November 10, 2003
Dear Ms. Fleming,
I am writing in regard to your recent Newshour essay contrasting . First, I fully sympathize with your sentiment that Tarantino is not the bold filmmaker he was once thought to be, although he might be. And I agree with you a bold filmmaker could be someone who reaches deep into the common human experience, and pulls out something meaningful, which needn't have to do with swords, decapitations or even goblins. But alas, Sofia Coppola is not the answer you seek. Lost In Translation has all the trappings of a great movie. It has great sights and sounds and solid acting by at least one actor. But it's not a great movie. And if its immediate art house acceptance is any clue, nor is it bold.
You suggest that by not relying on mega-violence and sex, Coppola is somehow bold? What was bold about having the two protagonists not have sex given that half of America would have thrown up on themselves if they had and that some of that vomit might have reached the tender ankle of Mrs. Coppola? Wong Kar-Wai's In The Mood For Love focused on the longing of two people who are ultimately unable to connect, at least outside of the deleted scenes. Now that was bold since we wanted them to get together as much, probably more than the characters themselves. And what was bold about having such a huge age difference between Bob and Charlotte? Harold and Maude had an even bigger one, and they sure enough did have sex. And I almost vomited, but I didn't. Now that was bold film watching.
You say that Kill Bill is shallow, but when it comes to superficiality, it is Coppola who is the hostess with the mostest. No need to crowd. There's plenty for everyone. First, we have the shameless exoticization of the Japanese, which should bother you. Coppologists will say it's okay because it's only the perspective of Bob and Charlotte. But where is the evidence that Coppola's own is any different? Consider the 'lip my stocking' scene. First we have the Jerry Lewis-style physical comedy of Murray and prostitute rolling around hotel room. But then Coppola decides now would be a good time to also ridicule the Japanese-English accent, as if the joke wouldn't have been good enough without this. Making fun of the prostitute's overzealous advances would have been fine, but throwing on the accent thing is excessive and clumsy, and may even be against the Geneva conventions. By humiliating her so, Coppola turns the prostitute from a prop into (what should be) a sympathetic character. Now we can no longer enjoy the joke guilt-free, which I fear we are supposed to?
There is a different way to handle the accent thing. Take the scene in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket when the motorcycle pimp brings the Vietnamese prostitute to the young GI's. They all make fun of his accent. “Do you wan number wan fuckie?” “Yes, we wan, we wan.” But when the prostitute refuses to do it with a black man, note how the pimp shows respect by faithfully translating her objection. “Too beaucoup. Too beaucoup.” Then when the penis in question is taken out, the pimp preserves his own dignity by looking away. And like the pimp, Kubrick shows deference and sympathy to the characters he has brought forth for our consumption. True we still laugh, but not unreproved.
But Saturday Night Live does the accent thing, don't they, with Steve Martin and Dan Akroyd as two “wild and crazy” Czech brothers who swing for American foxes? Sure, they make fun of the accents, the attitudes, the powervac all the way from Bratislova. But in the end, low and behold, they sure enough do get the foxes. Again, the issue isn't whether you make fun of someone. It's why. Coppola is perfectly welcome to do some physical comedy, but then just do the physical comedy. Don't make me feel all bad watching it.
And when Coppola does try to prop up Japanese culture, it seems forced—because it is. We watch young Japanese kids being cool in an arcade. Yes, they are cool. But this has no bearing on the are-they-or-aren’t-they of Bob and Charlotte, which is where the film is headed if it is headed anywhere. Charlotte seems to occasionally notice this other world, but remember, this is someone who listens to self-help tapes and goes through religions like they were going out of style. One gets the sense one could pick up that temple and replace it with a big blue chipmunk and she would still be standing there smiling. Bob, on the other hand, is smart enough to get it, but too jaded and tired to care.
And so the formula is make fun of 'em with Murray, then counterbalance it by
having Johanssen walk past something ancient. The problem, however, is that any
scene with only Scarlett Johanssen in it is boring. Partly because she just is
boring, and partly because Coppola’s hand becomes so visible during these scenes
that it hurts. The definition of forced is if you watch a scene and the main
thing you take from it is that the director was trying to make some point (i.e.
