Babel (2006)

Babel(2006) is the kind of film that has all the right moves yet struggles to put them together in a unified and competent way.  Painfully slow and laborious cinematography lends to the overall sense of importance placed on the minutiae of ordinariness where dull characters are moved around like mute chess pieces with little relevance beyond the filmmakers’ insistent message that all we need is to communicate better in order to live better lives.  The talented team of Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro González Iñárritu fail to achieve the same success as their previous films, 21 Grams and Amores Perros becaise Babel feels like a portentous chalkboard lesson disguised in a flimsy, convoluted plot masquerading in story.  While this is their third film together, and certainly not their last it is apparent something has gone terribly awry; Babel might indeed teach us about the importance of cohesive story telling and compelling, complex characters yet this seems like an after thought competing with the value of a fractured plot that goes on too many one-way roads to be rewarding in the end.

Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt are the star vehicles of this film, though others compete for best performance.  As a vacationing couple who fall victim to a roadside happenstance, their chemistry isn’t right though it is their situation that reverberates, the first narrative thread of four to span the globe and begin the tutorial.  Delivered separately, the narratives would mire down in their own everydayness and succumb to derivative scenarios where convenience replaces plot, archetypes assume character and story is more a matter of perspective than journey.  In previous Inarritu/Arriga films, much jumbled narratives were better fueled, populated by engaging characters with more than life to lose – here, the viewer is strung along with a message intended more for the world stage than any one audience or singular experience.  The trouble with films that rely on didactic storytelling is that they often get lost and forget about the basic building blocks of believable human experiences. Babel drones on like a radio station caught between channels, one in English the other Spanish or a mixture of the two – too much of one and not enough of the other to make either one meaningful or intelligible.

Non-linear ensemble films are not uncommon, though some succeed for the very reason others fall short. Los Angeles based screenwriter and writer at John August has a fairly succinct and solid primer for the genre on his website.  Rodrigo Garcia has used this technique in his films Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her (1999) and again with Nine Lives (2005).  While his first film is vastly superior, the mechanics of jumbling stories begins to wane by his second film and I suspect his third installment will suffer similarly.  Tarantino and Kubrick are perhaps more widely known meddlers of plot and measure.  M. Night Shyamalan famous employs this technique in his films and it has become his trademark – in his case, he uses a surprise ending.  While his earlier films were superb and masterfully crafted, they do become tiresome, predictable and ultimately feels heavy-handed.  Babel doesn’t suffer from not knowing what is going to happen as much as it does staggering from one plot point to the next until finally, ultimately their connection makes sense.  Sadly, by the time we’re let in on the reason these four stories have some semblance of relationship it’s difficult to care or feel emboldened by the experience.

It is unfortunate that both Pitt and Blanchett are robbed of much screen time, their characters reduced to little more than plot devices that barely fuel Pitt’s semi-frantic befuddlement.  The message is clear enough, the language and cultural barriers taken for granted, the dire consequences of a world that does not share enough of a connection to keep people from dying spelled out.  However the message gets in the way and before we can truly feel the circumstances of the event we’re teleported to another story thread that seems to have nothing to do with where we left off.  It’s not enough to say we’ll find out.  It’s not enough to use the bastardized broadcast of sound bytes and nightly news seconds as the undercurrent of a story about troubled, hapless victims because cinema rarely operates successfully this way.  Instead, the characters should tell us their story and whether or not we get it should be left up to our own devices – even knowing a great many will not find the point.

Babel gives under the weight of its own conceit and in this way it is burdened, almost irrelevant.  Whereas the story is at times interesting and the expedition of perspectives lends to potential consequences within the fragmented narrative fabric, overall the film is ‘tenuous’ and strained dialog serves no better purpose.  If Babel is a story about communication and the distance between people, cultures and behavior it should have worked harder at conveying this than suggesting audiences do the work instead.  Foreign films often force us to make choices that we are not used to or familiar with and this can be rewarding in and of itself.  Babel blurs this line but instead of expanding on the idea with an effort to challenge domestic and international sensibilities, it loses momentum with the result more akin to mixing water and oil – one wins out for a little while before the other returns to start the whole process over again.

