On Representation: Up in the Air and Lost in Translation

Several years ago, I took a Film 101 class at DeAnza College in Cupertino, California. I loved the class – I have not watched a movie the same way since. A key objective of the class was to learn about various aspects of representation in film.  My final paper was a discussion of such aspects of two of my favorite films – Up in the Air and Lost in Translation.  I’ve wanted to bring this analysis to my blog for years and have finally sat down to do just that.  I really enjoyed diving into the many layers each film offers.

The principle idea in both Up in the Air and Lost in Translation is the complexity and value of relationships.  LIT follows the relationship between Charlotte and Bob, a friendship developed while staying at the same hotel in Tokyo, which takes on a father-daughter connection but occasionally romance seems at their fingertips.

“The central relationship is explored from the contrasting perspectives of a woman in her early 20s and a middle-aged man each afflicted by different yet parallel doubts about the course their life respectively is taking or has taken.” – Rooney, from Variety[9]

Up in the Air, directed by Jason Reitman, follows Ryan, a man loyal only to an Airline.

“[I]t’s a movie about how one man living inside the cocoon of an overly detached culture comes to see the error of his own detachment. Up in the Air is light and dark, hilarious and tragic, romantic and real. It’s everything that Hollywood has forgotten how to do; we’re blessed that Jason Reitman has remembered.” Glelberman of Entertainment Weekly[5]

This post assumes, to some extent, that the reader has seen these movies; if not, you can find the synopses on IMDB. I have seen each film dozens of times; they are two of my favorites.  The purpose here is not to walk through each movie end-to-end, but rather talk about how central themes are reinforced by sub-themes and motifs.

Lost in Translation

                At the center of this film directed by Sofia Copola is a special but complex relationship between to travelers who meet in a Tokyo hotel.  One is an older celebrity, Bob, in town to do a commercial for Japanese whiskey, the other is the tag-a-long spouse, Charlotte, a recent college graduate.  Their immediate chemistry sparks a quick friendship and we follow them in their journeys through the week.  At times there seems to be an affair on the horizon – like when they are out on the town.  Other times Bob provides the support of a parent, like at the hospital and especially in the fantastic platonic scene of the hotel bed where Bob dispenses of life advice.

Ansen, of Newsweek Magazine, stated “Is it a paternal relationship or an erotic one? Is this a love story, or something just to the left of it? Part of what makes this movie so special is its delicate blurring of conventional boundaries.”[1]

This relationship is given a motif of the color orange – a color blurred with the red of love and the yellow of friendship.   Orange can also represent safety – which these two undoubtedly feel in each other’s company.  Rooney explains “[w]hile the relationship repeatedly appears poised to move to the next level, Coppola judiciously holds it back, introducing a degree of friction when Bob sleeps with a hotel lounge singer.”[9]

                Adding texture to the main relationship exploration are other plays on relations.  From Bob himself, to Charlotte’s husband’s former client to the lounge singer – there is another altitude from which these people operate.   Yet with Bob, even while spending much of his time on camera, he doesn’t seem native to that world, there are “moments when he emerges from his shell of irony emotionally naked.”[1]

                The relationship of our two protagonists and their environment is also a rich theme.  The hotel – whether it’s the lobby, lounge, halls and room – is their safe hiding place from the world and where their relationship is grown from several initial run-ins.   The city itself acts almost like a separate character, complete with glowing red heartbeats seen in the skyline vie from their rooms. A vibrant city begins as harsh and strange but evolves to being warm and familiar by the end.  

“The director’s love and fascination for Japan are evident in every frame, from the neon-jungle aspect of Tokyo’s congested streets to the occasional departures into the calm of its gardens and temples.” – Rooney[9]

Captured incredibly well is the overwhelming fog of international travel, and the confusion it can create for us.   Trouble sleeping, being more active at night than during the day, feeling a bit lost.  Very quiet scenes help to convey the isolation and loneliness that can emerge.  Many shots of our characters show have them slightly out of frame or disproportionate to the surroundings.  We see Charlotte paused to decipher a complex subway map.  Bob is found struggling with communication through translators and his own wife.

                To put the final touch on all of this, the director brings the relationship of the movie and the audience to the top – we are left with a final scene which is both satisfying and frustrating all at once. 

