Saturday, February 24, 2007

Babel (Oscar Round-Up)

Some have compared Babel to last year's Oscar winner Crash, and that's not a bad place to start. Both films jump back and forth among a number of loosely connected story lines. Both films cover very different people coming from very different backgrounds. Both films make white people feel bad.

But while Crash packed a more severe emotional wallop, Babel is probably technically a bit better. The different story lines don't seem quite as forced together, the cinematography is a bit more daring, and Babel manages to be even more relevant than Crash.

I know that last claim will need some explaining, but let me first give you an overview of the plot, which contains four distinct but connected elements occurring on three different continents. The first centers around two sons in a Moroccan goatherding family who get in trouble for shooting at a tour bus (thinking that they were too far away to hit it). The second concerns Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett (the only really recognizable actors in the film); Blanchett is hit by the bullet fired by the Moroccan boys and Pitt must scramble to find her medical help in this third-world country. The third focuses on Pitt and Blanchett's two young children and their Mexican caretaker Amelia. Unable to find someone to watch the children for her on the day of her son's wedding, Amelia decides to bring the children to Mexico with her for the occasion and, predictably, trouble ensues. The fourth plot line is the most tenuously connected: It involves a deaf-mute Japanese girl named Chieko whose father sold a gun to a Moroccan who sold it to his friend who gave it to his son who shot Cate Blanchett with it.

If this is confusing, I apologize. I promise it's easier to follow when you're actually watching the movie.

Rather than confusing you further by trying to continue explaining the mildly convoluted plot, I'm going to attempt to substantiate the my claim: that Babel is more relevant than Crash. Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying that racism is irrelevant. I'm just saying that racism was also relevant ten years ago, and twenty years ago, and forty years ago. Babel, however, is a more perfect time capsule, brilliantly capturing what life was like in 2006.

So what's life like in 2006? Well, as Babel points out, different parts of the world live in very different ways. Without being too showy about it, Babel unmistakeably demonstrates how different Americans live--not just compared to poor, rural Moroccans, but even compared to our neighbors to the south. It's a totally different world, and, to be quite honest, you can't blame the rest of the world for resenting us for it. There's a great moment in Babel where a helicopter flies in to the dingy Moroccan village where Cate Blanchett is being cared for to airlift her to a hospital. The villagers, who have clearly never seen a helicopter, all come out of their homes to gawk at the scene unfolding before them. But behind the pure curiosity in each of their eyes, you can also feel a question burning: "Would you do this for me if I were dying?"

Now, you may rightly point out that Western entitlement isn't exactly much newer than racism, and you're right, but I'm not done yet. Another subtheme of this movie is the fear of terrorism. After Cate Blanchett gets shot, the news media back home gets all riled up, hesitating not at all to call her bullet wound an act of terrorism--even though, if you'll remember, it was just the product of the curiosity of a couple young Moroccan boys. But if you heard that an American tourist got shot while in a tour bus in some dusty Muslim country, you'd instantly assume terrorism as well. So you can understand the reaction of the authorities, even as the boot of justice comes down far too hard on those poor boys. That Babel manages to evoke all these feelings at once is one of its greatest strengths.

If I had to point out flaws: Well, the whole Chieko subplot. It's not a bad little story, it's just that it doesn't really fit with the rest of the film. Sure, if you believe the point of this movie is the difficulty in overcoming language barriers--as some critics (and the movie's title) might have you believe--then yes, it makes sense to include a subplot about a deaf-mute Japanese girl struggling to communicate. But that's really not the point of the movie. It's a bit of a recurring theme, sure, but it's not the point.

I might also point out that, with a bit more focused editing, it would be easy enough to trim 10-15 minutes off of this two-hour-and-twenty-two-minute film. But I don't want to come down too hard on it. The greater point is that this is a monumentally relevant, strikingly poignant, and even unabashedly uncomfortable movie that's well-worth a rental. Does it deserve a Best Picture award? That's borderline, but it's certainly no shame that it was nominated.

I managed to see all five Best Picture nominees this year, so I'm happy to unveil to you my 22-scale rankings for not only Babel, but the other four nominees as well. I'll award Babel a 14, which ties it with The Queen and puts it comfortably ahead of The Departed (11) and Little Miss Sunshine (10). But if I could cast a vote with the rest of the Academy, I'd have to cast my ballot for Letters from Iwo Jima, which just edges the rest of the competition with a 15.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You have an interesting take on Babel. However, I found Babel to say very little of what you are claiming here. I found it riveting to watch during every frame, but when it was over, I realized that the movie’s purpose was not to say something, but rather, to show us something and to help us experience something. I’ll get to that in a second.

