Apart from the obvious- Ground hog Day (Harold Rammis, 1993), the “Bill Murray feeling/sighing” that I seem to be experiencing during this coronavirus pandemic stems from the character, Bob, which he played in the feature film, Lost in Translation (Sophia Coppola, 2003). **Spoilers**
I wrote a chapter back in 2016 giving my sourced analysis and opinion on the artistic significance of this existential, early Indiewood film directed by Sophia Coppola. It’s an early piece of writing (this is a shortened version) but I am confident it holds some interesting points for anyone who is a fan of this movie and wants to understand a little more about existential philosophy.
Loneliness and Isolation; Understanding and Expression through the work of Sophia Coppola, Sophie Calle and Tracey Emin
Themes of Urban Alienation in Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation
“Melancholy is a topic I’m interested in more than something I deeply feel. There is indeed some form of melancholy in me, but I’m not the kind of girl who spends her afternoon looking out the window with a sad gaze.” Sofia Coppola’s films appear to be an insight into the directors past experiences and inner personality. She retreated into herself after The Godfather Three due to catastrophic reviews and the films she has made since, seem to embody self-portraits at an arm’s length.
In this chapter, I will be analysing Lost in Translation, 2003 and discussing how, as a work of contemporary art, the writing and directing of the film exposes themes of urban alienation and illustrates the philosophy of existentialism in the twenty-first-century to the audience successfully.
Alienation is a term philosophers apply to feelings of separation from, and discontentment with, society. Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) recognised the notion of alienation quite early, “for him, the present age is one that values objectivity and lip-service to ideals rather than action, publicity and advertising to reality.” The meaning of values has been removed from life, thus leaving many of us feeling isolated or misunderstood. The reality we are left with is that we are all alone essentially, from the cradle to the grave and being physically alone, far from one’s home comforts can only highlight this state of being. This is truer in the present day than it ever was, we travel and move country so often for work, education or pleasure and very often plunge ourselves into an alternate culture to what we are accustomed to, opening ourselves up to vulnerability as well as new and strange experiences. What the existentialist philosophers wanted us to realise, was what Socrates said over 2,000 years before them, “The unexamined life is not worth living”.
They also wanted us to realise that one cannot merely think out all choices in life, we must live them, even those choices that we so often agonise over can become different once physically experienced. Humans do not find meaning in life through pure objectivity, instead, they find it through a direct relationship between themselves and the external world. The self-aware individual must confront an existential uncertainty, instead of following any claimed authority or sacred book.
Sofia Coppola’s first feature film which she wrote and directed, The Virgin Suicides (1999) earned her a place with the new American cinema’s “smart directors”. Her use of irony and surface aesthetic style seemed to mask a melancholy nihilism. Her second film, Lost in Translation (2003), which she also produced and scripted, stars Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray as the main characters, both alienated in the urban environment of Tokyo. The film seems like it is possibly personal and is produced in a European art-house cinema style, a new genre of film production known as “Indiewood”, a term coined in the mid-late 1990’s to describe the blurring of lines between the indie and studio sectors. These films have a more alternative, distinctive quality that set them apart from more average and conventional features. Other examples include Paul Haggis’, Crash (2004) and Sam Mendes’, American Beauty (1999). These productions offer the irony or sincerity of the indie film but with a larger Hollywood-style budget.
In the opening scenes of Lost in Translation (2003) we observe the female protagonist, Charlotte (Scarlet Johannson), lying on a hotel bed alone at night and the male lead character, Bob (Bill Murray), travelling from Tokyo airport to Tokyo city by taxi, much of our viewpoint is from his perspective looking directly upward at the bright lights, massive skyscrapers and a sea of unfamiliar symbols. He is then greeted at the hotel by a group of Japanese people with gifts, business cards and bowing, there are many scenes like this which highlight the utter absurdity of many cultural differences and the term “culture- clash” springs readily to mind. Also, at over six feet tall, Murray towers above the Japanese hotel guests in the lift.
Bob and Charlotte are residing in a luxury Tokyo hotel for long periods respectively. Charlotte, a philosophy graduate who is feeling neglected by her photographer husband spends long periods staring out at the city skyline, perched on the windowsill, reminiscent of a caged bird yearning for freedom and purpose. She decided to come along to Tokyo while her husband works on assignment as a celebrity photographer, she is feeling lost and doesn’t seem sure where to go next in her life.