“When it comes time for Bob to leave Tokyo, the awkwardness of the goodbye is heightened by the weight of certain unexpressed feelings, but this is satisfyingly resolved in a tender final exchange in which Bob’s words to Charlotte remain unheard.” – Rooney[9]

Up in the Air

Up in the Air follows the life of an always-on-the-road consultant who helps companies manage layoffs.  His occupation, where he in effect is pretending to be part of the client company, sets the tone and will be only one of several false or shallow relationships.  This focus highlights an interesting relationship that we can all relate to – that of ourselves with our employers.   An interesting and very effective choice in direction here was the decision to use real people/non-actors who had recently lost their jobs.  The director noted being surprised about their reality after talking with them, as Norris from NPR discussed with the director:

 “REITMAN: You know, if you would’ve asked me before I did this movie what is the worst part about losing a job in this type of economy, I would’ve probably said the loss of income. But as I talked to these people, that actually rarely came up.  What people said time and time again was, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. And this was kind of a startling statement, that it was really about a lack of purpose. They would say, you know, after I finish this interview, I’m going to go get in my car and I have nowhere to be. And I can’t imagine thinking that every day.”[8]

Besides being a consultant, Ryan is a motivational speaker.  But keeping in harmony with false relationships, his message is hardly motivational – it’s about abandoning attachment to things and people.   He practices this himself.  Ryan has extended family, but he’s been distant from them.  This is represented by a cardboard cutout of his soon to be married sister and her fiancé, which he is to take photos of on his travels.  He handles the cardboard family with more care than the actual humans.

Ryan is loyal, however, to his favorite airline.  He’s earned a rare number of miles with his work and is saving them to reach a milestone – ten million miles.   Brands and loyalty in general are important to him, shown in his quick dialog with Alex on the topic one night in the hotel lounge.   Director Reitman on Ryan’s desire to collect miles, when speaking with Jian Chomeshi, asked “why do we collect anything?  Instead of filling our life with meaningful things, we often have collections of who knows what – it’s as if we are trying to confuse ourselves into believing that our lives are complete, when in fact they’re not.”[4]

                Ryan has two new relationships to navigate in the film.  First, a new younger employee, Natalie, has arrived on the scene with big ideas to modernize the company with remote technology so that people don’t have to travel to help with the layoffs (saving the company money and restoring work-life balance for most employees).  Since this prospect threatens Ryan’s world, he pushes back and the two are sent on the road together so Ryan can show Natalie the ropes. What begins as a rather contentious partnership evolves to an appreciation liken to the parental relationship between Bob and Charlotte in Lost in Translation.  This may be the only authentic relationship in the entire movie, but we don’t learn that until near the end.

                On the road Ryan has met another corporate road warrior in Alex. They hit it off and are soon swapping schedules and changing flights to be in the same city whenever possible.   Ryan finds himself falling for Alex.  There is a motif with use of the color red  when the story is focused on this relationship.  One day he tries to surprise her at home, only to face the same unwelcome surprise that he lays on his client’s employees – what he thought he had is gone.  She’s living a second life with a family and admonishes him for visiting her since, from her point of view, it was clear from the beginning that this was just a fun fling on the road. 

                This film also depicts the relationship of ones environment. With airports and hotels making Ryan feel at home, he’s comforted by a sparsely decorated home base.  “His modest apartment in Omaha resembles an undecorated motel room,” wrote McCarthy of Variety Magazine.[7]  His pockets full of hotel keys, the satellite view images of cities and use of maps are all supporting motifs.  When Ryan sees the U.S. map come to life with photos and people at his sister’s wedding, he’s especially struck.  For this aspect, there is a motif of the color blue which stands for Ryan’s relationship with the sky and finding comfort there.   Ryan even makes several references to space in the movie, leading us to believe he would be even more isolated from mankind if possible.

                Along with the airports is the travel process itself.  From his efficient and mechanical rapid-packing to his backpack speech in his motivational gigs – and don’t forget the exchange between Ryan and Natalie about her luggage at check-in. “Ryan is a pure product of the new America, an addict for a life in which everything is systemized,” wrote Dargis of the New York Times.[3]

We start with Ryan, who is all about “Elevated detachment”[3]. Dargis said “In Up in the Air, Clooney gives his most fully felt performance to date as a smooth hedonist who comes to realize that he may be drowning.”[3]  But at the end, we find Clooney has changed.  Where at one point in the movie we think it’s Alex that would change him, we see in the end it was Natalie.  He reaches his miles goal, but it’s lost its charm; he’s seen taking Natalie’s advice and picking a destination, he gifts miles to his sister and her new husband, and made sure Natalie landed well.   


Through the use of key relationship themes, subthemes and motifs, Up in the Air and Lost in Translation share a point of view on the importance for people to have meaningful relationships, no matter how they arise or how long they endure.  On Lost in Translation, Ansen said “Their connection is what this small, unforgettable movie is about: a transient, magical, restorative meeting of souls”[1].  Biancolli of SF Gate wrote, “Reitman the screenwriter gives Reitman the director an excuse to ponder the spaces between us and the ties that bind. Or don’t.”[2]  These two films are excellent examples of direction which show the importance of thoughtfully layering in sub-themes and motifs that strengthen the underlying message.


