The Healing Potential of Being Present

The plotlines of Lost in Translation (2003), Paterson (2014) and Columbus (2017) are discussed below.

“The world in which you live from day to day is made from habit and memory. The perilous zones are the times when the self, also made from habit and memory, gives way. Then, if only for a moment, you may become something other than you have been”

John Gray, The Silence of Animals (2013)

Taken out of context, this is a lovely quote that aptly surmises the thrust of this article. Within context, it’s taken from a book that critiques humanism and emphasises the capacity of “human nastiness”. It sounds nicer out of context but we can’t have everything. Let’s leave the agonising over the condition of the human race to angsty old white men. Instead, we are exploring naturalism in cinema; narratives that avoid narrative/literary convention in order to depict life as it occurs. In particular, the complex relationship between identity, companionship and space. Gray’s quote is useful to us: throughout Lost in Translation (2003), Paterson (2016) and Columbus (2017), the lead characters – in all three instances, a man and a woman – become ‘something other’ than they have been, largely due to the companionship they enjoy along the way and their relationship – or lack of – with the spaces they occupy. From Tokyo to Paterson to Columbus, our leads engage with people and spaces in a way that forces them to be present in their own lives and the lives of others. Instead of solving problems directly, these films nurture positive relationships that allow characters to develop the self in a healing and indirect way. Freed – perhaps only temporarily – from habit, memory and the burdens of self, our characters become present in people, spaces and moments that offer moments of healing and growth.

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Image: 2003 Focus Features

At the start of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is lost. Thousands of miles from his family, a brief fax from his wife reminds him that he forgot his son’s birthday. Having accepted a hefty sum to sponsor a Japanese whiskey that hopes to trade on his once famous acting credentials, Bob sits in a Tokyo hotel room between day shoots, waiting for something to happen. Maybe he would prefer that nothing happens, it’s hard to tell. Somewhere else in the hotel, recent Yale graduate and newly-wed Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) accompanies her absentee husband across Japan as he shoots photography. When Bob and Charlotte serendipitously meet in the hotel bar, we observe them at moments of pause in their lives, both subject to histories and obligations that seem to have crept up on them. Bob and Charlotte find belonging through a mutual lack of belonging.

In many ways, Bob and Charlotte use their time together to strengthen their understanding of themselves. Everything Bob and Charlotte share with each other in conversation is echoed by the city itself. Maria San Filippo wrote in 2003 that the cinematography and sound design “turn Tokyo into a microcosmic metaphor for the way Bob and Charlotte view life”. Where Bob initially secludes himself in the quiet, muffled isolation of the hotel – with its muted, non-threatening colours and sounds – Charlotte ventures out to places that are uniquely Japanese, attempting to challenge herself or realise something she cannot tell herself. Her efforts are half-hearted and more indicative of her uncertainty than the potential healing capacity of the activities she engages in. Charlotte’s disinterest in the Japanese monks and the ikebana session is another aspect of her status as an American guest rather than an active participant in Japanese culture.

Bob and Charlotte’s bond thus comes in part at the expense of the supporting Japanese characters and the ‘character’ of Tokyo itself. The othering of the Japanese cast and the ‘alien’ nature of the city contribute to the mutual bond that Bob and Charlotte share. Charlotte’s Japanese friends adopt American nicknames that she says are “easier for me to remember”, while Bob barely engages with them besides his proximity to Charlotte. Unlike Paterson and Columbus, the characters in Lost in Translation explore companionship mostly ignorant of the space around them. Journeying through Coppola’s Tokyo means embracing your role as an outsider, rather than as an object or being that belongs to the space.

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Image: 2003 Focus Features

The karaoke scene perfectly epitomises this idea. Earlier in the night, Charlotte introduces Bob to people who don’t especially care who he is or why he’s spending time with them. There’s a giggly je ne sais quoi about the evening as Bob, Charlotte and her friends are chased from a club by a bb gun wielding bartender. Rolling drunkenly into a karaoke room, the group sing songs and continue to drink. For Bob, the night is an opportunity to enjoy the blissful momentum of younger, more engaged souls. When our two leads sing their songs, Charlotte chooses ‘Brass in Pocket’ by The Pretenders, a youthful, optimistic song that celebrates good fortune and sexual agency. Bob chooses ‘I Fall to Pieces’ by Patsy Cline, a song about longing for someone, unable to move on. While Charlotte’s song is a celebration of self, Bob’s is a lament for romance lost. Bob and Charlotte are clearly at different crossroads in their lives, reflecting upon and aiming towards different things. It is the ‘moment’ of companionship – a patchwork blanket of their surroundings and the people accompanying them – that knits their relationship and the scene together. As the pair step outside the room for a breather, we are reminded by the minimal dialogue and cooled corridor lighting that they are alone, together.