Bob, who is in a stagnant marriage but misses his children, is an aging movie star, a bit of a burnout, who is in Japan to advertise products. He spends his time drinking alone on a stool at the dimly lit hotel bar counter or in his hotel room trying to sleep, intermittently turning on the television to only discover once again, everything is in Japanese and even uncovering an old film he starred in that is dubbed over so he cannot even understand his own “voice”
The character of Bob seems to have been inspired by the writer-directors personal experience of the city: “You can’t walk down the street in Tokyo without seeing some familiar western movie star advertising a drink,” says Sofia Coppola. “They get tons of money for a day’s work and they think nobody is going to see it, but none of the Japanese people I know think it’s cool. They think it’s cheesy.”
Feeling alienated and strange in the world at times is only a part of the examination of the self. Kierkegaard explains: “It is a misunderstanding to be concerned with any reality other than one’s own ethical reality. Each individual cannot be defined: he can be known only by himself from within and to think of himself first.” .The film highlights how frustrating and isolating it can feel to be surrounded by things we do not have the scope to bring meaning to. In an interview for Focus Features, Sofia Coppola talks about the contrasts between the central characters whilst also reinforcing the idea that she is painting a self-portrait in some of the scenes:
…and he’s having a midlife crisis in Japan – where it’s already so confusing. In the film, Charlotte is having that early 20s, “what do I do with my life” crisis. She and Bob are two people at opposite ends of something comparable; she’s just going into a marriage and he’s on the other end, having been in one for years. There is camaraderie between them at the moment in time that they’re at. It’s two characters going through a similar personal crisis, exacerbated by being in a foreign place. Trying to figure out your life in the midst of all of that…I always do that on trips, just start to think of these issues when I’m away from home.
Another prominent scene that depicts his frustration is when Bob is working onset to promote the whisky he endorses. He is the only non- Japanese speaker and the divide between him and all the other set workers bustling around him is painfully obvious. He looks dejected and fed up and this isn’t helped by the fact that the director is exclaiming wildly and using huge gestures to describe what he would like him to do but, in Japanese. The translator then reiterates these fantastic long outbursts with a single calm, mundane sentence such as,“Please look towards the camera” Bob is flabbergasted and this scene is one of many that captures these alienating, absurd and awkward moments one feels in a contrasting culture.
Albert Camus describes absurdity, philosophically speaking, as our search for answers in an answerless world in The Myth of Sisyphus (1942):
I said that the world is absurd, but I was too hasty. This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment it is all that links them together. It binds them one to the other as only hatred can weld two creatures together. This is all I can discern clearly in this measureless universe where my adventure takes place.
The movies characters meet-cute is at the hotel bar one night, they both cannot sleep, a common symptom of Culture Shock; a feeling of confusion, doubt, or nervousness caused by being in an extremely unfamiliar territory. Charlotte sits down next to Bob on a stool at a respectful distance. It can be noted how Charlotte and Bob exist in relation to one another physically in some frames. The two are often depicted on opposite sides of the screen during mutual scenes, primarily the scenes at the hotel bar or at the Sushi restaurant where Charlotte and Bob are not on good terms after she discovers another woman in his hotel room. They don’t want to admit they care for one another more than might seem appropriate in a friendship yet they do. Always at a distance throughout the film, even while the pair are in the small elevator there is a distinct distance, a divide, a hesitancy. Roger Ebert discusses the feature in his glowing review:
Most of the time nobody knows where they are, or cares, and their togetherness is all that keeps them both from being lost and alone. They go to karaoke bars and drug parties, pachinko parlors and, again and again, the hotel bar. They wander Tokyo, an alien metropolis to which they lack the key.
The film has a few disrupting, loud city street scenes with crowds of thousands of people rushing past. The street and party scenes are an overload for the senses; the car exhaust fumes, the constant horn beeping, the flashing bright lights, the eight-bit blipping of gaming arcades, the chatter of a foreign language and incessant beat. Coppola speaks fondly of the city in conversation with Ross Katz: “It’s crowded and really modern and such a mixture of American and Japanese culture. I find it strange and wonderful.” These scenes oppose the quiet views of the city from the safety of the characters’ hotel rooms. The imposing buildings take up most of the frame and the city is often viewed through car windows and train windows, a physical barrier between the character and the city. The characters are watched by the city and it is almost always in our path of viewing, looming threateningly in the background or foreground. There are scenes when Charlotte is looking out her large glass windows, which expand across the whole room width, where she is almost floating high
above the metropolis from her hotel room which must be one of the topmost floors due to the proximity of other buildings. She feels dwarfed by the city, her helpless posture, and the cinematography of this panoramic ariel view confirms this. Coppola had her own reasons for choosing this particular hotel to shoot these scenes:
although I didn’t stay there when I was younger because it was expensive [laughs]…I stayed there a few times later on. There’s something very specific and odd about that hotel. The city is so chaotic and here’s this silent floating island in the middle of Tokyo. They have the “New York” bar and a French restaurant – but it’s the Japanese version.
