‘Babel’ (2006) (C) – A Debate

IMDb / Bradshaw / Lumenick
Written by Guillermo Arriaga
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

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.

Quick Change (1990) (C)

IMDb / Ebert
Based on the novel by Jay Cronley
Written by Howard Franklin
Directed by Howard Franklin and Bill Murray

Quick Change is an unusual beast. It’s derivative of hundreds of other heist/getaway films, but it stars Bill Murray and Jason Robards in the crook and cop roles. It’s a comedy, but there are no big laughs to be had. There are a couple of swear words which, if removed, would have earned the film a PG-13 rating in the USA, and opened it up to a wider audience who might have been able to enjoy it more. (At this point the review could easily degenerate into a criticism of modern censorship, in particular the MPAA, but you already know how ridiculous it is so I won’t bother.)

It’s also Murray’s only credit as director. Co-director, actually. His pal Howard Franklin had written the script and he was attached to star, but they couldn’t find someone to direct it, so they decided to do it themselves. Not surprisingly, they take few risks. In fact, the film looks and feels like so many other films of the period that, over time, it will likely become indistinguishable from them in my memory. It’s utterly mediocre, totally unmemorable, but passable entertainment for an hour and a half. It’s the sort of film a nine year-old boy might watch over and over again because it was the first film of its kind he’d seen, and maybe revisit for nostalgic purposes later in life (probably to be disappointed).

Is that good enough? Is it okay for just that kid to get a real kick out of it? At least it isn’t a shameless, money-grabbing exercise, like a really bad sequel, or a film that coasts on the stature of its stars without making any effort to be good. Quick Change is far more noble than those films, because its agenda is simply to entertain you – it makes it a lot easier to forgive than if it had clearly been focused on your wallet. But look again at the picture above: it sums up the film, and those hundreds of other films like it. It’s Bill Murray, a big star whom millions of people love to watch, dressed up as a clown whose purpose it is to entertain. He’s not smiling. His heart isn’t in it. He’s put on all this makeup and silly clothes and said “Laugh at me”, but it’s hard for us to laugh because we can tell he isn’t really enjoying it himself. It’s not like he lacks sincerity, but he’s distracted, and we can see that.

This isn’t to say Murray is bad. He’s the same as ever, which is fine, but it’s clear he doesn’t really believe in the material. The other actors are the same, going through the motions, except Randy Quaid whose hideous overacting can be painful. It’s work, a job to pay the bills in-between the good scripts they might sometimes be able to do. There are no behind the scenes interviews on this DVD, but if there were, I don’t think anyone from the cast or crew would be saying “As soon as I read the script I just had to do it”, or “My job is easy because the material is so good”; they’d be saying “I really admire my colleagues, and it’s a pleasure to work with them”. And, like the clown who isn’t smiling, we wouldn’t really believe them.

Throw in a typically grating early 90s score, and you have a film that is average-to-poor in all respects. Reviews of such films are hardest, because there’s nothing to champion and nothing to rail against. They’re just there, and you’ve seen them, and you don’t care about them any more. I would recommend Quick Change only to Murray and Robards completists, but even those people will almost certainly get a greater kick out of watching Groundhog Day for the 37th time.

Look Both Ways (2005) (C)

IMDb / Bond / Keller & Urban
Written and Directed by Sarah Watt

As I walked out into the street after seeing Look Both Ways, an overwhelming surge of reality hit me. I saw people walking fast, slow, with their heads down or looking straight ahead, engrossed in their lives so that they didn’t stop to consider other passers-by. I was struck by the banality of it all, the simplicity, when taken at face value. Needless to say, Look Both Ways replaces this seemingly dull real world with a cast of erratic characters and a series of contrivances, viewing this universe with a wide but limiting focus that puts to bed any chance of the story (or stories) having any lasting impact. Shame, really, because it started out with so much promise.

