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Girls on film | Nov 21, 2003 12:52

Every now and then I get homesick for Japan, particularly Tokyo where I lived before moving to the States. Tokyo is not a pretty city but it is a strangely beautiful one. If Paris is belle, Tokyo is a classic jolie-laide. It really does look like all those cyberpunk anime backdrops, like Bladerunner, like Metropolis with kanji.

In my mind it's always night-time, late autumn, and I'm somewhere above ground level - on the roof, or hovering through the streets like a ghost. Glittering towers topped with clusters of odd angles stand silent and idle, great robots made of grey lego blocks. Video screens and neon signs with messages for everyone and no-one in particular, beseeching attention like the namecards brandished by limousine-drivers at the airport. Trains snaking through the tangle of buildings like luminescent zippers pulling the city together. And at ground level, bright little seven-eleven shops that smell fishily of steaming oden, snuggled up to dark wooden houses with tiled roofs curling up at the edges and metal shutters closed against the night air.

Sofia Coppola at least gets some of this right in her critically admired film Lost in Translation (which is, by the way, about Japan in the same way that, say, Shortland Street is about current medical practice). In the film, Tokyo is rainy, it's dark, it's ineffable. We get a lot of aerial night views as the jet-lagged Scarlett Johansson character gazes through a hotel window darkly. Coppola's script keeps the same ironic distance from the city and its people, which is all fine -- until she starts trafficking in perilous clichés that may have been mildly amusing to total knuckleheads, say forty years ago in You Only Live Twice, or twenty years ago on Clive James. By crikey, those Japanese people bow a lot! Heavens to Murgatroyd, their television shows are wacky! Pssst, the men occasionally read pornographic newspapers on the train. Their exercise machines are (no!) labeled in Japanese. And get this: when they speak English, they mix up the letters R and L! How we all laughed.

It's annoying, because the film has moments of beauty. The appealing dishevelled Bill Murray becomes more like Baudelaire every day, our version of modernity's sleazy, sexy, tragic clown. He even gets a lovely underwater scene that recalls his bottom-of-the-pool bottom-out in Rushmore. His character gets drunk a lot, and he gets hostile phone-calls from an offscreen harpie of a wife. (She has to be a harpie because it's Necessary To The Plot - you can't have a tremulous, winsome friendship between girl-woman and jaded middle-aged bloke without a harpie wife somewhere off in the wings).

Everything you need to know about Scarlett Johansson's character -- by some reports an autobiographical creation of the author/director -- is in the film's first shot: a close-up of her lovely bottom in transparent undies, which fills the whole screen. Ah, that poetic bottom. For most of the film, she sits on it, first literally, then metaphorically. Occasionally, she needs a kick in it. A navel shot would have been perhaps more appropriate, but less subtle.

I really wanted to like the film. It has moments of lovely romantic melancholy, like Bill Murray's karaoke version of "More Than This," and of cross-cultural comedy, like the shooting of the whiskey advertisement that is his reason for being in Japan. But the story is so riddled with flaws, both pragmatic and dramatic, that after a while I stopped believing anything that was going on. The time zones for the international phone-calls are wildly out of whack. We see Fujisan with snow, and then without, inside of what's meant to be a couple of days. The chronologies of both characters' marriages make no sense - Murray's character has been married twenty-some (long, annoying) years but has primary school-age children; Johansson's character is vaguely on honeymoon after being married for two years, and/but is just out of school. She's allegedly a philosophy grad, from of all places Yale, but is so eye-poppingly stupid as to make you wonder if she got in to Yale the same way the current President did…

Stupidity is nowhere on the agenda in Sylvia, which stars Gwyneth Paltrow as the titular poet, and Otago University as Smith College -- rather, too much smartness would seem to be the problem. Talented New Zealander Christine Jeffs has a period-piece ball with the story of fiery Sylvia Plath and brooding marauder Ted Hughes. The film got mostly rotten reviews, but I liked large chunks of it.

Paltrow is excellent, managing an authentically flat Boston accent and a creditable impersonation of genius thwarted by megalomania, pervasive depression, and -- as suggested some years ago in a carefully argued article by scholar Catherine Thompson -- what seems to have been a rampant case of PMS (cue lots of looming, suggestive shots of the full moon). Daniel Craig is craggy and hunky all right, but alas insufficiently gigantic to muster the full awesomeness of Ted Hughes. There are a couple of top-notch supporting performances, by Gwyneth's own mother Blythe Danner as Sylvia's frosty mother, and Michael Gambon as the discombobulated downstairs neighbour who misses all the signs in the final days of her life.

The sets and costumes are excellent, and the colours throughout are moody and autumnal: red, gold, auburn, and a deep poisonous dark green (every other room seems to have been painted a lacquered version of the latter colour). I particularly loved the interiors - not nearly as stagey and clean as those in that other recent 50s weepie, the vastly overrated Far from Heaven. Lots of peeling paint and worn furniture, and a handful of well-loved pictures and gew-gaws. Domestic life before credit cards and mass production. Or just life as a poor young poet in fusty, chilly old England.

The film leaves a lot out, but it also leaves a lot in. Much critical hay has been made of the difficulty of filming writers actually writing without looking silly, and true, there is at least one scene in which Gwyneth-as-Sylvia types furiously before crumpling a sheet of paper and hurling it at the window. But I really can't say enough about the baking scenes. Phwoar. Cake tins. Old stove. Perfectly turned-out finished products cooling on the bench. You know, there just aren't enough incidental baking scenes in movies.

Of course, you know the ending before the film starts; it has to be said, this is a bummer of a date movie, especially for the literary types who are most likely drawn to see it. Jeffs goes for a strangely redemptive finale that invokes the final poems - beatific visions of glory and transcendence. It sits uncomfortably with the scene of the bawling toddler children being rescued safely from their chilly bedroom. In fact, of all the many obsessive inquiries into the last days of Sylvia Plath, which have made the family angrier and angrier over time, I think this one is the most sympathetic to the children. Usually a pathos-ridden footnote on the last page, in this film they totter about the place winningly in hand-knitted woolens and bowl haircuts, fully flesh and blood creatures oblivious to the veil that is about to fall over the rest of their lives. It's heart-wrenching.

Watching the credits roll up, I noticed that one character wasn't listed: the Morris Minor in which Sylvia tootles about for the second half of the film, and in which Ted makes the fateful trip to consummate a flaming affair with the sultry Assia. I haven't seen such an animated four-wheeled inanimate object in film, at least since Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Parked stolidly in the muddy yard in Devon, racing recklessly to the beach for a failed suicide attempt, or waiting patiently outside the London flat as a mute witness to the ambulance-men removing the body of the poet, that little car was acting its metal heart out. A vehicle for more than just the characters and their stuff, that wee Morrie seemed to say something about the self (well yes, it's an auto, you see) -- about propulsion, a shared drive, access, getting to where you want to go... Not to mention the unbuckled kiddies rattling around in the back seat, helpless hostages on a helter-skelter ride to posterity.

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