“Translation is at best an echo.” – George Borrow
Listen to me, Sofia . . .
There’s a moment in Lost in Translation everyone talks about, after they’ve talked about the “whisper” near the end. It’s the instant when I, the actor character in your movie, do a double-take on seeing myself on a billboard on my jetlagged taxi to the Tokyo hotel where I spend much of the rest of my time. Most people won’t get it till they see the film a second time, but the reason the sight takes me so unawares is that, having only been here an hour at best, the picture on the ad couldn’t have been taken yet. The situation is, like everything else that happens here, left to speak for itself. It’s an experience of the uncanny, such as what follows for the rest of my story.
Having done so twice already, let me explain what I mean when I use the term uncanny. I take it the same way Freud did, as that sense of the unheimlich — the un-home-ly — an encounter with something familiar which seems somehow unfamiliar, whether a lost part of the self returned in another form; a private thought or feeling made peculiar by its representation in the visible world; a loss of one’s sense of mastery over the material realm (what Sartre termed nausea); an unexpected fulfillment of one’s wishes, as though one’s desires had been known; a moment of creative genius, when an invented personality takes on independent life or, as Freud has said, “a symbol takes on the full function of what it symbolizes.” It’s also the surprise of finding that the ETA Hoffman story, “The Sand-Man,” Freud used as a touchpoint in his oft-cited essay on “The Uncanny” itself focuses on an Italian optician named Coppola. As the Latin coppo means “eye-socket,” so too are you the eyes or lens through which I am seen, through the mind of Charlotte. For me it’s like being bathed in the body’s own electric current for the 102 minutes of our existence; this feeling of knowing you.
If everything about the place seems off, or wrong, it’s because we’re both in an unfamiliar frame of mind. For me, it’s called middle age. That’s why I forget my son’s birthday, and why I have to get away from the two businessmen who recognize me from my movies, for my youth, my past is as strange to me now as the future is to Charlotte. The billboard welcoming me here is a reassurance, then, as though some part of me had gone on ahead to explore this new place; it serves a similar function to the last-shot photo in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, to demonstrate that no matter how alien it may seem to me now, I Have Always Been in Japan.
Like spores from another planet, we’ve both drifted here to find a new self to live in in this alien world, a commonality beyond the cultural mystifications that keep us apart as man and woman. Yet it’s not these structural and linguistic codes that alienate us, it’s the alienation itself. Nothing is truly lost in translation but our selves — and I don’t mean a loss in the sense of absence, failure or diminution, but a lost-in-the-stars sublimity that comes from abandoning oneself to the fact of finding a loving other in this world.
Adding to our sense of Parousia are the reverberations from your other films, beginning with Charlotte’s name. Besides being a winking acknowledgment of the actress who plays her, Scarlett Johansson, it’s also the name of a central character in the script you co-wrote with your father for his segment of the New York Stories omnibus, “Life Without Zoe.” That film’s Charlotte, as globetrotting mother to its title child, suggests an imaginative future for your present character. And, since Zoe was a thinly veiled surrogate for yourself — and as mythological Sophia, whose name meant wisdom, was the actual mother of mythological Zoe, whose name meant life — you get the sense of a parthenogenetic creatrix serially rebirthing herself child-unto-mother-unto-child again. The title effectively translates into “Life Without Life,” making it a ringer, too, for the movie your father would attempt to regenerate his own artistic spirit with 18 years later, Youth Without Youth. Zoe is also the name of my daughter here, as well as being the first part of your dad’s beloved Zoetrope Studios — meaning that you, kind mother, are in some sense the generator of his life-work and the raison d’être for his creative genius.
That Charlotte has a degree in philosophy — from the Latin philo-sophia — tells me there’s an element of self-love, self-regard, self-knowledge that has somehow failed to yield her author the kind of satisfaction she’s looking for. The fact that she’s about as believable in her discipline as I am in my action past tells us how distant we’ve become from our origins, both looking now for that understanding that can only be found in an other. The course you chart in your story is our path back to each other, to that unity of purpose when the mind and body we represent were one and the muse spoke in a language that transcended words.
