Thursday, November 23, 2006


EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Today is Thanksgiving, and while my family usually isn't big on holiday celebrations in general---especially when it comes to Christmas---when it comes to Thanksgiving, we feast on turkey and our stuffing and our sweet potatoes like almost everyone else. I don't really know why we make an exception for Thanksgiving. Maybe it's just that Thanksgiving is one of the few holidays that isn't tainted too much by religious origins. Maybe we like what Thanksgiving celebrates in general: being thankful, giving thanks. Or maybe the idea of a turkey feast is just too mouthwatering to resist. (Hey, I'm not complaining! Food is good.)

Am I thankful for anything in particular? Well, I'm thankful that I'm alive, and that I'm in fairly good health. Really, that's all that matters to me. No matter how stressful or frustrating life may be---and believe me, over the years I've had my fair share of both---and no matter how worried I sometimes get about my future, at least I'm around to live it. That's certainly something to be thankful for.

I'm also thankful I have my pair of eyes, without which I couldn't soak up the pleasures of films at their sensuous best.


That makes for a rather clumsy segue into Babel (*** out of ****), the recent Alejandro González Iñárritu film that I got to see late Tuesday evening. Does it represent film at its sensuous best? Probably not---but what recent movie does? (Maybe the mostly glorious A Prairie Home Companion---which turned out to be director Robert Altman's final feature, since he died Tuesday at the age of 81.)

Speaking of the late Altman, here we go again with the intercut multiple storylines---the so-called "hyperlink" structure. Last year, two big, self-important hyperlink films---Crash and Syriana---came out of Hollywood, and Babel is a new (and better) addition to that company. Altman was able to pull off using 24 characters in Nashville because he was able to tether all the various stories, themes and emotions to some kind of broad, coherent idea (Nashville as a representation of modern America in all its glory and shortcomings). Crash, alas, was too crude and schematic to come close to matching Altman's humanism; Syriana, for all its genuine political provocation, forgot the emotions. And Babel? Well, Iñárritu is no Altman either---at times he seems like a more compassionate Lars von Trier in the way he likes to make his characters suffer---but his new film certainly has the themes and emotions to make it compelling and, at times, shattering. I'm not so sure it has that broad, coherent idea, however---not the kind that gave his and writer Guillermo Arriaga's splintered storytelling style its interest in their previous collaborations, Amores Perros (2000) and 21 Grams (2003). (Apparently Iñárritu considers Babel his third in an unofficial trilogy that includes those earlier two films.)

I guess I can see the appeal of the hyperlink structure: not only does it afford a writer and director a chance to play narrative games and keep an audience on its collective toes, but it also provides an opportunity to try to encapsulate a whole entire world in one movie. (Forget that older films---like, say, Robert Bresson's 1966 Au hasard Balthazar---was able to do this with merely a linking device---a donkey, in the case of Bresson's film.)

Certainly, that is what Iñárritu seems to be trying to do in Babel: suggest the human connections and discontinuities that bind us together or keep us apart the world over. The film's title is highly suggestive in that regard. For those who don't know the bible story of the tower of Babel: when ordinary people decided to band together and try to build a tower to heaven, God was apparently so incensed by their arrogance that he confused their language so that they could not communicate with each other anymore. Babel, appropriately enough, tells four stories in four (or five, if you count sign language) different languages, but the stories it tells deal, to a great extent, with miscommunication, with arrogance (both personal and political), with mistaken assumptions, etc.---in short, with emotions and thoughts that are universal.

The thing about Babel is: while an unfortunate incident of violence binds (sometimes rather tenuously) the four stories together, ultimately the storylines don't necessarily have a whole lot to do with each other other than those subtle underlying universals that the movie suggests. So at times the movie feels as much of a narrative stunt as, say, 21 Grams more than anything else. Ah, but one could say the same thing about the great granddaddy of all multiple-storyline films, D.W. Griffith's monumental Intolerance (1916): that, in spite of its core theme of "love's struggle through the ages," the stories---which span both the world and time---never really add up to anything more than four stories told at once. Yet Intolerance is considered one of the most astonishing achievements of cinema (which it is), and Babel has been met with its share of skepticism about the meaningfulness and legitimacy of its storytelling style. (Not that Babel is anywhere on the level of Intolerance, of course!) Perhaps the skepticism isn't entirely off-base: I mean, what does a wealthy American couple (played by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) traveling in Morocco (why???) have to do with a deaf Japanese girl (Rinko Kinkuchi) trying to get some?

That Japanese storyline has gotten its fair share of attention out of the four stories in Babel, justifiably so. It's perhaps Iñárritu and Arriaga's most powerful representation of their attempted broad theme: I mean, what is less obvious than having a deaf girl as a major character, one that seems to be crying for romantic attention from a person of the world? It's arguably the most emotionally fascinating of the four, and as Rinko Kikuchi plays the girl, you understand that there's something other than mere horniness driving this girl: there's a palpable desperation underlying her anger and frustration, perhaps borne out of her mother's death and her father's emotional and physical distance.

Emotional fascination is what really moved me in Babel. Obviously, when not all of these stories end happily, you're bound to feel some sadness here and there. But, even with so many stories going on seemingly all at once, I think it's amazing that we're able to respond to the characters and their emotions at particular moments as viscerally as we do in many moments of Babel. Even if Iñárritu and Arriaga can sometimes be accused of being overly cruel towards its characters, I rarely felt like I was being manipulated to feel for these people. I do think Iñárritu genuinely cares about his characters and tries to put us inside their heads, even as he and Arriaga use them to demonstrate some larger thesis. The situations in the film may become ever more melodramatic, but the characters and the world they inhabit remain convincing, and the emotions remain earthbound and real.

I bestowed three stars on Babel at the top of this incoherent little review thing. I'll stand by it, because it's sprawling and flawed, and at the end one might understandably wonder whether the destination was worth all the trouble and tears. On a visceral level, however, the film got to me, and I suspect I'm going to be thinking about this movie months from now.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Happy Thanksgiving to you too, and don't do too much shopping on Black Friday!!