The Reeler

Features

October 27, 2006

Babel: Five Languages in Search of a Story

Globetrotting and orange juggling with Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu

I know this is going to sound bitchy and amateurish, but the job of writing about director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu's Babel, opening today in New York, demands the burden of explaining it. Or at least explaining it as well as one can: four ostensibly interlacing stories boasting five languages and maybe a dozen principal characters, all archetypes of global disaffection and desperation, none especially dimensionalized, jockeyed from scene to scene with the grace of a grand mal seizure and a well-below-average plausibility index. Whether you're viewing the Americans (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) in peril in Morocco or the deaf, motherless Japanese teenager (Rinko Kikuchi) with the sex-is-love complex or the Moroccan kids (Boubker Ait El Caid and Said Tarchini) farting around with a hunting rifle or the Mexican immigrant nanny and her nephew (Adriana Barraza and Gael Garcia Bernal) on an ill-advised overnighter south of the border, you cannot escape the questions: Who the hell are these people, and really, who cares?

Of course, answering the former question requires careful consideration of the latter, which, to me, is really all Babel has going for it. The film was the beneficiary of jeans-creaming rapture at this year's Cannes Film Festival, where it came from ahead to lose the Palme d'Or to Ken Loach's The Wind that Shakes the Barley yet staked a Best Director claim for Gonzalez Iñárritu (above, with star Gael Garcia Bernal). But since then, even Babel's apologists are disinclined to unpack its cloying complexities ("There is no way for a review to encompass the beautifully integrated, soul-searching portrait that Inarritu paints of a world in crisis," writes Peter Travers), and the critics who can be bothered arrive nevertheless at distilled conclusions ("It's conspiracy theory masquerading as humanism," writes Jim Ridley) that made at least this reader wonder whether or not 142 minutes of viewing time might have been 142 minutes too many. Like the culture surrounding its retarded intellectual heir Crash, discussion of the film comes down not to who can make any sense of it, but who can love it or hate it the most.

It's all the same to Gonzalez Iñárritu, who intimated to The Reeler Wednesday that the reaction is the thing. "My films, in some ways, speak to people very directly without being very polished or without being very polite," he said. "The films have something that you like or do not, but they generate emotion. Deliberately, I want to create a catharsis in people, which I think is the objective of art. And if the artist doesn't achieve that, you fail. If you go into a cinema and you feel the same, or you feel nothing? There's nothing there, right? So I think that people sometimes, they're confronted emotionally, and some people react positively and they enjoy the ride and they explore and they like to be shaken. Or people just hate it."

But --

"So I think that some kinds of people think that they feel very smart," he continued. "Or people don't think it's cool -- they feel that not to feel is cool. I would say that suppressed emotions, sometimes they are confronted by that, and they overreact against the film because the film is in some ways speaking to them in a way that they hate to be touched by."

Got it. But what if Babel is more or less a casualty of its own inability to communicate? What if, in its child exploitation and Headline News didacticism and general mean-spiritedness (apparently first-world bourgeois entitlement stops at Gonzalez Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga's office doors), it actively discourages rational thought? What if the final 40 minutes' 1:1 crying character-to-scene ratio attenuates your most ambitious narrative ever to a membrane-thin sludge? How do you reconcile the two?

"Well, that was a huge challenge, and that's why it was a very, very difficult project for me," Gonzalez Iñárritu told me. "Not just because of the logistics of making it, or geographically or beyond the fact of the non-actors and many, many, many levels of challenging things that I had to fight for. But the most difficult thing for me as a director is how I was really, really all the time very conscious that I had to put together and translate five different languages, three different continents, four different stories, emotionally be attached and create only one single visual grammar or language to translate all those diverse elements into one single canvas, or one single film that can be translated to one single language, which is the language of emotion -- the language of the image. And the image is the way I expose myself. I speak in one language, which is image. How to do that was difficult, and every decision that I took -- the music, the silences, the sound design, the tone, the emotion -- I mean, these characters are never connected physically. They never saw each other. And I have to make a connection spiritually, emotionally in order that people can not only have a narrative that makes sense, but to have the sensation that they are seeing one single film with one emotion and with some story going on.

"To answer that, I'd have to tell you how I did the film step-by-step, which is a huge amount of decisions that I can't get into. But I think you observed something that's true: It's a very difficult balance -- juggling four oranges here while at the same time you can be following one. Only one single orange is not an easy thing."

Hold on -- let me write that down. One... single... orange... OK. I mean, I'm not saying the guy can't direct; rather, if Babel accomplishes anything, it's the confirmation that the filmmaker's much-publicized falling-out with amicable separation from Arriaga can only be a good thing for a guy who can direct his ass off yet gets stuck invoking fruit metaphors to justify a vision that is not exclusively his own. Or perhaps, in implicitly passing the buck, he confirms that his stunning 2000 feature debut Amores Perros was a fluke -- that his and Arriaga's histrionic follow-up, 21 Grams, was a crossover gesture of miserably bad faith, and the stultifying Babel is where cosmopolitan auteurs go to die.

It could fall either way, and when it does, will it make a sound? The history of cinema (indeed, great cinema) is the habitat of more dreary, pretentious cynics per capita than arguably any other art, so anything's possible. But Babel's downfall is that it doesn't compel you to listen; again, it barely inspires you to care. Love it or hate it, feel what you will -- nothing's worse than forgettability, and Babel has it to spare.



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