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Babel (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, 2006)

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  • noelbotevera
    Garble Noel Vera Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu s Babel (2006) is excellently directed, I think; what I m not sure of, even when the end credits have started
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 2, 2007
      Garble

      Noel Vera

      Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Babel" (2006) is excellently
      directed, I think; what I'm not sure of, even when the end credits
      have started rolling, is exactly what it's directed at.

      Is Inarritu trying to make some kind of statement about
      communication--the more connected we are, the more isolated we've
      become? I thought Kurosawa Kyoshi in "Kairo" (Pulse, 2001), for one,
      has delved into that issue on a far more metaphysically and
      metaphorically imaginative level. Was he trying to show us the
      impact the United States and its citizens have on other countries--
      how an incident involving two American tourists can create a
      firestorm of social and political turmoil on one hand, and how a
      vast American construct (its fenced and guarded southern border with
      Mexico) can dash the hopes and dreams of a humble illegal immigrant
      on the other? If so, what's the Japanese storyline for? A tenuous
      link is proposed, but it's a laughably farfetched one: you come away
      with the somber if headscratching moral: "guns do not good presents
      make."

      Perhaps it's meant to do all of the above? Films nowadays,
      especially films as ambitious as this, don't need to be particularly
      focused to earn awards; they just need a broad canvas, some cursory
      playing around with conventional narrative--in this case, four
      separate stories linked together by a central event (an accidental
      shooting), then chronologically shuffled--and a royal flush of
      Hollywood stars (Brad Pitt, as vacuous as ever, throwing celebrity
      tantrums right and left) to give the whole project respectability.
      Inarritu did it once and did it best I think, in his breakout
      film "Amores Perros" (Love's a bitch, 2000), where gritty dogfights
      are intercut with mysteriously vanished pets (Inarritu's variation
      on The Twilight Zone, I suppose), and a hit man / homeless vagrant
      shuffles his way to redemption, all three stories linked together by
      a central event (a car accident). Inarritu was at least familiar
      with the milieu (the streets and alleys of Mexico), his 'vision'
      felt reasonably fresh, and his budget was small enough that one
      tended to forgive him his melodramatic excesses (the embarrassingly
      romantic notion, for one, that a homeless man can double as a
      professional killer). I was far less crazy about his 2004 film "21
      Grams," where three separate stories (a mother who loses her family;
      a professor with a weak heart; a recovering drug addict) are linked
      together by a central event (a car accident--sounds familiar?). One
      can't help but accuse Inarritu of being repetitive--of pulled the
      same rabbit out of his hat time and time again, with diminishing
      results. The world is full of evil and violence? We're all
      connected? Truth is where you happen to be standing? Tell us
      something we don't know--or, if you can't, tell us in a way that we
      haven't already seen.

      The film's at its best when trying to show life as lived in
      differing parts of the world--a wedding in Mexico where a mother
      dances with her long-unseen son; a popular hangout joint in Tokyo
      where Japanese youths are jammed together in a somehow reassuring
      crush; best of all, a boy and his younger brother, arms
      outstretched, leaning into the wind rushing up the mountainside.
      Inarritu is a champion of the poor and disaffected, and represents
      them best when he's not pushing his agenda too hard; when he shows
      them suffering all kinds of contrived situations (a freak gun shot;
      an inexplicable sexual hunger; a chain of unfortunate events at a
      border crossing) it uplifts one's eyebrow more often than it does
      one's consciousness.

      Far be it for me to teach Inarritu his business--all right, maybe
      I'm trying to do just that, but how persuasive can a filmmaker be
      when his view of his characters is so consistently dim? Can people
      be as stupid as they are in his pictures? Crossing the border when
      one is illegally in the country is not the smartest thing in the
      world to do, but why cross back at night (when in all probability
      you're the only one around, subject to the border guards' full
      attention), with a drunk driver? Why leave one's charges behind in
      the middle of the desert to seek help (If you're that dumb, how
      could you have evaded the INS for sixteen years?)? Likewise, testing
      a rifle by firing at moving vehicles isn't exactly brilliant, or
      even sensible, but what earthly reason would cause you to run to the
      mountains when the police come looking? And fire back at the
      officers when they find you? It's clear that realistic texture--the
      way people sit or stand or look around--is Inarritu's forte, but he
      has trouble portraying the way they really think about or react to
      or make decisions on the world around them. Given a choice, he opts
      for the most pessimistic alternative, producing the most
      melodramatic results.

      The film is all the more disappointing because it's clear that he's
      got a real filmmaking sensibility. I'm not the world's biggest fan
      of handheld shots--after Von Triers and Tony Scott and more than
      half the horror movies made in recent years, if I don't see another
      lurching point-of-view camera for the rest of my life it'd be too
      soon--but Inarritu is able to stitch the footage together to produce
      a tempo that's both graceful and genuinely exciting; exciting not
      because the beat is so fast, but because it's clear that the man
      knows what he's doing (visually and rhythmically, anyway). And
      knowing that the man came from radio (he was a DJ for some years),
      it's not surprising that, like Orson Welles, he can do breathtaking
      things with sound--I remember in particular a scene where the camera
      follows a Japanese deaf-mute girl into a dance club, and the
      flashing lights and throbbing music rise to a crescendo, only to
      suddenly fall away in silence. The lights still flash, but we're
      hearing the world through the girl's nonfunctioning ears, and the
      shock of silence, the sudden remove from all that is aurally
      familiar, is deafening. The Japanese segment is the weakest and
      least thematically relevant segment in the film, and the main
      character as written (and played with misplaced sincerity by Oscar-
      nominated Rinko Kikuchi) is more a storytelling conceit
      (nymphomaniac teeny bopper seeks sex from the nearest available man)
      than a real character, but for at least those few moments style wins
      out over substance (or the lack of it), and we feel we understand
      the girl's awful loneliness.

      But that's for a few moments; for the rest of the film's length--all
      142 minutes of it--we're subject to a treatise on how Life Can Be a
      Bitch (Even in Wealthy Tokyo). One expects more from Inarritu;
      hopefully one will, in future projects.

      (First published in Businessworld, 1/26/07)

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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