“A man is indeed a city, and for the poet there are no ideas but in things” – William Carlos Williams

In Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson (2016), Adam Driver’s bus driving poet navigates space in a completely different way. The repetitive nature of title character Paterson’s life acts as a calming wave that buttresses him from stress or harm. Driving the bus around the town of Paterson, our poet interacts with people along the route, slowly writing poems in his head and on paper during quiet moments in his day. Paterson’s poetry and the quiet respite of the town itself both act as outlets that romanticise monotony. While Lost in Translation depicts a temporary break from monotony as a healing moment, Paterson embraces the normal, regular heartbeats of people and places. Driver’s character almost seems like a manifestation of the town itself: sharing his name with the town and the William Carlos Williams poem, Paterson is the man who “is indeed a city”. People live in Paterson and are captured through him. Things become ideas on a daily basis as Paterson drives around the city on his regular route. Companionship for Paterson is like swimming alongside fish in a river stream, moving along at a similar pace, finding intricate differences and beauty in routine.

For Bob Harris and Charlotte, their houses are cold and non-distinct, while Paterson returns home to warmth and colour. The talents and energies of Paterson and his wife and fellow creative Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) seem perfectly suited. Their art doesn’t present itself as anything more than personal reflections of how they perceive the world. Painting parts of the house and engaging in DIY crafts, Laura directs her artistic energy in different directions every day, constantly surprising Paterson with the ways in which their home radiates with her loving energy. It’s Laura that encourages Paterson to become “something other” through his poetry, as he gathers the energy to publish his work. Refreshingly, there is essentially no romantic conflict in Paterson. Laura and Paterson communicate and interact in such a way that oozes respect, love and mutual understanding. In contrast to Lost in Translation, there is little distinction between the emotional tone of domestic and public space in Paterson. Companionship in this context is seemingly effortless comfort that demands little of the participants and the audience. Watching Paterson is like having a conversation with an old friend, chuckling in light surprise as you find out through their stories that there’s still things to learn about them.

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 As with the use of dialogue in Lost in Translation, much of the emotional payoff in Paterson lies in what is not said. The day after discovering that his dog Marvin has playfully destroyed his notebook of poems, Paterson retreats to his favourite spot, the Great Falls of the Passaic River. A focal point of the William Carlos Williams poem, it is fitting that Paterson himself gravitates towards this part of town. Therein he finds an older Japanese man (Masatoshi Nagase) reading the very poem. As the two men ponder the significance of their meeting, the older man offers Paterson a blank notebook, insisting he takes it for his poetry. The scene is a therapeutic moment for Paterson and the audience. The loss of his poetry is remedied by chance companionship and the serendipitous symbolism of the space they occupy. Despite denying that he is a poet, the older man senses that Paterson has the qualities of one and insists on the gift. By being present in the moment, the two men feel out an unspoken understanding that alters the significance of their encounter. Paterson ends almost where it begins: with the promise of another week, another conversation, another poem. The Passaic River continues to flow onwards towards the sky and eventually back in on itself. The city continues to move, the people continue to talk. This happens regardless of whether anyone is listening. Fortunately for us, someone is.

