Monday, October 30, 2006

Three pretty good movies and an interminable one

(If you didn't see, the latest BSG recap is here.)

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's latest, Babel, is the newest salvo in the director's attempts to convince his audience that the whole of the human condition consists of one miserable thing happening after another. While Inarritu has talent to spare, his world view is so cracked that his films become tests of will (he recently said in Entertainment Weekly that he believes we are less united by what makes us happy than by what makes us miserable). There's certainly a place for tragedy in the cinema, but Inarittu is also so wedded to his idea of showing how people are connected in more ways than they think that all of his films become the stories of different people who are connected by their misery. When this takes place based around a central car crash (as in his film Amores Perros), it can work. But when it takes place across three different continents, it feels humorously false.

There are four films at play in Babel -- the story of two young Moroccan boys who get a gun, the story of a horny, deaf teenager in Japan, the story of an American couple on vacation who has tragedy befall them, and the story of a Mexican woman in the U.S. who decides to bring the children she's in charge of with her to a wedding in Mexico. Of the four in play, the Moroccans, the Japanese girl and the Mexican woman's films all work fairly well -- particularly the Japanese segments, which become an opportunity for Inarritu to show off his technical skills and also are unflinching in their portrayal of the way sex gets bound up in all sorts of other emotions for teenagers (in this case, grief). The story of the Mexican woman becomes overbearing by the film's end, but it rattles along nicely enough for most of its run time. And the story of the Moroccan boys is also well-done, even if it, to, is undone by a melodramatic climax.

It's the story of the two American tourists (played by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) that is the movie's undoing. Inarritu views this as central, somehow, and he's certainly using it to critique American foreign policy and ugly American attitudes (though a lot of this is sort of unbelievable). Brad Pitt's character seems to believe that the Moroccans he meets will understand him better if he just yells louder. The centrality of this story means that all of the other stories relate to it -- subtextually, the adventures of the minoirities are only interesting in their relation to the white people. I don't know if this was the intent of Inarritu, but it certainly unbalances the film.

Babel is probably worth seeing for the performances, some technical aspects of the direction and the Japan section, but all in all, it seems like a movie in search of a larger point.


Reel Fanatic said...

This one is definitely near the top of my must-see list for the rest of the year, so I'm sorry to hear you found it disappointing .. I can see what you see about Inarritu's bleak view of the world, but for me at least, the worked very well in 21 grams and almost as well in the grisly Amores Perros

Anonymous said...

Wow, the reviews are surprising! You would think that the film would garner more enthusiastic reception, judging by its initial Cannes showing.

I swear, film is all about timing. I think it's v. interesting how the Internet is all about speed and yet longevity remains - for most people (including moi) - the barometer for quality. It's at a mismatch you could say.

"But when it takes place across three different continents, it feels humorously false."

Samuel L. Jackson, one of the Cannes panel members, secretly told a friend that it was Benetton Crash.

I dunnno, I'm sure these filmmakers have good intentions. But there's something to be said when we live in a world where everyone is dispersed in their own fragmented networks (the Internet can be a good metaphor for this) and Haggis and allegedly Iñárritu (I have not seen Babel yet) try to group these experiences as universal. I hate to use this motif again, but we have different mirrors. That may sound cynical and non-transcendental, but...