Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Film Review: Lost in Translation

Sophia Coppola is a quiet filmmaker. She doesn't rely on explosions, vulgar comedy, blatant sex, or other shock-value techniques to make her films, and this makes her films both intriguing and confusing, engaging, and slightly off-putting. But somehow they work. They move quietly along, whispering in our minds, leaving ideas and images that don't immediately resonate, but that begin to ring true with time. Her films tend to shake us from within, like a deep bell tone, or the lowest note played on a pipe organ: quiet, almost beyond hearing, yet deeply felt.

The average movie goer-might not immediately connect with Coppola or her work, for she isn't producing films for mass consumption to fit every palate. Her films have a slightly foreign quality to them, as if perhaps, something was lost in the translation. And yet, I find, if one pays close enough attention, her films are fulfilling in their very lack of fulfillment.

This may sound as though I'm contradicting myself, but I'm not. A painting fulfills expectations by showing us a scene; a good painting exceeds expectations by causing our imagination to travel beyond the frame to question the story behind the scene. The painting does not tell the whole story, because it does not have to; it is the wonder that makes it great.

I feel this way about Copola's films, especially her recent award winner, Lost in Translation. While the film is very spare, using only the absolute minimum required dialog and back story to propel it along, it is somehow more powerful for leaving us to question it than it would have been had all our questions been answered. Few filmmakers could execute this successfully, but Coppola does so with inherent grace.

I would venture to say that this kind of quiet filmmaking is an almost impossibly delicate balance between the director's personal vision, which might not reach anyone but herself, and a vision suitable for the masses, which everyone can understand, but everyone has seen before. Coppola finds this balance expertly through, interestingly enough, her film's lack of concrete details. We do not know everything about Bob and Charlotte, but then, neither do they. As in life off the screen, it is enough that their creator knows them.

And therein lies the universality of Lost in Translation; it is an undeniable part of the human condition to be a seeker, to search for meaning, and to find oneself lost. There is a scene in the film when Bill Murray's character is sitting in a tub, talking to his wife on the phone, and he begins to rant about the ways in which he wants to change his life: taking better care of himself, eating better food, in short, a lifestyle overhaul. In that moment, he becomes an archetype -- not a hero, or an anti-hero, but a human being, experiencing a moment of epiphany, of wanting something more for himself, for his life and being sure of the path to take.

Every human being has experienced moments like these, and it is these universal moments of quiet revelation that characterize us; it is not explosions or unbelievable adventures or life and death situations, but simple, quiet, universal moments that define our lives and our existence as human. By tapping into these experiences, Coppola's Lost in Translation transcends traditional moviemaking, where the aim is simply to entertain, and enlightens it with the intention of quietly touching us, and making us think.

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