[1] Ansen, David. (September 14, 2003). Scarlett Fever. Newsweek Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.newsweek.com/scarlett-fever-136731

[2] Biancolli, Amy. (December 4, 2009). Review: ‘Up in the Air’. SF Gate Movie Review. Retrieved from https://www.sfgate.com/movies/article/Review-Up-in-the-Air-3208465.php

[3] Dargis, M. (December 4, 2009). George Clooney and Vera Farmiga as High Fliers. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/04/movies/04upinair.html

[4] Ghomeshi, J. and Reitman, J. (September 22, 2009). ‘Up in the Air’ Director Jason Reitman on Q TV. Q on CBC. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VwAf3o-EcQw

[5] Glelberman, O. (December 20, 2009). Up in the Air. Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved from: http://www.ew.com/article/2009/12/30/air

[6] Lost in Translation. Dir. Sofia Coppola. Per. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. Focus Features, 2003. Film.

 [7] McCarthy, Todd. (September 6, 2009). Review – Lost in Translation. Variety Magazine. https://variety.com/2009/film/markets-festivals/up-in-the-air-2-1200476402/

[8] Norris, M. (November 20, 2009). Director Jason Reitman Finds His Feet ‘Up in the Air’. NPR. Retrieved from: http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=120951819

 [9] Rooney, D. (August 31, 2003). Lost in Translation. Variety. https://variety.com/2003/film/awards/lost-in-translation-6-1200539681/

 [10] Up in the Air. Dir. Jason Reitman. Per. George Clooney, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick. Paramount      Pictures, 2009. Film.

Getting Up and Down with Tin Cup


It’s always a risk breaking down one of your favorite movies. Especially one that you know is crowd popular but not critic popular; you might see flaws you previously looked past or didn’t notice.  Some ratings and reviews for Tin Cup (1996) might lead you to believe this golf-pun riddled spectacle should be left buried in the bunker in which it first found itself on first release.  And while I accepted the risk in deciding to do this latest post, I’m happy to report I still love it just as much as before.  Let’s take a look now at the attributes of the movie that helps it get up and down to find itself on the short list of top sports movies – or at least top golf films – for most sports fans and movie lovers.

If you are reading a blog post on a 22-year old movie, chances are you’ve seen it. But for the small percentage of you that haven’t, the IMDB synopsis says it simply, “[a] washed up golf pro working at a driving range tries to qualify for the US Open in order to win the heart of his successful rival’s girlfriend.” In reading that you may jump immediately to an incorrect guess about how it all ends – and that’s one of the best aspects of this film, but we’ll get to that later.


Given this is an older movie, let’s start with the timelessness of this movie.  The 1996 review from Janet Malsin of the New York Times captured, it’s “bright, stylish, ridiculously alluring.”  While it’s actually the styles in the film which age it, the context and topics of the movie could be in just about any time period.  From a classic love triangle to coming to terms with the hard to swallow implications of our personality – these universal human problems translate not just over time but generations and cultures.


Tin Cup may be timeless but not because it’s predictable.  As Ebert put, it is “a formula sports comedy with a lot of non-formula human comedy.”   Tin Cup centers around a different kind of sports hero – Roy, who Malsin says has “a talent for enjoying failure in style.”  Besides incredibly good rounds of golf played with garden tools or just a seven iron, Roy has something else that we all want – a set of loveable friends and the happy banter that comes from being together.   Friends that San Francisco Examiner Critic noted they made believable.

The secondary characters give the main story nice support without stealing away too much time and attention. As Ebert also said, “Shelton’s gift is to take the main lines of the story, which are fairly routine, and add side stories that make the movie worth seeing.” And be clear, the casting of these characters is bang on, even if a contributing factor to the cost of making it.

Start to finish, the human nature of the characters is clear. The opening scene establishes straight away that we aren’t always what we’d like to be.  While Roy shares a riddle with his cronies that is solved by breaking gender biased assumptions, he demonstrates that exact bias at the end of the scene. (Side note, while this is comically presented, I can tell you that this irony is more common in the real world than we’d like to think.)


The dialogue is clever and entertaining. Malison and Ebert noted it as “flippant, skillful banter”  and “smart and fresh,” respectively. The playful ping-pong nature is one I love from various writers.  One of my favorite exchanges is the first golf lesson.  What I’m not showing here is the fun back-and-forth between teacher and student and the peanut gallery watching from the shop. Molly is confident in her research but not of her results of applying it.

