Monday, 22 February 2010

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

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