Great Moments in Misprision; or, Why I always thought Lost in Translation was an anti-racist film, not the other way around.

>> Friday, February 19, 2010

I'm having one of those moments in which I wonder whether I was watching the same movie everyone else was. At Racialicious, Thea Lim discusses Complex Magazine's list of The 50 Most Racist Movies You Didn't Know Were Racist, and while the majority of the list disappoints (on account of me already knowing the overtly racist films listed were racist), some of the entries simply baffle me. Foremost among them is Bulworth, Warren Beatty's film about the centrist penchant to use blacks as electoral pawns—Bulworth won't die in defense of his principles, but he will commit suicide for a lobbyist payday, at least until he realizes that black people are really people, at which point American political logic demands he be assassinated—but not far behind is Sopphia Coppola's Lost in Translation, which Lim glosses thus:

[T]he whole point of the movie disgusts me. As in, the nauseatingly self-indulgent focus on the deep, brooding subjectivity of two Anglo-Americans, against a backdrop of depthless Japanese people who, with their hilariously absurd subcultures, bizarre language and affinity for bowing, are all exactly the same.
Lim then quotes a section about self-involved white cluelessness from Restructure!:
[W]hat disgusts me about Lost in Translation is that it centers on the lives of white people in a country where they are the minority, and it suggests that the social isolation that comes from being a minority is something that could only happen to white people.
I'm not sure why either writer assumes that the experience Coppola describes in the film is something that can only happen to white people, because to me, the film seems to do the exact opposite: it demonstrates that white Americans are emotionally and intellectually unprepared to understand the non-majoritarian social experience. So maybe it does describe an experience that can only happen to white people—but only because white people are alone in being unable to recognize their privilege for what it is. Neither Bill Murray's "Bob" nor Scarlett Johansson's "Charlotte" have given a moment's thought to the plight of non-whites in American society, so the events of the film represent their first encounter with any form of double-consciousness—even one in which their whiteness still affords them privileged social stature.

The film begins with caricature and absurdity because these characters are incapable of understanding Japanese society, or their roles as others in that society understand them to be; e.g. Bob is baffled by the arrival of an escort because he is unfamiliar with the sexism endemic in traditional Japanese business culture. Charlotte knows one of her roles—that of the tourist in exotic Japan—and indulges in some Orientalist fare, visiting a temple to watch some monks chant. Their relationship, such as it is, is only possible in an environment in which their previously stable and unquestioned identities have dissolved in the face of their own otherness. I took this to be a criticism of American insularity and arrogance, not an assertion of its eternal provenance.

To an American audience, it may seem as if the Japanese in the film are the foreigners; but from the Japanese perspective, the film registers as a story of two unmoored Americans bumbling through a culture they can't understand on its own terms. Unlike most films in which the white interlopers have adventures with the natives, Lost in Translation never demands its audience believe that white culture is inherently superior. Bob and Charlotte are not bequeathed the preternatural ingenuity or Rooseveltian ruggedness so common among American characters abroad; they are, in fact, technologically illiterate representatives of an ostensibly superior culture who, in a reversal of the minstral trope, sing the songs of their ancestral homeland, England, from whence Brian Ferry and Roxy Music came.

All of which is only to say, I never realize how contrarian my reading of the film was until I read the Racialicious and Restructured! posts, because I had always thought Lost in Translation a remarkable feat: for white audiences, it only works as a film if they force themselves to imagine a subject position in which they are foreign but not superior—a situation in which white characters are not there to civilize noble savages or ravage native cultures with tongues, guns, or both. These are privileged white people who are, to quote "More Than This," "hopefully learning" that their identities are contingent upon a social structure and that that social structure is different, but not superior, to the one in which they currently find themselves. For non-white audiences, I can understand why this revelation would feel underwhelming; after all, Bob and Charlotte are learning late in life what they've known, exquisitely, for the entirety of theirs.

The Japanese in the film are depthless, but only in the first act—as the Americans learn more about Japanese culture, these characters become slightly less inscrutible. Were this the sort of film in which the white anthropologists almost instantly acquire intimate knowledge of the primitive culture in which they're immersed, the film would have closed with scenes of Bob and Charlotte conversing with three-dimensional characters in fluent Japanese; but because the pair's otherness and ignorance is so great, it ends with Japanese characters who are only marginally rounder than they were when it began. Put differently: if we were to impose this narrative onto, say, The Last Samuri, Tom Cruise would have arrived in Japan, been thoroughly confused by what he found, then fled the country feeling alienated and unconvinced of his cultural superiority.

Which, I think, would have been a good thing. In all seriousness, how many movies subvert white America's innate sense of superiority on the sly?


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