Post Millennial Malaise 20: Babel

For the Want of a Nail

Of the Three Amigos of Cinema Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu is the most divisive. He lacks both the enveloping compassion and commercial instincts of del Toro, and the whizz bang fireworks wonder of Cuaron. He’s a talented director who uses his talents in a very distinct manner, which is to say he makes work that is either self consciously upsetting, important, or both. He’s the actual art house director of the three, a man who has a grand vision of the world and wants to display it for all the world to see.

For his first three movies he kind of had a favored template as well. Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel are all in their way epics of despair, loss, and frustration built around interweaving narrative threads that form a whole without aggressively crossing over. It’s the “everything’s connected man” ethos of Altman or early PTA, but with a unique take on the subject, which is abject misery. Iñárritu in the 2000’s sees the world as a place where no action, no matter the intention, goes unpunished, and life is in the fragile hands of fate and subject to the whims of time.

Babel represents these obsessions scaled up to global level. A intertwining narrative of glancing connection that shows how the smallest of actions in the furthest of places can have the most tragic of consequences. It’s the butterfly effect blown out to the highest level as Iñárritu thrusts the audience into contending with a simple fact: The modern world is so interconnected that no individual is free from consequence.

Such is the case with narrative in Babel. the movie is effectively structured as a cause, effect, and aftermath of a singular event each of which takes place in a different country. In Morocco a man buys a gun to ward off jackals from his goat heard. His son’s begin to recklessly use the firearm and eventually shoot an American tourist. The tourist (Cate Blanchett) and her husband (Brad Pitt) then have to spiral to find a way to stop the injury from being fatal. Hunkering down in a small town waiting for help.

In Japan we see a deaf teenager (Rinko Kikuchi) navigate a life frustrated by family trauma and a world unaccommodating to her situation. She tries to socialize and experience the world, but is hindered by inquiries from the police, and the revelation that the gun used in Morocco belonged to her dad.

In the America the children of Blanchett and Pitt are taken to a wedding in Mexico by their nanny (Adriana Barraza) while their parents are stuck in Morocco. The children get to experience some fun at the party before miscommunication at the border on the return home forces the group into the desert, and Amelia is rewarded with her trouble with a deportation back to Mexico.

Each of these narrative strands are presented in a jumbled time line that spiral out from the central incident of the accidental shooting, and as the movie continues the audience is clued in to how each section of the story interacts with the other on a higher level. We learn about the tenacious world of globalized living, and how said globalized life spirals out into a dangerous web of miscommunication. Indeed the title is glaringly obvious, our new Babel is not a tower, but simply the ability to instantly communicate across the world. We still can’t understand each other when we need to the most.

The biggest issue with Babel is actually the whole structural conceit that binds the movie together. Intellectually I grok what Iñárritu wants to accomplish (it’s pretty hard not to), but in the moment, and especially on rewatch, it feels more like square peg/round hole situation. There’s enough thematic heft to these individual stories to get across the ideas that Iñárritu is playing for, yet he insists on connecting them in ways more than plot mechanics.

To balance out the structure of the film Iñárritu makes the obvious ties in each story. The gun comes from Japan and the person shot in Morocco is the mother of the children in America. However this isn’t weighty enough in and of itself, so Iñárritu needs to make deliberate cuts from one thread to the next to showcase how thematically sound and richly interconnected the story actually is.

This leads to some eye-rolling filmmaking as we, say, transition from a scene where we watch a chicken run around with it’s head cutoff to a sequence where Blanchett’s character really starts bleeding out on the floor of the bus. It’s Iñárritu saying, look these things might be superficially different, but have an emotional resonance deeper than the individuals separated by time and space know. It’s a trick he keeps coming back to almost as if he’s afraid the audience at home won’t comprehend that there’s more to these segments than the plot connections.

This turns to be an aggravating sentiment because each section has moments of genuine thoughtfulness, insight, or excitement that weirdly always feel undercut by the transitions to someplace else. Just as a moment develops it gets tossed aside to a similar, but oh so different, scene. This jumbling together of disparate elements is so supposed to be the film’s master stroke, but eventually feels like an achilles heel.

To wit, the section in Japan is on its own legitimately great. A thoughtful exploration of someone with a disability trying to navigate a world that seems openly hostile to them. The language barrier conceit gets an interesting wrinkle as Kikuchi’s character is forced to use sign language or lip reading to try and find her way through life. Iñárritu deftly creates a visual and sonic landscape that demonstrates her isolation and want to break out of it, and does so without leaning on overly obvious stereotypes. A scene of a night on the town with prospective sexual partner turn from delightful to disappointing without overloading the bummer meter. It feels real, which is the most successful thing a highly formal film like Babel can achieve.

The same can’t be said of the other two segments. The misadventures in Morocoo are morose, violent, and off putting to such a degree that every critique of Iñárritu  being a born misery porn director feels completely true. Blood flows freely and indiscriminately, children are put at the center of danger, and there’s an aggressive ugliness to the tone that turns what is the hinge of the narrative into something sophomorically important.

The America section then comes off as weirdly slight even though it too has life and death stakes. Maybe it’s because it takes too long to get to its fairly obvious conclusion, or that it’s insights into immigration feel pretty expected for 2006, every time the film cuts to it one can’t help but think, “well we’re here now.”

This striving for profundity is ultimately what undercuts said profound moments in Iñárritu’s work over and over again. He’s an incredible image maker that can’t help but keep getting tripped up by his importance, heightened by the fact that he consistently and readily rewarded for it by the filmmaking world. And since he has the drive for the seriousness he rarely has the wriggle room of somebody like del Toro, whose lesser works can still be fun in a popcorn way. You aren’t eating popcorn for Iñárritu, you are being serious and thoughtful, even if the movie doesn’t think you can put it together yourself.

Odds and Ends

  • Babel was also a heavy awards contender, scooping up most a plethora of nominations at the Oscars (including the rare double Best Supporting Actress noms for Barraza and Kikuchi) but went home with only one award for Best Original Score. I will say though that the score is very good, and used in a shockingly reserved manner considering the type of movie this is.
  • Though you can once again argue that Birdman’s win is a kind of makeup for this year which in turn was a makeup for Scorsese.
  • Blanchett is given a hilariously thankless role as a nagging wife who gets shot, and then spends almost the entire movie flat on the ground.
  • In “this movie was made in the immediate aftermath of 9/11,” authorities think the shooting is a terrorist attack.
  • Perhaps Iñárritu’s greatest contribution to cinema is helping breaking Gael Garcia Bernal into the mainstream. He’s good here in a small role.
  • I will not go as far as to say Iñárritu is a fraud as some critics have, but I will say that I can understand that sentiment. Though I did like Birdman the first and only time I saw it.

Next Week: The third and final Amigo Alfonso Cuaron welcomes us to the future (or really the present) with the sci-fi stunner Children of Men.