By Ann Brocklehurst
Originally published Saturday Post, 28 February 2004, National Post
I’m one of the small minority (or so it seems) of people who didn’t like Lost in Translation. Or let me rephrase that. While I was entertained by the film and enjoyed eating my red licorice while feasting on the eye candy of Tokyo and one of its luxe hotels, I am at a complete loss to explain why just about every single critic, not to mention a good portion of my friends, revered this movie.
Where they all saw remarkable insights about cultural dislocation and globalization, I watched a series of lame and tired xenophobic jokes made at the expense of the Japanese. And while they were fascinated by a touching platonic love story, I couldn’t get past the message that it’s perfectly OK to diss the servants and the natives as long as you’re in the throes of deep mutually alienated attraction.
This hasn’t been my first experience doing time in a parallel universe. The year before, I didn’t laugh once at the British writer Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It, a supposedly comic novel about the travails of working moms, which was passed from one stressed-out mother to another with rave reviews until it fell into my hands. And then there was The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, whose chief claim to fame, despite the fact that it was about a murdered child, was supposed to be its total lack of sentimentality and mawkishness. I found it overwhelmingly sentimental and mawkish.
I want to emphasize that I’m not a deliberate contrarian who takes perverse pleasure in dismissing anything that receives critical or popular acclaim. I enjoyed The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was praised by both critics and the masses. I found Bridget Jones’s Diary, an earlier exercise in Brit chick lit, hilarious and original. And I was extremely impressed with Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, which was to 2001 what The Lovely Bones was to 2002.
My point here is absolutely not to discuss mere differences of taste and opinion of the “you found that character realistic and I didn’t” or “he doesn’t really like that type of humour” sort. No. What we’re talking here are situations in which it’s you against the world. In short, a state of totally not getting it.
How is it possible, for example, that Don Cherry gets a seven-second delay and an investigation into his conduct by the Commissioner of Official Languages for saying that only French guys and Europeans wear visors, whereas Sofia Coppola gets a complete pass on jokes about the Japanese mixing up their r’s and l’s, bowing a lot and — oh my gawd! — not speaking English? Or how could The New York Times possibly appoint as its Arts & Leisure editor a woman who got her biggest laughs in months from I Don’t Know How She Does It?
Is it not truly scary to think that such an important arbiter of cultural taste in the world’s only superpower was mightily amused by lines like “The network is so slow this morning, it would be quicker to fly to Hong Kong and pick up the Hang bloody Seng in person” and “Has a father who has a wife on the premises ever read a note from school?”
When I find myself posing such questions, having given up on browbeating friends and acquaintances, I turn to the Internet for consolation. There it is easy to find people who despise Lost in Translation, I Don’t Know How She Does It and The Lovely Bones.
But, alas, one encounters another (even bigger) problem. These are not at all the sort of people whose company you want to keep. They have come to the same conclusions as you have but for completely different reasons. They hate Lost in Translation because it has no plot — meaning, presumably, that it doesn’t end the way boy-meets-girl movies are supposed to. They cite the late Edward Said’s Orientalism as if all its conclusions were the indisputable truth. And they toss out accusations of racism as a way to achieve moral superiority.
In situations of complete intellectual isolation, I have learned, the only thing that can be done is to wait it out. For, no matter how bad it seems, there will eventually be a backlash. Lost in Translation’s four Oscar nominations, for example, prompted a number of newspaper rants from others who found the film as vapid as I did and took the opportunity to say so. The Lovely Bones was far less favourably received in England, where many critics declared themselves puzzled by the unanimous raves it had received in North America. Unfortunately, such was not the case for I Don’t Know How She Does It, which managed to cross the culture gap in the other direction almost entirely successfully.
In trying to explain the U.S. popularity of The Lovely Bones, one British critic went so far as to attribute it to Sept. 11 aftershock and Americans’ need to hear the voice of the gone and to piece together the future after cataclysm.
I tend not to favour such pop-psych explanations, since they make it easy to ascribe various complexes and syndromes to anyone who disagrees with you.
But I remain as mystified today that I can have friends who rave about I Don’t Know How She Does It as I was back in Grade 8 when no one in my circle saw anything special in The Catcher in the Rye. I have long since accepted the fact that there’s no accounting for other people’s tastes. And that holds especially true for the really, really bad taste of those who should know a lot better.