Lost at the movies

An unsettled age has given birth to a rootless cinema -- "Lost in Translation," "Before Sunrise" and the new "Code 46" among its films -- that shows confused characters moving through a comfortless world.


Charles Taylor
August 11, 2004 1:25AM (UTC)

The feeling of rootlessness, of being in a world where the only sense of home is to be found in a state of constant flux, has started to creep onto the screen in the past 10 years. Implicitly or explicitly, it's been a subject in "Lost in Translation," in "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset," in the Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang's "What Time Is It There?" in Olivier Assayas' "Irma Vep" and "demonlover," in Michael Almereyda's "Nadja" and "Hamlet," in Wong Kar-wai's "Chungking Express" and "In the Mood for Love," in the lovely and underrated "Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life," in the new "Last Life in the Universe" and most recently in Michael Winterbottom's new science-fiction film "Code 46."

It's as if our anxieties about the headlong pace of technology, of living under the threat of terrorism, of an economy that leaves most of us unsettled long past the age when our parents and grandparents had achieved some semblance of security, about being overwhelmed with choices we're not sure we even want to avail ourselves of, had risen from us like a collective ether and permeated the screen. We reach out toward the unfamiliar -- like the hero of "What Time Is It There?" cuddling a pillow in the bedroom of his Taipei apartment late at night while watching a tape of Truffaut's "400 Blows" -- hoping we can find something that feels familiar, reassuring, or at least evidence that someone else is as unsettled as we are.

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We are schizophrenic toward engaging with the rest of the world. If we're liberal, we distrust globalization as a means of doing business, insist on multilateralism in our politics, and laud multiculturalism in the arts. "World music" and "world cinema" have become by-phrases for the kind of liberal enlightenment once typified by folk music. We're likely to talk excitedly about how the Internet is shrinking the world, erasing boundaries that once impeded communication, putting us in touch with more people faster than ever before.

And yet the world doesn't feel smaller. If anything, the erasure of boundaries can make the world feel intimidatingly large, too large to feel at home in. These movies play on our unarticulated sense of that scary bigness, and they posit the feeling of being lost as the unavoidable consequence of a world in which we can go almost anywhere -- instantly, through virtual means, or in a few hours thanks to air travel. Some of these movies ("Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset," "Irma Vep," "Lost in Translation") feature characters in foreign ports of call; in others ("Hamlet," "Nadja," "What Time Is It There?") the characters are just as lost in the places they call home. These are not xenophobic films, not movies that preach the virtues of sticking close to safe, familiar surroundings. They are about a world where the safe and familiar are being erased.

There is, these movies hope, some grace to be found in such an uncertain existence. Contradictory, amorphous states of emotion are a given in them. When Scarlett Johansson calls a friend in tears from Tokyo in "Lost in Translation," she knows she can't objectively justify her crying. She knows, after all, that she's getting a free vacation in a great city. But the scene is about the gap between what we rationally know and what we can allow ourselves to feel. It's about the difference between walking a city street and being able to look up at the buildings, and feeling that the buildings are looking down on you.

For all the uneasiness those movies reflect, there is something essentially serene about nearly every one on that list. Novels that bombard us with pop culture and literary references, movies that resort to rapid cutting and crazy angles, are often defended as trying to capture the media-saturated world we live in, the feeling of, say, walking through Times Square, or the Ginza district of Tokyo, or even just flipping cable channels from our couch. But replicating sensory overload isn't the same thing as piercing through it. Only one director has managed lyricism and tenderness while trying to keep up with the unimaginable rush of the world -- and that was Jean-Luc Godard in the 15 movies he made from 1959 to 1967. The economic facts of modern filmmaking -- plus the fact that Godard was a genius -- make it impossible to attempt that today. (Even Godard burned through his potential in those 15 movies. Have you seen the ad for high-speed Internet connections where the guy comes to the end of surfing the Internet? With "Weekend" in 1967, Godard really did seem to come to the end of moviemaking.)

Today, the filmmakers trying to get a sense of contemporary life on-screen are the ones attempting to clear a space in the midst of overload, to filter the saturation of images and information, to make some time for contemplation. You see that in the quiet styles of filmmaking, in the long, still, nearly silent takes of Tsai's "What Time Is It There?"; in the tentativeness Sofia Coppola evokes in "Lost in Translation"; in the way Richard Linklater keys "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset" to the shifting nuances of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy's conversation. Even the big-budget action-adventure "Lara Croft Tomb Raider" globe-hops with a nearly relaxing luxuriousness -- it's a deluxe cruise rather than a whip-fast bus tour.

