A few nights ago, Darren and I went to see the new Sofia Coppola film 'Lost in Translation'. I enjoyed the film - a lot more than her debut feature 'The Virgin Suicides', which had woeful gender politics that I didn't think were adequately unpacked. But I won't go into that now...
I think Coppola S. might have read some of Haruki Marakami's fiction before writing her screenplay - or at least, that's how it felt in its themes. I appreciated the way the film explored the notion of the capitalist redemption myth of fame, and how ultimately empty that myth has been for the character John Harrison, tonelessly endorsing Suntory Whisky.
In a mass society, we all feel insignificant. Celebrity is offered as a way out of this feeling. As Eastern European philosopher Slavoj Zizek commented in a paper he presented in Melbourne, in a secular society we have lost the belief that our lives are made significant because we live them in the eye of God. To replace the eye of God we have the eye of the public - the big Other is replaced by an aggregate of little others. Coppola's film shows how this ideology of celebrity consumes those who actually 'succeed' in those terms - Mr Harrison has been reduced, not augmented, by his entrapment in the celebrity machine, alienated from himself and others. The saving grace of Murray's performance is that he portrays a man who is wise to all this and goes through the motions with a wry wit that literally goes unnoticed in the banal literalisms of the world he is in - and embodied by the Cameron Diaz-type character in Japan shooting an action flick.
Enter Scarlett Johanssen as Charlotte. She cares not for Harrison's fame and seems to share with him the private joke of its mismatch to the needs of an actual human being. However, she is also lost - adrift in a mass world and unable to work out how she is going to make her life feel significant. This is underlined by her listening to the self-help tape with some ridiculous title like 'Your Soul's Path' or whatever. Marrying has not solved her dilemma - especially since her husband seems unreflective.
For those of you who have not seen it, I won't go into the plot more than that. I appreciated how well the film portrayed those 'Murakami' feelings of how an individual's life and their choices seem arbitrary in a world of five billion people run by superpowers. That 'drift' of agency and affect is captured well. John and Charlotte long to do something special - don't we all? But they know that their efforts are likely to fall on stony ground - they cannot make themselves heard and if they translate their concerns into the language others understand then their thoughts lose their original meaning. The rewards for conformity are clear - success. But the main characters are aware that to just play along and do what the world expects is to die as an individual. Success itself is anonymous and arbitrary.
What redeems Charlotte and John and what is so lovely about the film is the delicate art of friendship, a creation of mutual recognition. It is suggesed that it is this that offers a way out of the binaries of celebrity/insignificance, conformity/alienation.
The only reservation I had about the film (apart from Johanssen's distractingly disproportionate silicon additions to her chest area), was that the line of demarcation between Japanese and American was perhaps too rigidly enforced. It would have been good if Coppola had been able to develop at least one Japanese character who crossed the borders between the two languages and cultures. This was gestured at during the sequence where Charlotte and John go out with some post-punk Japanese surfers and sing karaoke with them, but the concept was left undeveloped.