Urban alienation, existentialism, happiness, and culture shock are the main themes of the film and it is anything but a run-of-the-mill romance comedy. As Roger Ebert says:
Lost in Translation is too smart and thoughtful to be the kind of movie where they go to bed and we’re supposed to accept that as the answer…They share something as personal as their feelings rather than something as generic as their genitals.
There are almost-romantic scenes but the friendship remains platonic, such as when the two are lying apart on the bed but confessing their deepest worries. Bob no longer feels needed by his family and Charlotte feels like her husband doesn’t know her, mistaking her intelligent and sombre personality for snobbery. Bill Murray discusses this scene in an interview:
I think it’s really a key scene in the film, I think that’s when most movie watchers decide that they like the film because there is a romantic encounter structure that we are all familiar with, and usually it gets to a point where the writing is not……. It makes a choice to go one way or the other and usually both ways are sort of incorrect for me, they’re almost not true in a way……. when there is a possibility of an affair, usually people will belittle their other life.
The earlier scenes of an obvious divide between Charlotte and Bob juxtapose starkly with the final scenes where both bodies inhibit almost the entire frame, except for the fast-paced walking of the many Japanese people around them which the pair do not acknowledge. The city that had once seemed imposing and frightening has now been almost cut out of the shot completely. They embrace for some time, she cries a little and he whispers something inaudible into her ear, she says “OK”. “Coppola keeps her film as hushed and intimate as that whisper.” They are in an imaginary bubble alone together, safe from the frightening world out there for a tender moment. They kiss and say goodbye and both leave smiling, it is left ambiguous as to whether they will ever meet again. By leaving the audience in the dark, she is allowing them to withdraw without understanding and leaves them alienated from the pairs intimacy. The song that begins to play has an elated, sweet sound, Just Like Honey by The Jesus and Mary Chain (1985) but the lyrics are full of anguish and despair adding to the overall bitter sweetness of the film. An article in Rolling Stone Magazine surmises that: “director Sofia Coppola uses this punk love song to make the finale seem inspirational, as if all of Scarlett’s wounded romanticism is ringing aloud like the Jesus and Mary Chain’s guitars.
The last thing we see is Bob travelling back to the airport by taxi and our view is of the cityscape once again but this time from a ground level perspective, the city has shrunk down to a more manageable size after his encounter with Charlotte. As if he has left with a feeling of having found something comforting and familiar in a place which had only previously offered feelings of absurdity and alienation.
Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980), an existentialist philosopher, warned us that things are stranger than we believe they are. The world is weird and uncanny, absurd and frightening but it is also rich in opportunities and we have the ability to change our situation. We might forge a friendship with the most unlikely of people in the most unlikely of places, and it may be beyond our understanding of how and why these things happen, but sometimes we need to accept the world, let down our guard and open ourselves up to the possibility of speaking a new language.
Ciara Anne Rodgers
Travers, P., Lost in Translation. Rollingstone.com, movies, reviews, 2003, accessed 12/10/16
Baker, R.E., Sartre and Camus: Nausea and Existentialist Humor, Colorado: Journal of Language and Literature, 2007
Katz, R., Let’s Get Lost: Translation Talk with Sofia Coppola and Ross Kat, http://www.focusfeatures.com, 2010,
Ebert, R., Lost in Translation, http://www.rogerebert.com, 2003,
A conversation with Bill Murray and Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation (2003), youtube
Camus, A., The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays. translated by Justin O’Brien. New York: Vintage Books, 1991, p. 15
Harkness, A., Interview: Sofia Coppola on Lost in Translation, http://www.Film4.com
Blackham, H.J., Six Existentialist Thinkers; Kierkegaard. Nietzsche. Jaspers. Marcel. Heidegger, Sartre., Norfolk: Lowe & Brydone Ltd, 1978, p. 5,8.
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Saleem, A., Theme of Alienation in Modern Literature, European Journal of English Language and Literature Studies, 2014
D. Anthony Storms, Commentary on Kierkegaard, sorenkierkegaard.org