Lost in Translation

(Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press ‘American Indies‘ series, 2010)

Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com


Lost in Translation opens with a fade-up from black to a medium close-up shot of Scarlet Johansson’s rear, clad in transparent pastel pink underwear, as her character lies down on her side. The image, framing her figure from lower back to just below the knee, is held for a lengthy 34 seconds and largely abstracted from the narrative at the time; still at first, then moving slightly as the legs adjust position. Company credits fade in and out above the upper edge of the figure, followed by music and the appearance of the main title across the lower half of her body, before the image fades again to black and the film-proper seems to begin. The opening sets the tone of the piece, particularly in its languorous and softly glowing qualities, but also grated for some viewers, the overt nature of its display of the female body seeming out of keeping with the more general tenor of the film, even if the character does remain scantily clad in a number of scenes that follow. The location of the image, detached and at the privileged opening moment, gives it what appears to be an emblematic quality; but emblematic of what, exactly?

The impression is marked as one that seems designed to be ‘seductive’, in a manner that mixes more and less subtle qualities (more so in the image texture and the leisurely way in which it is presented; less in the close-to-nude status of the lower regions of a body that seems all the more objectified in being removed from its head or its location at this stage in relation to an identifiable character). If the opening is emblematic of anything, it might be of the status of Lost in Translation more generally, in its particular location in the wider cinematic spectrum. It offers, on the one hand, an ‘obvious’ point of appeal, in its potentially erotic dimension and the proximity of the bodily spectacle to the camera, although this is combined with what might be considered to be more ‘subtle’ aesthetic qualities and an ‘artistic’ point of reference (I am putting such terms within quotation marks to suggest that these are marked positionings or accents rather than inherent or self-evident qualities). For those in the know, the image is based on the paintings of the American photorealist John Kacere, a source acknowledged by the filmmaker, which include numerous similarly-framed pictures of scantily-clad female mid-sections, although Kacere’s work seems more blatantly sexist in orientation (garish in quality and often combining such underwear with other flimsy garments, while Johansson’s character, Charlotte,  mixes hers with a more ‘sensible’ jumper). This combination of qualities is in some respects typical of the film as a whole, and the manner in which it can be understood to be positioned as an example of American independent or indie cinema.

Lost in Translation is marked as clearly distinctive from the commercial mainstream in a number of dimensions, while also offering some more familiar or conventional points of orientation. The principal aim of this book is to analyse this particular balance of qualities in detail, to pin down what exactly might be the basis of the film’s appeal – and its considerable commercial success – and how exactly this locates it in a part of the contemporary indie sector that combines features that might in some cases be associated with ‘art’ cinema with others closer to what is usually expected of the Hollywood mainstream. I am using expressions such as what might be ‘associated with’ or ‘expected of’ the mainstream to underline the extent to which ‘the mainstream’ itself can be a problematic category, often used in an unexamined manner as a negative reference point for various degrees of alternative production. The Hollywood mainstream is, certainly, a globally dominant industrial phenomenon that represents an inescapable point of departure for many other kinds of cinema, but the degree to which it offers an entirely homogenous point of comparison is easily overstated. The perspective adopted in this book seeks to chart a dynamic series of relationships between elements drawn from different kinds of cinema, including those generally recognized as mainstream and others, institutionalized in their own ways, such as ‘art’ or ‘indie’ cinema. The position occupied by an individual example such as Lost in Translation can be understood as the outcome of a series of forces within what Pierre Bourdieu terms the ‘field of cultural production’, the wider network of objective relationships that creates the context within which any cultural product is likely to become funded, produced, distributed and consumed.[i]

Lost in Translation was generally acknowledged to have been one of the indie hits of 2003-2004, earning widespread critical praise and awards, the latter including an Oscar for best original screenplay. I am taking ‘indie’ here to signify a particular variety of American independent feature production and distribution that became institutionalised and came to prominence during the 1980s and especially from the early 1990s, as opposed to a broader or more literal definition of ‘independence’ that might include all non-Hollywood output in the history of film in the US, ranging from the avant-garde to various forms of exploitation cinema and also, in some accounts, including certain features that otherwise appear to be solidly in the commercial mainstream.[ii] While some have argued that independent status can only be measured at the industrial level, in terms of economic freedom from the Hollywood studio system or any of its offshoots, I suggest that it can also be understood at the level of the substantive material of the films themselves – their form and content – even if this remains an inexact science. Indie or independent are best used as relative terms rather than absolutes, signifying a range of degrees of departure at each level from what might conventionally be expected of work situated in the Hollywood mainstream. This approach is vindicated, I would suggest, by a close study of Lost in Translation, a film the status of which might be considered to vary, if a monolithic approach were sought, depending on exactly which of its facets were under examination at any particular moment.

