Thursday, February 19, 2004

The Rich, The Poor, Reality Television and Grace That Abounds

Lost in Translation

This film had me from hello. Actually, that's a lie. I was thrown at first, because of the nice long shot of Scarlett Johansson's backside. It was an agreeable way to start the movie, but I definitely felt guilty -- sort of like a "peeping tom." This is the same reason I can't watch "Survivor" or "Who Wants To Marry An Average Bachelor Joe, Who May Or May Not Be A Millionaire, or Gay, But Either Way You're Sure To Make Out With Him On National Television." But once the credits begin to roll at the end of Lost, you realize the whole film was voyeuristic in many ways. Though even now, looking back to that first shot, I still feel like I was somewhere I wasn't supposed to be. I am a voyeur and a bad man.

It's Sort Of A "The Hunt For Red October Meets Sleepless in Seattle Meets The Bachelor"

From start to finish, I was invested in this film. First things first: movies where the setting is just as important as plot and character are few and far between. And it's hard to pull off for a director. You can get so involved in the setting, that you forget how important your characters are (see The Thin Red Line for examples). But you can also get so involved in your characters that your film could be set just about anywhere (see any movie by Kevin Smith). Not so with Lost.

Sofia Coppola allows her setting to actually be an additional character, with a unique accent and tone all of its own. The setting drives the plot and pacing as much as Charlotte and Bob do. The setting isn't just a backdrop or canvas; it is an entity. It lives, it breathes, it grows. Not many directors are able to find this kind of balance, but Coppola does.

Where I Go On And On About Things (Just Skip It And Read The Last Section Of Mere Christianity Instead)

But more then geeky film concepts, this movie hits us so subtly over the head with small acts of grace. Okay, as far as I know, Coppola isn't a Bible-thumping, born-again Jesus freak, but who the crap cares? God's grace as evidenced by individuals (whether they believe in God or not) is usually the way people are introduced to God in the first place. In any visual medium, it's extremely hard to have a character named "God" show heavenly grace. Most times, it just comes off as cheesy (every conversion scene on film fails to rings true because it's nearly impossible to show such an inward moment with a movie camera). It's so much easier for real people (or in our case, actors) to show grace to each other.

There's also this wonderful disconnect felt by the characters that rings existentially for us all. Bob's disconnect from his wife and his career, Charlotte's disconnect from spirituality and people in general, and this barely glimpsed disconnect between old Japan and modern Japan. These are individuals starving for love (but not necessarily affection?), loneliness (though they still receive attention), and ultimately searching for meaning and direction.

The city is such an interesting place to start a quest for meaning amidst loneliness. There's this dichotomy where in a city of millions, loneliness can seem even more pronounced. People from small towns seem to have this inter-connectedness that people from urban areas are starving for. Modern man and woman have so many people, places, and things instantaneously available to them, but we still feel an incredible disconnect. As a Christian, I'm not ready to pull out the "God-shaped hole" argument, because this disconnect is even experienced from time to time in the life of every believer.

C.S. Lewis often wrote about how this world was merely a shadow of that world to come; how our relationship with Christ in the here and now pails in comparison to the fellowship we will have with Christ in the eschaton. This is an important concept to grasp, especially in the midst of struggles and loneliness. The Christian life does not solve all our problems because we remain fallen creatures in a fallen world. It's only in the next life that we will enjoy the fullness of what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

So we as Christians are not above this disconnect in any way. We should never look down on characters in movies because they "don't have God." Instead we can relate with them as human beings, because we experience the same disconnect as they do -- we walk in a world of shadows, a pale imitation of what it once was in the Garden, and what it shall be once again.

Oh, Those Wonderful Words!

The dialogue in the Lost surprises without really blowing anyone away. It's real, nervous and geeky, not overly-witty, full of emotions not expressed. There's this economy to the langauge, expressed most in the last scene between Bill and Charlotte where the most important line of the movie is mumbled and indistinct. Coppola doesn't need a strong word-smith here because the acting says more than what's in the script, and the setting expresses things that really couldn't be put to words in the first place.

