Movies for Grown-Ups
by Ryan McMaken by Ryan McMaken
Earlier this year, Richard LaGravenese and the late Ted Demme released the documentary on 1970’s filmmaking, "A Decade Under the Influence" which was little more than an hour and half of self-righteous and self-congratulatory slop emanating from the babyboomer actors and directors of the 1970’s who, according to the New York Times’ Dave Kehr, exhibit more than a little bit of "smug, generational entitlement." While there were no doubt some fine work from this crowd like Francis Ford Coppola’s "Godfather"(1972), most of the decade’s allegedly groundbreaking films like "Taxi Driver" (1976) and "Easy Rider" (1969) are really little more than endless hours of dysfunction thrown up on a screen and called art. Do people other than pretentious film students and mental patients actually care what happens to the characters in such films? Let’s hope not.
Fortunately, today’s Gen X filmmakers have progressed beyond the perpetual adolescence of the early Martin Scorsese-type films, giving us characters that not only have better things to do than recite ridiculous monologues in front of mirrors — "You talkin’ to me?" — but even attempt to solve their problems without blowing anyone’s head off or blaming all their problems on "society."
One such young and new filmmaker, Sofia Coppola with her second film, "Lost In Translation" has given us a good example of everything that has been right with quality filmmaking in the last decade.
"Lost In Translation" is the story of two Americans in Tokyo. The first is Bob Harris, a has-been actor of — go figure — the 1970’s who has gone to Tokyo to endorse whisky and collect a fat check in the process. The other is Charlotte, the young wife of an American photographer working in Japan. Bob is played with subtle genius by Bill Murray who finally is allowed to deliver in a leading role the skills he has exhibited recently in "Rushmore" and Michael Almereyda’s film version of "Hamlet." The lovely Scarlett Johansson plays Charlotte, who only two years into her marriage is wondering what to do with herself and with her marriage. Bob can’t wait to get out of Japan where the isolation he was presumably fleeing hasn’t been relieved by retreating across the Pacific.
After Charlotte’s clueless husband leaves her on business, she and Bob strike up a friendship in the hotel bar and determine to fight their loneliness with a little booze, karaoke, and conversation. But while Bob and Charlotte spend much time together trying to sort out their lives, one is struck by how little dialogue there is in this film. While the conversations vacillate between the mundane and the heartfelt, Coppola leaves the audience to fill in much of the relationship based on its own experiences. Most of the communication is unspoken, and when, in the final scene, Bob tells Charlotte how he really feels, the audience is not permitted to hear, and we are left only to fill in the blanks with our imaginations.
In an earlier era, these two would have no doubt ended up in bed together and we might even have been treated to a tiresome sex scene. Thankfully, we are spared that cliché as well as any attempt at an unnecessarily tragic ending provided to do nothing other than to provide "disquiet" for the audience. Our characters realize that they have lives of their own and other obligations, and it is quite unlikely that either Bob’s wife or Charlotte’s husband would respond well to their romance, no matter how unphysical it may have been. Bob and Charlotte behave like adults, and part of the reason that this film is such a pleasure to watch is that it is a film about grown-ups for grown-ups. It turns out there are still people on earth who can talk about something other than their genitals, and who are intelligent enough to appreciate the confines imposed upon them by a larger world. In other words, they don’t behave like children. We are treated to well-educated characters who smoke cigarettes, drink whisky, and push the boundaries of their personal ethics without abandoning everything to some Hollywood version of "passion." There is moral ambiguity, but it’s not there simply for the sake of having it. Bob’s mid-life crisis is handled with sympathy but without indulgence as Charlotte gently ridicules him: "Have you bought a Porsche yet?"
In many ways, the new films of Coppola and her fellow just-out-of-your-twenties filmmakers like Noah Baumbach (with "Kicking and Screaming"), and Wes Anderson (with "Rushmore" and the "Royal Tenenbaums"), feature internal rather than external conflict, intergenerational friendships, and a desire to join society rather than depart from it. They are, in many ways, the antidote to 70’s films in that they view revolutionary mayhem and "dropping out" as a coward’s alternative. "Network"’s mantra of "I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore," still applies, but the view of the new filmmaker is "doctor, heal thyself."
As a whole, "Lost in Translation" exhibits exceptional sensitivity not only to the plight of young people seeking to come to terms with having to make meaningful decisions about their own lives, but with the middle-aged who now must live with the results of their own decisions of long ago, and who unlike the overgrown children of the 70’s elect not to ride a hawg out of town and declare themselves free. When Charlotte asks Bob if marriage gets any easier, he has no breathtaking words of wisdom for her. Apparently, life doesn’t get easier, but you live it anyway.
Ryan McMaken [send him mail] is a regular columnist for LewRockwell.com.