The Ruthless Dream of “Lost in Translation”

October 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

I think the Sofia Coppola/Bill Murray movie Lost in Translation is an example of a really singular and total creative vision, and I’ll give one reason why.

A funny thing happens as the movie proceeds to its intimate close. Characters disappear. And they don’t just disappear — they’re forgotten. Think of all the ephemeral characters that serve for one or two scenes:

  • The bubbly blonde movie star played by Anna Faris: she meets Charlotte and her husband in the hotel lobby, and at dinner in the bar, and she materializes for one anonymous karaoke song. Then she’s gone.
  • The hotel bar’s lounge singer: she shows up in a few bar scenes, hits on Bob, sleeps with him, and then she’s gone.
  • The “lip my stocking” call girl: she gets one horribly awkward (poorly done, I think) scene in Bob’s room and then she’s gone.
  • Charlotte’s husband, John (Giovanni Ribisi): he flits about their hotel room a couple times, flirts with the movie star, leaves for a photo shoot, and then he’s gone. (Though we do see a fax from him — a fax — near the end that reads “I miss you!”)
  • More: Charlotte’s friends whom she and Bob party with for one evening, the “Johnny Carson of Japan”, Bob’s wife and kids… All gone!

And when I say these characters are gone, I mean they receive no conclusions to their roles. They just stop appearing in the movie.

Why could Coppola summon supporting characters just to forget them? The answer, I think, is that her goal in the movie is to convey a long dream. Practical matters like the estrangement between Bob and his wife or the implications of his cheating on her would puncture the bubble of the movie’s vision. The presence of these matters — and their attendant hopes and sadnesses — informs the dream, but firmly settling on them, especially for the purpose of solving real-life problems, would derail it.

The disappearing lounge singer is my favorite example of this, because she actually sleeps with the main character before she disappears. That’s cold! Coppola pulls a strange, unspoken switcheroo when Bob and Charlotte meet one last time in that same bar, and the smoky lounge singer, shown here:


…is replaced by her pianist, who’s singing lead for some reason — what reason?:


The reason is that now that the interlude of Bob’s one-night stand is over, she’s no longer needed. Her presence would complicate the dream of the movie. So poof, she’s gone. Her smooth voice is replaced by another one, in a huskier bluesier form, and the dream is unbroken.

When I was in high school reading Shakespeare I remember my irritation that Shakespeare would kill off all the characters at the ends of his tragedies, not because their deaths were necessary to the plot, but more as a matter of tidying up, so far as I could tell. Now I think their deaths happened because the characters were unnecessary by the end of each play. Coppola has her own way of dismissing her characters, one that’s true to the purity of the movie’s dream. This is an admirable totality of vision, I think. There are no practical concessions to real life when the movie, after all, isn’t real itself. In fact, all art is a dream. The purity of a work of art is the purity of its dream.

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