This economy of language is juxtaposed next to the language barrier that Bob and Charlotte come up against in Japan. It's funny to us that it takes so many Japanese words to express so few English words. We know that so much of what's being said is lost [in translation], yet we know that the general meaning gets across. Just another example of the disconnectedness that Bob and Charlotte and going through, and why it's so much easier for them to become friends despite their differences. They are strangers in a strange land. They connect on a visceral level simply because they speak the same language, (more so because they say "roller skate" and not "lorrel skate"). It's these small things that bring them together, not common interests in music and film or shared political/philosophical beliefs.

The language is so real at times this feels like early seasons of the "Real World," before the reality TV explosion, before people knew how to act on reality TV, before reality TV editors had discovered how to piece things together to make everything seem more dramatic and life-or-death. The film is shot in a faux-documentary style, with hand-held and steady-cam, that only adds to the voyeuristic feeling established in the first shot of the movie.

New Places, Familiar Faces

Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson shine without seeming like movie stars. This on top of the fact that Bill Murray is actually playing a movie star. Bob makes Charlotte laugh; Charlotte immediately trusts this stranger because he acts as though he isn't a stranger. For the audience, it helps that he is Bill Murray, someone we've laughed with before. For Charlotte it helps that he's Bob Harris; she has the same connect with him as we in the audience do. They can't get enough of each other because they actually enjoy listening to each other. It's impressive from a story-telling standpoint that Coppola doesn't take their relationship to places that Hollywood might have urged her to. And it's easier for us as the audience to accept that it's not going to go there because it's not a typical Hollywood movie (it's set entirely in freaking Japan!). Their age difference makes a difference, too, but that's not enough. Setting plays such a major part in why the story unfolds as it does.

Watch Out Richies! Here I Come!

My biggest problem with the film is that, even though I enjoy it so much, I still have this nagging feeling that we're missing something. Charlotte and Bill are so emotionally empty because they lack a sense of direction and purpose for their lives. But the thing is, this is really only a problem for the wealthy, or at least, comparatively speaking, the middle-class on up. Do the poor usually have the time or energy to have these kinds of existential crises? Not even the middle-class get to in the setting that Bob and Charlotte do.

The poor, by definition, don't have the resources to spend long stretches of time fretting over the future. They are more concerned with staying alive and perhaps feeding their family than with existential journeys in Japan with Yale grads and movie stars. Johannson's character reminds me of Elizabeth in Anne Lamott's Rosie (only younger and less alcoholic). I mean, come on, how many people do get to study philosophy at Yale? The problems the wealthy face are so different from those most normal people do. Or maybe, just maybe, it's the same problem, but just manifested in such a different and freakish way, that we barely recognize it?

In Africa, most people don't struggle with animal rights and anorexia; they just want clean water and a loaf of bread. As weird as it sounds, it's a luxury for us here in America to worry about women's rights, deforestation, and the death tax. In the West Bank, they worry about whether or not their house is going to be missiled during the night. In Ethiopia, they worry about the wives and daughters being raped the next time the local warlord comes to town. Rampant hunger and AIDS plague more people than do problems concerning affirmative action and gay marriage. This film, while so engaging, is just another skewed vision of what is really wrong in the world.

On Second Thought, Maybe The Richies Aren't All Bad

All that being said, I still can't get enough of this film. There's this great line in Adaptation where Charlie Kaufman, played by Nick Cage, rambles on about how he doesn't want to write a movie where characters end up "learning profound life lessons, growing and coming to like each other or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end!" Lost doesn't stoop to this. The issue isn't whether or not Bob and Charlotte will end up coming to like each other, because they connect right away. The issue is whether or not they learn something profound that they can take back to their respective lives that will change the course of where they were headed before they met each other (phew!). And maybe they do, but because of that muffled line, we'll never really know. That's why I think I enjoy this film so much. Because it suggests, ever so slightly, that there are answers out there, but it refuses to give them to us. It's not a scientific film about cut-and-dry solutions (like many romantic comedies, revenge-driven action films, or Christian end-time movies are), but a film about the simple belief that hope and grace are out there, somewhere, just hanging out until we find time to go after them.

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