Precisely how Lost in Translation is situated at the industrial level is the subject of the first chapter of this book, which traces a movement from more distinctly indie dimensions to others in which the film can also be located in the region known as Indiewood, in which the lines between Hollywood and the independent sector are considerably less clear-cut. The distinction between indie and Indiewood can itself be a blurry one, as evidenced by an analysis of the various dimensions of Coppola’s film, hence the use on some occasions in this book of formulations such as ‘indie or Indiewood’ or ‘indie/Indiewood’. This chapter examines the manner in which the film was conceived and financed and strategies employed in distribution and marketing, along with some consideration of the initial critical reception. The marketing of the film revolved to a large extent around the presence of Bill Murray in one of the two leading roles, a dimension considered in greater detail in chapter 2, which examines some of the key frameworks within which the film might be situated for viewers: stardom, the presence of the filmmaker Sofia Coppola as a distinctive ‘auteur’, and the role of genre, particularly romantic comedy, as a category in relation to which Lost in Translation might more ambiguously be located. The formal texture of the film, analysed in chapter 3, is another key aspect of its positioning, one of the dimensions in which it most clearly makes its claim to a distinctively indie/alternative status, with its low-key approach to narrative and a number of audio-visual strategies that combine to create a particular range of ‘atmospheric’ impressions. The final chapter more briefly examines some of the thematic issues raised by the film, including its portrait of experiences of alienation and disconnection, aspects of Lost in Translation that are linked to a number of questions related to the politics of its representations in the realms of race, gender and class formations.

In all of these dimensions, Lost in Translation can be understood to be a film aimed, if only implicitly, at a particular range of audience segments, even if this was something its distributors also sought to transcend, in what proved generally to be a successful bid for cross-over success into a wider market. It positions itself as a work designed for an ‘implied audience’ equipped with the taste preferences and cultural capital requisite to particular realms of the social spectrum, chiefly those conventionally associated with certain portions of the middle or upper-middle classes, issues I have addressed at greater length elsewhere in relation to these regions of the cinematic landscape.[iii] That is to say, qualities such as the film’s slow pace and relatively uneventful narrative, and its sometimes expressive use of sound and image, are likely to appeal to some viewers and not to others. Just how far that is the case is demonstrated by viewer responses examined in this book via a sample of 1,900 ‘customer reviews’ posted on the website of the online retailer Amazon.com. It is clear from this sample that many viewers appreciated the particular qualities offered by the film, whether this is expressed briefly or in more considered and/or lengthy comments. Many Amazon reviewers respond negatively, however, sometimes strongly and vociferously so. A similar division is found among another 1,694 ‘user comments’ posted on the Internet Movie Database. One of the benefits of these sources of feedback is the apparently wide range of viewers they encompasses, especially Amazon, rather than favouring fans or enthusiasts, as is the case with some other web fora.[iv] The negative responses are, in their own way, as informative about the particular qualities offered by the film as those which are more positive, throwing into sharp relief the particular terms of engagement requisite to a pleasureable experience. A brief summary of the overall breakdown of the Amazon and IMDb samples is provided near the end of chapter 1, while more detailed consideration of the Amazon responses is given throughout the book in relation to the various dimensions of the film outlined above.

[i] Bourdieu, ‘The Field of Cultural Production, or; The Economic World Reversed’, in The Field of Cultural Production

[ii] For more on these questions of definition, see King, American Independent Cinema, ‘Introduction: How Independent?’, and Yannis Tzioumakis, American Independent Cinema: An Introduction

[iii] See King, Indiewood USA: Where Hollywood Meets Independent Cinema, Introduction, which offers a lengthy consideration of these issues and some of the underlying theories involved. The concept of the implied audience is from Martin Barker, with Thomas Austin, From Antz to Titanic: Reinventing Film Studies, 42-48. The classic work on the notion of cultural capital, and the taste-cultural preferences of different social groups, is Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste.

[iv] A number of caveats have to be issued with the use of such samples, however. They are self-selecting and there is no guarantee that they are representative, although the Amazon sample is substantial and includes a range of responses, primarily from the United States but also with a wider geographical spread. I chose to use Amazon reviews as the principal source of viewer responses on the basis that the online retailer was likely to include as wide a range of viewers as any other sample. The sample from the IMDb has not been examined in the same detail, although it does appear to contain many similar currents of opinion.

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