02 March 2007

Fawlty Tower

Babel - dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu - USA/Mexico/France

It was inevitable that I would get around to seeing Babel, and probably more accurately, it was inevitable that I would end up hating it. I once considered myself a fan of Alejandro González Iñárritu, I suppose, in the same way one used to be a fan of Wes Anderson. His first feature, Amores perros, was ambitious enough, but when his two subsequent films really failed to stray far from there, my appreciation has waned. When one goes into Babel, how do you not know what’s in store? I don’t know a single person who has accidentally stumbled upon the film without at least a small understanding of Iñárritu’s agenda: to chalk global unrest to personal human suffering. So with that in mind, what’s left? I “got” it before I saw it, so the actual viewing part (which one would assume to be essential to the cinematic critical process) seemed more an afterthought. It’s tedious, for sure, but I think even Iñárritu would agree with that. As a director, he’s highly skilled in creating lip-biting, nails-on-chalkboard discomfort in the best possible way (only Haneke can do it better, in my opinion), but when these intense sequences result in… well, nothing… then why bother?

A lot of people have likened his interconnected story-structure to the revolting Crash, though most will note Iñárritu as a far more sophisticated filmmaker than Paul Haggis. Babel’s resolutions are not simplistic, as they may be in Crash, but, again, if you’ve read the tagline, “Pain is universal… but so is hope,” what more do you plan to get from the film? A friend of mine, AJ, made an interesting observation, suggesting that the course of events in Babel could be linked directly to an unspoken rape. As the wings in Iñárritu’s filmic “butterfly effect,” Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) acts out sexually to any man that comes along her path, taking off her panties at the J-Pop, assaulting her dentist, coming onto a police officer. Her mother has killed herself, and Cheiko appears distant to her father (Kôji Yakusho). AJ speculated an incestuous affair occurring between the father and daughter, which would explain the mother’s suicide, the father’s selling of the gun that killed his wife, and the sexual antics of the teenage daughter. There’s a weirdness about the final shot of Babel, where Cheiko’s father embraces her on the balcony as she stands fully naked. If we’re to follow the tagline, hope has arrived. But if we’re to understand that an incestuous relationship is going on, creepiness is here to stay. I’m not saying that I particularly agree with AJ’s theory, but it’s certainly worth thinking about, even if it’s in regards to a film I’d rather forget. One good thing I can say about Iñárritu in this regard though is that if Paul Haggis had directed Babel, this revelation would have been the gut-puncher at the end of the film, à la “omigod Larenz Tate is Don Cheadle’s brother!!”.

Theories aside, I still find it difficult to say anything nice about Babel without a “but.” Certainly, the actresses (particularly Kikuchi and Adriana Barraza) are wonderful, but at what cost? Brad Pitt does little in the film but convince me that he’s a stupid American, and the scene where he and his injured wife (Cate Blanchett) begin to embrace as he helps her urinate is simply nauseating--not because she’s pissing, mind you. The moment had my eyes rolled all the way back in my head because it felt so painfully contrived, as if put through the perfect screenplay machine to deliver the strongest impact: beauty in ugliness is so passé.

Now I hardly consider myself any reigning authority on anything written in the Bible, but as you should know, the title of the film comes from a particular passage within that text. In what I remember to be a mythical explanation of the multitude of languages around the world, the tower of Babel crumbles, dispersing people around the world. It would seem more than fitting that a crumbling tower would be the basis for a film so creaky and unstable in structure as Babel. The film isn’t linear (you might remember that non-linear is the new linear) and isn’t segmented. Instead, we see Adriana Barazza lost in the desert well after Cate Blanchett has been shot, even if the scenes follow one another. We discover the purpose of this at the end of the film when we see the other end of a conversation Barazza has with Pitt at the beginning of the film from his perspective, yet once the purpose is revealed, it’s rather difficult to piece together why the film is structured in such a clumsy manner. The only thing that unifies the stories, from Morocco to Japan, is the news stories of Blanchett’s injury, so this leads me to question if everything but Barazza’s story is unfolding at the same time. If so, that’s a severe mistake on Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga’s part.

Despite all of this bitching, I can’t say that I don’t want you to see Babel in a similar way that I don’t want you to see Crash. For Crash, it’s a litmus test: if you like it, I’m bound to not like you. But for Babel, it’s simply for conversation. Babel is a mystifying failure that has sparked more conversation than any film I’ve seen in the past year (of course I’m referring to random conversation and not with my friends, because in that case, we’ve discoursed about Shortbus a lot more). Babel is a lot better than 21 Grams if simply because of small moments (maybe there are some in 21 Grams, but like the Bible, I’d rather forget). Iñárritu has a gift for creating iconic images in his films, from Brad Pitt carrying Cate Blanchett across a rundown Moroccan town to Rinko Kikuchi’s Catholic schoolgirl uniform. Even if a lot of the Japanese portion of Babel slows the film down (the dance club/ecstasy sequence feels as if Iñárritu had just watched Morvern Callar), there are some really powerful shots in there, especially of hands during Kikuchi’s meeting with the police officer. Yet, I can’t help but wish Iñárritu would run screaming from his own ideas and his collaboration with Arriaga. Though strikingly different filmmakers, Iñárritu is a lot like Alexandre Aja (Haute tension, The Hills Have Eyes). Both are master craftsmen that can’t step away from their inability to ruin their films with their own screenplays. Alejandro, Alexandre (oddly enough, variations on the same name), show a little humility, and put down your pens.


Patrick said...

I can certainly see your issues with the film, and I actually feel a bit of guilt about liking it so much considering it is positioned as this year's Crash, but I felt like the filmmaking was so strong, I could just exist in the moments of the movie, without worrying about any contrivances of the overall narrative.

The dance club/ecstasy sequence in particular was phenomenal, the way he played with sound in the club to show us Chieko gradually getting drawn into the dancing, then devestated when she finds her guy dancing with someone else. It was those moments of extreme happiness, both there and during the wedding sequence, that made the film stronger than 21 Grams, which was so relentessly downbeat.

You said that the Japanese parts slow the film down, which I would agree with, just because it's so disconnected from the rest, both in terms of narrative connection, and visually. But, that story is what made the movie work for me. I think it would have been a better movie if it was just about Chieko, and ditched the other stories. There was plenty of material there, and it would have avoided the feeling of retreading the same structure, if not story material, that this film had.

But, I think it's so well shot and acted that it's a really enjoyable, powerful experience. Seperated from the marketing, which featured a poster that basically was Crash's poster, it's a really enjoyable film. Just think of it as Cannes Best Director Winner Babel not "“Pain is universal… but so is hope" Babel.

J E Warner said...

I keep going back and forth on this one. Not sure what to think. I did not like it when I first saw it but the more I think about it the more I think it was alright. The part that made me cry and shattered my ice cold heart was the desert scene with the kids.

I saw it with my mother and she was very embarrassed when the kid started masturbating on the rocks. Lovely awkward mother and son moments like those are to treasure.