Wednesday, 17 January 2007

Babel (2006)

Are we there yet???!!!

Imagine a movie made of 3 seemingly unconnected stories whose characters eventually end up being linked to one another, either through the unintended consequences of their actions, or through their common suffering or the thematic unity of their separate stories. That’s what make up the concept for Traffic, 3 Needles, Requiem for a Dream, Crash, Amores perros, 21 Grams and now, Babel – the last 3 efforts of Inarritu and Arriaga. Now these may employ a large ensemble of actors with interweaving storylines like the complex pieces Robert Altman and his spiritual successors make, but instead of the plot being driven forward by the interactions between a huge cast, a portmanteau movie builds up its own structure through mirror movements of the characters in each of its short stories. In other words, Altmanesque films create a frisson through an intricate social reality, whereas portmanteau movies are formalistic exercises in structure: you derive pleasure spotting the layering of similarities and coincidences multiplying between unrelated plots. That is its greatest strength and worst weakness: in the hands of a master, a movie like this approaches artistry; in the clumsier hands of a mere apprentice, a movie like this will appear too forced, contrived, and manipulative.

Recently, the team of Inarritu and Arriaga have added their own touch to the portmanteau movie, by telling the stories in his movies out of chronological order. A portmanteau movie like this – regardless of what its constituent stories are about – will begin to resemble a Greek play of yore, a meditation on causality (who caused what to happen?), irony (because we don’t know what happened first, until the very end when we piece the stories together), guilt (who/what should be the one to blame for everything that happens), retribution (tied in to irony: perhaps bad things happen to everyone because they have some innate flaw), and justice (are people punished by karma for what they might have done, or can bad things really happen to decent if flawed people?). Watching the wrenching drama that is Babel, you realise that Inarritu and Arriaga have pioneered and perfected the structure of their film to evoke the best of Greek tragedy: there is irony, guilty, retribution, justice, and perhaps some painful redemption.

That being said, Babel does not quite measure up to the genius and freshness of Amore perros or 21 Grams: director and scriptwriter appear to have put in all their energy into honing perfect structure and storytelling that they have neglected to tell compelling stories. Indeed, watching Babel, one gets the impression that the team didn’t really care this time about the individual stories they told, as long as they link back into each other inevitably, in a fatalistic fashion.

Here’s the greatest puzzle about the movie: if the audience is not bedazzled by how brilliant the stories are structured to crash into each other, viewers would be forced to pay attention to these stories in themselves – and realise that these stories are poorly chosen, consist of mostly unpleasant characters too wrapped up in themselves to be unworthy of our sympathy, trapped in offensively racist and laughably fantastic situations (there’s a teenage nymphomaniac deaf and mute girl who flashes men and boys - obviously Japanese!) involving a high number of improbable coincidences (A pair of ugly American tourists are accidentally shot by two young goatherd boys playing with their father’s rifle because the boys got tired of masturbating behind a rock - obviously Arab!). Occasionally, attempts at drama actually fail, because you don’t care for the characters, and because the drama can be rather heavyhanded and blatantly manipulative at times, and because when that happens (for example, when a chicken gets decapitated the natural way, are you supposed to feel shock and horror, or bemusement at the horror of the two rich white kids who’ve never stepped into a farm before?) you get the urge to actually laugh at how terribly off the point the director-scriptwriter team can get. Don’t worry, the urge to laugh at some scenes in Babel aren’t as perverse as you think.

Perhaps the best part about Babel is the first half hour, where Inarritu and Arriaga set up the individual stories, and you have almost no inkling how everyone will be linked to each other. At this stage, some of the storylines are actually compelling, especially the one involving a Mexican illegal immigrant working as a nanny. Yet after some time, you begin to suspect that everyone will be linked to each other, and how the movie contorts itself to achieve that proves it is a product of brilliant structure, but a victim of weak and contrived writing.

Frankly, the director-writer team could have substituted any other storyline involving other characters, and it won’t affect to their study of irony, causality, guilt, karma, and so on. Personally, I’d like to see them tackle a feature version of The Bloody Case that Started from a Steam Bun, but it’s a pity that the team has recently broken up and are unlikely to collaborate again. Babel is indeed a strong contender for this year’s Best Picture Oscar, but you will either love it or loathe it.

First published at incinemas on 25 January 2007

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