Being a semi-retired actor, I’m a dormant character called into action to fulfill a particular role in your life — the animus whose archetypal purpose is to guide a woman back to her spirit-self, and the “regressive masculinity,” or mythical symbol of power lost to many women on the advent of sexual or social maturation. It’s been said that I was modeled on your father, who similarly had not made a movie of his own for six years by the time of Lost‘s release; it could also be said that your film was a rite of invocation to urge him back into creative work, though I know who I’m really here to represent.
From the Old Country known as my marriage, I keep getting faxes — communiqués from the one major actor in this scenario we never see, my wife Lydia, suggesting her as the ordering, logical consciousness or ego we’ve been alienated from in order to let the dream play out. (Her name is shared by Virgin‘s similarly intrusive voice of consciousness, the newswoman hounding the Lisbon family.) The first message she sends is the one about my son, Adam‘s, birth day; the next, jarring me from my half-sleep in the early morning, concerns a remodeling job she’s undertaking. What seems like trivia spit out in the dreaming hours is in reality a multiple reminder of the re-genesis I’m not yet aware is taking place.
Charlotte seems to grasp this on some level as she sits listening to John’s noises from the bed opposite. Her joining him there despite his snoring is a decision to commune with that noise in order, we assume, to come to terms with it. His exit from our story later on suggests a dismissal — a resolution of the male perspective, or “voice,” that served to guide you through your maiden voyage to this one. What a marvel, to witness firsthand a woman discovering her own voice, and to see her using it to bridge the divide rather than deepen it.
The art of floral arrangement carries a religious function similar to the rite. It’s a working of the elements of heaven, man and earth into a re-presentation not unlike your own practice of directing, where you locate objects in space (as occurrences in time, the demonstration itself appearing out of narrative sequence), in order to reveal their timeless, universal and spiritual underpinnings. Charlotte’s non-reaction is doubly strange, then, for you are if nothing a gestural filmmaker, informed by your fashion designer’s appreciation for form and stylization; you have an eye for things. While obviously fascinated by such visual and spatial noise, though, you also see the shortcoming in such utter convention. You seem to be implying that the original import of our acts and manners is lost,; what we need now is to re-connect on the earthly, human level we all occupy, rather than elevating ourselves to some mythic, irrational heaven. Some loss is for the better.
You can take this to the realm of sexual politics, if you want.
So little may have changed on the critical front from Woolf’s day to ours that when making your own historical epic in Marie Antoinette you were taken to task more than once for examining the situation in terms empathetic to the title fourteen-year-old, leaving to the side cinematically as well as politically those unseemly peasant hordes who brought the film-long party to its conclusion. Reading these critics, you can’t help but recall the Virgin doctor condescending about the issues leading Cec Lisbon to her failed suicide, and the “Hmphs” of agreement from audiences to her reply, “You’ve obviously never been a thirteen-year-old girl.” If the personal is the political, it’s as important in its way.
When Charlotte and I meet for real in the hotel bar, neither of us can sleep. Our insomnia puts us in sympathy with the times, preceded as we were by 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle; Dream for an Insomniac three years after that; the Danish Insomnia, followed by its 2002 American remake of the same name; Dario Argento’s millennial Sleepless (the director’s enfant-terrible daughter Asia soon to be your Marie Antoinette Madame DuBarry) and finally the Comedy Central series, “Insomniac.” It’s as if we’ve been put here to fulfill a need of the wider world’s, to lay that world to rest through the meeting of a certain male character and his younger female counterpart. Charlotte’s toast to my midlife crisis then is as to the middle ground itself — the very nebulous, possibly hypnagogic state that fostered our meeting and in which we must both learn to thrive.
