Monday, March 01, 2004

me wants it... hobbitses stole it... but something got lost in translation

I wrote this whole post, then did something ingenious to the computer and lost it. So, here is a rewrite, a pale shadow of what was (I assure you) a brilliant piece of social commentary and movie review.

I woke up and read the news, happy to see that The Lord Of The Rings got some major recognition, winning every category in which it was nominated. Yea, some people are upset that other very good movies didn't get various Oscars (whatever happened to being honored that you were even nominated?), but it is good to see Jackson rewarded not just for bringing a good film to the screen, but for doing it in a way that honored the original fairly well, and for doing it on their own far from Hollywood, and in the process doing it better than Hollywood.

I still watch the DVDs, and I am just as likely to watch disk 3 or 4 of the extended DVDs as I am to watch the actual film... seeing the care with which they infused the spirit of Tolkein's world into the film, the intricate attention to detail, is more entertaining than many actual movies I have seen.

I was glad to see that Sofia Coppola got the screenplay Oscar. With the LotR juggernaut rolling around, this was a bad year to make Lost in Translation... the Best Picture and Best Director nods were both a good call, and in a different year she might have claimed those as well. I was sad to see that Bill Murray didn't get his - I don't think the guy gets enough credit for what he does. Everyone remembers SNL, Caddyshack, Meatballs, Stripes... but he played Hunter Thompson in Where the Buffalo Roam, was pretty damn good in The Razor's Edge, I'm obviously pretty enamored of Groundhog Day, in Mad Dog and Glory Bill held his own aside Robert DeNiro (maybe DeNiro held back a bit after Murray broke DeNiro's nose filming the fight scene?), The Man Who Knew Too Little was a great twist on and old formula, and then Rushmore... he's got more range than his early typecasting acknowledges, and his work in Lost in Translation is probably his career best. At least this was acknowledged at the Spirit awards, where Lost in Translation swept the same four categories in which they were nominated for Oscars.

The only bad part of Lost in Translation wasn't in the actual movie... it was in real life, where most of the truly unbelievable stuff goes down. A group has spent the last couple of weeks lobbying the Academy to block votes for Lost in Translation on the grounds that it is racially offensive:

''Lost in Translation provides a biased and offensive portrayal of the Japanese people and perpetuates negative stereotypes that are harmful to the Asian American community,'' notes, which is appealing to members of the Academy of Motion pictures not to vote for the film. "Had this film been set in Africa or Mexico, for example, we do not think Ms. Coppola would have given such an insensitive and racist portrayal of a people.''

Wow... it looks to me like some of the people involved in the complaint have issues:

"The Japanese are 'funny', two-dimensional, cartoon-like characters who can't pronounce English words correctly and often mix 'L' and 'R' sounds,'' laments Yoko Akashi in an article in Japan Today. "The U.S. media traditionally dehumanizes Asians as a whole, making them an easy target for jokes or as a scapegoat. And that view is the norm for many Americans. But seeing it in this supposedly 'intellectual' and 'artsy' film was an unpleasant surprise.''

Ummm... excuse me for a moment while I pull out my clue bat. Racism is pretty offensive, and can be somewhat subtle and hard to detect, but I feel that in this case these people are way off base. I'll just try to bring this out into the open where we can look at it more clearly.

Guess what: many Japanese people can't pronounce English words correctly, and to western ears it sounds like they often mix 'L' and 'R' sounds. This isn't a racist statement, it's an easily verifiable statistical probability. When I studied Japanese language in college, my professor told me that Americans who 'try' to speak Japanese sound mess up the 'L' and 'R' sounds too, and to their ears, we sound like cowboys - with all the attendant caricature stereotypes that implies: not too bright, not too subtle, loud and boastful, always trying to solve problems by throwing their weight around. The thing is, most stereotypes have some basis in truth... but over time there seems to be a tendency to forget that there are truths mingled with the falsities and prejudices, and it all gets lumped into one mental box, labeled 'prejudice'... and people seem to think that naming a thing is the same as judging that thing. Perhaps they feel this to be true because it is something they do themselves?

I ask this last question because there is a relevant story from my life: I know a woman who grew up in a very male-dominated household, and she developed a very strong sense of her identity as a woman. Unfortunately she also inherited some of her family's value judgements, or at least inherited the idea that every statement is a value judgement (which I hope is not true for you, because it seems to be a losing game). The result of all of this is that she treats any statement that relates to women (or even the mention that someone is a woman) as a value judgement, and tends not to hear anything you say after the 'offensive' bit. I tend to speak fairly gender-neutral around her, if only to save myself from stress and wasted energy.

I've actually gone off on a tangent here, however, because I don't feel like the situation I described above is truly relevant to the movie Lost in Translation. I felt that the intent of the film was not in any way to cast a negative view on the Japanese, nor did I feel that it did so through lack of mindfulness. I actually feel like the protesters were displaying racism to a greater extent than the film did.

If the title of the film didn't provide some clue to the filmmaker's intent, some rudimentary analysis of the contents of the film might. I thought that the movie was about the way that things fall apart when we forget what is most important to us, how we can become a stranger in a strange land wherever we are if we lose touch with who we really are. The plot did not require that the film be shot in Japan, only that it be shot in some place where the average western viewer could imagine feeling out of place, but picking Japan was a good choice, because it was easy to show how simply clueless the average westerner would be over there... how their culture developed in a way so different from western culture that we almost don't have the tools to understand each other.

This was important, because that sense of being out of place and disconnected was just an external representation of what was going on inside Bob Harris and Charlotte... the intent was not to show something wrong with the Japanese, it was to provide an external clue to the internal conflict taking place within the two characters.

The only scene I thought might offend Japanese viewers was the scene with the hooker, and that scene, while not flattering, was also not intrinsically linked to the Japanese. The movie takes place in Japan, therefore you get a Japanese hooker... it would have been awkward with someone of any nationality.

My point of view does overlap that of the protesters in places. I do feel that my country is astoundingly ignorant of other cultures, and I agree that this is often shown in films. But I feel that in the case of Lost in Translation this was not represented in a way that was prejudicial, that it was in fact an attempt to step out of that game and make some commentary on it. On the other hand, there are films like The Last Samurai that really do perpetuate stereotypes (Americans just love the "foreigners can't get a damn thing done until an American takes charge" meme) and is very prejudicial, and even worse, it will be seen by a larger audience precisely because it plays to the least common denominator.

Human prejudice is so absurd that there probably does not exist a way to put two people of different nationality or 'race' on the screen and make a film that didn't offend someone. People are different. This is a statement, not a value judgement. Showing some sort of commonality in human experience (even if it is as distressed as that shown in the film) is probably the best way to bridge that gap.

Dammit, I'm losing something in translation here myself... thoughts are a bit muddled. I'm sure I had a point when I started, though.

So your time spent slogging through this rambling rant wasn't completely wasted, I'll leave with a relevant quote from William James:

A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.