Sunday, 28 December 2008

Film Analysis of 'Lost In Translation'.

Sophia Coppola’s Lost In Translation presents a love story between two Americans staying in Tokyo, Bob Harris played by Bill Murray, and Charlotte played by Scarlett Johansson. Their relationship is fueled by their feelings of displacement and alienation during their stay in Japan, and provides an exploration of complex human emotions, such as boredom and loneliness. Lost In Translation confidently splices humor and sadness, playing with our stereotypes and expectations.

The central relationship is explored from the contrasting perspectives of a woman in her early twenties and a middle-aged man, each afflicted by different yet parallel doubts about the course of their life respectively is taking or has taken. Charlotte is a bored yet restless character, whose curiosity fuels the meandering scenes in which she wanders the streets and temples of Tokyo. She personalizes her hotel room by hanging origami decorations from the ceiling in an attempt to make this foreign place she is ‘lost’ within into a ‘home’. Bob is a humorous and tired movie star in Tokyo to shoot a whiskey commercial.

The subplots that follow Bob and Charlotte individually into the city, reinforce their need to forge a relationship with each other, to communicate their problems, their fears, and insecurities. We follow Charlotte around the crowded neon-lit streets and malls of Tokyo, to her occasional departures into the calm of gardens and temples, and her restlessness within her hotel room where she reflects on her marriage and how her life lacks direction. We also view brief snippets of her marriage to her husband Jon, whom seems to want to spend as little time as possible with her. We follow Bob to his endorsement commitments for Suntory Whiskey, and to the hotel bar, gym and golf course, where he contemplates his faded career and stagnant marriage. We are also provided a number of scenes in which Bob talks with his wife over the phone, which reveal a deep underlying dissatisfaction with his marriage, and add a melodramatic texture to the film.

After crossing paths repeatedly in the artificial environment of their luxury hotel, Charlotte and Bob finally talk in the hotel bar one evening, which leads to their joint explorations of the city. They pass witty conversation, with their feelings seemingly reaching each other on a five second delay.

The Karaoke scene is a pivotal point in the movie, in which Bob and Charlotte hint that they feel a connection. They use the songs they choose to define who they are for the other and what they want. It is the point at which Bob realizes that Charlotte is his dream of an uncomplicated future, and Coppola lovingly shoots a wisp of a smile across Bob’s face as he watches Charlotte perform Brass In Pocket in a frosted pink wig.

Coppola’s direction is acutely assured in it’s awareness of loneliness, in capturing the solidarity of the two leading characters in their explorations of a foreign landscape, and their undefined relationship that forms out of a mutual feeling of isolation and longing to connect with other people.

Coppola has seemingly used and exaggerated typical Japanese stereotypes present in American culture, to create an alien situation Bob and Charlotte find themselves navigating, presenting the two focal characters as outcasts, allowing both of them to ‘find’ each other and forge a relationship that would probably never have happened in their home surroundings. Although the stereotypes of Japanese people concerning size, manners and language, could be viewed as racist, these stereotypes are clearly placed in the film in order to provide a more believable alienation in order for the relationship to be forged, and to add a comical edge to the movie. Bob and Charlotte's shared bemusement with the oddities of Japan, clearly help fuel their rapidly evolving friendship. The major difference Coppola decides to focus on is the language barrier. Language, or the ways in which we communicate, and the techniques of communication used within Lost In Translation, are clearly primary concerns for Coppola. At times the film communicates through what is not said. Sometimes instead of the use of words, close attention is payed to ambient noise and sound, like the noise of air conditioners and fluorescent lights becoming part of the milieu, a melodic electronic score, body language, and spliced editing of both solitary figures, and crowded streets and arcades. The language barrier provides a literal interpretation of the title ‘Lost In Translation’, but also allows for an interpretation of being lost on a more expansive scale, of being unable to communicate to others, whether they speak your language or not, of being alienated to technology, and to the cityscapes billions of us inhabit throughout the world.