Now, You are claiming that there is a message of white privilege here. I really didn't get that at all and I'm trying desperately to see your side of it; to see how that could be the main theme here. I would like to suggest a completely different explanation for the deeper purpose of this movie.

In thread 1 a Moroccan family suffers. In thread 2 and American husband and wife suffer. In thread 3 a Mexican vigilante suffers. In thread 4 a deaf Japanese Girl suffers. What is unique about these various sufferings, though, is that they are all caused by some intersection of cultures. But I don’t think it’s about other cultures intersecting with a white culture as you say.

For the Moroccan shepherd family, the culture they intersect with is not a white American privileged culture. It’s not a tourist culture either. That’s barely an intersection at all, separated by gunpowder and glass and hundreds of meters. Rather, what the Moroccan family intersects with is the rifle. They touch it. They see it. They buy it. They use it. It is the rifle that is so awkward and foreign to them. It is this rifle from the outside that is so mysterious and intriguing to them. It is the rifle that is so different from what they know and experience. And it is the rifle that drives the attitudes and actions of the boys in a peculiar way. When the rifle is being handed from the seller to the father we are meant to feel that the rifle does not belong there. There is something wrong with that transaction - something dangerous and foreign. There is a lack of respect for the rifle because there is a lack of understanding about the rifle. The filmmaker wants us to sense this tension. There should be a warning in our hearts. No, don’t take it. You are intersecting with the wrong thing – the wrong world. This is foreign to you. This is dangerous. There is no hint of white privilege in this thread.

For the American husband and wife, the culture they intersect with is not primarily a Moroccan culture. This is more an intersection with the “venturous culture.” This is highlighted from the very first frame in this thread. There is no explanation for why they are there. The husband cannot explain to the wife. They could have as easily been in Djibouti as in Morocco. It’s not about Morocco. It’s about going away. It’s about escaping. But while the husband forces them to be venturesome, he does not understand the implications of adventure. He does not understand the risks or even the purpose. He does not understand the culture of the particular place they happened to find themselves. From the first scene when the husband and wife are in a Moroccan restaurant the filmmaker wants us to feel something – that these people don’t belong there. It’s not because they are white and privileged…it’s because they just don’t belong there. It’s just not right. Something is wrong with it. It can’t be explained. There’s no reason. It just has to be felt.

For the two children being dragged along by the Mexican caretaker, the culture they intersect with is certainly a Mexican one, but there is something deeper. We feel that same sense of “they don’t belong here” but it has nothing to do with the fact that they are white and they are in Mexico. This isn’t about Mexicans and whites. This is about innocence and answerability. The children are brought into a world that is not their own and become appendages to the understandable, but still irresponsible machinations of their caretaker. Even as things start out fairly innocent and her desires and actions are understood, we are meant to feel that there is something dangerous about what the caretaker is planning. There is some warning in our heart that this cultural intersection will turn out badly. This feeling deepens every moment that this thread continues. Even the apparent fun that the kids are having has an ominous cloud over it. There is a shocking adultness that the children are forced into. Ironically, while the children are intersecting in a world that is not their own, the caretaker is also intersecting with the world that is not her own. Perhaps it used to be her world, but we can see and sense that she has grown apart from that world. In some sense even she does not seem to belong there. And then she finally intersects with the carelessness and immaturity as she rests her fait in the hands of a young and suave drunk with an attitude. But again, this is hardly about white privilege. This is about intersections that just feel wrong. They can’t be explained. They can only be felt.

Finally, the deaf Japanese girl, driven by her loneliness, is intersecting with a culture of carefree irresponsibility and fun. We sense that something is wrong when she resolves to flash the guys. We can sense that they are in different worlds and that there is something dangerous and foreign about her trying to enter that world of partying and drugs and sex. There is something wrong with that intersection. We can sense it, but she cannot.

Long story short: the point is that some things just don’t belong. You can’t just create a list of principles that express what does and doesn’t belong where. This is not about where guns belong or where deaf girls belong. You cannot say where these things belong. Rather, we can only see and feel when something is not right. The filmmaker wants us to feel that something is not right with these cultural intersections. Something or someone is in the wrong place. This is not a statement. It is an experience – an experience of being in the wrong place. That’s why when the movie ends the experience ends. There is no greater statement of white privilege here. The point of the various cultures is simply to show that this experience transcends and crosses all cultures. But the point of the movie itself is to hone our senses - to waken them. We may find ourselves intersecting with something, but what we see and experience in Babel is that when you are the intersector, it is easy to be blind to that danger. It is easy to quell that warning in our hearts. We are meant to experience the tension of a bad intersection, be it with an item, a culture, or a person, so that we will recognize the warning in our heart when we come up against it.