clap clap blog: we have moved

Tuesday, February 17, 2004
Kee-rist. Alright, now that that particular pit of hell is, if not actually overcome, abandoned for the day, let's get back to this business.

As I was saying below, I want to address one of the big themes of Momus' critique: the idea of LIT as a "betrayal" of a specific subculture. (I have no idea which subculture this would actually be aside from, I dunno, the people that read Giant Robot, which I didn't think was really a cohesive subculture, but I'm happy to grant that this is probably just my own ignorance and take him at his word.)[1]

The idea of art-as-betrayal is something I'm actually really interested in. I think, though, that the angle I'm concerned with is different from the one most people are coming at it from. See, for me, what's really interesting is art as self-betrayal, in the way that market and critical and peer pressures can get you to betray your own interests or beliefs. I won't deny that there are certainly some interesting examples of art that's a personal betrayal of someone else; it's most obvious in documentaries, where you have to gain the trust of a subject often in order to tear that subject down, but there's also the slightly more common, if less obvious, case of a fiction or non-fiction writer "stealing" the characters or life experiences of people they know and depicting them in an either honest or twisted way--either one is likely to cause offense. But to me, what's really interesting is the way that making art in a larger cultural context--as almost all art is--can shape the choices you make about the creation of the art-object.

But anyway, the point is that I don't think Momus is getting at either of those methods of "betrayal," since Sofia Coppola didn't seem to have any particular relationship with the subculture in question; you can only betray something if you've gained its trust first. No, all the examples of betrayal he gives (Kill Bill, late-period Radiohead) are just appropriation, except it's appropriation by auteurs instead of blindly commercial forces, so it lapses into familiar "sellout!" territory. In which case, of course, I think the matter is easy to address. It's safe to say that by 2003 exported Japanese culture, and its Western appreciation thereof, was hardly trying to hide itself in the same way that subcultures like punk or anti-corporatism or jazz were. When these cultures shout "sell-out," it's still annoying to popists like moi, but it at least has some basis in legitimacy: they genuinely seemed like they didn't want to be co-opted. But the subculture Momus is dealing with has done little but aim for mass-cult awareness for a good while now. If you want to blame something for selling out this particular subset, blame Pokemon, or Sailor Moon, or Hello Kittie. Don't blame an indie film.

But what about the larger point of Lost In Translation being sort of disrespectful to Japanese culture, regardless of its current subcultural status or lack thereof? Keep in mind the points made below that Japan is not exactly a powerless culture in need of protection by cultural-capital-wielding Western critics, and that by any standard Momus is just not making a coherent political objection here. I think that latter point is particularly key. You can certainly accuse Coppola of having flat supporting characters without making this an indictment of her insensitivity; lots of directors have flat supporting characters without this being culturally incorrect.

And it's especially important to keep in mind that the two main characters are undeniably very real.[2] I don't think Momus is denying that both Murray's and Johansson's characters are very realistic, very indicative of what a certain kind of American tourist in Japan is like. So let's grant that, and let's admit that neither of the characters necessarily come off as very good people, and that, very importantly, these defects in their characters are demonstrably caused by their American lives. Coppola clearly goes out of her way to show that both Murray's and Johansson's problems are the result of deteriorating relationships with their spouses, deteriorating relationships that they have no small part in causing--certainly Johansson's feckless distancing would be legitimately frustrating to deal with. Once you grant those two things, and it seems like you'd have to, I think you have to admit that these insensitivities flow not from Coppola's cultural ignorance or audience pandering but from the ignorance and state of mind of the two main characters. I think, rightly or wrongly, that this really is how a lot of Americans view Japan as visitors. The two main characters, both clearly bohemians of one generation or another, seem to have the same distrust of and disorientation caused by Japanese pop culture as American pop culture. They are not strangers in a strange land, but the over-educated in a slightly unfamiliar place, and so they deal with it by joking about it, just like they deal with everything else, and by being slightly creeped out by all the pop culture. We wouldn't think this odd if they were visiting Branson, MO--why is it weird when they're in Japan?

In other words, I think that if you're going to criticize something, it's not the movie, which seems realistic enough to me, but the attitude it's depicting. I don't think Coppola should shoulder the blame for smug hipsters.

This is all circling around a variant of my original point: a movie in which the characters were sensitive to the subtleties of Japanese culture would have been nowhere near as funny, and my allegiance has always been to comedy, not sensitivity. If something is offensive enough that you don't find it funny, then yeah, we can talk, but if you're going to admit, as Momus does, that "I chuckled along with the audience" before going on to explain just what was so wrong about his own laughter, well, I just don't think we have a good shared platform for debate here.

Reading back over the line I originally plucked out of the essay--"I squirmed. Does Murray's charisma have to come at the expense of someone else all the time?"--the verb choice really stands out to me. When I hear that he "squirmed," I can't help but think (and a certain subset of clap clap readers already know where I'm going with this) of the "squirming" of David Foster Wallace, especially in his first-person non-fiction essays. But I think the way Wallace uses it is demonstrative. True, he will often take that squirm and use it as a clue to try and figure out why he squirmed, but he will also try and determine whether or not the squirm is, in fact, legitimate, and will either defend it or admit certain reasons why you could see it as illegitimate. Momus does neither, and I think that's a problem.

Finally, a note about my brief comment bringing Momus' artistic corpus into the discussion: I honestly didn't mean to imply that his use of offensiveness made his viewpoint illegitimate. I simply wanted to point out how weird it was for someone who seems fine with a certain form of cultural insensitivity getting worked up about another. But, I suppose, we all do this. So it goes. But it still strikes me as weird in this particular case. Nothing more than that.

[1] Upon rereading this, I also wonder if he means to actually implicate Japanese-Americans or Japanese immagrants to America in this subculture, but I honestly can't tell. I'm not sure if this would change anything, though.
[2] I would say that some of the supporting characters are very real, too--we all know people who seem pretty stereotypical if we don't know them very well, and I think the photographer character is a prime example of that.