Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Analysis: Loneliness

Lost In Translation and Uzak: Loneliness In The Cinema...
Scarlett Johansson in Lost In Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003).

Remember the loneliest period of your life. Were you alone, or amongst people? The hardest thing about loneliness - especially that found through depression, is that you don't feel the presence of others around you. It's harder to cope because human contact becomes harder to reach. You're isolated.

It's for this very reason that the cinema often struggles to present loneliness - it's very hard to recreate the internal sense of total isolation and the mental sense of abandonment, even when surrounded by people, when cinema is such an encompassing, universal medium. There was one filmmaker who had it cracked in 1924 with Der letzte Mann (F.W. Murnau). Murnau, along with cinematographer Karl Freund, were way ahead of their time with this innovative masterwork. Together they developed the 'dolly' device which allowed the camera to physically move within a shot. This meant that we could now follow a character down a hallway, in order to get closer to him/her. We could also pull away, in order to belittle them, and give the sense of withdrawal and isolation. But Murnau and Freund also explored other areas with Der letzte Mann, and one stunning visual effect said all that needed to be said on the feelings of depression and loneliness. The Hotel Porter (Emil Jannings), a proud aging doorman, is fired from his job and loses all faith in himself. He imagines the shame he will have brought to his family, and the disappointment his friends and neighbors will scorn him with. When walking away from the hotel he looks back, reflecting on the past. Suddenly the building rises from the ground, escalating - almost crushing him. It was, of course, all in his mind. But it's a devastating emotional blow and proof that the cinema could create the feeling of loneliness - what was required was a visual, physical representation of mentality, and feeling. The fact that Der letzte Mann is an Expressionist film, which cast its character in framed shadow, probably helped too.

Lost In Translation (2003) sees empty movie star Bob Harris (Bill Murray) in Tokyo for a whisky commercial. Deflated and alone, he meets unsatisfied and neglected newlywed Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), who takes to his world weary cynicism. Together, they decide to change everything...

Bob: Can you keep a secret? I'm trying to organize a prison break. I'm
looking for, like, an accomplice. We have to first get out of this bar, then
the hotel, then the city, and then the country. Are you in or you out?

After a lingering title shot Lost In Translation opens in a car. Foregrounding Bob, the camera is in a focused close-up on his glum, dissatisfied face. Tokyo is a neon-lit blur, a vibrant collage of waking life, in this scene set to the ethereal, shoegazing tone of 'Girls' by Death In Vegas. The track plays over the rest of the scene as Bob looks out to the foreign city, observing the hustle and bustle that he has grown so apart from. His wrinkled face and receding hairline are met by a reflection - a promotional poster for the whisky, hanging high above the city. Except there's a difference. Against the vivid reds and ocean blues of the Tokyo skyline, Bob's poster is in black and white. Recalling 50s Rat Pack movies, it shows Bob as he is - stuck in the past, with no colour in his life. Drink is the easiest way out ("the good news is, the whiskey works.")

On an obvious note, Bob's loneliness is increased as a result of the language barrier that Tokyo brings. In a home away from home, with no friends, he can't even communicate with his director...

Director: (in long and fast paced Japanese) What difference does
it make? Makes no difference! Don't have time for that! Got it, Bob-san?
Just psych yourself up, and quick! Look straight at the camera. At the
camera. And slowly. With passion. Straight at the camera. And in your
eyes there's... passion. Got it?
Translator: Umm. He want you to turn, looking at the camera. OK?
Bob: That's all he said?

The pace of life in Tokyo is a perfect juxtaposition to the way Bob just drifts through his own existence, not paying attention to what's going on around him ("forgetting my son's birthday"). One of the taglines to Lost In Translation is 'Everyone wants to be found.' In many ways this is the theme of the film, and what makes Charlotte so important. She is Bob's redemption, as proven in the beautiful final scene. On his way to the airport Bob sees Charlotte walking the streets. He stops the car and runs to her. No dialogue is spoken; all that needs to be said done through a simple embrace. As her eyes well up he whispers something in her ear - something that we will never hear. Tenderly, he kisses her. That moment - that totally private goodbye, amongst hundreds of people - makes up for a world of loneliness.

