Tag Archives: Lost in Translation

The Honest Truth

A lot of stories aim to be real. Or as real as you can be while being a, y’know, story. The challenge here, of course, is figuring out what real is.

One interpretation of ‘real’ is realistic. No spaceships, because spaceships are far from commercial right now. No superpowers or superheroes, because those aren’t things. And no magic either. Y’know, realism.

So like Lost in Translation. It’s about two people in Japan, and just about there. There’s no monsters in this Japan; Godzilla’s not here to do its thing this time. It’s a story about people, being lost, and being understood. This isn’t communicated through metaphor or by using fanatical elements to play it up. Everything’s communicated through Bob and Charlotte’s interactions, it all feels real. For these two people out of their element, the mutual feeling of outsiderness brings them together. There’s this sensation that, yeah, you could be one of them. But Lost in Translation is still very romantic — and not in the lovey-dovey kind of way, but that of something being idealized. Tokyo itself is almost magical in Lost in Translation.

‘Realism,’ then, tends to be interpreted as gritty. Compare Game of Thrones to The Lord of The Rings. Despite both being very much fantasy, the former is more ‘realistic.’ In Westeros there’s political machinations, religious bickering, prostitution, and gory violence you don’t come back from. It’s realistic fantasy! It makes for a very different tone and world from Rings, but it works for the story the show is telling.

Mr. Robot also aims for realism. Now, one thing the show does really well is do hacking proper. No one hacks the mainframe by reversing the polarity of the hard drive; all the technobabble is real (which is great, let’s have more of that). Now, Mr. Robot also adds other things of ‘reality.’ There’s the grime of New York City, there are events outside of the characters’ control that sends the plots off the rails, there are these bibs and bobs that are all there to make the show seem more real, seem like an honest portrayal of the world.

Not that it does anything. Look, I wasn’t impressed by Mr. Robot, and I know I’m ragging on it; but for all its attempts to construct a very ‘real’ place, the characters and events don’t resonate. It doesn’t matter how real the world is, if we don’t care for the characters, we don’t care for the story. Even if we’re angry at the characters, that’s still feeling something.

There’s nothing inherently added by including the gritty details of life. Fiction, despite being a well-crafted lie, relies on honesty. The reason something like Star Wars resonates so well is because the characters feel true; Luke’s wanting to be more than a farm boy on Tatooine is something all far too recognizable. Both Thrones and Rings have characters with tangible motivations and responses. We understand Tyrion’s hatred of his family and Boromir’s desire to bring honor to Gondor. Beneath the dragons and Elves there’s an actual honest emotional truth. Lost in Translation is built entirely on that emotional honesty; it’s an exercise in empathy. The stories that really work, work so well because they feel true, even they aren’t.

Postscript, because I absolutely have to mention this:

Hardcore realism can have a role in fiction, minutiae can work. It just has to be incredibly well done. Like in Ulysses, by James Joyce, which has all the ins and outs and dirty humanity of a normal day (plus or minus a little bit of oddness here and there). Ulysses works, though, because of the honesty within it. Bloom is still haunted by the death of his infant son and we, as readers, are invited to try and understand what it’s like to go through your day like that. There’s a verisimilitude to it that lends it the honesty that makes it successful.

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Throwing Burritos

One of my courses this semester at NYU is one on Science Fiction. In this particular class we had read and were discussing Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? One of us commented about how Rachael pushing the goat off the building reminded him of that scene in Anchorman where Baxter gets punted off the bridge.

The discussion continued, and someone mentioned that in Anchorman, Baxter gets punted off the bridge because Ron throws a burrito at a biker; so what was the proverbial burrito thrown that made Rachael defenestrate that goat? Not just what was her motivation, but what interaction with Deckard pissed her off enough (if she indeed was pissed off)? Our homework was to begin work on our short stories, getting to the point where we throw this proverbial burrito.

So what exactly is throwing the burrito? It’s a catalyst for a sequence of events. Not necessarily the catalyst, but one nonetheless.

Like when Pippin knocks over the bucket in Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring. Because of that we get the chase through the mines and Gandalf’s duel with the Balrog. Sending the bucket clamoring down the well sets up the entire act.

A good story will often have many burritos being thrown around. Take Metal Gear Solid. The initial burrito is when Snake gets involuntarily reinstated to neutralize the terrorist threat at Shadow Moses. He gets another burrito thrown at him when he realizes that there is a nuclear-capable Metal Gear that the terrorists intend to use. Oh, and the terrorists are ex-special forces. And Snake’s old friend is now a cyborg ninja. And the villain’s his brother. And Snake’s got a virus in him.