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About rorydean

Rory Dean is a multi-medium artist, writer and new media strategist with a background as a creative consultant and technology liaison in the San Francisco Bay Area. His broad experiences and specialties include print-to-web publicity, promotions and design marketing using traditional and social media networks. As a motion pictures and television professional, his short films, productions and commercials have screened to domestic and international audiences. His connections to a diverse client base include artists, entertainers, corporations, non-profits and everyday people.. Dean is co-owner and founder of Dissave Pictures, a boutique production company focusing on audio, video, photography and multi-media designs. Dean's personal and professional background includes dreaming and avid notebook journaling, creative and copy writing, promotions and marketing, audio/video production, photography, videography, editing, web design and new media. He’s also a fan of collaboration and knows when to turn the reigns over, offer feedback, lead the team and step aside. His portfolio includes print, online, film, video, photography, graphic design and promotions. He’ll show you. He has a book and everything. "When not juggling various online worlds, I do a pretty good mime – but that’s another story."
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2 Responses to Babel (2006)

  1. Rodney says:

    How can I disagree this review without coming off sounding like an argumentative little shit?

    I absolutely adored this film; I thought it was one of the best films of the last 20 years by a wide margin. In order to bring a different view, I’d direct your readers to my own thoughts of Babel, located here: http://www.fernbyfilms.com/2008/10/07/movie-review-babel/

    I’d disagree with your view of the cinematography – you mention it is laborious in its structure, although I’d say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that I found the way this film was shot is gorgeous. Perhaps not in a crisp, sharp big budget Hollywood extravaganza, but the low key camerawork and use of naturalistic lighting and tonality, made this a visually arresting cinematic experience. The dry, dusty desert moments (involving Pitt/Blanchett and the young lads who set the whole thing off with their gunshots) are brown, gritty and drenched in grime, while the crisp, stark Japanese scenes serve to contrast the two worlds – some would argue that this contrast alienates the two story arcs, however I found that it served to bring each individual narrative into closer focus as a result of this artistic direction.

    I think the main point of the film is less about “[the] …filmmakers’ insistent message that all we need is to communicate better in order to live better lives” and more about the fact that we are all so disconnected as a society, through both distance, technological chasms or even religious/familial differences. Whether we need to communicate more isn’t the point, I think, moreso that we just need to be better people first and foremost. I agree that the story does tend to be a little disjointed for many viewers, but I believe the script is strong enough to reward those looking for something a little different, not yet another linear story arc with the join-the-dots story mentality so pervasive in Hollywood these days. You’re right to mention Tarantino and Rodrigo Garcia in the same breath as this film, specifically for its use of non-linear storytelling, and while I think Tarantino does it better, Irrinatu isn’t as flashy with the concept. Tarantino films seem a little self indulgent with the idea of this method of cinema, while Irrinatu’s version here seems more natural. Whether it’s effective or not is probably too subjective to adequately criticize. But to ask the audience not to do some of the work? I think we’d be in agreement that filmmakers should resist “dumbing down” their movies for mainstream audiences, since it effectively makes movies more stupid as we go along – I’d say that Babel gives the audience plenty to think about, and if that annoys some viewers then so be it. I found it to be an enthralling, enlightening story of disparate, lonely people trying to find some kind of kinship even in the hardest of times – breaking the barriers of language, locale and societal expectations – each to a differing level of success.

    Your point about Babels’ conceit is probably the most accurate part of this review, in that many will find it laborious in getting to the various plot points through the admittedly tenuous links between them: personally, I found the way Irrinatu wove the stories together, and the slowish pace with which he allowed the story to bubble along, was quite a satisfying ride. I’m all for a deliberately paced puzzle to unravel itself before my eyes, because there’s something satisfying in seeing a great story (or, in this case, four stories) told with restraint. I would say that Babel is far from irrelevant, though.

    Just on that, I think you could class Babel as a “restrained” film, a film which avoids obvious and generic characters for realism – I’d also disagree with your comments about the characters being “dull” and “mute”. I found them quite believable, oh-so human, and behaving in ways that make sense to me as a viewer. Whether each actor got enough screen time to develop their character enough is something we could quibble about for ages, but when they need to step up for the story, they do so really well. Brad Pitt delivers one of his most heartbreaking performances in a while, and even with the modest story his character is afforded, does a terrific job.

    Rory, you’ve raised some excellent points on this film, and I could probably go on a lot longer on why I found this film to be a true work of art, but I’d like to stay friends with you if that’s okay. Suffice to say, I think we find ourselves on opposing ends of the Babel spectrum, which is perhaps the greatest indictment on the medium overall – what gets one person all hot and bothered may leave another cold. Great review, with well constructed and written arguments (most of which I disagree with) but you’ve stated your case clearly and (mainly) without prejudice.