“Every one of us lives and moves all his life within the limitations, sight, and influence of architecture–at home, at school, at church, and at work” – Joseph Irwin Miller

Perhaps most explicitly, Columbus (2017) emphasises how integral architecture can be in our lives. The feature debut of established video essayist Kogonada, it’s no surprise that Columbus uses the spatial aesthetics of the town to bring the two leads together. Casey and Jin (Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho, respectively) both have an intimate relationship with architecture. As the son of an academic who has been scheduled to give a talk in the architectural ‘mecca’, Jin travels from South Korea to Columbus when he learns that his father has fallen into a coma. Already estranged, the coma is the perfect barrier between Jin and his father. There is no dialogue to be shared, no easy resolutions to the layers of their relationship and for the duration of the film, Jin finds himself caught in stasis. What to do? When to leave? What happens if he dies? Jin is left alone to work out where he stands with a father who can’t respond. Working at the local library, Casey knows the town and its stunning range of architecture better than most. The first time she appears on screen, Casey is taking a smoke, quietly reciting facts about the First Christian Church, with its quietly balanced asymmetry. Casey’s relationship with her mother initially seems intimate and comfortable, but we learn during the film that their relationship has a painful history. Casey’s knowledge of the local architecture is given new meaning as we learn through her conversations with Jin that it became an almost healing respite from the pressures of her life, living with a recovering addict.


Almost the opposite, Jin’s disinterest or borderline distaste in architecture feels like a subconscious response to his father’s fascination with it. Architecture is an important intersection, physically and verbally, in Jin and Casey’s time together. What could potentially just be a mutual way of passing time evolves into genuine companionship as the pair each look past surface conversation, knowing with increasing certainty that there is more to be said. When Casey begins reciting facts about the modernist bank, Jin asks why she likes the building, why it moves her. Casey pauses before answering and our perspective shifts to behind the glass windows of the bank. We are forbidden from knowing exactly what Casey says. We see her roughly trace a rectangular shape in the air. Nothing more is said. Later, as Casey and Jin’s relationship develops, Casey traces a similar shape once more, in front of the glowing rectangular roof of the building that first sparked Casey’s interest in architecture. The shape seems to represent things that were once missing from Casey’s life: structure, security and peace. We are told this non-verbally, but there is a sense that without Jin’s companionship and the healing capacity of the architecture around them, Casey would remain closed off from being vulnerable to other people.

Equally, Casey’s love of Columbus’ architecture provides a bridge between Jin and his father. Each building that Casey takes Jin to seems to recall some aspect of his father. While stood in the North Christian Church, Jin tells Casey that his father was studying the architect of the church Eero Saarinen and the “paradox of modernism and religion”. Jin recalls that his father believed in “modernism with a soul”, an “alternative possibility”. Jin doesn’t understand what his father means, but the North Christian Church seems to provide a new context to his words.

Naturally, the biggest change in the film is Casey’s decision to leave Columbus. Beginning the film in a comfortable but limited life, Jin helps Casey realise that she is preoccupied helping other people live their lives, rather than living her own. Jin almost learns the inverse: that despite their differences, he would forever regret prematurely leaving his father’s bedside. Casey and Jin learn to understand what the other needs, without first addressing their own needs. Their life experiences compliment and contrast in a way that strengthens their relationship and encourages positive change. Casey’s importance to Jin is emphasised in their goodbyes, as Jin thanks Casey for “being here”. Temporality and space are integral to Jin’s appreciation of Casey. He is grateful she exists and he is aware that her presence in this short – but crucial – part of his life completely changed his perception of the city, of his father and of himself.

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Throughout Lost in Translation, Paterson and Columbus, characters learn to navigate the delicate architecture of people and places through spontaneous, often temporary companionship. There are no heavily dramatised or stylised conflicts for these characters, only the slow-moving but crucial interventions of those willing to be present in their own lives and the lives of others. In all three films, the naturalistic style and pace of events help celebrate those who quietly change our lives, those who help us heal without demanding that we take drastic action. As Bob and Charlotte embrace in their final scene together, we are forbidden from knowing Bob’s parting words, only that they have a positive impact. They seem comforting and yet final. When we say goodbye to Paterson, he has begun writing a poem in his new notebook, a gift from a stranger that supports his ability to capture those around him. Jin and Casey’s parting words are optimistic and open ended. There is a promise of future communication, a need to support each other with the decisions made during the final scenes. Just as our characters begin to move forward with their lives, unsure about what the future holds, their stories fade to credits. Like a parting hug from a friend, we leave holding their warmth, hoping to see them again soon. We take comfort in companionship and the presence of others. We hope we can be there for them too. In others we are found, we are seen, we are loved. We are present.