Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Tower, no babel

Please note that these words about Babel grew out of conversations about Roy’s review of the same movie at Alicublog.

Babel, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and written by Guillermo Arriaga is a big film. The stories it tells are big. Love, death, loneliness, alienation,human culture, communication, the lack thereof. The scenery is big as well. From the desert expanses of southern Morocco to the urban canyons of Tokyo at night. And it has big stars. Brad Pitt and Kate Blanchett's beautiful faces fill the big screen. Literally. Babel is a big movie.

How to say it without contradiction? Babel is really a small film. A small film with a big budget. The big stars have their scenes, but much more of the movie is dominated by relative unknowns. The big world spanning issues and fabulous long shot scenery is dwarfed by small-scale human feelings and interactions, conscious and not, among the characters. The film is emotionally astute. The most important action takes place in the characters' bodies. Haunted eyes, tight lines around the mouth, the hunched shoulders of a naked girl.Babel is a small film.

The politics that are part of the movie's fabric are both big and small as well. The distant and powerful U.S. anti-terrorist campaign hovers like a big dark cloud over the events in Morocco while a woman lies bleeding to death in a claustrophobic room in a mud hut being tended to by a veterinarian and hashish smoking old woman in shadow. The big border fence between the U.S. and Mexico dominates both the vista and the people's lives. It dwarfs a small Mexican wedding and the small people who attend it. When the Mexicans and the U.S. border guards are in the same shot, the Mexicans are uncomfortably small in the presence of the intimidatingly big cops, even though they are relatively the same size physically.

The film is politically astute, but it is not a political film. Politics, like in real life, just get in the way.

But what is it about? If you haven't seen any of the movies by Arriaga and González Iñárritu, which along with Babel include Amores Perros and 21 Grams, I suggest you stop reading and go see one. I make a real effort in these reviews to not give away much, if anything, of the plot, but still, it's better to approach this kind of art with a clean mind.

Arriaga and González Iñárritu's collaborations all use the "butterfly in China" narrative device, which is based on the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in China ultimately affects the weather in New York. Stories that seem to be unrelated turn out to be linked by random events, turning a series of small stories into one big one.

This narrative technique, by itself, practically begs one to search for meaning. Then you take into consideration that the title is "Babel;" and that the story takes place in different languages and far flung locations. I think you have to agree that the artists are throwing out a pretty big clue that the film is about communication, miscommunication, or lack of communication. At least something to do with communication.

And perhaps that superficial synopsis really was the basis for the movie. That would make sense. But still, the stories and the ways in which they are linked offer up a variety of possible meanings. I doubt that only one was intended. I suspect that Arriaga and González Iñárritu developed the screenplay with that kind of open interpretation in mind. Different people can come away with different meanings and multiple viewings could be rewarding – but granted, I might just be projecting.

Babel is a movie that invites you to project, to search for meaning, but I do not believe that it is limited by any particular message with a capital M. I think it would be disappointing to look for too much meaning. I suspect that the communication trope is just that. Some of the deeper meanings, I would guess, revolve around how people react to great misfortune in relation to their cultural circumstance. I also think there is an altruistic plot-line meant to demonstrate that people from diverse cultures feel the same emotions, particularly for their children.

And there is a message that diverse cultures, particularly two that are often portrayed badly in ours, are as human as we are, maybe more so. The Moroccans are nothing but kind to the Americans and are rewarded with “fuck you’s” and “they’ll slit our throats when the sun goes down.” The Mexicans welcome the American children with open arms, yet Mexican children stare through the bars of the immigration wagon. The only people who act badly are the adult Americans and they treat the people from the other cultures like shit. The embassy won’t let a Moroccan ambulance save the life of an American because of ridiculous terrorism fears. An immigration officer denies a large part of the Mexican woman’s existence. Brad Pitt won’t let her attend her son’s wedding. He’ll buy him a better one later.

Many reviewers have complained that Babel left them cold, that they felt no emotional connection to the characters and their travails. But for me, the film struck deep, particularly with its depiction of the fragility of human happiness. All it takes is one unhappy incident, one series of accidents, to turn our lives into living hells. I may feel a bit more of an emotional connection to the characters because I have spent a lot of time in both the Sahara (including southern Morocco) and on the Mexican side of the border. My experience with people in both of these places is that most of them are basically good and kind, just like anywhere, only different in the culture trappings, which are different indeed.

Compared to life in what we would call advanced westernized countries, they don't have so many consumer items and you don’t have to be a genius to discern that so many of them are one setback away from destitution. There is nothing approaching a social safety net and you don’t want to be on the wrong side of the law, of which there is no rule other than that of corruption and brutality. When you understand what you are seeing, it's hard not to feel for people who lose what little they have, especially when they are more victims of circumstance than any conscious action they may have taken.

So often when looking at other cultures, we lack that prism of meaning and are unable, through no fault of our own, to see what is right in front of our eyes. I used to write about NAFTA and went on several tours of Mexican border town slums with environmental activists. On my own, I noticed that every shack had two barrels out front, one red and one blue. I learned that one of these was for drinking water, the other for dishes and laundry. Then I was shown the market where the barrels were painted and sold. Then I was shown the chemical plant where those barrels, barrels that recently contained highly toxic chemicals, were illegally sold to the marketers. Then on the next tour through the slums, I saw the children drinking out of those barrels that recently contained toxic chemicals, and that was seeing something to which I had preveiously been blind. Arriaga and González Iñárritu open a window, at least a crack, that allows us to see some of these things that are hidden in plain sight.

But Babel is not a film about the economic and social differences between divergent cultures. If anything, it is about how an individual's happiness is so fragile. What really impresses me with the fragility of happiness aspect of the narrative is the way people in wealthy societies are portrayed through that prism of meaning. The Americans and Japanese are wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of the Moroccan goatherds and up there with the more reality-based dreams of the Mexican nanny, yet their lives are portrayed as equally fragile. The consumerist trappings count for little more than nothing. Happiness is other people. Tragedy as well.

The happiness at a poor Mexican wedding is equal, if not greater than that available to the wealthiest people in the world. I have seen this with my own eyes. That million dollar view of the Tokyo skyline is worse than useless when it is the backdrop for the splattered blood and brains of a young girl’s dead mother.

In reading prominent reviews of Babel , it's not unusual to find the reviewer suggesting better ways the story could have been told. By far the worst suggestion was from the New Yorker (no less). Their critic suggested the movie should have been about how random events can result in serendipity. What the fuck kind of drugs is he taking, and why isn’t he sharing? I want to know.

But seriously, I think that the fact that so many people are commenting about how the story should have been told suggests that the film makers were in control of the their artistic vision. I don’t doubt that they needed Brad Pitt to get funding and perhaps Kate Blanchett lived so the movie could ultimately be made, but for the most part at least, I think the artists were in control. When that is the case, I think it best to accept that vision and critique it for what it is, not for what it is not.

So far I haven’t said anything about the visual aspects. Unlike most reviewers, I didn’t find it that great visually, at least not consistently, but perhaps that’s just because we’ve come to expect so much. Although there are many well-constructed scenes of incredible beauty and technical brilliance, I hated the extreme close-ups of Pitt and Blanchett in the early part of the movie. I don’t know if it was some kind of sick provocation or just photographic fascination with beautiful people, but either way it didn’t work for me. There is a Tokyo disco scene that ranks up there with anything and a drive through Tijuana was great and the rest of it was very well done, but that inconsistency was a bit jarring.

I’m not saying it’s the greatest movie in the world, or even that it’s a great movie (though it may well be), but it wasn’t boring while I was watching it and it’s worth talking about, and that’s saying a lot.