The isolation that pervades Sofia Coppola’s ‘lonely together’ masterpiece is echoed on one of social media’s biggest platforms. How has one influenced the other?
“I just feel so alone, even when I’m surrounded by other people.” This is a quote from Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Or at least, Tumblr thinks it’s a quote from Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Truth is, despite the body-aching loneliness that saddles its 101 minute run time, there is never a character in the film that so much as utters the word “alone”. There are 11 mentions of “alone” in the script, but every time it appears it denotes an action – i.e. Bob sits alone on a brown ultra suede couch feeling out of place and empty – not dialogue.
This quote was somehow invented, and has wormed its way on to the IMDb quote page and a handful of Tumblr blogs whose followers eat this shit for breakfast. However, it does serve a function. It’s a reblog-ready badge for the anxiety that a lot of social media users feel mirrors their existence. Coppola’s film and the socially anxious mores of Tumblr have much in common. Lost in Translation’s ‘lonely together’ through line is cinema’s precursor to the invention of Tumblr, not to mention the act of venting your loneliness to whoever you can find to RT, double-tap and reblog your woes. However, it’s not that simple.
A quick Google search for “I just feel so alone” autocompletes with “tumblr”. Is there some transparent connection between feelings of isolation and the social media platform? Apparently, yes. A thesis published this year at San Diego’s Alliant University by Nicole Dizon Witkin suggests that signs of “extraversion was significantly higher in Facebook users than Tumblr users. This finding supports the view that Facebook connects users to real-life friends, while Tumblr connects users with their inner selves.”
This introspection often translates into users posting monochrome gifs of Casper the Friendly Ghost sputtering “Nobody wants me for a friend”, Alice from Alice in Wonderland sobbing into a hanky with the hashtag #soalone, or a still of Scarlet Johansson’s character Charlotte, gazing forlornly over the Tokyo skyline, with “I just do not know what I’m supposed to be” tacked on the bottom. Juvenile by some standards, sure, but nonetheless faultless representations of loneliness. These are all singular cries into the void, using a means of communicating despondency that has an easy-access entry point. Lost in Translation was practically made for reblogging.
As we slowly inch towards an impending future of mainlining social connectivity, there are more and more accompanying think pieces, memes and click-baiting headlines that point to the irony of us feeling increasingly alone, despite being more socially connected than any other point in history. It’s almost like that joke in About a Boy – wherein a parade of single mums gather in a Clerkenwell basement and chant, “Single parents alone together! Single parents alone together! All for one and one for all!” – has lost its punchline.
Coppola’s films are the poster children for loneliness. Her oeuvre weaves together archetypes of middle-aged men (Johnny Marco in Somewhere, Louis XVI in Marie Antoinette, Bob Harris in Lost in Translation) and young women (Lux Lisbon in The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette, Charlotte) who embody the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” lyric: “Ahhhh, look at all the lonely people”. Namely, they’re in and amongst plenty of others for the most part, but mentally, they couldn’t be farther away, harder to reach. That’s the reality that underscores Coppola’s exploration of loneliness in Lost in Translation. Rather than stage a meet cute between its two main characters – Bob and Charlotte, who are both in Tokyo not by choice – she holds off and lets them slowly warm to each other. It’s a blueprint for how a relationship genuinely blossoms.
She, however-many-years his junior, digs for advice once they cosy up to each other. Thing is, says Harris, add fame, add wisdom, add age – it never really gets easier. “The more you know who you are, and what you want,” he says, sprawled across a queen-size bed, “the less you let things upset you.” What they bond over, curiously, is their shared dejection and lack of purpose – one early in life, one late. Only by banding together can they begin to make sense of their emotional disconnect with the outside world.
“Tumblr users are the most neurotic of the (Social Network Users) demographics. Neuroticism represents a tendency to be less emotionally stable and ‘respond with negative emotions to threat, frustration, or loss’” – Nicole Dizon Witkin
And so it goes with Tumblr: we log on to be lonely together; we’re all acting out Coppola’s Instagram-filter fantasy of marrying our deepest social anxieties with pretty images. This is a behaviour inherent to the platform, as Tumblr users “are the most neurotic of (all social network users)”, according to Witkin. “Neuroticism represents a tendency to be less emotionally stable, experience psychological distress, and ‘respond with negative emotions to threat, frustration, or loss’.” Compare that with other social networks examined in her study. “Instagram users were more emotionally stable than Tumblr users. However, Instragram users were less emotionally stable than Facebook users and Twitter users.”
Lost in Translation poignantly taps into that feeling of being packed in a sardine can, surrounded on all sides by people you can’t relate to. What if it was updated for the Tumblr generation? Enter: Spike Jonze’s Her. Maybe it’s just coincidence that Jonze was married to Coppola for a brief period before practically remaking her film with ScarJo hardly a decade later. Her echoes Coppola’s love letter to finding solace in isolation in much the same way. The main difference lies in the fact that he bonds with a piece of in-ear tech that will talk back to him, a sultry voice that has his best interests at heart.
That Tumblr users opt to flood its pages with Lost in Translation quotes and gifs over extracts of Her could mainly be down to the aesthetic qualities of Joaquin Phoenix’s toothbrush moustache. Or, it could be that Tumblr users more easily relate to a female character. Maybe they see themselves in Charlotte? “Tumblr is the only (social networking service) to be represented by bloggers and be primarily all women participants,” Witkin’s study reveals. “Individuals high on neuroticism, and in particular women, have been found to be most likely to engage in blogging activities. The underlying motivations to blog are believed to stem from a need to obtain social support and reduce loneliness.”
Put simply, despite its female lead, Lost in Translation bests any semblance of segmentation – cultural, digital, gendered. Everyone, regardless of their experience or formative upbringing, has been faced with feeling like the outsider in a group of people. Chris Rock likened the film to growing up in the black middle class. “There’s an isolation that the black middle class goes through,” he told Elvis Mitchell. “I remember watching Lost in Translation and going, ‘That's how I feel in America.’ Nothing captures the black experience more than Lost in Translation. It’s one of the blackest movies I’ve ever seen, flat out.”
While we can all relate, Tumblr owns the cross section of expressing emotion through knockout imagery. It’s seemingly the one social network where loneliness is not only tolerated, but acknowledged. And while no platform is free from judgment, only Tumblr openly celebrates that shared experience. Even if that simply means being able to avoid people. “Tumblr promotes itself as a safe and comfortable environment where users can express themselves thorough the specific features offered that limit direct interaction with other users,” writes Witkin. “Tumblr may be a highly attractive environment for individuals who have a heightened sensitivity to social stressors. For individuals who are prone to anxiety and worry, the hyper awareness of their inner experiences and suffering can also generate more creativity, a highly desirable trait within the Tumblr community of media creators and curators.” Hell, that loneliness could be fuel for your debut novel.
The film isn’t the only piece of pop cultural property to transcend human experience. The true genius lies in how Coppola’s masterpiece shrugs off the notion that we should all have it figured out. Summed up, it’s this clip from Daria where she spurns settling on a career with a single, gavel-banging decision in her teens. Not many films will tell you it’s OK to be lost. Probably because it’s difficult to tell a story about a character without especial purpose. A good portion of our lives are now spent questioning which direction to take. Where do I go from here? Regardless of age, we’re still lost and trying to find our footing on the sped-up treadmill of life (or even the endless scroll of Tumblr). Lost in Translation places us at a crossroads, and adds significant weight to the idea that we can still be alone and figure this shit out, but together. Tumblr is merely the real-life manifestation of that. It’s the one place you can shout into the void, and whether or not someone hears, at least you can be assured you’re not alone.