Lost in Translation: Shunyamurti Movie Night Essay

On Saturday nights, the Sat Yoga Ashram turns into the Sat Yoga Cinémathèque, perhaps the greatest art house cinema this side of Holy Wood. From Tarkovsky to Kubrick, from Bresson to Malick to Jodorowsky, from Hollywood to postmodern classics, the sangha gathers to explore the spiritual journey of ego dissolution and soul liberation through the lens of film. For each film, Shunyamurti offers an exquisite teaching to guide the experience in a way that will provide the deepest and most thoughtful reflections and post-movie discussions. We hope these poetic treasures will inspire you to find the sacred journey and intelligence that is hidden in the films we feature. This month we share with you Shunyamurti’s essay as introduction to Sofia Coppola’s film Lost in Translation. In – joy!


Tonight’s film offering is what I would call (using a self-canceling phrase) a postmodern classic. It is a story about the meaninglessness, alienation, loneliness, and lostness of human beings in a world that no longer makes sense nor offers any sacred meeting ground—a world in which communication and real connection have become all but impossible. The film, which was released in 2003, is both written and directed by a sensitive woman, Sofia Coppola, who grew up in the world of cinema, watching her auteur father Francis Coppola make films of life’s absurdity on a much more epic scale, such as Apocalypse Now. In a way, Sofia’s films take place after the apocalypse—but it is a revelation of a world already dead (or suiciding, as in her first film The Virgin Suicides) though still seeming to function, a dead world that has not recognized the mortal wound that will soon culminate in thermonuclear holocaust.

It is ironic that the film takes place in Tokyo, a city that is in fact, since the Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster in 2011, slowly dying of radiation sickness that is affecting the whole population from the relentless emission of lethally toxic subatomic particles from the destroyed nuclear reactors of nearby Fukushima. The massive increase of cases of radiation sickness and genetic mutation throughout Japan are being censored. The Japanese people are in denial of the grave situation they are in, and pretending everything is under control, even though it is not; nor do they have a clue how to resolve the catastrophe. Yet they go on as if all is normal, planning to host the next Olympics, psychotically cut off from the mortal wound that is destroying their country and slowly but surely the entire ecosystem of marine life and via the prevailing winds and ocean currents, killing off the planetary web of life as a whole.

But this film has no pretensions of commenting on any larger social situations or engaging in cultural critique. It is a miniature. The focus is on the random momentary intersection of two lives that in no other circumstance but the sharing of a strange hiatus in a fancy hotel for jet-lagged foreigners in a chic part of Tokyo, a moment in time between planes, a liminal moment in which normal routines are in abeyance, would ever come together and try to click.

The man, played by Bill Murray, is old enough to be the father of the bored young woman, played by Scarlett Johansson—which is perhaps the point, that only such a platonic fatherly relationship can still be meaningful in a world of promiscuous amorality. What both thirst for is not another sex partner, but an encounter with an authentic Other. They need to be jolted out of the deadness of their flat one-dimensional pointless lives, which cannot be achieved by yet another routine robotic copulation that is the expected trajectory of desire. They yearn subliminally for a something more, a je ne se qua, than an objectifying flesh-focused non-relation based on the sex drive, that soon—once lust is exhausted—inevitably morphs into ennui and melancholia, or obsessive focus on work, children, or other forms of compulsive jouissance. They have both been there, done that. And they are done.

The man is in a state of numb depersonalization. He is an estranged husband, a father of several difficult children whose wife no longer has time or interest in him except as a cardboard placeholder in the family system. He is a has-been movie star now reduced to making commercials for whiskey and talk show appearances in far flung parts of the world that still show his old films on TV. He knows he is past his shelf life, his body is junk, and he has nothing to offer a younger generation of fast moving hustlers on the make. The old warhorse is only going through the motions of living. He is a relic from a lost world, on display like a reservation Indian touring in a wild-west show.

And she is in the same situation, going through her midlife crisis while still in her early 20s. The ravages of time are accelerating, and now life is lost before it can even begin. Existence has become an empty promise that is withdrawn at the very moment of coming of age.

