MovieHype00694 - BABEL
The story of Babel originally comes from the Bible (Genesis Chapter 11, in case you want to read it for yourself.) Basically these people got together and decided to build a giant monument that reached to the heavens. Many have ascribed the motives of the people as to reach God, but according to the text what they were really trying to do was to create a city of such magnificence that it could never be scattered and their names would live on forever. Of course God comes along and makes everyone speak a different language (where previously they had all spoken one language), and thus: no city, no tower. The lesson, as always: don’t be telling God what he can or can’t scatter.
I always read the story more like one of the Native American myth (“…and that is why the buffalo roam the land, and that is why the sun chases across the sky…” etc), but apart from that it’s a pretty powerful story. Here are some pretty arrogant people who think they can do anything, only to have their entire lives transformed (and quite regressed, I’d imagine) in an instant. Kind of sounds like a few cultures you might know….
As I sat down to watch the film BABEL, I imagined to myself what kind of movie I would make with this backdrop. Perhaps the Tower imagery could be replaced in a science fictiony way by a space ship attempting to go through a wormhole to reach other universes. Maybe you go in some sort of Matrix-style direction; a culture that believes they are truly invincible, only to sew the seeds of their own demise. Then I reminded myself that you don’t judge a movie for what you’d want to see, but you watch what that filmmaker actually made, and thus I entered into director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s vision of BABEL.
Alejandro (as I’m going to call him from now on, since this computer makes inserting special characters difficult) is without question a gifted director. He has made movies that are cinematic poetry, a kaleidoscope of sound, sound and emotion blended together.
But as I wrote in my review of Alejandro’s 21 GRAMS, I sometimes question whether Alejandro isn’t a bit two clever for his own good. Chopping up a time line, making a movie sideways or even backwards can be a very effective technique if there is a reason behind it. If not…it seems more just about showing off. (Understand: despite the first name basis I don’t know Alejandro and have no reason to accuse him of putting showmanship over substance in his projects. I’m just saying it sometimes feels that way.)
BABEL is one of a new breed of films that are really several different stories going on at once, connected tangentially to each other. You could argue that Robert Altman was the true pioneer of this, and indeed you can find no better example of this genre than his 1993 SHORT CUTS, in which nine Raymond Carver short stories are woven together in a master tapestry. More recent additions include last year’s SYRIANA and CRASH.
BABEL has three (I suppose you could split that and say four) stories, almost completely unrelated to each other. Also, the story lines are told out of order, which much like 21 GRAMS ruins some of the dramatic suspense. Only half of one of the stories in in English (which didn’t bother me), but you should know this basically is a foreign film, although even that is something of a misnomer, since the stories are told far more visually than orally.
The least interesting story was the Brad Pitt/Cate Blanchett one, about a husband and wife in Morocco who run into serious problems and have all the trouble in the world solving them. I love both of these actors but there was nothing new here. The other half of that story is a Moroccan goat-herding family (and the reason the two Americans get into trouble), and this side was much more interesting. At first I thought we had a Cain and Abel parallel going on, which quickly changed. Some shocking elements in this story, including a ten year old masturbating (while thinking of his older sister that he watched shower naked earlier, something we also see). His older brother is upset at this, but the reason? Jealousy. That’s some disturbing imagery, but you can see how it might have made a great movie.
The second story involves a Mexican nanny who needs to cross the border to attend her son’s wedding. When the white parents do not return home and there is no one else to watch her charges, the nanny takes these two little kids into Mexico for the wedding. It’s quite a show, fascinating and a little chaotic, but the trouble starts when they try to return home to San Diego. Adriana Barraza was nominated as the Nanny Amelia, and she is indeed terrific.
The third story was easily the best, the one I would have most wanted to see an entire movie about. Rinko Kikuchi (who I believe just became my favorite Japanese actress, over the girl who plays Go-Go Yubari in KILL BILL) is a deaf mute teenager living in Tokyo, struggling to cope with the death of her mother and trying to figure out the crazy world of hormones when she can’t communicate. Rinko was also nominated and her performance ripped my heart open. Just astonishing.
All of these stories held up fairly well on their own, but their almost total lack of connectivity made me have trouble connecting. I couldn’t understand the point of some of what I saw.
Let me back up and try this another way. Movies are about many different things, but at its heart, a movie can be only about one thing. That’s it. Otherwise it won’t work. Think about it: for all the dozens of battles and hundreds of characters, THE LORD OF THE RINGS saga was about one thing. (“Ring: Begone!”) It may be a complicated thing, but if you can’t tell someone the one thing a movie is about, you’re not describing a good movie.
My problem with BABEL is that it seemed to be about many things, and sometimes nothing. I looked on BABEL’s Wikipedia page to see that: “The major theme of the film is how, due to cultural assumptions, people of different types are still unable to communicate with each other.”
That’s nominally true, I guess, as far as it goes. Brad and Cate have language and cultural barriers in Morocco that cause them no end of trouble. The white kids at the Mexican wedding are at first scared, and later at the border there is a heap of trouble. And it doesn’t take a genius to see a sexually confused 15 year old deaf mute in the biggest city in the world struggle to fit in anywhere.
But for my money that’s not really the theme. Yes, language barriers make things difficult, but I think the movie, if anything, showed us that even with language and other obstacles we are all still people, and we communicate in more basic ways. Body language and emotion are universal, and like I said earlier: great tracts of the film are without dialogue and still easy to understand. I guess what I’m saying is that the filmmakers seemed to want to have it both ways: language divides us and it doesn’t. We are all one together, we are all alone.
When I think about why BABEL was nominated, I honestly think there was some Hollywood inyourface-ness involved. There is no way that most Americans are going to take to this film: whether it is the constant subtitles, the shocking elements sprinkled throughout, the confused time line or simply the narrative that doesn’t ever seem to go anywhere. Films like that can be great, but they aren’t very accessible to the masses, and BABEL more than most recent films would not be appreciated by American audiences. I can just see Hollywood voters giving it that extra edge because of that.
Conspiracy theories aside, BABEL does have a lot of skill evident. Good performances abound, and I certainly can’t argue with the two women nominated. The directing is majorly skillful as is the screenplay, editing and sound (which where the other nominations besides Best Picture). When I look at it that way I almost want to conclude that all the praise (and the Golden Globe victory) was warranted. But I remember sitting in the theatre right after the credits thinking, “This was interesting, but no way would I nominate it for Best Picture.”
And I just can’t shake that feeling.