What follows is Oscar Yesenin’s take on the film, followed by my response. Something like a debate. This is Oscar’s annual bit of film writing for the site (last year’s being this), unless he decides to do this more often. I enjoy his expletive-laden style, though I do wish he were more focused and comprehensible in his rage. Anyway, I’ll leave it up to you from here.
Babel (Selfish God’s act of giving a people a linguistic handicap. God, you are such a prick)
Ok, what the fuck is happening to the Cannes Film Festival? How could they give this film the Best Director Award for 2006? I am highly disappointed in the quality of the decision made by the judges. Who is the head of judges of 2006 Cannes? It’s fucking Wong Kar Wai! Jesus fucking Christ! Check the name of the other members of the jury: Monica Bellucci, Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Roth!!! They should know what good films are; 2006 must have been the shit year of films, if Babel could come up this high. Or, Cannes is just turning into another Academy Award kind of shit-fest. Trying to exploit the profit for US, money grabbing assholes. No morals, more cash.
I’ll just give you a quick review of this film because there is not much to talk about. Babel is plus average film, because it’s really weak in overall quality, especially in character development, while some of the cinematography in the film has something worth looking at. Thing is, at the end of the film you’ll feel like, “So what?” Because there is really no meaning in the film. You don’t feel you learnt something or had your way of thinking challenged. Every issue raised in the film is so shallow, not deeply engaged as a part of the film. It scratches the surface of the problems, like just reading the newspaper headline, but ignoring the content of the article. It is not open-ended or ambiguous; it is just a lump of issues dumped in the film. Examples: drug issues, stereotypes (Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism), human ego, physical handicaps, border politics and many others. Just like, ‘here is the topic’ – that’s it, nothing else. This is not being ambiguous or open-ended; it is just being an undecisive motherfucker. The director doesn’t even give us his thoughts about the topic, it’s just being used within the film for no real good reason or to argue any case.
Take, for example, the use of Moroccan hash in part of the plot of the film to get a patient relaxed (by the way lots of the hashish in Holland is imported from Morocco, apparently it’s good shit), ‘so what?’ What are you trying to tell us? Weed is good in some uses? Anyway, it’s used very badly in the film, since patient was having a sort of panic attack before taking the grass – in reality if you take hash in that kind of condition, it could really give you a very bad trip and cannot be recommended. Sure, it can be used as a painkiller, but does more harm than good mentally. There’s other shit like this all the way across the film, this is just one example; you just don’t understand what the director wants to say with his film. Does the director try to incorporate Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism for stereotyping (‘Middle East = Terrorist country’ or ‘Arab = terrorist’) within Western cultures in the film to give an example to the audience? There are lot of ways to talk about film theory in any films, but if the director does not make a strong point within the film, either by using filmic language or plot, it just becomes a lump of shit.
The film shows us a series of characters making critical mistakes. (Fuck-ups beyond common sense, which fucks me off. In a way the film did provoke me, but it’s fucking pointless. They do this, they do that, here’s the outcome, The End.) As the film progresses their mistakes just get worse and worse. The film highlights the shadows of human behaviour, however it does not get into detail. It becomes like a shopping list of the fuck-ups you can do in critical situations. A few parts in the film tried to put themselves into an Italian Neo-Realism form of plot, to try to highlight the realism in the film and to be open ended, but it just does not work. They needed to choose either Art film or Art House film, you can’t be both ways because they contrast each other. That is why they’ve been differentiated into different categories. Anyway, the plot is very dramatic, so there is no way that this film could be manipulated into Neo-Realism form. The film failed to incorporate the details in filmic language within the mise-en-scene. It talked about light and dark, but it is very grey. Cannot say it a good film or a bad film, just a disappointment.
Oh – the film also used the same piece of music used in The Insider called ‘Iguazu’ by Gustavo Santaolalla. Iñárritu somehow decided to use this music in a similar way to how it was used in The Insider. It is not creative at all and I don’t think it’s a homage to Michael Mann either; it’s just a rip-off. Also I don’t get the significance of the title… Babel: ‘Sound of many voices talking at one time, especially when more than one language is being spoken’, yeah many other films are like that too. It’s just ironic that this film needs more filmic language though. It’s lazy, couldn’t be fucked thinking of a good title. What happened to those days with long-ass, thoughtful and original titles? Now film titles are so simple and most of the time meaningless.