For a film that bundles in no less than 8 meaningful characters, Look Both Ways, at around 100 minutes in length, is about 45 minutes too short. I’ve said it a hundred times, and I’ll say it again: if you want to engage the audience, limit yourself to getting a few things right rather than trying to wow them with many things. This is Watt’s first feature, and I say she was too ambitious in her writing – shear it back, cut some characters, lose some scenes, make others longer, then you’ve got a good movie. As it is, most of the actors are at least once asked to step outside the confines of the character they’ve built in order to offer some kind of revelation, and this just doesn’t ring true. The story isn’t allowed to grow by itself; instead, Watt tries to force a grand conclusion, which ends up doing none of her characters justice.

While her abrupt changes in tone and lines out of place stick with me, so does her interesting directorial style. Most of the film is framed simply and effectively, but there are brief interludes using different media – hand-drawn animation and still photography – that offer insightful breaks in the narrative. They don’t always work in the context of the scene, and some of the epileptic flashing of images on the screen did my head in, but they are innovative techniques that deserve praise. Just tone them down a bit. Her use of music and non-incidental sound, though… well, to put it bluntly, it was derivative and didn’t fit. In most cases, the film would have played better over silence.

The acting is fine, with particularly good performances from the ever-excellent William McInnes and the heretofore unseen Justine Clarke in what one would call the central roles of Nick and Meryl. Of all the characters, they are the most involving – not surprising given that far more screen time is devoted to them than anyone else, but the quality of acting really shines through, particularly when they don’t have anything to say.

This has been billed as an Australian Magnolia or Crash, but I would veer from that and say it has more in common with Zach Braff’s Garden State. Both films, by first time directors, appear to be slight and whimsical but end up aiming for something loftier and more lasting, which remains just out of reach. It isn’t escapist cinema, but it’s miles from verité; while there is potential – big questions are asked about the fundamental element of humanity: mortality – it isn’t followed through, as attempts to answer such questions will inevitably fall on their face. I will be interested to see what Watt comes up with next, though. She’s confident, which can only be a good thing in a filmmaker. A better balance, and she might be onto something.

The Graduate (1967) (C)

IMDb / Ebert 1 / Ebert 2
Written by Calder Willingham
Based on the novel by Charles Webb
Directed by Mike Nichols

Inches away from being a grand Fail, The Graduate is the worst film I’ve seen since Doom, and the most annoying and insipid since Millions. There is so much praise out there for it – it almost always comes up in a list of great American films – but at film’s end my reaction was worse than feeling unmoved: I felt cheated. Cheated by a writer who set up an intriguing situation then pissed it away by descending into cheap fantasy, cheated by a director whose track record suggests he is incapable of producing an insufferable film, cheated by the legions of fans who led me to see what all the fuss was about.

The tagline reads: ‘This is Benjamin. He’s a little worried about his future.’ I assume that implies that the audience will be, too; I wasn’t. From the beginning I couldn’t care less, even when my current situation – (near) graduate looking for what to do next – mirrors his to a degree. Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock is surely one of the most annoying characters in movies: his awkwardness, meant to be adorable, is frustrating. His attitude towards his parents is immature. The things he says are off-putting and often stupid; the things he does are flat-out ridiculous. This is mostly due to the scriptwriter’s (lack of) craft, but Hoffman needs to shoulder some of the blame – it could have been an interesting character, one we at first distance ourselves from but eventually come to associate with, but he did not pull that off.

What angered me most was the inconsistency. One moment Benjamin is a stuttering fool, wandering through a hotel lobby totally unsure of himself; the next he’s taking a girl to a strip club on their first date, sunglasses fixed on his face, cigarette hanging out his mouth, the supposed epitome of don’t-give-a-shit cool. Then he’s back to stuttering and awkward, then confident, and back and forth and so on for the rest of the movie. None of it makes any sense! Why would he do that, or that, or that? Why would he say such stupid things? Why wouldn’t he say such an obvious thing? I can’t understand it, or why it struck a chord with anyone.

