t yet watched any of his movies, just read passing references to his style by Roger Ebert (I found a quote to insert here but it sounded too much like metacritic), and I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a modern rehash of how he worked; the camera (held by Lance Acord, who also did it for the very differently brilliant Being John Malkovich, directed by Coppola’s husband Spike Jonze) makes the closing of an elevator door occupy as much mental space as Scarlett Johanssen’s “I miss you”, which happens to be one of the most beautiful “I miss you”s I’ve seen on film.

To be honest, I’m not completely sure how much I like this movie. I know it’s a beautiful, beautiful movie, but it’s also an odd, odd movie. Each frame has weight, and that’s masterful , but… if I rate movies by how much they affected me emotionally, where would this rank? I don’t have the slightest. Maybe I should just shut up and resort to the words of a better word smith than I will ever be: “it was (you may say) satisfactory.” Yes, you say, this line is generally interpreted as being double-edged. For me, however, it never was, and in all probability never will be. For me, it represented the confabulation one experiences when one has no idea how good an experience one has just had.

Just, y’know, suspects that it was more good than bad.

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