Monday, September 22, 2003

don't send for a search party

Why exactly is everyone going ga-ga over Sophia Coppola's new Lost In Translation? I thought it was passable but not anywhere near extraordinary and Sharon hated it, finding the existential crises of the two main characters utterly uncompelling. As she puts it, in reference to Scarlett Johansson's numerous scenes where she's gazing out on Tokyo from her hotel room, "hey, I've been depressed too but I didn't spend all my time, sitting in my panties, starting out of a window." (Sharon doesn't suffer fools lightly and she found Johansson's post-collegiate "whatever shall I do with my life?" existential battles to be annoying and devoid of depth).

Mostly though, she was royally annoyed at how cliche and stereotypical Tokyo was portrayed and I have to agree on this. Partially, I was excited to see the movie because critics talked about how Tokyo was shot so lovingly. I guess I went in hoping to see cinematographer Lance Acord do for Tokyo what Christopher Doyle did for Hong Kong in Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express. In the latter movie, Hong Kong's soaring skyscrapers and neon lights are dimmed in favor of a look at the back alleys, tenenment buildings, street markets and corner stores. None of these places are ostenisbly romantic yet Doyle shoots them as if they were as mysterious as Casablanca. With LiT, all you get are some pretty shots of downtown Tokyo mixed in with dozens of cliche images that have been circulatig through American film for the last 20+ years.

Basically, the gist of it is: "wow, look at how wacky and crazy all these Japanese cats are! They're such freaks!" I would have thought that Coppola could have done better than playing on all the familiar neo-Orientalist cliches about Tokyo: pachinko machines, karaoke bars and strip clubs. I mean, why not have a friggin' tea ceremony scene in there too? Sometimes, American directors (read: White) can be so incredibly wack and unimaginative. In fact, if there are any examples of American cinema where Japan is portrayed Orientalism-free, I'd love to know what they'd be since I can't seem to think of any. Given the history of Japan and the U.S., that there's a deeply entrenched cultural tradition in the U.S. (that dates back even pre-WWII) to exoticize Japan and Japanese culture and as more time has gone by, those slanted impressions have become more and more part of the common sense logic through which Japan is viewed.

Since Lost In Translation purports to make Tokyo a major part of the film's narrative, and obviously, visual elements, I had higher hopes that it'de treat that subject with some intelligence and creativity rather than relaying on tired tropes. Like I said, that puts Coppola into a very larger tradition of bad American films about Japan (anyone up for Sayonara?) Or how about Black Rain? Or how about Rising Sun (doesn't take place in Japan yet might as well have). Or how about...

You get the idea.