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Economics Lost in Translation

November 28, 2003

Bill Murray is supposedly generating "Oscar buzz" for his performance as an actor on the decline in the film Lost in Translation. While it is often unclear exactly what elevates a performance to the level of Oscar-caliber, it is obvious enough that his acting here is more effective than it was in say, Groundhog Day.

But what Murray is trying to get across through his performance—a man lost in a world that cares more about flash than substance—is where the director's vision finds its home. In fact, Murray's character seems to serve as a focal point for the movie's main theme: capitalism destroys art.

Movie critics have largely classified Lost in Translation as a romantic comedy/drama. Murray plays Bob Harris, a veteran movie actor who has given up (or been pushed out of) film acting, and is now in Tokyo to promote whiskey. Scarlett Johanssen is Charlotte, a 25-year-old philosophy graduate and wife of a photographer who has come to Tokyo for a rock-band photo-shoot. Both are lonely and questioning who they are, where they are, and just who it is they are married to.

The alienation and confusion expressed by these characters could have taken place anywhere. Los Angeles or New York, for instance, just as easily might have accommodated photo shoots, ad campaigns and sad hotel bars. Sending her characters to Tokyo allows director Sofia Coppola to throw in some comic culture shock. There seems to be more at work in this choice of location than simply a chance for visual gags, however.

The city serves as a symbol: Tokyo is where art comes to die. This is a theme repeated throughout the movie. Bob, once an "actor," comes here to do commercials, and he struggles with the shame of the experience. Bob's marriage has grown cold, as his wife seems less interested in him than in what his money can buy her. Charlotte's marriage is also in doubt, as the "photographer" she thought she had married has become a star-struck schmoozer in this new city.

The favorite meeting place of the two is the hotel bar, where an American singer destroys jazz standards in the background. Amidst huge neon ads, both characters sing karaoke versions of "avant-garde" English pop music. And, to top it off, an American B-movie heroine is in the city promoting her latest work, lavished by both the media's attention and that of Charlotte's husband.

Clearly, there is a message here. In 1956, Ludwig von Mises released a short text entitled The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality. In it, he describes what he felt motivates varying groups within society to reject the underlying principles of capitalism. "There are grumblers," states Mises, "who blame capitalism for what they call its mean materialism. . . . It feeds the bodies, but it starves the souls and the minds."

Mises suggests that the leaning in Hollywood toward anticapitalism stems from resentment of the consuming public's fickle nature: "Under capitalism, material success depends on the appreciation of a man's achievements on the part of the sovereign consumers. . . . A tycoon of the stage or screen must always fear the waywardness of the public. He knows very well that he depends entirely on the whims and fancies of a crowd hankering after merriment."

This is an instructive lens through which to see what the director is showing us. Coppola, daughter of director Francis Ford Coppola, knows all too well the fickle nature of the public. Her father, once lauded with critical and commercial success for films such as Apocalypse Now and the Godfather trilogy, found much less favor after releasing movies along the lines of Dracula and Jack. And her first film, The Virgin Suicides, received only a lukewarm response.

Creating a film that implicitly states, "mass marketing reduces actors to spokesmen and music into karaoke," reveals an attempt to lift the director's work above the approval of a mass audience. If left to them, the movie suggests, entertainment would consist of little more than comic-book pornography and arcades.

Other critics praise Coppola for not allowing Bob and Charlotte to "get off the hook" by sleeping with one another as a solution to their troubles. Coppola, though, is not looking for an out here. Her two main characters have found solace in this crass, commercial world simply in the knowledge that there are others who also yearn for more. The director appears to be throwing a message in a bottle to her viewers that this is all that one can hope for.

This is an unfortunate message for the audience to take home. As Mises states, "The vain arrogance of the literati and the bohemian artists dismisses the activities of the businessman as unintellectual money-making. The truth is that the entrepreneurs and promoters display more intellectual faculties and intuition than the average writer and painter."

It seems lost on the artistic critics of the market that commercial and artistic culture can and always have existed side by side. Truly, capitalism does make low art more accessible, just as it makes everything more accessible to the masses, including high art. Thanks only to the market are recordings of two millennia of great musical compositions available to anyone through online ordering. Thanks to the market, the literature of the world's most brilliant writers is available in books, online editions, and audio versions, at prices that range from high to zero. Thanks to the market there are more millionaires in a position to fund art and performance that would otherwise find no commercial market.

And, finally, thanks to the market there are now more films available for viewing than ever before. The sheer volume creates the illusion that trash is all the market creates, but that is not the case. Quality is available for all who seek it, and those who seek it will always be in the minority. But as Mises says, the market supplies even the smallest niche, so that even the avant-garde can find a voice in the great symphony that is the global market place.

Lost in Translation, while well crafted, suffers from a dose of flawed morality arising from Coppola's own personal anxieties. Moviegoers may be entertained to see Bill Murray on such unfamiliar ground, but they should be aware that the message behind the punch lines doesn't hold up. Whether films have declined in quality is a subject for debate. Opinions run in every direction. Regardless of the verdict, to hold the institution of the commercial marketplace in contempt advances neither truth nor beauty.  

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Matthew Hisrich is a policy analyst with The Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions. He can be reached by email at: hisrich@buckeyeinstitute.org.  


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