Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Archives Project: STL #14

Title: More than this
Description: Copolla's latest masterpiece. Sofia, that is: Lost in Translation
Date: 02 October 2003

A might confusing that the previous installment was actually titled "Lost in Translations." This piece is kind of important to me, since it's where I talk about my still emerging theory of film as collaborative art and of director as a network coordinator.

I don't spend a lot of time thinking about the titles of my weekly installments. Usually something suggests itself in the course of writing, like last week. The title "Lost in Translations" isn't exactly clever, but apt enough in evoking the comparison of the problems of switching between media with carrying over from one language to another. Unfortunately, it also suggests the title of a movie that's out now, Sofia Copolla's wonderful Lost in Translation. The title is the only rote thing about the movie, which is absolutely fresh and unlike anything I can think of. Bill Murray has gone from the guy who's always good to possibly the best actor we have, and Scarlett Johanssen makes good on the promise she showed as the yearning, goodhearted hipster in Ghost World. What's really great is the script, by Copolla, which follows the development of a relationship between a young woman and a middle-aged man. Murray's Bob doesn't seduce Johanson's Charlotte, and doesn't really even think about it. Instead, they do something radical for the movies: they become friends.

This friendship develops in the sterile environment of the Tokyo Hilton (or is it the Westin, or the Four Seasons?-- I can't recall but the point is it doesn't matter). Their friendship is casual at first, starting with a few Murray wisecracks, but becomes all the deeper because of their shared isolation. You could say the film's susceptible to xenophobia, and maybe the r/l jokes are a sour note, but their alienation is working on both cultural and personal levels, as Charlotte doesn't seem to know her husband anymore and is directionless in life, and Bob's career is long dead, and his marriage may as well be. He has become the Unnecessary Man, liked by his kids but not needed, and big in Japan but washed up back home.

No other film uses karaoke as means of communication to the extent as Lost in Translation*. There's an extended sequence near the halfway point of the movie consisting of four performances, which taken together are the key to the movie. Bob and Charlotte are at a Japanese friend's place. The friend, named Charlie Brown, performs "Anarchy in the U.K." but the rebel anthem is obviously totally out of context. Bob responds with "(What's so funny about) Peace Love and Understanding," which fixes him in time at the point were human values become mediated by commercial performance. We rely therefore on heavily ironic performances, but the irony doesn't necessary contradict the humanity, which strains in its vessel. Charlotte, wearing a pink wig, sings "Brass in Pocket," charmingly squeaking out "I'm special, so special," and she sure grabs our attention. This and the last performance enact private communication in a public setting. Bob tells Charlotte all he knows, borrowing from Brian Ferry: "More than this/ there's nothing/ more than this." The two expats discover a zen koan in a Roxy Music song.

The movie's full of affecting scenes: Charlotte in curled on top of Bob's bed, and Bob lies prone beside her. He lies to her that "it gets easier" and, with the most intimate gesture of the whole movie, reaches over to touch here barefoot while still staring at the ceiling. Bob channel surfs past a movie starring his younger self, without a trace of interest. The expression on Bob's face (that's Murray's face and could be no other) when he wakes up after drunkenly bedding the hotel lounge singer: there's a glimmer of excitement and fear when he sees the two champagne glasses, passing to alarm when he remembers who it was. Charlotte's spiteful, wounded, reconciliatory rejoinder to Bob after she finds out: "Well, she's closer to your age." I've only scratching the surface of what this movie has to offer, I think Sofia Copolla's really going to be a force to be reckoned with.

There was a fascinating article in the New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago about Sofia's "smart mob," the network of friends she mobilizes for creative projects. This conception of film-making is very provocative, and makes a lot more sense than the still dominant auteur theory of dictatorial directorial power. That model has served well for a great number of magnificent films, but also reinforces typically masculine values which have severely limited the number of women directors. Sofia Copolla seems to use a whole different range of techniques than her famous (and once great) father. Naturally this leads to whole different range of effects: not epic, but lyric.

In closing, I'll note that Thursday was Gillian Welch's 35th birthday. I saw her perform, for the third time. If I wasn't so late getting this installment out, I'd awkwardly backflip into a discussion of Welch's music, and her work's relationship to Copolla's, which I realize is not at all apparent. Maybe next week.

*Nor do many films try, although it's often used for laughs, like in Jim Carey's Cable Guy. The only other "important" use of karaoke I can think of is the often overlooked My Best Friend's Wedding.