Charlie’s cri de l’anarchie in “Queen” befits his role as disruptive agent in the dream. Yet for all the hectoring, lecturing and ranting of the song, the message behind the nihilist punk ethos it sprang from was of a tearing-down not for its own sake but with the intention of clearing room for a rebuilding. Its “no future” taunt is equal parts protest and liberation, after Richard Hell’s “Blank Generation,” the declaration of a culture recognizing itself at human Ground Zero. Frustrated in a way that “What’s So Funny” conveys with more vulnerability, and bereft in a way that “More Than This” will wear on its sleeve, the song serves to document a society ripping apart with the disparity between the oblivious rich and the desperate poor, with no connective middle to support either. As such, it’s a neat foreshadowing of your later Marie Antoinette and descriptive, as well, of both our marriages.
The hippie-era virtues extolled in my response song call to mind both the 70s rap-session aesthetic of the preceding scene as well as the legendary appearance of that song’s popularizer, Elvis Costello, on “Saturday Night Live” — the program which gave Bill Murray, the actor who plays me, his start. As defiant and propulsive as “Queen,” “What’s So Funny” is more tuneful and more skillfully packaged, offering at least a memory of the hope the punks were unable or unwilling to muster. As sung by me, it’s the plea of a middle-aged man for the values of a perhaps imagined lost season of love and a quest for something better than what obtains today, its “As I walk through/walk on” refrain indicating mobility and progress despite the drains of the pain and misery of the present on its speaker. Lamenting to Charlotte for a lost “ha-a-a-a-rmony, sweet harmony” tells her that I know what she is looking for, because I am feeling it too.
Taking this longing to a zen level, I serenade her with Roxy Music’s “More Than This” — as in “there is nothing,” a recognition that our collusion is both the ne plus ultra and the base reality to counter the spiritual mysteries Charlotte had encountered. Its nihilism, though more sublimely couched, closes the circle with “Queen” while opening out the dialogue to include the transcendent. In the end, the lyric’s reference to that elusive “this” is to the song itself, as well as the moment it takes place in. What more can there be than this woman and I relating to each other through the art that seems to spring so effortlessly here, other than the longing that draws us together? In the true world of men and women, there’s no need for deeper reasoning. This longing is enough.
When Charlotte and I bunk down in my room that night to watch La Dolce Vita on T.V., the Japanese subtitling of this Italian-language film redoubles the distance between us and the spoken word. It makes a certain sense, then, that this scene and its dialogue should become the centerpiece of the movie, especially as it involves Charlotte’s insecurity with words in the form of the writing she says she’s given up on.
Did you know that before the written Word of God became law, Wisdom — Sophia — was lord? As Leonard Shlain has it in The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, the development of written language was instrumental in the transition of society from image-oriented goddess-worship to the patriarchal order of today. So when I encourage Charlotte to keep writing, it’s my way of telling you, Sofia, to keep communing with that elder animus you once served but now must find in yourself, so to integrate it with the image-friendly Goddess within.
Your fade to black at this point suggests that our film has found rest too, its sleepy rhythms throughout a phasing in and out of consciousness, as of personalities. Our chaste bedding down is a culmination of each our separate missions — hers, to heal this injury (to her foot, where self meets world) and to rekindle my erotic connection to diminishing life: sex without sex, in the fashion of Youth Without Youth.
Maybe coming so close to that variant of the uncanny the Japanese call mono no aware, a direct and unmediated understanding of or sympathy with the gods through open encounters with the world, threw me for a loop in a way it might not have Charlotte. Maybe she wasn’t as entrenched yet in that world as I was, or maybe her background in philosophy, versus mine in action, better prepared her. Either way, another exchange with Lydia sends me into a blackout after picking up a singer in the lounge bar upstairs. When I wake to hear her warbling “Midnight at the Oasis,” it’s a cunning reference to the female genitalia from which I’m conditionally reborn; when Lydia calls soon after and tries to put our daughter on the line — tries to reconnect me with Zoe — she’s unsuccessful, for I have by now crossed that Elysian median to the other side (the Latin root of the term translation meaning to bear across). Charlotte’s course from here on is back toward consciousness, mine toward obliviation.
