A few months ago, I was sitting on the sofa wiping a tear from the side of my eye during the ending credits of Her. A swift Google search led me to director Spike Jonze’s biography, noting below his former marriage with Sofia Coppola – a director whose works I’ve been wanting to explore. Lost in Translation came on-screen the next day.
Lost in Translation takes place in Tokyo, though most of its screen time was filmed inside the Park Hyatt Tokyo, the hotel that accommodates the main leads of the movie. Bill Murray performed a spectacular portrayal of stoic funny man, actor Bob Harris, a role he received an Oscar nomination for as Best Actor that year. Scarlett Johansson, then 17 at the time of filming, was cast as Charlotte, a newly wed in the brink of a marriage crisis. The two form a connection amidst the troubles they face with their respective life partners, deepening as the narrative progresses until it breaks off as Bob had to return home to his family. It is a story of two lonely people uncertain about their future – a plight relatable to ours as we juggle new places and responsibilities each day.
Charlotte (left) speaking to Bob (right) in Park Hyatt Tokyo’s bar
Image source: http://moustashie.blogspot.my/2015/08/lost-in-translation-stills.html
Her, on the other hand, is set in the cold future that Lost in Translation dreads where people have become reliant on their technology for warmth and assurance in an indifferent world. Joaquin Phoenix gives us an expressive performance as Theodore, a man who earns a living writing letters for other people and sends them to their loved ones. Behind the lovely words spoken to the system that handwrites them on paper, he struggles to deal with his recent divorce with wife Catherine (portrayed by Rooney Mara). He then finds companionship with an operating system (OS) who names herself Samantha (voiced by *surprise!* Scarlett Johansson). The unlikeliest romance between human and machine is created but absent of a physical presence and Samantha’s growing human consciousness that is the source of her unconfidence – it’s tumultuous. As Samantha grows exponentially from an OS into an almost-human being, a move that makes Theodore realise that he cannot fit in Samantha’s narrative due to his human limits.
Theodore (left) waiting for Samantha to be fully booted on his system
Image source: http://cinemavine.com/movie-stills-of-the-day-spike-jonzes-her/
For some, it can be interpreted that Jonze’s Her took elements from his ex-spouse’s Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Perhaps Jonze’s feelings mirror that of Theodore, the film being his response of her fleeting uncertainties of love; that he too, was uncertain and lost from losing her. While it is debatable, it is still a wistful thought for an audience of hopeless romantics.
I do, however, believe that they cover similar concerns such as loneliness, a yearning to form human connections or desires of being understood by a loved one. These are concerns that mirror our own. Even with Her’s futuristic setting, I can still relate to Theodore playing a melancholic song on the way home or settling down later to play a video game in the dark all on his own. Or in Tokyo when Charlotte roams around a city she has no understanding of – she faces detachment of herself from the rest of society, due to cultural and language barriers, but worse, her growing distance from her own newlywed husband. The protagonists are at their lowest point, before gradually being strengthened by human connection and being reintroduced to love in their own way. I do not mean to infer that romantic love is mankind’s cure-all but the general idea is that it exemplifies how Aristotle considers “man by nature to be a social animal” – without the social aspect we would simply be beasts roaming around eating each other. Or not.
But what makes these films stand out is that romance is not always sugar and honey. It’s work, your partner can be difficult to understand or find it hard to navigate through your worst moments. We could approach a relationship, damaged in ways we haven’t even begun to understand. It’s a lot of work and sometimes we don’t get our happily ever afters. But we love them because they’re honest. And isn’t that why we keep coming back to these movies? That’s ultimately what they are all about – the realities of love we must live with.
Lost in Letters?
Let’s face it, if Charlotte knew how to convey her thoughts to her husband within the first 30 minutes of the film, Coppola could’ve wrapped the production and call it a day. But this was a story that needed to be told and so Charlotte was stripped of such power. Instead, she settles with a phone call to a friend to express how she doesn’t know who she has married. The friend wasn’t much of a listener to pick that line up and when she requests Charlotte to repeat herself, she did what most of us would do in response, reply with an “It’s nothing.” and pretend the conversation never existed.
“The more you know who you are and what you want, the less you let things upset you.”
Image source: alicexz on deviantart.com
For the characters in both films, the inability to effectively communicate with their respective partners is a major issue. We face this problem all the time. Our intended meanings aren’t always interpreted accordingly by the other party. Maybe that explains when we were younger and lacked the salt of our elders, we turned to loud punk music to indirectly tell the world we felt misunderstood. For Theodore, his punk music was his job that provides personalized letter-writing services (as an English major I am relieved to know my future has a sense of security). The situation with Theodore is that he knows how to express language but fails in his personal usage of it because doing so meant he had to confront his own misgivings and he, like the rest of us who haven’t done quite enough soul-searching, still doesn’t know how to. And confronting it means that he should acknowledge that his ex-wife is no longer a part of his life anymore. In the end, after staring out of the window in one of the film’s many moments of quiet reflection, he comes to terms with himself and writes a letter of apology to his ex-wife Catherine, reassuring her of their love and friendship. See, Theodore, it’s not that hard, is it? The case of Bob and Charlotte’s relationship is a good example of this. They found in each other an understanding counterpart they lost with their own partners. Some might call this cheating but it depends on how you interpret the kiss at the end of the movie. Personally, I think they considered each other as emotional support. What the films tell us is there is beauty of communicating with clarity and without ego barriers, you get a relationship that is tragically human that is forever changes the way you see love.
Passion of Nah
Along the passage of time, people we love change for the better or the worse. It’s an inevitable process that starts with Barack Obama and ends with Donald Trump. Can we love the same person from yesterday if they’re no longer who they are tomorrow? Is it truly love if we try to or do we just fear the thought of losing someone who has been a part of your life for so long? Can we truly love someone for who they are? Then why do thoughts of lusting over others exist?
After the many trips and dinners, life eventually returns to its duller colours both of you have lives to juggle. You wake up in the morning to a text (or a call if you’re dating an OS) of your partner apologising because you (or they) deserve far better. “I’m yours and I’m not yours”, Samantha says in the end. The ambiguity wasn’t necessary, Samantha, but we the audience thank you for it. Sometimes I love struggles in the pursuit of individual interest against meeting the needs of someone you care for and attempting to determine the best way of settling such a dissonance. Bob, married, faces this. After the many years of being attached, conversations become less sugary and more systematic. Does he love his wife? We’re not certain. It is like the career he attempts to maintain. There is no longer the same enthusiasm as there might’ve been in the beginning. Contrary to Disney princess movies (sorry to destroy your childhood, by the way), the most romantic of romances can still die off.
Hide and Seek
I don’t want to end this on a solemn note. In his review of Lost in Translation, Roger Ebert describes the film as a mono no aware moment. A transient passing of memories and/or people in our lives. Can we really find our soul mates? Does the notion of a soul mate even real? Should we wait? Should we seek? Maybe they’re already married to the wrong person! Or maybe it’s the good friend sitting next to you, watching the Shanghai night sky. In all our mono no aware moments, we lust after what was to be and fail to keep sight of what may possible be the best interest in front of us. If we are alone, we will continue to be alone until we leave our own glass prisons. But when we do find someone, don’t grip too hard until the bird aches to escape. It will go when migration calls. Let go, then. Not everything stays. Therefore, we remind you that there is more to life than all the missing what if’s. Come out of your car, your room, marvel at the night lights, bask under the hot Sun. Hug her. Hug him. Love is there. It won’t always be there. But at least you knew there was a chance.
By Kristine Rimas Lee