As opposed to the visual frenzy and clutter of most of our movies, the recurring image in many of these pictures is someone sitting in a room -- Lee Kang-Sheng in his bedroom in "What Time Is It There?" or Johansson in her hotel room looking out at Tokyo through a pane of glass in "Lost in Translation" or Samantha Morton in her Shanghai dwelling, more a cube than an apartment, in "Code 46." They all look as if they are trying to work up the nerve to venture outside. And when they do, there's a sense that they are on the verge of drifting away. Watching Tim Robbins moving through Shanghai in "Code 46," Johansson and Bill Murray in Tokyo in "Lost in Translation," Maggie Cheung and Chen Shiang-Chyi negotiating Paris in, respectively, "Irma Vep" and "What Time Is It There?" we're seeing people who are torn between opening themselves to new surroundings and protecting themselves from these unfamiliar places. They make their way through these new cities holding their bodies compactly, not wasting a motion, not even their peripheral vision.

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You don't even have to be new to a city to feel lost in it. In "What Time Is It There?" Lee, playing a Taipei street vendor, sets every clock he can find to Paris time. Paris is where the girl he sold his own dual-time wristwatch has gone. Putting those clocks seven hours back is his attempt to make a connection across oceans and time zones, as if a passage in time would open up that would allow the girl he dreams of to step through -- the way the heroes of the old TV show "The Time Tunnel" stepped into the past. It's one of the simplest and most poignant expressions of longing in contemporary movies. The director cuts between Lee's life in Taipei -- working, coming home, eating, sleeping -- and the girl's isolation in Paris. Part of the movie's comic melancholy is that Lee, at home, looks as cut off as the girl he dreams of as she sits in an out-of-the-way Paris hotel room eating crisps and drinking bottled water.

Probably no contemporary filmmaker has captured the simultaneously welcoming and cold feeling of the city as Michael Almereyda has in "Nadja" and "Hamlet." You can even be a prince in this Manhattan, as Ethan Hawke's Hamlet is, and feel a bit buffeted by the lights and size and noise of Times Square. None of the apartments in the film are spacious, which seems less a comment on the reality of Manhattan real estate than on the desire of people to live in a human-scaled space. The downtown streets of the black-and-white "Nadja" are gothic corridors for ghouls and hipsters (who are often one and the same). It's as if the echoes of the vampire princess Nadja's crumbling Romanian homestead are emanating from SoHo and the Village. The wide-open avenues in "Hamlet" offer no such protective shadows. Darkness has been banished here, and the streets and outdoor spaces look impossibly wide and imposing. An exception is the small fountain tucked under a staircase, where Ophelia drowns. Even this small sanctuary has its unintended poignancy; having been located in back of the Twin Towers, it no longer exists.

It's probably necessary here to say what these movies aren't. The characters may be beset by vague feelings of restlessness they can't define, but these movies are far from the chic, anomic ennui that characterized the films of Antonioni and Resnais with their spiritual crises made up of equal parts Sartre and Vogue. (When a clip from Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" makes an appearance in "Lost in Translation," even though it's the relatively joyous sequence of Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg cavorting in the Trevi fountain, you're reminded of that movie's phony breast-beating about the emptiness of contemporary life, and of how Coppola doesn't indulge in that showy moralism.)

And for all the quietness of these movies, the way they focus on characters in solitary moments, or on the give-and-take of unforced conversation, they are not rarefied ascetic experiences that turn up their noses at the rush and flux of modern life. (There is something essentially reactionary about the way certain critics invoke the name of Robert Bresson as if it were almost too holy to say out loud.)

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Olivier Assayas' despised and celebrated "demonlover" is cold, at times nearly assaultive, and it tries to keep its balance as it plunges right into the chaos of contemporary corporate and virtual culture. Taking place in planes, hotel rooms, corporate boardrooms, cars and nightclubs, "demonlover" offers no place for the melancholy of these other movies to take root. The characters have embraced rootlessness. The corporate world they are living in moves too fast for them to choose any other option. Loyalties, not to mention reality itself, move so fast that the idea of morality has become useless. This is what awaits us, Assayas seems to be saying, when we cut ourselves free of everything that tethers us to a place, another person, a twinge of conscience. And the horror of "demonlover" is that the possibility looks as seductive as it does repellent.

The ideas and feelings of these movies seem too inchoate to find any echo in commercial moviemaking. Which is what makes Jan de Bont's "Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life" such a surprise. Released last year, it was one more box-office disappointment in a summer of badly performing sequels. And since the first entry in the franchise was barely a movie, who expected anything from it? There is plenty to distinguish "Cradle of Life" from the mainstream dross around it: The plot actually makes sense, and the action sequences are shot so that you can tell what's going on in them. Even better, it's the only Hollywood adventure movie since "The Mask of Zorro" that can be called romantic.