Lost In Translation connects the dots between three standards of yearning and taboo explored individually in other movies, such as; Brief Encounter, Before Sunrise, and In The Mood For Love. Films about characters trapped, and in transition, in a moment of evanescence that fades before the participant’s eyes. Lost In Translation is in this sense a tragedy for Bob Harris, and to a lesser extent for Charlotte, in that they are both in seemingly stagnant marriages, and find a more perfect relationship with each other, yet the age gap between the two of them and their transient circumstances disallow them to eventually be together, either as friends or lovers.

Coppola’s choice of setting in Tokyo, one of the worlds largest ‘international’ cities, is interesting concerning the relationship that develops between Bob and Charlotte. People living in contemporary urban areas navigate a semi public/semi private space, as does the tourist. The transient non-places of travel, as explored in Marc Auge’s text Non-Places: An Introduction to the Anthropology of Super-modernity; allow opportunities unprecedented in human history to meet and interact with ‘strangers’ from around the world. Lost In Translation is as much a love story as it is an exploration of tourism and our relationship to the post-modern cityscape.

Coppola’s intentional emphasis on how the two focal characters relate to technology in Lost In Translation is possibly used to highlight how the inundation of electronic stimuli can cripple people’s ability to forge real and meaningful relationships. Bob and Charlotte are both ‘looking to be found’ (as the movie poster states), to relate to another person. Charlotte and Bob leave the confines of their automated and sterile hotel rooms in search of this, looking for something real, even if at first they are not sure what they are looking for, they eventually find each other.

Sunday, 5 October 2008


I like airports because I feel perfectly comfortably wandering without a purpose. I always have something I should be doing; a book to finish reading, an essay deadline, emails to write etc. but I never seem to get anything done. Instead I am made aware of waiting as time takes on an almost physical presence.

Airports are spaces of the ‘romantic gaze’; filled with people from foreign lands; wandering the duty free shops or sipping wine in a sky bar. I prefer to be alone in an airport, so I can then adopt a persona of my choice; a journalist from London, a college student from Rhode Island, a son of a wealthy merchant who travels from one city to the next with no purpose but ‘mobility’. I guess people gaze at each other and make assumptions from your style of clothes, your body language, your accent etc. about where you are from and where you are going. I could be from anywhere, and going to anywhere.

I like the time in-between connecting flights, especially at night. Earlier this year I waited for three hours in Omaha airport in Nebraska. It was snowing outside, which was made apparent when the airplanes encircled the runways with their head-lights that revealed the little white flakes. I bought a coffee, called my flat mate in Kansas City, and found a comfortable seat to sit down and watch the snow. I ended up talking to a young woman from Alaska, who was also waiting for a connecting flight to Buffalo, where she would be attending college. The possibilities for meeting people, and yet accepting the short amount of time you spend talking before boarding your flight, is something I enjoy about these transient non-places of travel.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

South China Mall

China is building some peculiar places. The South China Mall, in Donguan, Guangdong province is proof of this. Part ‘Mall of America’, part ‘Disneyland’, the South China Mall is currently the worlds largest self contained shopping center with 6.5 million square feet of floor space, and five districts; Amsterdam, Venice, Singapore, Paris and a Californian Beach town.

Despite its size, the Mall is at times silent and void of people. Occasionally a consumer or two will appear. I’ll catch a glimpse of them; they’ll catch a glimpse of me. Our eyes will meet, then part in embarrassment or confusion, as if we were mutually trespassing on a semi-sacred shrine. The reason for this is there are no shops, except for a small department store, a KFC and a small theme park in the ‘town square’.

