Saturday, October 11, 2003

On Lost in Translation

Saw LiT last night, with SL and others. If you follow film at all, you've probably heard all about it by now, so I'll just write that, frankly, I don't see the big deal. It's a good movie, sure, but I've seen plenty of better movies in the past twelve months. The film's pacing and narrative drive seemed not only slow (I have no problem with slow movies; see the links in the previous sentence) but lazy. Many reviewers have found ways to excuse this quality, but I find their assessments dubious. Take, for example, Salon's Stephanie Zecharek:

The picture's muted intensity isn't just a vague mood -- it's a subtle but very specific type of narrative drive. Coppola (who also wrote the screenplay) is a stealth dramatist: Instead of unfolding in precise pleats, her movies unfurl like bolts of silk. There are no handy place markers between scenes to help us tick off how many minutes are likely to pass between this or that point of conflict and the denouement. Revelations don't click into position; they swoop down, seemingly from nowhere, and settle in quietly, like a bird coming to roost.

To some people, this is a maddeningly diffuse type of filmmaking, but I'd argue that Coppola's precision is simply the sort that's measured in sine waves, not milliseconds.

That's pretty much all bull, but the last sentence is especially vacuous --- Zecharek's straining for a metaphor whose vagueness underscores the very point she's trying to refute: namely, that the movie's fat and fuzzy around the edges.

A film about messy, vague feelings does not itself need to be messy and vague. Steven Soderbergh would have pared this movie down to its sharp and devastating bone, and given you a boatload more visual pleasure to boot. One might hesitate, at first, to compare Sofia Coppola's second film with the best works of an accomplished master like Soderbergh. But with critics like Zecharek and Roger Ebert (among many others) calling this movie an instant classic, it seems only fair to ask the question: how does it stack up against great movies that received similar, or even lesser praise? And the answer, when considered dispassionately, is that it suffers by the comparison.

It's better simply to say that Lost in Translation's a good movie, of the sort that, absent the present groupthink hype, would normally make a splash on the festival circuit and fade away gracefully. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson are both terrific, as usual. Plus I'm a sucker for picturesque nighttime cityscapes, and the Tokyo presented here fills the screen admirably. The film offers many pleasures, but those pleasures are muted and diffuse, like the film itself.

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