I’m sure there are excesses and  repetitions here, but I believe in the gathering of knowledge and I figured, well, there must be some truths about the golf swing illustrated by these devices — and that you’d help me sort through it.

And Roy does start to evaluate what he’s starting with, and Molly shows her frustration, cursing, which Roy tries to disarm:


‘Fuck…’ ‘Shit…’ these are highly technical golf terms

and you’re using them on your first lesson — this is promising.

Then there are the exchanges with Doreen, like the first one to settle a debt, where Roy has offered the deed to his driving range which he has dangled as giving her higher stature in the community, something every strip club owner may be looking for:

What are your labor costs?

(off no response from Tin Cup)

Payroll, Roy. What do you pay your help?

Let’s see… the tractor kid gets five bucks an hour. Romeo, he gets ten cash


What do you pay yourself?


Doreen nods in a way Tin Cup finds threatening.

To hit golf balls all day… when you’re not breaking for beers or corn dogs or to gather the guys and lay bets on which crow flies off the fence next.

You’re referring to my managerial salary?

I’m referring to every nickel you snatch out of the till and every bag of beer nuts you lift from the rack, is what I’m referring to.

Let’s say it’s worth ten – you still owe me two.

And the loaded exchange when Roy is trying to get Romeo back as his caddy:

You didn’t fall in love with Earl to be your caddie?

He was a wheezing heart attack waiting to happen — cost me three strokes a side…

I carried my bag the last four holes. I love ol’ Earl but I need you.


You don’t love me?



I love you, too, God damn it!


As much as Earl?

I don’t know! Yes, yes, as much as Earl — (beat)

More than Earl!


Am I special?

If you can remove the sexual connotations

and overlay a golf theme, Romeo — I am your Juliet.

One common critiques of the film is the high number of golf puns all throughout, but these are most notably crimes committed by Roy (but totally in character).

Real Golf

I honestly believe that Tin Cup is by and large successful because the golf feels authentic, the events and coverage seem real.  It’s relatable to anyone who has picked up a club, even though Roy is a golf pro. We’ve been frustrated, gotten the shanks and all have shots we knew we could have (should have) made.  Shelton wrote the script with his golf buddy.  They centered around an actual event and utilized actual pro-golf .  PGA’s own coverage includes a quote from Phincie that “[i]t’s a hole that has stood the test of time, [it’s] a hard hole.” The club location of the filming has also embraced their role and enable fans to as well –

“We have a marble plaque that marks the spot where Roy McAvoy hit the miraculous shot in the movie,” Martin said. “Guys like to take bets and drop a ball from the spot to take their shot at glory. There are a lot of war stories about hole No. 4, especially after golf tournaments. The round/score has been lost on No. 4 many times for players.”

Shulgasser of the SF Examiner also accredits these choices to the film’s success.


Somewhere in one of my seminars or books (maybe more than one), the advice to give people what they want in a way they don’t expect it, rings true but can be really hard to do. This is one film that shows how. Malsin applauds it – “Setting out on a “Rocky” trajectory toward the triumph of a little guy from nowhere, Tin Cup actually arrives at a more interesting destination.”  Ebert wrote, it’s got an “ending, which flies in the face of convention and is therefore all the more satisfactory.”  This makes it not just surprising, but more realistic and relatable. It’s true – and while not a predictable finish for the genre, it’s perfect for Roy. The arc for him isn’t to overcome and stop going for it, but to accept and appreciate that he goes for it. And what a beautiful lesson for many of us – acceptance and appreciation.


What makes Tin Cup a timeless success and sports favorite include traditional aspects – charm, characters, dialogue, and realism. But the delightful surprise in how we love the anti-hero and his ability to win the big moment in a completely nontraditional way ensures this will remain a favorite for so many.

– AR

Learning by Example

People have a variety of methods that they use to familiarize themselves with the unfamiliar. For me, my first step is often seeing how others have done it. Screenwriting has been no different.  I choose to read scripts for movies that I’m fairly familiar with.  Here I will describe the hard copy screenplays in my library (I have dozens more in soft form, more on this later), and what lead me to plucking them out of the script bin for study.


These are listed in no particular order, only categorized with a quick snip of the category and the reason I thought the example was relevant. You’ll see some entered in more than one category.