By harking back to a time when a restless existence was the province of the explorer and the swashbuckler, "The Cradle of Life" wrests fun from the very rootlessness that is so anxiety provoking to contemporary sensibilities. For all the special effects on display, and despite the heroine's origins as a character in a video game, "Cradle of Life" implicitly turns its back on the Waring-blender form of contemporary action moviemaking. The aplomb that Jolie shows here is flabbergasting. She commands the screen with wit in a way few performers have been able to since the glory days of Sean Connery's 007. Jolie's Lara Croft -- Lady Croft, actually -- has more in common with Edwardian gentleman adventurers like H. Rider Haggard's Allan Quartermain than with contemporary butt kickers. The plot may globe-hop, but it does so at a pace that makes us feel as if we're on a quest proceeding by train or horseback rather than high-speed jets.

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Michael Winterbottom's "Code 46," another of his collaborations with screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce, is, ostensibly, a science-fiction film. But the plot -- Tim Robbins as an insurance agent who investigates and falls in love with a young woman (Samantha Morton) who may have taken part in counterfeiting identity papers -- doesn't generate much suspense or momentum. The title "Code 46" refers to government restrictions on whom we are allowed to mate with; the idea is that with cloning so widespread, incest is a constant threat and only approved couplings can be permitted.

As an idea, that's as silly as the notions in Godard's 1965 "Alphaville" of an ultra-rationalist society where it's forbidden to even say the word "love." But, as in "Alphaville," that doesn't mean it isn't moving. You don't laugh in "Alphaville" when Anna Karina learns to say "I ... love ... you" because Godard puts his heart into the moment. He really does believe in love as the thing that will save society from dehumanization. (And the tenderness in the way he shoots his then-wife Karina, and the American actor Eddie Constantine, who had the face of a wise, weatherbeaten old lizard, tells you how much people mattered to him.) Winterbottom believes much the same thing here, and believes in it at a time when cynicism would have been so much more fashionable. But the picture doesn't make you feel enough is at stake.

It's the mood of "Code 46" that holds you. Like "Alphaville," this version of the future was shot without futuristic sets. Working on location in Shanghai, Dubai, India and the U.K., Winterbottom has located the future in the present in the same way that Godard used the Paris of the mid-'60s to evoke a world that was both familiar and alien. The future has already arrived in "Code 46," in Shanghai streets that look like walls of neon, in back-alley Indian tourist hotels, and in the vast deserts of Dubai, as convincing an "outland" as you can imagine. The movie feels both of the moment and outside of it, taking place in parallel time zones at once. It doesn't work as a story, but as a mood piece it's in tune with a specific strain of contemporary mournfulness, what Godard once called nostalgia for the present.

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If most of the movies mentioned here share one influence, it would have to be "Sans Soleil," by the French filmmaker Chris Marker. (In his Village Voice review of "Lost in Translation," J. Hoberman perceptively called it a cross between "Before Sunrise" and "Sans Soleil.") The 1984 film has probably been seen by fewer people than any other film discussed here, and yet its influence -- even if that influence is subliminal -- seems to be continually growing.

Marker made his name with the 1962 science-fiction short "La Jetée" (the inspiration for Terry Gilliam's "12 Monkeys"), a half-hour film told entirely through black-and-white still photos. He has been known primarily as a documentarian. "Sans Soleil" uses documentary footage shot in Japan, Guinea-Bissau, the Ile de France, Iceland and other countries in the service of a personal essay. The narration, by the actress Alexandra Stewart, consists of letters written by a fictional cameraman to a friend describing what he has seen on his travels. The letters are alternately chatty and aphoristic, playful and grave, direct and philosophical.

It's a bottomless film, too big to do more than suggest its scope at the end of an essay. A meditation on time and memory, "Sans Soleil" makes us aware of moments passing as quickly as footage through an editor's moviola. "I wonder how people can remember who don't film," says the narration at one point, as if film were not just an aide memoire, but a means of freezing time, even though the moment, once frozen, is past. What links movies as disparate as "What Time Is It There?" "Before Sunset," "Lost in Translation," "Nadja," "Chungking Express" and others to "Sans Soleil" is its sense of impermanence as a permanent state, of travel as being a never-ending process, of human connection as both fleeting and profound, of any sense of home having to be achieved in spite of (or because of) an overwhelming sense of rootlessness. In one section, the narrator talks of returning to Japan and having to rush to all his favorite parts of the city to make sure they are still there.

It's that peculiar and specific mixture of uncertainty and reassurance, of staking any sense of security on ground that is always shifting, that is at the bottom of these movies. In the beginning of William Gibson's novel "Pattern Recognition" he writes, "She knows, now, absolutely, hearing the white noise that is London, that Damien's theory of jet lag is correct: that the mortal soul is leagues behind her, being reeled in on some ghostly umbilical down the vanished wake of the plane that brought her here, hundreds of thousands of feet above the Atlantic. Souls can't move that quickly, and are left behind, and must be awaited, upon arrival, like lost luggage." The experience of standing at the baggage carousel, fearful that some vital part of us has missed the flight, is the beauty and sadness of these films.

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Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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