Mahmut (Muzaffer Özdemir) ponders life in Uzak (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2002).

Uzak, the third feature by Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan, is another masterpiece of feeling, but a much more minimalist, artistically motivated one. The title, literally translated to Distant, is the key theme of the film. Uzak is about the space between people - the space between their shoes, the space between their secrets. Even the space created between us and them, by director Ceylan, who literally uses the concept of distance as a cinematic device. Wide shots of landscapes echo with a silent loneliness - lead character Yusuf (Mehmet Emin Toprak) is introduced in a five minute static shot that sees him make his way over a snowy mountain, to the centre of the frame. Ceylan frequently chooses to place the camera behind a character, in medium/close-up shots, foregrounding objects to create a literal distance between them and the audience. This forces us to look closer and invest in the relationship between two estranged cousins, who spend most of the film at a noticeable distance - even in their closest moments.

One scene sees Mahmut (Muzaffer Özdemir), a photographer, watching Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker (1979), itself a cold essay on isolation - The Zone representing a lonely state where ones hopes and dreams may be realized. Even Mahmut's job is lonely - the easiest way for him to get close to people is to observe them through a lens; to watch their lives from a distance. Yusuf wants to work on a boat and at one point is asked, "how will you cope with the loneliness?"

There is so much loneliness in Uzak that it can sometimes be hard to bear. Mostly without dialogue, the film plays out in scenarios where Mahmut and Yusuf long for company. Ceylan takes long static shots simply observing a characters behavior. A character watches porn alone. A character observes a girl from afar - atop a ledge or from the other side of the street. The first line of the film is "are you looking for someone?" And in the world of Uzak, it's always Winter.

The ending is the polar opposite to Lost In Translation's, which is why they make such a wonderful pairing. Mahmut sits on a grey bench overlooking the ocean. Over three minutes the camera zooms in on him, observing his behavior. As we get closer his face becomes clear, as does the sad expression on it. The frame closes in on him, isolating him from the rest of the world. A close-up on his face fades to black, and we will never see him again.

The saddest thing about Uzak is that shortly after filming was completed, Toprak was killed in a car accident. This goes to show how fragile life is, and how easily it can be lost. A wonderful actor, he is lost forever, his distance from the Earth unknown...

*The analysis series has been relocated to the E-Film Blog from Multimediamouth. My first two pieces,
Analysis: Vampires and Analysis: Mike Leigh, can be found here and here, respectively.


  1. Really, really wonderful piece! I've been thinking myself about writing something about loneliness and isolation in movies, and it's funny that I had a different set of movies.

    It really is something that isn't often done right, so I think movies like Lost in Translation really stick out, because it gets it so right. And I think loneliness is one of those emotions that everyone can relate to, so it's surprising we don't see it onscreen more often.

  2. @Kyle

    Thanks, man, glad you liked the piece! I'd love to read another article on the subject, because it's not covered enough! What set of movies did you have picked out?

    Yeah, we can all relate to it - the problem is filmmakers relating it back to us onscreen. Film is a visual medium so it's very good at observing external emotion. Love, for example, is easy, given that the script is realistic and the characters have chemistry. Loneliness is a very internal, intense emotion. It's hard to think of new ways to express that with mise-en-scène that we A) haven't seen before, and B) will be able to recognise. The reason 'Lost In Translation' succeeds is because it takes one of the most vibrant, bustling cities in the world and shoots it through two characters - with hazy, washed-out cinematography and the short of shoegazing music that gives one that feeling of isolation. Coppola's shot structure, if you actually analyse it, is also incredibly informative of the feeling.

    Again, thanks for your kind words on the piece!

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  4. I had picked out Taxi Driver and Brokeback Mountain as two picks, but like you was going to write about more, I just hadn't picked those out yet. I'll be sure to hit you up on FG when I write my piece, I agree it hasn't been written about enough.