Anne Bancroft did well in her challenging role – very well – and Katharine Ross is beautiful and wonderful right up until the inane closing minutes. Unfortunately, the story takes too many stupid turns to allow them to keep shining. And what was up with the music, man? Legendary Simon & Garfunkel score? Bullshit. It was three, or possibly four, songs repeated two or three times each, and only once – the opening credits – did they work well with the image. Next time The Sound of Silence comes on the radio, I’m going to break it, because I heard it enough times in this movie to last the rest of my life.

As for Nichols, I’m not familiar with much of his work – only Closer, which I enjoyed despite its theatricality – but I read that it almost always cuts into the deeper channels of modern society. Not this one. And his technique is particularly unsubtle – the slow zoom is used a couple of times too many, and the fast, clumsy zoom is used distractingly often. Some compositions are nice, the most obvious being the famous legs/Benjamin shot on the poster, but others beat you over the head (Benjamin sitting on a bench, alone, at Berkeley with Old Glory fluttering in the foreground sticks in the mind).

Yes, all that saves The Graduate from the lowest rating are some interesting, informing points of technique (I didn’t know Kubrick ripped it off for 2001) and some good support acting. Everything else is pointless, dated trash that may have been edgy and provocative in its time but is almost completely inconsequential now, not to mention utterly nonsensical. This is a rare film that makes me think today’s best films are better and more profoundly effective than those of previous decades – give me Eternal Sunshine, Lost In Translation or Before Sunset any day over tripe like this.

Walk the Line (2005) (C)

IMDb / Ebert / Cale
Written by Gill Dennis & James Mangold
Based on ‘The Man in Black’ and ‘Cash’ by Johnny Cash
Directed by James Mangold

Take last year’s Ray, change the central character from a black man to a white man, add a few more redemption clichés, and you have Walk the Line. It’s remarkable how similar these two films are. There’s the death of a sibling at a young age, the strained relationship with the father, the escape from down-home obscurity to stardom, the womanising, the drug addiction, the crawl back to normality on the back of that sweet gal. On this basis, one might also think that the lives of Ray Charles and Johnny Cash were also practically identical. They weren’t. It’s just that the similarities between their lives are what Hollywood biopics thrive on. I would imagine that a film about any famous person would be the same, if their stardom followed a parabola (a great start, followed by decline, and finally redemption).

I knew this would be the case, though. So why did I go along? Well, because of the music, basically. I love Johnny Cash’s music. He’s one of my favourite recording artists. Thankfully, the moviemakers got that part absolutely right: the musical interludes are remarkably close to the original recordings, which is amazing given that Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon sung and played their instruments for real. I was hoping for more than that, however. I wanted some kind of insight into Cash the man, something more than the standard biopic clichés that you can see in a hundred other films. Unfortunately, it just isn’t there; I suppose this means I should read more.

Not to say that Phoenix and Witherspoon aren’t very good. They pretty much nail their parts, the mannerisms and the emotions, all the while connected with the drama of each scene. Thing is, they’re making the best out of a pretty poor script. The dialogue is forgettable, and everything feels glossed over – pretty much the same problems I had with Ray, except that was longer and slightly better acted so it gets more points in my view. I’m on side with Matt Cale’s suggestion that a better film would’ve focused solely on the events surrounding the concert at Folsom Prison – more and more, I feel that if you narrow your focus and concentrate on getting everything right within that smaller focus, you’re more likely to hit the deeper truths present in the material. A thorough examination of one day in the life of an individual is always more compelling than a shallow overview of their entire life.

Seeing this on the same day as Brokeback Mountain brought home to me how good that film was. It was everything this film could’ve been: nuanced, meditative, involving, affecting. Walk the Line is a showcase for two actors offering their best work, and little more. Besides their performances, it offers nothing you couldn’t get from reading a few articles or the books written by the man himself. Having seen most of this year’s multiple Oscar nominees (only Capote and Memoirs of a Geisha to go), I would suggest that this is the one that is least worth your time.