Fuck it, I’m going to sleep.
Thanks for that explosion of innards, Oscar. I can’t say understand all of it, but I get the gist, and while I have similarly low opinion of the film to what you do, it’s largely for different reasons. You see, Oscar is a film academic, so he views things differently to an amateur like me; still that doesn’t make him right.
First of all, there is meaning in the film. It’s a clear attempt to make viewers see the similarities between our many disparate cultures, despite the obvious differences on the surface (the most influential being language). He called it Babel after the Tower of Babel, collective humanity’s Biblical attempt to build a tower to the heavens which God swiftly smote and, to drive home the point, messed up our common language so that we spoke in all different tongues. Iñárritu wants to show us that our distrust of each other – especially those from different cultures – is keeping us from reaching common ground. The whole movie is summed up in the look on Brad Pitt’s face as he looks at his long-suffering guide and translator, just before he gets into the helicopter. It’s a look that shows a connection has developed between them, but knows he worked against making that happen, and… oh, a whole lot of other things besides. It’s only a couple of seconds, but it is perfectly acted, and if the whole movie had been that clearly focused it would’ve been the masterpiece it ought to have been.
Second, what’s all this shit about categories of film? This is why I am so distrustful of academic writing on film: the need to categorize everything devalues the entire art. What’s the point of arguing whether the film is an ‘art’ or an ‘art house’ film? What’s the fucking difference? Do me a favour, man – it’s a ‘film’, that’s all, and should be discussed on its own terms. Of course it’s reasonable and helpful to look back at films that cover similar filmic or thematic ground, but dumping on it by saying the filmed it in the wrong category seems incredibly foolish to me. Of course, this has nothing to do with the film itself, only with your reading of it. Maybe I’m wrong, who knows? As it is, I disagree strongly with you.
One place I agree is in your disbelief at the character motivations, or lack thereof. Seriously, this is the movie where endlessly ridiculous actions are taken and you just stare at the screen, mouth agape, wondering why the bloody hell did they do THAT? Gael Garcia Bernal’s character is the major anomaly, a walking plot device so obvious he may as well be in the theatre, tapping each patron on the shoulder and explaining to them what’s going to happen next. A shopping list of fuckups? Great line, and 100% the truth. I was also kind of pissed when ‘Iguazu’ came on the soundtrack, because all it did was remind of how good The Insider was, and how shitty Babel had become.
What Oscar failed to directly mention is how much of a mess the script is, especially in the managing of different storylines. It’s all balanced out, with each plot strand taking up about the same amount of time, but each one would’ve been much better as its own film. This is from Guillermo Arriaga, who had proven himself one of the most deft storytellers in the current scriptwriting ranks with previous works, but now must be questioned as to his versatility. Babel is more or less a crash between Amores Perros, 21 Grams and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, without the dramatic resonance of any of them. If you short-change your characters in a film like this, then you lose control of the movie, and it ends up a gelatinous mess.
I don’t mind saying the Japan-set stuff is actually pretty strong, and if it had been a 90-minute stand-alone film I probably would have liked it a lot. As 40 minutes in a 140 minute film, however, it is underdone, offering only glimpses of what it could have been. That’s the story of the whole movie, though. For every great facial expression from Pitt, there’s Bernal’s decision to step on the gas. For that amazing club sequence, there’s Barraza wailing around the desert having inexplicably left the kids by themselves. Yeah, what an incredible disappointment. Babel doesn’t allow itself to be hated because there are so many strong elements, but I can’t get behind a film that knows what it wants to say but doesn’t know how to say it. Most of the positive reviews out there were written, I suspect, by people who filled in the vast gaps for themselves. Me, I’m happy to think about that stuff, but I’m not going to give the film any credit for what I come up with.