Monday, May 19, 2008

Victim City: the Killjoy Aesthetics of Babel

For some reason, Babel was a leading contender for the Best Picture Oscar, and I cannot for the life of me understand why. Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the man who brought us 21 Grams, Babel resembles other ambitious films like Traffic, Requiem for a Dream, and specifically the Best Oscar winner Crash in the way it tries to thematically tie together multiple plot strands. While Crash seemed to want to emphasize how racism ruins people’s lives, Babel takes its Biblical premise of the Tower of Babel to show how various cultures do not understand each other, thereby causing conflicts.

The film begins well enough with a dirt-poor Moroccan family trying to survive on a dry windy mountain. An old man sells a rifle to a family for money and a goat, and then the father of the family sends out his two male sons with the goat herd, instructing them to shoot jackals if needed. Standing on top of a mountain, the two boys dispute whether or not the gun can, as advertised, shoot something a full kilometer away, so one boy decides to shoot at a bus way down below that happens to be passing by. He fires, at first to no effect, but then the bus veers off the road, and they can hear screaming, so they abruptly run back home.

The film then cuts to Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as an American couple having an argument in Morocco, and I was instantly thrown out of the picture. Why bring on all of the star power now? Well, of course, so that Cate Blanchett’s character, Susan, can get shot by the Moroccan kid, thus detouring the bus to a small town, where she hovers between life and death with inadequate medical care as Brad’s character freaks out. As the Moroccan plot thickens, Inarritu keeps cutting to two more or less concurrent storylines—one involving the American couple’s children getting endangered because their illegal alien housekeeper needs to attend her son’s wedding in Mexico. The other one concerns a sulky Japanese deaf-mute teenage girl (Koji Yakusho) who has difficulty attracting a boyfriend in what looks like Tokyo with cinematography lifted from Lost in Translation. Just when things start to look menacing in one storyline (the teenage girl gets high with some punks, or the cousin of the housekeeper starts to drunkenly wield a gun during the wedding party), the film switches to another location as everyone’s prospects gradually go downhill.

Yes, I guess one can admire the film’s attempts at tragic grandeur, but I thought the it was rigged. Can anything go right for a change? What is the film saying? To never, ever go traveling in Mexico or Morocco, and if you do, do not ever give someone a gun there without creating some international terrorist incident? The two blond American kids cross over the border saying that Mexico is dangerous, and so it proves to be. I could quickly predict the storyline’s grim descent and the film seems unrealistic even as it caters to liberal American guilt and its paranoia about foreign cultures. Perhaps audiences like to see Brad Pitt screw up his face in anguish as his wife withers away in some dark hovel, but I could only think that his choice to star in a low-budget film for some altruistic purpose does not mix well with any artistic one.

As the sulky deaf-mute in search of love, Koji Yakusho just ends up degrading herself. Instead of showing any real spunk or adaptability, she tries to kiss her dentist, takes what looks like ecstasy before getting rejected in a disco, and eventually throws herself at a policeman. I kept wondering, how do a horny teenager’s woes tie in with a gun shot wound or mortal danger in Mexico? All of their situations are melodramatic, with unearned soap opera emotions. As in the case of the superior Crash, Babel strives for tragedy but mostly ends up with pathos, and it cheats in the way it hints at plot outcomes that do not arrive. By the end of the film, you get various shots of estranged characters reaching out to just hold hands, to somehow connect in this cold and badly translated world. For all of the film’s miscommunication, one word comes to mind. Overrated.

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