So a shopping mall without shops! What is left? Well lots of space, and wandering lost souls with money, and yet nothing to buy. What an empty experience this must be for a consumer; money to spend, but nowhere to spend it. Bar the furnishings and highway accessories of America’s car culture, the South China Mall has to be the grossest misallocation of resources and investment I have ever seen. Walking to the mall from the neighboring bus station the visitor is greeted with billboard after billboard advertising what the creators of the complex imagined the place to look like and function as, branded as the ‘new lifestyle city’, a playground for a new Chinese elite that simply do not exist in a city of poor factory workers.

Despite it’s trite and shameless recreation of European architecture, the Mall is strangely alluring. Everything here is adorned with gaudy ornamentation, like a temple. The South China Mall is a gaudy ornament on a garish object shining green and blue in space.

Within a year people will be able to buy property within the gates of the mall.

A privatized city. The first in history. Run by one corporation. Owned by one man, who can decide who he wants in his city, and who he doesn’t want. Maybe this is a glimpse of the future. The autonomous corporate model is taken one step further to inhabit every corner of an individual’s life. It has been suggested that when global warming causes the sea levels to rise, the rich will be able to escape the drowning world by buying a place on one of the proposed floating ‘corporate’ cities. Now most of these designs for ‘cruising cities’ have been designed by American men with a libertarian streak, that desire to built floating cities like the Freedom Ship and New Utopia that are free from taxes and government intervention, and have in no way expressed concern for the poor who will be affected by global warming most. They view Global Warming as inevitable, as consumption is their lifestyle. Even when the world is drowning they want their way of life to prevail in a place without the annoyance of poverty or disease.

I can imagine the mall becoming a zoo or a hang out spot for evangelicals, or both. An evangelical zoo, in which the exhibits are hopeless, white, fat, middle aged blokes in cages, preaching about the return of Jesus and the evils of MTV. Clans of Chinese tourists munching on hotdogs while pointing; ‘Interesting creatures aren’t they!’.

The South China Mall represents a real anti-Mecca for China, a place that pins up the falsehoods and half-truths of the European ideal that China so desperately wants. Dongguan and its neighboring cities produce commodities for the Western world. A Western world that is represented here at the Mall. A Mall that is essentially a theme park of shopping, rendering the West as a sanitized, airbrushed, privatized shopping mall in itself.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Sky Tourist.

Richard Branson’s plan to take ‘tourism into space’ has rendered all tourism as extraterrestrial ‘space travel’. I suppose tourists in space would only exchange gazing upon one gaudy ornament (Disney World) for another (The World). This reminded me of a quote from The 11th Hour which described us being like astronauts, floating around in space, inhabiting metallic capsules, viewing the world as a distant, alien and separate entity to ourselves.

The world is like Disneyland. Like a trite cartoon designed for the tourist who pushes the ‘undesirables’ out of view; the waste, the sewage, refugees and the poor, which is pushed underground, behind walls or bars, or just out of sight into the non-place of refugees camps, landfill sights, waste treatment plants, prisons etc.

Its worth noting that many of the recent hotel designs have given way to Metropolis-like sky living, in which the global elite, connected to international networks, inhabit a space well above the dirty city streets, starting on the 30th or 40th floors of global ‘tower of Babel-like’ financial buildings.

Travel is in a constant process of moving up to the skies with air travel, sky trains, sky bars, hotels on the top of banks and office blocks, revolving restaurants, sky walkways and now space craft, and running faster and faster with global internet networks, bullet trains, instant money transfers, fast check in and so on. Anything to avoid local public interaction, and street space. If tourist space is provided on ground level for the global elite, it is represented through private beaches, remote islands, theme parks and exclusive ‘eco’ hotels and resorts.

During a recent trip to Taipei, a typhoon swept through the city, and so I was stranded indoors. My hotel was connected to an underground shopping mall, and an elevator that transported tourists up to a sky mall. My two day stay consisted of wandering around my hotel, both malls above and below ground level, ‘international’ food courts, designer stores and coffee chains, without ever stepping food outside to seek out some genuine local culture.

Inevitably tourism has become a very private affair.