Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Lost in Translation

I am becoming so spoiled by the liberal use of replay while watching DVDs that, not only am I getting frustrated with not having it available while watching TV, I am catching myself quite frequently of late actually making the same motion with my right hand--index finger extended towards a non-existent keyboard--in response to a real life, real-time event as I do when I get confused by a scene in a movie playing on my laptop. I catch myself hankering for English subtitles too.

This began to come into focus for me as I watched the movie Lost in Translation this past weekend. I don’t know if I am getting the whole point intended by the director/writer Sofia Coppola--there are probably subtleties that I am missing--but the major metaphor of being culturally transplanted and finding oneself overwhelmed by the complexities of a foreign culture seems pretty straightforward. What I am wondering tho, is whether Coppola intended for me to see this as a metaphor for my own life right here, inside my own culture.

Because that is exactly the reaction I had as the impact of the visual and audible chaos of the Tokyo scenery scurried across the screen. I bet the experience of seeing this on the big screen would have enhanced this effect. Possibly to the point of inducing a panic attack on me. Because excessive light, motion, and noise are the things that would often set one off. But besides those assaults on the senses there was also the more subtle effect of confusion generated by encountering foreign non-verbal communications, which are even less translatable than verbal ones. As these elements of the film became conscious to me, I also became aware that this is how I’ve always felt inside my own life. This could be at the very root of my anxiety issues.

Even before my visual and hearing impairments became an issue in my life in my late twenties, most of the moments of my life were lost in translation. I know that I developed the habit early on--grade school if not before--of replaying in my mind over and over certain events that left me feeling confused or anxious, trying to make them make sense but never being quite sure that I ever ‘got it’ as the saying goes. I remember times when I realized days or even weeks later that a certain cast of eye, a certain set of lips when certain words were spoken was intended to convey to me an attitude towards me on the part of the speaker. It took me even longer to figure out that these facial contortions were as codified as vocabulary words. Thus it was that my cheeks would burn with shame a week after I had been humiliated by a classmate or my heart would warm with pleasure as I dropped off to sleep while remembering the complement a teacher gave my essay that afternoon. It seems I have seldom experienced my life in real-time. Now, having gleaned this insight about myself from watching Coppola’s film, I am left to wonder if she meant for me to see this because her metaphor was intended to expose this common plight of humanity. Or am I reading more than was intended into this metaphor because there is something uncommon about the way I relate to my world--either because of the insular and eccentric cult-like religion I was raised in or because my brain was miss-wired.
Brain miss-wiring has been on my radar screen for a couple years ever since my sister and her son were diagnosed with ADD and she started pressing the literature on me because she sees elements of it in both me and our mother. I did further research on ADD when I needed a physical disorder with behavioral manifestations for a child character in my novel Brooding Instinct. But after exploring a number of such disorders, including Tourette’s Syndrome, Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, Bi-Polar disorder, and autism, I settled on Asperger’s Syndrome which is considered a high-functioning autism. The concept of a continuum from severe to mild with these disorders really intrigued me for that implies that there are many, many people making their way through life with brain-wiring that is just this side of optimal, who have never been diagnosed with any disorder but who interact with their environment in ways that disconcert their parents, peers, employers--their social milieu in other words--who attempt to exact a conformity of behavior from them that is as attainable as flight for pigs.

There seem to be a number of ways besides cultural transplantation that can cause the communication between any two persons or any individual and their environment to become lost in translation. To contemplate this is to wonder, ’How in the world does any successful communication occur ever?’ Am I reading too much into this film? Does it matter?

ADDENDUM: I was working on this post most of Tuesday afternoon and had it ready to go by eight o’clock. When Tuesday night’s episode of Boston Legal dealt with aspects of this theme, I tried to find a way to insert reference to it seamlessly into this essay but could not. At least not if I want to get this posted before five. So I am just sticking it on the end. I am referring to the case confronting the James Spader character in which he represents a precocious nine-year-old girl who is unable to smile because the nerves that control the facial muscles don’t work. I was unclear as to whether this was due to a birth defect or an accident. His objective was to encourage the board of a fusty private school to reverse its refusal to admit her. How he eventually succeeded was quintessential Alan Shore but I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it yet since that isn’t essential to my point. That being further reflection on the fragility of communication, the hubris of assumptions that put more value on conformity than integrity, and the futility of aspiring to fit in when that entails self-assassination. I was entirely charmed by how the relationship between the two developed, by his immense compassion for the child and the way he conveyed to her his total acceptance and admiration of her. The writer’s seemed to be making obvious comparisons between her involuntary ‘poker face’ and his well practiced ‘dead pan’. He seemed to be seeing himself in her and since the mother was an old sexual liaison of his, I can’t help but wonder if the writers are preparing the ground for revealing she is his daughter. If not, they should be. I can’t think of a better plot twist for his character right now. It would make the perfect complement to the impending nuptials of his buddy Denny Crane, played by William Shatner. Besides, I have an affinity with this child and want to see more of her and especially more of their interactions. What better way to give her a recurring role. How I wish I could have recorded this episode so I could replay it. I have to assume that I missed more than I got what with my own visual, hearing, social and emotional impairments.

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