You don’t get all these reveals at once: it takes several hours of gameplay. Each burrito is progressively thrown at the player in a way that rather than being overwhelmed, we find ourselves being drawn further and further in to the story. Metal Gear Solid steadily throws burritos at you, each one setting up another conflict or another reveal. We need these burritos to keep us invested. And it works: Metal Gear Solid is a fantastically paced/structured story that you can’t stop playing. Even when it’s 1am and you have work in the morning.

But there’s a point where there are just too many burritos flying around. The third Pirates of the Caribbean movie, At World’s End, has a lot of burritos flying around. We have three, maybe four protagonists each with their own crazy gambits. Barbossa double crosses Jack to get the Pearl back because Jack figured the pirate king should be Elizabeth who double crossed Sao Feng (only she didn’t mean to) who double crossed Will who in turn double crossed Jack. Sort of. It seems like every few minutes we get another burrito thrown at us inspiring yet another sequence of events. And some of these burritos hardly add anything to the plot. It winds up hectic and it’s terribly easy to get lost in the chaos.

Alternately you could get lost in the fun which still yields a plenty enjoyable movie, so, y’know, there’s that.

Sometimes, the best stories have almost no burritos.Lost In Translation is a beautiful movie that progresses slowly and steadily. The burritos were thrown before hand (Bob took an advertising gig, Charlotte followed her husband to Tokyo). The whole thing’s been set in motion; there’re no big reveals or twists, no accelerations. We’re just watching life happen.

Call it pacing or structure; it’s vital. Don’t throw enough burritos and the audience starts checking their watches. Throw too many burritos and you lose the audience. The story just has to have the right serving size.

Or you could always just eat that burrito.


Also: buy my book In Transit!

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In Between

Most stories are about going somewhere. The quest in The Lord Of The Rings is to get to Mordor and destroy the ring. In any Indiana Jones movie he’s trying to get whichever artifact it is he’s after this time. A New Hope is about getting the princess and defeating the Empire.

But sometimes a story’s point isn’t actually the destination or the goal or whatever. The MacGuffin is negligible to the point of being unimportant. The characters’ goal is either arbitrary or nonexistent. In these stories the characters are in between.

“You don’t seem to be lookin’ at the destinations,” says Kaylee to a wandering preacher in the pilot for Firefly, “what you care about is the ships. And mine’s the nicest.” In actual fact, the destination doesn’t matter much to any of Serenity’s crew, because none of them have a destination.

They’re lost, more or less depending on the character. After the Unification War, Malcolm Reynolds doesn’t know where he belongs, just that this ship is his home. The Tam siblings are on the run, but they don’t know where to. They’re just running, getting away. Like the rest of the crew, they have no actual, tangible destination.

The idea of people traveling but going nowhere isn’t limited to Firefly, though. Zombieland, a 2009 zombie/comedy was about a group of survivors who meet up on the journey of, well, survival. The four protagonists; Columbus, Tallahassee, Wichita, and Little Rock, are all just wandering the zombiefied United States. Yes, Wichita and Little Rock are trying to get to an amusement park in California, but that’s not their destination. They’re lost, drifters, people who are neither here nor there.

Like the crew of Firefly, they’re people in transit trying to find something. And, like Firefly, they find a sort of home and family in each other, making the drifting that much easier to bear.

Lost in Translation is probably one of the purest examples of this sort of plot. Unlike Firefly and Zombieland, this isn’t just a factor in the plot, this is the plot. We’re introduced to Bob and Charlotte, two people visiting Tokyo. They don’t know each other at first and neither of them have any actual want to be where they are. They’re there because they have to be.

They’re both lost, trying to find some purpose in their visit to this country. Eventually they meet and connect. Bob and Charlotte and still drifting through their time in Japan, but now they’re drifting together. Their connection grows and becomes the focus of the film. It’s these two wanderers who found another one.

But the story remains in limbo. There’s no sense of finality to it all. It’s about a brief moment in time when these two meet and then return to their lives. It’s not about closure or finality: it’s a slice of these two lives. In all the quiet you’re asked to just empathize with them.

I’m writing this a few hours before my train leaves. I’m moving – again. This subject is something I’m more than a little familiar with; long layovers in airports and days spent packing. Maybe I can blame the late publication and poorer-than-usual quality of this particular essay on that. Go read last week’s again for quality.

And now we reach the point where the hastily written essay reveals its true motive: a friend and I published a book this week. The short story collection, entitled In Transit, is about people, well, in transit.

We’ve been working on it for almost a year now, editing it, fixing it, finishing it, and polishing it to the ebook you can now buy on Amazon.

So support a couple aspiring writers and buy our book, I promise you it’s better than this week’s essay.


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