“Isn’t this Japanese tradition cool?” “Don’t I like Coldplay?” etc). The idea is
to accomplish both the “making fun” and “the respect” at the same time. In Best In Show we get to laugh ourselves silly over crazy-obsessed dog people, but
we’re also made to love them-through the same scenes. But Coppola doesn’t have
the skill of a Christopher Guest. With Lost she expects us to laugh at Japanese
culture, but care about Bob and Charlotte-oh, and wait, maybe Japanese culture
is pretty cool-um-cause it’s cool-yeah-here, now stare at this screen a little.
Next, we’re given an entirely oversimplified, one-dimensional caricature of a
nagging wife back home. It’s reverse exoticization I tell you! Bob’s wife does
nothing to further the complexity of whatever internal struggle we might want to
project onto him, since Coppola didn’t. And are we to believe that anyone, no
matter how deranged by drugs and rock and roll music, could ignore an
under-wearing Scarlett Johansson in Japan? Actually, yes. If she was that
vacuous, I think anything’s possible. Personally, I would be very attracted to
any tall, carefully emaciated, Swedish-named heroin junkie with a six inch
hypodermic sticking out of her chest. Now where’n the hell could I find that?
Now Charlotte’s friend on the phone in the beginning was even less realistic
than Bob’s wife. Scarlett Johansson pours her heart out to you on an overseas
phone call. You just don’t respond with “yeah, that’s great, gotta go.” Nobody
does, except I suppose the people who populate Sofia Coppola’s imagination.
Perhaps if she spent less time listening to Coldplay and more time working on
her screenplay, we wouldn’t be in this predicament.
Sometimes when trying to sort out good and great films, we must look to the
little clues for help. When Bob gets out of the cab and whispers in Charlotte’s
ear, it’s sold as a transcendental moment shared between the two of them. But
this breaks down when the entire point of the scene becomes not what either one
of them is feeling, but rather the mere fact of us not being allowed to hear it.
We want to know what he said because we’re desperate for some meaning to the
whole affair/film when, of course, there is little. In In The Mood For Love,
when Tony Leung whispers his secret into the wall at Angkor Wat
, no one is thinking about what he’s actually saying because they’re all too busy trying not to explode in huge
tears. Coppola’s scene is also a copout
because it essentially provides audiences with the same gratification as another
scene which did not take place, which is where the two of them just go into a
room and shut the door on us (remember we don’t expect or want them to show it).
People have speculated on the many things he might have whispered in her ear.
Let me propose that if he told her he loved her or wanted to see her again, that
this would be just as unacceptable (to the “do the right thing” gods). And what
else besides that could he possibly have said? Nice wig! You were great in
A light touch, in a great director, is when the sense of something deeper weighs
like a sunken ship at the bottom of the film. But it is left there waiting and
not blasted to the surface for vulgar looking/looting.1 There is only seabed at
the bottom of Lost In Translation. Nothing is asked of us or expected. We don’t
have to fight back vomit (except perhaps during the karaoke scene) or tears or
see something in any new light. The closest the film comes to being a real movie
is when Bob stubs his toe and inadvertantly sleeps with the redhead next door,
and both Charlotte and us have to deal with it (for, like, five minutes).
Sofia Coppola does not have the light touch of a great director. She simply does
not touch. She has made what amounts to an hour long Zima ad with a storyline by
Nyquil fit for consumption by four million Americans ready to lap up an
exocitized world and feel like they’ve learned something. Tarantino may be, as
you basically suggest, raised by wolves. But he is the master of the unique
domain he himself has created. Not that I’m necessarily going in, but there he
is. Lost In Translation is a good film for seeing one time. Then just as Bob
will forget Charlotte, so too will we forget this film. And there is nothing
wrong with that.
1 Every time I see the coelocanth about to die, brother or no
brother to me, I die a little too. It’s true.