These stories have some interesting aspect to them with regards to the story timeline.  For example, Ocean’s Eleven. If you don’t already know, this is a fun heist story where the audience follows along curiously about how the crew will pull it off given the comprehensive security around their target. After recruiting for all of the different roles, it is revealed that the leader, Danny Ocean, isn’t just in this for the loot – he wants revenge and to win his ex-wife, Tess, back.  After convincing the crew that this won’t jeopardize the operation, the heist gets back underway.   The reason I loved reviewing this script for timing was that  the key part of the movie – the heist itself – takes place over just a few minutes and is done without completely confusing or losing the audience. I thought this was a rather interesting writing challenge.  Similarly, I’m looking at these scripts for timeline challenges:

  • Pulp Fiction – This asynchronous audience-puzzle of a story is a clear example of owning the story timeline and laying out in a clever and entertaining way.
  • The Hangover – A fairly recent story showing how to handle backtracking through a series of events without cheating the audience with an obvious outcome.
  • The Social Network – The story itself is told in a straightforward way in terms of the story timeline, but the audience has knowledge of some of the history here and would be watching for the timeline to jive with their knowledge (or fill in holes, but certainly not conflict). I think that creates an interesting constraint on this script.
  • The Bourne Identity – In this story we take the issue of a dual-past to be uncovered and teased apart all while under immediate time pressure.  Handling these two vectors in one story is challenging.
  • When Harry Met Sally – This story takes place over some 15 years. It was important for the offer to allow the time pass to be believable and not a short cut to the characters’ development.

Romance / Romantic Comedy

Being my primary genre for writing, I picked a few well-loved examples. Most stories have a romance plot or sub-plot, but the light-hearted romance is as difficult to write as a complex song in Major keys.  The first is listed often not just as a popular romance but as the best written movie of all time. I think romantic comedy is especially challenging because there is an audience mandated outcome, yet that outcome must be delivered in an unexpected way.

  • Casablanca – A classic tale. Can you choose to not be with your love for a greater purpose? Are there different types of love?
  • When Harry Met Sally – There are a few questions that might be answered here – Can love grow over time? Is it ever too late to be more than friends? Opposites may attract but can it work long term? Can women and men be ‘just’ friends?
  • You’ve Got Mail – This one is not only in my library because it’s a great romantic comedy but it incorporates modern technology and the challenges not only for the characters in meeting in person but also for the writer to not bore the audience when technology is being used.


What’s great about the Ocean’s Eleven script – and I would love to see the original script to see if this was something carried forward or recaptured –  is that it has an old style dialogue, especially between Danny and Tess.  One of my favorite sections of dialogue is in the restaurant when Danny approaches Tess while she waits for Terry. I started to put a snippet here but I think I’ll wait for a full post on the script for that.  It’s for similar reasons I love Casablanca.  Prime examples of accomplishing the most bang with the fewest words. It’s an art, for sure. When Harry Met Sally also features some simple and effective dialogue. I think they call this efficient dialogue in writing circles.

Character Development

The following are a mix of genres but all present a fantastic exploration into one or more characters. Some even surprise us in the end – for example Ferris, seemingly a teen punk, and may normally be, but in this story a caring friend who just may have saved his friend, Cameron.  Others feature every-day people that help us learn or once-again recognize something about ourselves.

  • The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – The general study of older characters in later stages of life and relationships – tolerated and forbidden.
  • The Silver Linings Playbook – A ground-breaking appropriate humanization of extreme personalities.
  • Sideways – The joy of finding someone who can look beyond the cover of a person who has a lot to offer and does not even realize it himself.
  • Napoleon Dynamite – Really a time period piece but also the complexity of what seems simple.
  • The Breakfast Club – Everything is relative and deserves perspective. These reps of various walks of life exposed and finding common ground is a beautiful mental watermark for the audience.
  • Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – The child of absent, demanding parents has to be rescued from despair by a trouble-making friend with good intentions if with risky methods.
  • It’s a Wonderful Life – I watch this movie every Thanksgiving. This classic helps us recognize the impact we have had even when we currently feel like a failure or that life is too unfair to bear.


I never appreciated good comedies more until I tried to write comic aspects into my script. I’m still trying to address comments that my story needs to be ‘funnier’!

  • Wedding Crashers – Chalk full of several types of comedy, a great example and often quoted movie.
  • This is 40 – A recent addition which has few dramatic lines but the ability to pull in things that suck about being middle-aged (I am well aware at present) without being cliché is fantastic
  • Office Space – Another case of brining things out of the office experience that drive us all nuts in a hilarious way
  • Swingers – Probably primarily a favorite because I know it was early work of Favreau’s, more subtle humor and humor in characters

A few others already mentioned like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Hangover, are good to study for their comedic elements as well.

I hope this has helped trigger some ideas for movies to look study for certain aspects of screenwriting.  Next I will blog some great sources of scripts that I have found.