The sad energy of their abandonment despair draws the two together, not for a sexual fling, but for the rare opportunity of sharing emptiness, of gleaning and offering a glow of meaning and recognition from one unbearably lonely heart to another. He may be hoping to recapture a time when conversation still had a semblance of depth, while she knows no meeting of minds that is not made of clichés from a canned monologue emitted by a cd in a headset.

But for a moment the two are confronted with a refuge, in the oasis of each other’s eyes, where they can enter a new paradigm of relationality, in which they can both accept the nothingness that makes them both the same, when there is no script nor expectation, and both are allowed to be open to listening and trying to understand another being from a different world, of a different gender, with different challenges, and with nothing at stake but truth. They both realize this will end in an instant, but that fact opens the portal to the labyrinth of kairos time, beneath the highway of morbid chronologic leading to demise and in any case already dead. They take this detour into the now together, learning jerkily to mobilize the atrophied capacity for empathy to bring their souls to life, if only for this one passing yet eternal leap into the Real.

But the tragic inability to understand each other, nor the other that is the ego itself—whose signifiers are unavoidably lost in translation—or to be able to offer any medicine for healing the lostness of the egoic facade in an empty life and world that constitute its own reflection, lead finally to the film’s dead end, in which the tick of time returns, and they are tossed by temporality back into the grinding fate of death on the installment plan. And the film loses its nerve here, its clarity fails, it is literally lost for words. There is a final scene, a heroic burst of energy in a run for a last hug, but the man’s last whispered words to his sweet companion must remain hidden, they must be lost without translation, because their only significance is the fact of their being uttered, and being utterly without consequence, yet paradoxically constituting the most honorable and meaningful communication in both their lives, for the simple but noble reason that they were faithful to the ecstatic significance of the event. They did not defile each other as sexual objects, but treated one another as true beings of pure consciousness, whose connection is in the timeless formlessness of consciousness itself, and whose meeting represents their upper death drive striving to rise above the ego in the recognition of a unity that transcends all differences and all need for ongoing meetings within the limited and unreal realm of time and space. Something did happen between them, but it happened not in Tokyo, but in the Heart of the Second Real—the Real of Love.

Not that Murray had transcended the lower chakras. In fact, he does have a night of sexual activity with the singer in the hotel lounge where the main action of the film takes place. But it is a mere side scene, a pro forma exchange of business cards with another performance artist who is also past her prime. The real affair is happening two assemblage points higher, in another tower of song that only surrendering souls can sing in the silence of solitude. But the sexual interlude does lead to confusion and backlash when Scarlett finds out, and must figure out that in this more refined frame of reference there was no infidelity, only a guarding of the space they shared by his spilling his seeds of sorrow elsewhere, so that no impulse toward corporal coupling would intrude on their need for a nexus of noetic nullification of all that they had known of personal reality.

This film was chosen to be shown this evening with much hesitation, because it does have some quick flashes of semi-nudity in a sad and seedy strip club, but rather than being erotic, the scene reveals the vulgarity and ugliness of turning the sacred beauty of the human form into an object of perverted lust. Those who live secluded from the degraded kali yuga world in a remote ashram, yet who still harbor fantasies of returning to that defiling bardo of sexual stimulation, alcoholic haze, tobacco, and drugs; hanging onto the dream of performing as musicians in a high end hotel lounge band; or making it big in some prestigious career like photography or film; or who cling to the rescue fantasy of making some love connection that would bring wholeness and the end of egoic suffering, may just be cured of such delusions by ingesting the actual horror of such a barren desolation of life marooned in the desert of Real One, as depicted in this honest gem of a film with a vital message of the urgency of true transcendence.

Without a community of fellow pilgrims seeking the light of divine love, or the practice of transformation and discovery of authentic Being—Being that has no place in kali yuga, no fertile ground to flourish in—the possibility of creating and sustaining a life of authenticity and spiritual fulfillment is nil. Those who have found their way to a sacred life focused on the tao of divinization of consciousness may count their blessings after watching this depressing yet noble film that forces the viewer to recognize what is missing from postmodern civilization, and that can only appear in the cracks of time when a flash of the true light of love can momentarily become visible, as it does by gazing at this cinematic diamond for a sparkling glimpse of the naked urge to find a higher Real.



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