Sunday, November 05, 2006

Note to Art: Please Don't Hans Zimmer Me Like That

I probably should start by offering my excuses to the gentleman to my right. About half an hour into Babel -- a new movie by Alejandro González Iñárritu, the director of Amores Perros and 21 Grams -- I began yawning, stretching, turning my head, and all the other things you want to but don't when you're in a lit public setting and highly uncomfortable. All through the movie, I resented Babel and by extension its creator -- for being intellectually annoying and wasting my time.Babel is an ensemble movie -- Robert Altmanesque -- where five intertwined (told time) and related stories unfold in the Moroccan desert, the US-Mexican border and in a Japanese megapolis. Critique at three levels follows: (briefly) the production, (longer) the story lines, and the aggregate problematic outcome as proposed art/wisdom/analysis input. Babel wants to be (sm)art -- but is really unstructured multilingual chatter plus good intentions.

Babel is looooooooooooooooong. Dreadfully long (142 mins). Told without any kind of discipline or with a weak man's discipline: exorbitantly long musical illustrations of emotions in non-speaking sequences are probably meant to evoke emotions -- or to show that the director or camera man has a sense asthetics. Looooooooong shots of a helicopter landing, flying, landing, people coming in and out it. And in slow motion. Etc. Etc. Beautiful panoramic shots indeed -- but not there for any other reason than that it would be a waste of helicopter rental time and good footage. The production -- cutting, editing, score, scenography -- reinforces the bad things about the script's storylines.

Babel contains five loosely related stories. First there is the story of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett's ailing marriage. She gets shot: he takes care of her. Romantic and/or primitive surroundings exacerbate crisis but in light of later solution actually give time for contemplation. The morale of the story is that in times of crisis -- which we cannot predict -- fundamental positive human values like love, trust, intimacy are more important than the other things we do. Basic corny Hollywood stuff.


Then there is the story of the poor Moroccan goat herd family. Dad buys a rifle and tells herder sons to shoot hyenas. They practice and irresponsibly shoots at tourist bus with Westerners. Incident perceived as terrorism: brutal police mistreats everyone local and end up killing the other son. The morales of the second story is that Maghreb needs security sector reform and the weak always get screwed by any system. On the first: True, but I don't need that analysis coming from a guy who spent more of his life looking at dolly grips than at ICG reports. Second: Yes, that is true and awful. But anyone who reads the papers knows this. That fact either makes this point superfluous or part of an evangilization of the untouched. Fine intention -- but don't make me pay to watch it please.

The third story involves Brad's and Cate's travel companions who're rich, Western gawkers looking for exotic beauty of the landscape and perhaps the locals -- but also awfully afraid of the unknown and beset with fear of native or islamic terrorism while sitting in their bus in a far away village. They, like the Embassy, want to help but focus on their own agenda. Morale's related to the second above: systems work haphazardly and so self-protection is necessary but that can of course contradict basic human values.

Fourth story takes place in Japan: rifle-giving widower tries to take care of troubled teenage daughter who -- awful choice of prop -- is deaf-mute. She flirts with boys, gets rejected, flirts with suicide, doesn't do it. Morale: In late puberty it sucks to be bad at communication, hence late puberty sucks, which we knew already. Also, system works better in Japan (police man's humanity) and familial love is a big plus.

The final story takes place in San Diego where illegal immigrant nanny takes care of Brad's and Cate's kids and is told not to leave for son's wedding in Mexico due to Cate having a hole in her neck. She brings the kids to Mexico, has a blast and evidently faces problems getting them back into the US. Surprise. Drunk nephew driver makes a runner at border and she winds up with kids in desert, is arrested and deported. Morale: Systems do what they do but they are arbitrary and inhumane so they kind of suck (but please think before acting). Plus, the logical corrollary to the system analysis: the weak are generally screwed.

Apart from these repetitive morales there is a lesson about the interconnection between globalization and the necessity of humanitarian relations. The analyses offered by Babel are problematic because they're basically late puberty subversiveness wrapped up in commercial-like ochre tones and foreign languages.

There is nothing in this movie except that general observation about the imperfections of administrative systems and the importance of being a mensch to those around you. A film that presents itself as art -- as having something deeper to say about life -- should be met with the same analytical criteria we apply to anything else. Babel annoys because it wants to be an incisive mensch when it is only longwinded and basic.


But look who's talking. Thank you for your time. And really: sorry about annoying you, Sir.

1 comment:

Vermont Neighbor said...

interesting review... some of the story angles do sound a little 'preachy' or politically correct. It's always interesting, any movie that gets such a variety of opinions.

Early guess: the actor who played Idi Amin may get the top Oscar, with a number of nominations going out for Babel.