Rarely have I seen a more pure expression of the essence of cinema. There are tons of more ambitious films, more relevant films, more complex films. But Lost in Translation does what it sets out to do, to tell an abortive almost-love story, with an economy that would be hard to match.
The intensity of my experience had as much to do with what led to my seeing the film opening night -- here in Tucson, anyway -- by myself.
A few weeks back, I noticed an ad for the soundtrack on the back of an issue of my favorite glossy music publication, Magnet. Seeing that there were new tracks from the reclusive perfectionist Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine tuned me into the image, of Bill Murray staring impassively from a hotel bed, massive window behind him.
I made a point of getting the soundtrack the day it came out.
A few days later, I turned on the television randomly, in the middle of the day, and saw Sofia Coppola discussing the film with Charlie Rose. The tension in their conversation, coupled with the short clip that accompanied the interview, got me very interested in the film as film. To be sure, the mental images I was able to get from the superb soundtrack and the few stills in the CD booklet contributed powerfully to that interest. But the film became my prime objective.
For a while, Kim and I were supposed to see it together today or this weekend. But she decided that we couldn't coordinate a Friday viewing with our work commitments and that it wouldn't be a good idea to send Skylar over to her grandparents, since Carl is going in for surgery on Tuesday.
Then Kim decided that she would go see with with Susan White tonight as part of her "Mommy's night out."
Last night, while she was cleaning the floor and I was amped on medicine I'd taken for my cough, I went out to announce to her that I would go to the movies with Sean Saturday, after Skylar had gone to bed. She replied, "Good, you can see Lost in Translation and we'll talk about it afterward. My answer was that I wasn't sure I wanted to see the film with Sean, but might rather see American in Splendor, then tacked on a comment about how I'd like to be the one to see a film first for a change.
Saying that wasn't a bright idea, as it led to 90 minutes of arguing between us in which my mental and physical state got the better of me and I put my foot in my mouth over and over and over.
Kim was offended that I would not see the film out of spite. Later, she offered the theory that it was only because of the soundtrack that I was so keen on seeing it first. "You don't get that way about movies. You only get that way about music, like when you made me leave the Barry Manilow concert to go see that Cure movie on the first day." She had a point.
The previous Cure concert film, The Cure in Orange came out in the fall semester of my freshman year at Berkeley. It played for a week and I saw it three times. Perhaps the most embarrassing thing I ever did in my life occurred in conjunction with that film. Annalee invited me over to try out her new diaphragm. I arrived, "tried" it, then left within fifteen minutes despite her entreaties to remain because I insisted I had to see the film, even though I was going to see it for a second time. Needless to say, my extreme callousness led to a sudden iciness between the two of us and no "relations" for a month, which when you've only been having them for a month and a half is a long time.
Anyway, back to the present. Instead of acknowledging that Kim had a point, I sat there silently, resisting her interpretation in classic passive-aggressive mode. When she pushed me to confirm her analysis, I proceeded to tell her that I have a hard time getting a "point of entry" into a film if she has just seen it with Susan.
This made her really upset, ultimately causing her to accuse me of trying to sabotage the fun she has doing film-related stuff with my colleagues.
We almost went to bed -- and in separate rooms, no less, because my coughing has been so bad the past week that I don't want to wake her and have been "camping" in the front room -- in a complete stand-off. I finally managed to slightly reduce the tension by saying that I had really just wanted to see the film with her. which was perfectly true.
At any rate, the bad feeling lingered into Friday.
Around 8:45pm, though, Kim called me from the road. She was coming back home, instead of going to a second film as originally planned, because she said Lost in Translation was, she and Susan agreed, too good to hope that any second feature would measure up. "I'm coming home so you can see it tonight too."
It's amazing how much hearing these words brightened my mood. I did some of the many dishes left over from spaghetti and pudding making, took a different cough medication, then left a few minutes after she got home to catch the 9:55pm show at the El Con.
On the way out, Kim said to me, "You may actually want to see this one alone anyway, instead of seeing it with Sean." I concurred, saying I'd rather be able to immerse myself in the picture without having to worry about what my companion was thinking (a problem that besets me a great deal, though not usually when I'm with Kim).
This extraordinarily long prelude to my discussion of Lost in Translation is necessary to explain the intensity of my response.
Because the film is about a middle-aged man -- much older than me, obviously, but still in that 35-and-over category in which the "crisis" is a constant threat -- alone on a business trip in Japan and the young, married woman he meets in his hotel, seeking the film alone really maximized the identification for me.
I've always kind of enjoyed being in hotels by myself. I like the nuts-and-bolts of traveling for business. Indeed, I've often thought that I could be one of those people who handles a long-distance relationship because I don't get depressed or lonely when I'm by myself in a strange city for a period of time.
Bill Murray's character doesn't seem to have that positive a relation to business travel. But you do get the chance that he's sort of glad to be temporarily "free", even if he does spend his free time drinking and laying awake in his hotel bed with insomnia.
The detail in the film that resonated most strongly for me -- aside from the protagonists' exchanging charged glances, which no doubt resonates for almost everyone who sees Lost in Translation -- was the cell phone conversations -- you can hear both parties -- that he has with his wife back in the States, burdened with the minutiae of daily life and the difficulty that the two of them have conversing without tension. You can hear both their voices going back and forth from missing each other to being exasperated with each other's longtime faults. Their conversations were, in short, SO much like the ones that Kim and I have on a daily basis and which, I suppose, millions of other couples have as well.
