Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Dec 04, 2006 10:47 pm 
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A spectacular failure

Ingenious though Babel's structure is (and it is welcomely easier to follow than his previous multiple narrative film, 21 Grams), terrible and sad as the events it recounts are, beautiful as the photography is, good as the acting is, when it's all over, you want to say, So what?

Bad stuff happens in the Moroccan desert; to a beautiful, disturbed deaf mute girl in Tokyo; and on the US-Mexican border. Things are connected, Guillermo Arriaga's and Iñárritu's screenplay says, but people. . . aren't?

Sometimes it feels as if the film's trailer had the basic titular "Babel" theme (multiple languages as God's punishment of man) better than the whole movie: it focused on Brad Pitt yelling long distance at his Mexican nanny and up close at a Moroccan man in a truck who doesn't know hospital means mustashfa (not that it would matter, since there isn't one anywhere near). For sure, a deaf mute girl has communication problems with the general public. Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) communicates on an animal level by showing her naked crotch and body to teenage boys and a police detective she finds attractive. Her girlfriend says her temper tantrums happen because she needs to get laid; but we learn her mother's suicide may also be behind her weirdness. This is too complicated to have anything clear to do with a rifle (once her dad's) that causes bad trouble for some Moroccans after it wounds the wife of a grieving couple (Cate Blanchett; married to Brad Pitt). Apart from Cheiko's story, the connections aren't far-fetched, but the way they're supposed to generate our interest in four separate sets of people in a narrative style that strives for simultaneity seems contrived.

And ultimately the overall thinking of the film isn't clear. Is everything connected -- or are things simply out of joint? And what about good things -- does a 'butterfly effect' ever lead to them, too? Babel, like some other earnest omnibus films (Crash, for example) loses touch, in its frantic rush toward grave outcomes, with the idiosyncratic and the comic, aspects of life that Shakespeare's tragedies, in their renaissance fullness, never fails to supply. It seems to subjugate the world's complexity to the simplicity of a thesis, even though that thesis is blurred.

But this is too absorbing and accomplished a movie for us to write it off. Every scene of Babel is intense and real (allowing for the detachment we feel about over-exposed actors like Pitt and Blanchett, and the knowingness around seeing the chameleon García Bernal back as a poor Mexican again after being English, Chicano, half-French, etc.). The cinematography is great-looking (perhaps most knowing and stylish in doing a Mexican border town). The scenes of the Moroccans seem most authentic, not only because so well acted and directed, but because we don't know Moroccan well enough (if at all) to sense false notes or theatricality.

It's been said that the deaf girl deserves her own separate movie. Perhaps so. But I'd put it differently. I'd say we deserve a separate movie about this tragic incident of the Moroccan boys and the American tourists, free of this girl's irrelevant story. The couple's "illegal" nanny is another matter. Her narrative is relevant to the couple, to all Americans, and to the Mexican filmmakers. An undercurrent of the story is about underdogs vs. top dogs and how they get vastly different treatment, and to that theme the nanny's story is more than a footnote, a pendant, showing how the high and mighty get mixed in with the exploited.

After a while as sequences of the big blocks of events unfold -- Japanese deaf girl; Moroccans pursued by police; Mexican nanny lost in desert with wilting white kids; panicky Brad and scared Cate -- the shifts from one to another become more and more wearing because they have so little to do with each other. It's hard to care for all these people at once, in one 143-minute sit. You may almost wish each segment's content and direction weren't so clear; then the interrelationships might become more suggestive. This is how Adieu, Arnaud de Pallière's intriguing, too-little-known 2004 film about death and a country family and "illegal" Arab immigrants in France works. Its scenes and discussions are idiosyncratic and their connection isn't made clear, and so we, the viewers, become participants, and when we find solutions, we believe in them.

Babel's connections -- Japanese guy gives away rifle to Moroccan guide; Moroccan boys take potshots; American woman becomes injured; nanny makes error of judgment -- are clear and credible. What's much less credible in the film's structure is how quickly all these events are dealt with, broadcast, and resolved. Brad Pitt must really be Brad Pitt to get a U.S. Medivac helicopter flown into the Moroccan desert within 24 hours of his wife's injury. Maybe in weeks or months Moroccan authorities would penetrate rural omertà and find the sharpshooters who plugged a tourist bus; here, though, it happens at once. The guide is found, and he tells who he sold the gun to, pdq. In French they call the "grapevine" "le téléphone arabe," but still…. And in hours or days this event in the Moroccan desert, a town where one guy has a phone, gets onto Japanese TV news so the cop the deaf girl flashed sees it at a drink shop. That sure is amazing. There's a lot we aren't told, that we'd need to know for this to seem possible.

As the saying goes, a miss is as good as a mile. The talented Iñárritu's exalted aims and solemn humorlessness only make Babel's failure to add up to anything more embarrassing and disappointing. I liked Ashton Kutcher in The Butterfly Effect (a far inferior movie) better. Its preposterous and elaborate plot at least was fun to talk about. I also liked the director's debut film, Amores Perros, much better. It seemed to revel in trashiness, delightfully -- only moving on to solemn significance in the third segment. Babel tries to fly high from frame one, and it suffers the fate of Icarus. But Iñárritu's so good with actors, locations, and the camera, this still could be one of the year's best movies.

Babel, 143 mins., debuted in Competition at Cannes 23 May 2006; eight other international festivals. It opened 27 Oct. 2006. It won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Score, Best Supporting Actress, four nominations; other major awards, BAFTAs, Golden Globes, etc. The Metacritic rating however was only 69%, and this is because the reviews were as mixed as mine is.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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