Saturday, January 06, 2007

Babel on and on

Not music today, but movies.

This film season has seen much ado being made about Mexico: Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men and Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth are topping all the year-end lists (it’s a good year for Spanish-language film, with Almodovar’s Volver also a consensus vote). I have yet to see any of them, though they're all on the priority list.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel is also an awards contender, despite getting its share of mixed reviews, mostly focusing on how goddam depressing it is—a trait that in today’s zeitgeist of entertainment triumphing over art at every turn, I figured was a good thing and furthered my perverse desire to see it. I also loved both his previous films, Amores Perros and 21 Grams—despite some major plot problems I had with the latter, particularly the final act where the characters morph into a completely different moral sphere.

Here are some valuable life lessons I learned from seeing Babel last night:
- White people are noble, innocent victims who are better off never leaving their home in America or Western Europe.
- Well-intentioned Mexican nannies will abduct your children, take them across the border, place their lives in the hands of drunk drivers, and leave them in the desert.
- Naïve Moroccan boys will shoot tourists for sport and fantasize about their naked sisters.
- Tokyo teenagers in a cramped, overstimulated urban environment are willing to expose themselves for a glimpse of intimacy.
- Guns are bad.

Seriously, other than the last point, was this script dreamt up at Fox News headquarters?

plays like a fear-mongering, xenophobic rant masquerading as a poignant plea for understanding from four corners of the world. One can’t help but wonder what reaction Babel would have if it were made by a white First World filmmaker, as the underlying subtext of all the stories is extremely problematic.

Before we go further, some caveats:

Most of my movie time is spent with dark, dingy and depressing topics. Usually I go alone because I don’t want to put anyone else through the kind of subject matter that I find cathartic. The first two date movies I went to see with my current lady love were The Barbarian Invasions and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the latter serving as a bizarre beginning to a relationship, to say the least.

One of my favourite movies ever is Mike Leigh’s Naked, a film that opens with the protagonist as a rapist; I almost walked out the first time I saw it. Another is Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, which spends three hours detailing the cruelty we dole out to both strangers and those we’re supposedly intimate with. And I actually liked Dancer in the Dark, even if Von Trier’s other films are purposely provocative twaddle.

I do have my limits, however. I do think Von Trier is a sadist before he’s an artist. I loathed Magnolia, which struck me as a pale pastiche of Altman: Shorter Cuts, if you will, with none of the empathy to balance the contempt. And I’m sure I’ve sat through many lesser films that I’ve already forgotten about.

But if you ever thought Von Trier was the master of horrifying emotional manipulation, Iñárritu gives him a run for his money here. The only respite he offers is that everyone doesn’t die in the end—an outcome Von Trier would likely favour—though they all teeter at the precipice. Iñárritu takes a morbid delight in these characters’ suffering, lingering on their pained faces, their anguished screams mixed so high that they sound distorted. Even the film’s score is focused around jarring acoustic guitar leads that sound like bombs going off against the silence that comprises the rest of the sonic scenery.

The script is by Iñárritu and longtime collaborator Guillermo Arriaga; the multi-narrative approach that they wove so well in Amores Perros and 21 Grams dissolves into a thin thread connecting four separate stories that could easily have been spun into two or three films. Much like Syriana—which is less offensive though similarly punishing, not to mention a far worse script that fails at every turn—just because they’re attempting to draw links in a politically volatile, interconnected world doesn’t mean they should get a free pass for ambition alone.

Other than visually dazzling scene of a deaf-mute experiencing a rave, there’s nothing in the filmmaking that’s particularly artful, either. One of the (many) emotional climaxes is so painfully predictable, that even the clever camera shot was obvious before it arrives (the mirrored window, for those who’ve seen it).

The only thing that saves the film from being a total trainwreck is the largely unknown international cast, and, fittingly enough, the only two Hollywood stars here—Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett—are given nothing to do but cry, moan, get unanaesthesized surgery and piss in makeshift bedpans. I understand their need to atone for Hollywood drivel like Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but just because they’re debasing themselves here in a difficult, international art film doesn’t make them better actors. Their casting seems like a cruel joke on the part of Iñárritu, who lets the unknowns do the real acting.

However, as much as Von Trier’s misogyny makes you worry for the sanity of his lead actresses, at least he doesn’t inflict the same torture on children. I’ve always been uncomfortable with child actors in uncomfortable films, even before I read ex-child star Sarah Polley write on the subject (and really, she was only in Road to Avonlea and Baron Munchausen, which are a far cry from Pixote). As much as I loved City of God, the scene where one ten-year old was asked to shoot his friend terrified me for reasons well beyond what I saw on the screen.

In Babel, we see barely-teenage boys masturbating, pantiless teenage girls that would make Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct blush, the same teenage girl shown full frontal and asked to portray a similar vulnerability demanded of Julianne Moore in Short Cuts, and children no older than eight (one of whom is the younger sister of the ice cold creepy Dakota Fanning) made to wander the desert and display extended emotional anguish.

I don’t have a problem with these being plot points, but certainly there are less shameless ways to portray this on screen. Not to sound like a morally crusading government interventionist (too late, grandpa), but are there not child labour laws about this sort of thing? Should there be?

feels remarkably forced. For a film that is ostensibly about emotional distances, the script refuses to engage us in the fate of these characters. I felt like a cold, insensitive and insular boor for not falling prey to the film’s painfully obvious machinations. And as a fan of the equally politically dubious 24—you’d be hard pressed to find a more manipulative narrative than that bubblegum nailbiter—I’m often quite happy being manipulated.

By and large, these innocent yet stupid people do stupid things and get punished for them, with little to no character development by the time the credits roll, other than buckets of tears. Babel wants you to feel bad but doesn’t have any kind of larger point to make, either political or emotional, and for that it’s a gestural, empty failure.

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