There’d always been an element of the dreamlike in our story’s airy rhythms, elisions, logical lapses and dislocations, but here it collapses into the truly peculiar as Charlotte awakens in the middle of the night to a distant alarm. She finds downstairs a cadre of hazmat-suited specters milling among the meandering, disoriented hotel guests, including a robed and slippered me. Apparently there had been a fire, but with the tone more of bafflement than distress it takes a bit of adjusting to recognize this as reality — especially given the small-scale fire truck somehow sitting in the middle of the lobby — and you may still not be so sure. By the end of the movie, you may see that you were right.
As we make up here, my announcement of imminent departure is a signal that I had done all I rationally could to un-stick her, and a realization that the dream would soon be ending. When I touch Charlotte’s hand and tell her I don’t want to leave, it’s as good as confessing that I know my life is over, my usefulness used up. Our peck in the elevator, on the way down, alone now as opposed to the first time I spied her there, is one next-to-last goodbye to that sense of immortality so easy to maintain as a screen star, but not so easy in life.
My listless cab out from that sacred space occurs in the daylight this time, for all has been illuminated by the intervening events. When I see her face again from out of the crowd in a place she couldn’t have reached by then it’s a suggestion that the dream which had either begun or intensified on Charlotte’s awakening is still not over, her discovery there a condensation of all those foreign faces into one heimlich image. If seeing oneself in the world — my arriving recognition of the similarly incongruous billboard — is a manifestation of narcissism, then seeing the other — or oneself in that other — must mean a leap has been made, a movement out of a restrictive, dead-end point of view into a transcendent vision. Ken Wilber tells us that such leaps are not effective until an embrace of this vision takes place, and so embrace we do, and it is at this point that the magic happens.
As for the whisper, well, everyone has their theories. For those people who need to know what was said, I feel genuinely sorry. They’re still too attached to the Word, when what counts here is that we have transcended matters of interpretation. We have reached that exalted station where the hemispheres of the brain are in communion, where the dream is talking to itself, in sympathy and agreement — that supreme, solipsistic moment when the author is one with her creations, and they with her. There’s always a loss when essences are translated into language, yet you found a way to reconcile the ambivalence by making words gesture: allusive, spare, ephemeral, vague. Once Charlotte and I rise beyond these words, it is no longer to her that I am speaking anyway, and neither is it me she hears. We are both alone with Sophia, and Sophia alone with us.
Having delivered us to this moment, my creatrix, permit me now to serenade you for a while — about you — that I might help you also to find what you came here for.
Apparently Sophia had another daughter besides Zoe — also named Sophia and the image of her mother. Somehow this daughter lost that connection to her divine origin and was, we are told, “condemned to wander in this dark labyrinth, ‘endlessly lamenting, suffering, repenting, laboring her passion into matter, her yearning into soul.'” This is the plight of all humans toiling in these bodies with a sense of something greater in ourselves than our animal beings, which plays out in men and women both as we leave our contrasexual selves behind on slithering from the evolutionary sea of unconsciousness known as family to define ourselves in a new, alien geology.
In response to her daughter’s loss, mother Sophia, who was once considered the Holy Spirit itself, sent a son — Sophia’s brother — to awaken to her memory her illuminated self. This brother was the Christ who gave his life so she would come to know her immortal soul once again, and the animus who would perform a similar function.
So you see who I am, Sofia. You know of the loss that visited you at a certain decisive point in life — the powerful image of masculine effectiveness you’d grown up with since birth, always-already like the flute which welcomed you into this world and borne away like a motorboat into the mythical past. A presence so powerful it would wait for you, longing for you in this uncanny realm, knowing it would return to you whenever you reached this point of readiness, all the while thinking what I would say once I found a way to communicate with you in this, my alien tongue.
I am here to tell you that I understand. You lost the world — the Gio in your geology — that day, but gained yourself; for, having lost your double in this realm, you were forced to fashion a different form of immortality, the philo in your philosophy. From here on, then, whenever you are feeling similarly alienated and bereft in a world not unlike that which led your mythical daughter to the ends of her own love of self, all you need do is reflect on your movie and connect with me again; find that place within yourself where all your ghosts and soul brothers and others reside; arrange your mental room, like a movie set, to correspond with that outside. Pour yourself a whiskey, perhaps…
…and talk to me, Sophia.