I take that back, actually. There was another detail that resonated with equal force. When she goes to his room so they can be insomniacs together, they drink, watch La Dolce Vita, then fall back on the bed and talk. Murray's Bob Harris has this incredible moment in which he describes how having your first child changes your life irrevocably. Then, as you look down on them from above, he reaches his hand out and lightly touches her exposed ankle, which migrated to his side of the bed as she turned to listen to him. At first you wonder whether his touch will metamorphose into a full-fledged caress. But then you see him pull back, showing enormous restraint, as he instead modulates his touch into light tapping with his fingers.
The night I met Kim -- on October 30th, 1989, as a matter of fact, a date referred to obliquely in Chris's postcard of November 17th, 1989 that I posted yesterday -- she missed her bus -- or "missed her bus" -- home to Vallejo and ended up coming back to my place in the anarchist household. She had been drinking a lot and I wasn't far behind. Our mutual friend Priscilla -- the reason why we met -- came too. When we arrived at 987 57th Street, however, there were odiferous Germans on the living room floor and the three of us were forced to share my futon in my horribly messy room.
As we were getting ready to go to sleep, finally, my housemate Josh came in, seemingly oblivious to the fact that there were two women sharing my futon with me, and proceeded to tell all of us that he had just met the woman of his dreams at a party that night. Because we were blasted, Kim and I both started laughing at Josh's earnestness. But he persisted, even more earnestly -- since he ended up marrying that woman and is still with her now, I guess he was right to be persistent -- before finally departing for his hell-like quarters in the basement.
Priscilla seemed to pass out almost immediately. But Kim, between us on the futon, I wasn't sure about.
I'd been to see the Woody Allen film Crimes and Misdemeanors with my friend Leanne that evening. We went to Spats for a nightcap. Because I'd been seeing a lot of Priscilla in recent weeks -- we had almost gotten together a few days before, following a great Pixies show with Bob Mould as an opening act -- I recalled that she was supposed to be seeing her friend Kim from college that night. Priscilla talked about Kim quite a bit. She was apparently a little miffed that Kim had been in possession of her black leather jacket for the past six months since graduation. Somehow, though, I had confused this "Kim" in my mind with Priscilla's petite Asian co-worker at Berkeley Beach, whom I had a bit of a crush on. When, shortly after Leanne and I had sat down at Spats, Priscilla came in with her friend, I was shocked to see that Kim was actually a punkish white chick.
They had been to Triple Rock and already had quite a head start on Leanne and I. Kim sat across from me and made a lot of edgy eye contact. When Priscilla got up to go to the bathroom, she asked me, "How come you like her better than me?" I told her I wasn't sure that I did. The mutual flirtation picked up from there. Bizarrely, my ex-girlfriend "A." -- short for Annalee -- came in later with her current boyfriend David Grumio -- the one for whom she had left me -- and this guy Greg Forter whom she'd met in Mitch Breitwieser's Early American literature course in her first semester of graduate school at Berkeley. Kim and Annalee had a spirited conversation about Day of the Locust. Kim recited a poem from memory, which I liked but wasn't sure I should like, given both Annalee and Leanne's more Iowa-esque taste in poetry: "Say you're 16 and never seen a gun/I mean a real gun. . ."
The points of convergence are too many to enumerate here, but I'll touch on some of the highlights:
1) David Grumio spent lots of time in Vallejo with his sister and worked the racetrack there sometimes. I knew about Vallejo because of David. He had even taken Annalee and me to the racetrack company picnic at Marine World in Vallejo, when she and I were still living together;
2) David and Josh had been best buddies for a while. For years, Kim and I kept this blanket in storage that Josh had given us to hold because it really belonged to David, who vanished in Europe around 1990 or so;
3) Mitch Breitwieser became my honors adviser, then my grad-school adviser, then my dissertation director;
4) Greg Forter became a friend -- we went to several concerts together -- and played in a band with Yuji Oniki, who went on to form Oniki Orange. Yuji wrote a really cool essay on George Perec's Things in my graduate class on Postmodernism with Charlie Altieri. When I was reading my colleague Eric's piece on Things last fall, I was amused to see that he had cited Yuji. Greg is now teaching at the University of South Carolina, I believe, and has a great book on masculinity in detective novels.
Eventually, Annalee, David, and Greg left. I had offered my place to Kim and Priscilla. The three of us walked Leanne home. As I said goodbye to Leanne, she wished me luck.
To make sure my luck held out, I took Kim and Priscilla on a small detour to the liquor store opposite Ashby BART -- Black and White Liquors? -- and procured a flask-sized bottle of Johnny Walker Red.
After a near-death experience at Ashby BART, when Kim tried to steal the cab that two gangstas had called instead of waiting our proper turn, we ended up back at our house.
And that brings me back to the moment, following Josh's departure and Priscilla's passing out, when I reached out my hand, ever so slowly and carefully, to determine whether Kim was also asleep. Following what seemed like hours of inching forward, I was able to determine that she was awake. Her fingers responded to mine. That first clasping of hands was the most electric and fateful event of my life. I always wonder how I got the courage to take the risk.
The scene in Lost in Translation brought the intensity of that moment back, a welcome counterpoint to the representation of the "noise" in marital cell phone conversations.
I should add, on a less intense note, that the crowd at the El Con laughed at all the scenes where Bill Murray seemed to be doing his deadpan comic thing. I wonder whether the more art-house-like crowd at the Catalina where Kim and Susan saw it laughed that much.
There were some funny moments, to be sure, but the humor was still disconcerting.
Well, time for a bedtime snack of broth, mushrooms, and udon.