Films. Lost in translation.

I’ve seen “Lost in translation” recently. It’s a remarkable movie, surely, with it’s own sweet-sad feel. It’s well-written, utterly believable and Bill Murray’s performance has something touching in it. But I don’t think it’s really brilliant, because merely not being crap is a poor benchmark for brilliance. I mean, what’s so groundbreaking in showing two people who are somehow drawn to each other but don’t end up having sex?! True, it doesn’t happen much in movies, but that’s because the majority of them are really, really crappy and cliche-ridden.

Anyway, I don’t feel like writing all about the movie, let me just bring up two jarring (though arguably minor) issues which really bothered me, yet are usually glanced over in reviews.

1. Borderline racism. Actually I was a bit uncomfortable at times, because of the way the Japanese are depicted. No life, no shade of humanity in them. Like moving cardboard cutouts they’re just there to be small, to smile and bow a lot, to talk funny and to do weird, incomprehensible things. Not that there’s any attempt to understand or explain why they are weird – we are meant just to empathise with the White people lost in the sea of the inscrutable, loony Japanese background characters and to laugh at an occasional cheap visual jokes (Murray taking a shower). 
Now I know this all makes a point. You throw your characters into a society they don’t understand to better underscore their alienation and feeling out-of-place. But that’s only halfway redeeming, I think.  I mean, can’t you plausibly set this whole story of two lonely abandoned alienated people in London or New York or any place else without this visual weirdness? Can’t people feel out-of-place in their own country, society, family even? Sure they can, a lot of them do and I personally think that kind of alienation is a lot more touching.

Shooting in Japan just to have high-tech gadgets, shinkasen, pachinko, ikebana and lots of smiling funnytalk short people feels really cheap and… wrong.

2. Johansson’s character is supposed to be a philosophy graduate. It’s actually implied that she graduated from Yale. Now, it the boondocks that I grew up in, we tend to think that people who study philosophy tend to be really well-read and really smart and we think of Yale as one of the best universities in the world.  So when I hear “a philosophy graduate from Yale” I expect a person much smarter than me (I dropped out of a much less prestigious philosophy school).  I may be wrong but I suspect that most people would have similar expectations, and it’s played on in the movie to make us nod and thing “ah, so she’s sophisticated and smart”.

The point is – she isn’t. True, she’s not a total idiot/clown like Anna Farris’s or Giovanni Ribisi’s characters so she outshines them both, but that’s it. Your average somewhat educated girl. Not particularly witty, not particularly sophisticated, not particularly insightful. And I have no problem with any of that. It works good. What I object against is specifying her background. It’s just not needed. The movie would’ve worked equally well if she was a graduate of anything else or never went to college or whatever.

But once you made her a thinker-person from a top university, make her talk like a such person. I’ve met quite many philosophy students (not a single one from Yale though, so that may be the problem) and I just don’t buy Johansson’s character. Of course philosophy is no cure for ennui, it may even trigger it, and I can readily believe in a “I-can’t-find-my-place-in-life” philosophy graduate, but not if  – and here’s the catch – they use the kind of language any angsty teenager does. Again I don’t know for Yale, again, but my third-rate school did much to deepen our introspection, hone our self-analysis and self-pity skills, and above all make your language more precise. It really showed in us, but it doesn’t show in Johansson’s character, it’s not even hinted at.

I realize that’s a common problem of showing intellectuals in mainstream movies – you are afraid that if you make the character smarter than most of the audience they won’t be able to understand or emphatize and will lose all interest. Somehow only the hospital-themed shows are comfortable with making characters talk about things your average viewer has only hazy idea at best.

To sum up: the movie brings up two details which are not essential to its plot (location and philosophy background) and plays them for cheap stereotypes (in case of Japan) and nothing much (in case of the Yale thing). This seems pretentious and is not necessary.

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