Friday I finished work at my survival gig late, as I had been trying to partially make up for time lost Tuesday, when the ice made car travel to the Eastside ill-advised. Fortunately, I finally got everything I had planned for the week done.
I was a little worried because one of the projects I’ve been working on, which was messy and complex when I started working on it, has been a real bear to clean up, and every inch of progress was fraught with new complications. Now things are almost pretty, and I can move on to other work.
Anyway, I felt this urge to do something interesting, and it was a little late to start cooking, so I went to a downtown-ish restaurant hoping to have some interesting nibbles. Suffice to say the experience was unremarkable; the interior was pretty, but the cocktail I drank had a top note much like the aftertaste of an artificial sweetener, the little appetizer that I ate was forgettable, and the only redeeming feature of the meal was a simple but reasonably well-executed dish with green beans and tofu. The front of house staff were pleasant even though I probably looked excessively serious and maybe even slightly dour when I arrived.
I left the restaurant slightly poorer and smelling loudly of garlic.
Initially, I thought I’d just go home after that, but I had a sudden urge to see a film. So I was turning my evening into half a date… the kind without a partner in crime… it might be pathetic if I were a more sympathetic character.
I didn’t do any advance research, but I settled on Babel, which I think I had heard a bit about on Ebert & Roeper sans Ebert last weekend.
For a Friday night, the film was Somewhat lightly attended. I suspect the whole parallel timelines thing is a hard sell for “date night.” Some of the online reviews I’ve seen since watching the film complain it is a poor variation on Crash, but I think that’s a bit myopic… The device of parallel timelines with scripted coincidences has been used in movies like the 1989 Mystery Train and the Tarantino “tributes” to that style, such as Four Rooms. It’s not like Crash invented that device. Crash and Babel are similar only in the sense that they are melodramatic rather than quirky in style.
Compared to Crash, Babel’s premise is far less heavy-handed, though perhaps similarly didactic. It is built on vignettes illustrating alienation, inhumanity, self-centeredness (both sympathetic and not), and occasionally, sacrifice.
The premise of the film, apparently, is that small tragedies needn’t explode into fiascos if we would, in the heat of the moment, stop a moment and listen to each other, rather than just reacting with some kind of misguided self-preservation impulse and escalating the small misunderstandings that result from our hasty judgments. That’s a complex premise, which might in itself be a weakness, but it would be unfair to the film to oversimplify the message. This isn’t some sort of goofy “if we all just communicate better we’ll achieve world peace” hippy idealism.
None of the tragedies in the film would be less tragic with less miscommunication, but perhaps such tragedies would not become such fiascos. And that’s essentially the message… Like most films with a message, the success or failure of the film is how much it draws you in and connects you with the characters. On that regard, it’s a successful film. It’s hard to build two complex characters into a film, and it’s amazing to build no fewer than 4 fully developed, evolving personalities into a film.
The most impressive achievement of this film is its sensitive portrayal of universal conflicts set in several complex cultural contexts, without devolving into some caricature of those cultures. Two preteen boys in Morocco play out predictable sibling rivalries, and do exactly what you’d expect them to do when handed a gun… and their behavior is not some canned stereotype of a Moroccan family, but a believable portrayal of the dynamic relationships between people in circumstances that escalate from ordinary to extreme.
Chieko illustrates classic coming-of-age dramas in the context of urban alienation, a handicap, and a complex family story. She’s starved for affection, detached from the world and yet wishes for nothing more but to be a part of it, and simultaneously suffers from feelings of guilt related to her mother’s suicide. She acts out in nearly tragic ways and yet is treated with great sympathy.
The scenes in Mexico are simultaneously unlikely and believable portrayal of a rural, poor family, and the implicit trust the children have for their caretaker even when she’s exercising terribly poor judgment, is fascinating and full of contradiction.
Brad Pitt’s character as a loving but somehow fatefully inadequate husband is more complex than at first glance, and avoids the trap of dwelling on the troubles in their relationship while still completely integrating that backstory into every gesture the two characters make.
It might be a bit overblown to tie together all of terrorism, sibling rivalry, the trials of coming of age, immigration, marriage troubles, the emotionally unavailable father dynamic, racism and fear of Islam.
Outside of the world of this film, it’s clear that policial forces that create hysteria around terrorism have other causes beyond poor communication; in that case, anyway, communication problems are a result, rather than a cause, of the execution of a tragic political agenda. And I wouldn’t buy that poor communication is the underlying cause of most of the other social problems examined in the film; it’s merely a catalyst of further alienation and inhumanity.
But perhaps that is the key theme… this film is not pretending to articulate a solution for all of the problems of contemporary world politics, interpersonal relationships, and everything else, but perhaps a small examination of one of the fuels of human tragedy.
The acting is almost without exception above par, even the otherwise rarely nuanced Brad Pitt. It’s not a great movie, but it’s certainly a good one. I know that the end-of-year release is calculated primarily to extend the film’s theatrical life on hopes of the “Oscar effect”, but if it does win for cinematography, director, or a supporting acting role, it wouldn’t be undeserved.