    Rodney

    • rorydean says:

      Well Rodney that’s what I love about writing reviews and that we’ve found one another across the great expanse. I must say that your previous review of this film sparked my return to it, so thank you for that, and I’m enthusiastic about our debate – given our polar opposite feelings. I’m reminded of the heated debates between Siskel & Ebert back in the day, though admittedly they sometimes resorted to shouting matches that were not so constructive but nevertheless entertaining. And of course my readers, or any readers for that matter should definitely check out your review of this film – as well as many, many others as you’ve always offered in-depth reviews and rewarding thoughts about films http://www.fernbyfilms.com/2008/10/07/movie-review-babel/ .

      That being said, I’m immediately reminded of the sub-genres of satire and parody. More specifically, the Tarantino film Inglorious Basterds. While I appreciate that the film is a satire and a parody (a difficult undertaking in and of itself) and of deep seated critical commentary filled with particular characters, oddball scenarios and dark humor, I simply could not get beyond the ten minute mark. Maybe it was the subject matter and I just did not find the funny in a film about Nazi Germany – even one about an assassination plot against the Nazi political leadership and Adolf Hitler. Or perhaps it is my waning appreciation of Tarantino in everything after Jackie Brown and the first half of From Dusk Til Dawn. Or it could be that it takes something of a running start for me to crack the structure and form of a film to fully enjoy it (especially when I feel that the container for the story and characters is heavy handed). However I suppose this is odd coming from a writer who liked and ultimately suggested moviegoers see the film Four Lions https://rorydean.wordpress.com/2011/04/09/four-lions-2010/ — a satirical and darkly humorous parody film about Islamic Jihadists plotting to blow themselves and a lot of innocent bystanders up in the name of religion, but call me cuckoo that way. Maybe it is also informing that I dislike South Park in a heated, at times violent way even when it is hyper-critical of the foils and formulations of everything.

      I see your distinction about the importance/value/necessity of better action and behavior over communication. I might even go so far as to agree with you there but at the same time I would just as easily assert that this message, that of “..disconnected as a society, though both distance, technological chasms or even religious/familial differences” is no less competent – though clearly an insightful observation on your part. That’s why I enjoy reading your reviews. You don’t skitter along the surface. You get to the marrow pretty quickly and even when I disagree with you I know you have some cinematic chops.

      I agree about Irrinatu as “less flashy” than Tarantino and I like him better for that. I love subtle. Are you familiar with the Polish series The Decalogue (Polish: Dekalog) the 1989 Polish television drama series directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski, co-written by Kieślowski with Krzysztof Piesiewicz, with music by Zbigniew Preisner? Fabulous and richly subtle. All character. All gentle persuasions of emotion as it informs character. Love those films. Think of them as pieces of the larger more exacting film trilogy by Kieślowski, Trois couleurs: Bleu (Three Colours: Blue) (1993), Trzy kolory: Biały (Three Colours: White) (in French: Blanc) (1994), and Trois couleurs: Rouge (Three Colours: Red) (1994). (all exceptional really).

      Ah, yes. Tarantino is nothing if not self indulgent. He got away with it more in his early work (did you know he wrote True Romance which was directed by Tony Scott yet remained quintessential Tarantino-esque. Hmmmm. I think I got that ‘doing some of the work’ part wrong. Yes. What I meant was having to fill in too many gaps in the structure, in the story – less about doing the work as hell, if I don’t demand my audience to do their homework and bring some chutspa to the class with my own films. Thanks for the gut-check.

      With your note about restraint makes me have to return to the film. I agree from the periphery but that’s where I feel the film falters, in that delicate space between the pedestrian, the pedantic and the purposeful extraordinary that every film should aspire. I mean who wants to watch a film so very close to the humdrum, the tedious tics of the clock, all those minutes and hours we spend doing the most banal of things, projected Buick-sized at the cinema? OK, so maybe Buick’s aren’t the behemoths they once were back in the hay day of automobiles, but big. Buick like big. Hey, that would be a great short story title, eh?

      What I meant about dull and mute was just that, that they were too human, too run-of-the-mill as to be interesting. I like my characters somewhere between Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote and Indiana Jones, or maybe throw in some Jonah Hill from Superbad once in a while. OK, so I haven’t had my coffee yet. But you get my drift. I love your lines “but I’d like to stay friends” and “most of which I disagree with” and that is perfect. I think the important thing is as you elude to, that we have hot and bothered differences from time to time but each come to the table with thoughts and emotions, with a critical eye, and with professional etiquette in mind when responding to one another. I get a bit irate with all the superficiality in movie reviews and reviewers out there – when people disagree they so frequently resort to discrediting the person and not the words, the opinions. We can agree to disagree and are fine with it.

      Thanks for the thoughts (as always) — cheers on that!

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