Culture Rover

#87 - Secrets and Whispers

What does it mean for a film not to reveal its most crucial lines? Practicing a kind of inverse dramatic irony, two recent films do just this, pivoting on words that the audience does not get to hear. The climaxes of both Sophia Coppola's Lost in Translation and Stephen Gaghan's Syriana are not screamed revelations but whispered secrets -- secrets that the main characters, both bewildered middle-aged American men lost in global webs of power and powerlessness, know, but which we -- the audience -- are left to imagine.

On a crowded Tokyo street, Lost in Translation's Bob Harris (Bill Murray) whispers the most important lines of love to Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson). We do not know what the words are, but they unleash a tremendous catharsis nonetheless, as if they were a magic incantation that brings both Harris and Charlotte out of their alienated funks, allowing them to recognize their love and, at the same time, liberate themselves from its eerie, dangerous grasp. The crucial line itself gets "lost in translation," yet the mood -- and their lives -- shift in the murmur. The furtive "Rosebud" of the story burns up in a fire of Tokyo neon without us ever learning its deep truths. Concealment brings revelation, mystery sheds phoenix-like illumination from the whisper of the flames.

Meanwhile, in the back of a movie theater, another Bob -- George Clooney's washed-up CIA agent Bob Barnes in Syriana -- learns the secret of who is calling the shots in the ensnaring tangle of oil interests and corrupt governments that is not only ruining his life, but also the possibilities for justice and democracy in the Middle East. Under investigation, baffled, Bob Barnes turns to his one pal left in the CIA. This shadowy friend whispers the secret to him. We see Clooney's eyebrows raise slightly in surprise, the muscles on his face tighten momentarily in shock. The secret, which we never learn, brings Bob Barnes to his destiny, and compresses the entire film's conspiratorial insinuations into one gesture: a hand cupped over a mouth, the shifting lights of the movie screen projection and the noise of the movie soundtrack drowning out the crucial information.

By exploiting the dramatic potential of secrets and whispers, both these films suggest a larger sense of confusion. Perhaps it is the confusion of the globalizing world, where not understanding quite what is happening can be a daily fact of life, where forces from far away and close by no longer have consistent relationships, where backing away to an Archimedean perspective grows increasingly difficult, and where we must make do with the unknown, locate stepping stones in a stream of information that babbles a digital brook.

27 January 2005

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