By Noel Vera
Dir: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (2006)
Gonzalez Inarritu's "Babel" (2006) is excellently directed, I think;
what I'm not sure of, even when the end credits have started rolling,
is exactly what it's directed at.
trying to make some kind of statement about communication - the
more connected we are, the more isolated we've become?
I thought Kurosawa
Kyoshi in "Kairo" (Pulse, 2001), for one, has delved into that issue
on a far more metaphysically and metaphorically imaginative level.
Was he trying
to show us the impact the United States and its citizens have on
other countries - how an incident involving two American tourists
can create a firestorm of social and political turmoil on one hand,
and how a vast American construct (its fenced and guarded southern
border with Mexico) can dash the hopes and dreams of a humble illegal
immigrant on the other? If so, what's the Japanese storyline for?
A tenuous link is proposed, but it's a laughably farfetched one:
you come away with the somber if headscratching moral: "guns do
not good presents make."
meant to do all of the above? Films nowadays, especially films as
ambitious as this, don't need to be particularly focused to earn
awards; they just need a broad canvas, some cursory playing around
with conventional narrative--in this case, four separate stories
linked together by a central event (an accidental shooting), then
chronologically shuffled--and a royal flush of Hollywood stars (Brad
Pitt, as vacuous as ever, throwing celebrity tantrums right and
left) to give the whole project respectability.
Inarritu did it once and did it best I think, in his breakout film
"Amores Perros" (Love's a bitch, 2000), where gritty dogfights are
intercut with mysteriously vanished pets (Inarritu's variation on
The Twilight Zone, I suppose), and a hit man / homeless vagrant
shuffles his way to redemption, all three stories linked together
by a central event (a car accident).
Inarritu was at least familiar with the milieu (the streets and
alleys of Mexico), his 'vision' felt reasonably fresh, and his budget
was small enough that one tended to forgive him his melodramatic
excesses (the embarrassingly romantic notion, for one, that a homeless
man can double as a professional killer). I was far less crazy about
his 2004 film "21 Grams," where three separate stories (a mother
who loses her family; a professor with a weak heart; a recovering
drug addict) are linked together by a central event (a car accident--sounds
One can't help but accuse Inarritu of being repetitive--of pulled
the same rabbit out of his hat time and time again, with diminishing
results. The world is full of evil and violence? We're all connected?
Truth is where you happen to be standing? Tell us something we don't
know--or, if you can't, tell us in a way that we haven't already
at its best when trying to show life as lived in differing parts
of the world--a wedding in Mexico where a mother dances with her
long-unseen son; a popular hangout joint in Tokyo where Japanese
youths are jammed together in a somehow reassuring crush; best of
all, a boy and his younger brother, arms outstretched, leaning into
the wind rushing up the mountainside. Inarritu is a champion of
the poor and disaffected, and represents them best when he's not
pushing his agenda too hard; when he shows them suffering all kinds
of contrived situations (a freak gun shot; an inexplicable sexual
hunger; a chain of unfortunate events at a border crossing) it uplifts
one's eyebrow more often than it does one's consciousness.
Far be it for
me to teach Inarritu his business--all right, maybe I'm trying to
do just that, but how persuasive can a filmmaker be when his view
of his characters is so consistently dim? Can people be as stupid
as they are in his pictures? Crossing the border when one is illegally
in the country is not the smartest thing in the world to do, but
why cross back at night (when in all probability you're the only
one around, subject to the border guards' full attention), with
a drunk driver? Why leave one's charges behind in the middle of
the desert to seek help (If you're that dumb, how could you have
evaded the INS for sixteen years?)?
a rifle by firing at moving vehicles isn't exactly brilliant, or
even sensible, but what earthly reason would cause you to run to
the mountains when the police come looking? And fire back at the
officers when they find you? It's clear that realistic texture--the
way people sit or stand or look around--is Inarritu's forte, but
he has trouble portraying the way they really think about or react
to or make decisions on the world around them. Given a choice, he
opts for the most pessimistic alternative, producing the most melodramatic
The film is
all the more disappointing because it's clear that he's got a real
filmmaking sensibility. I'm not the world's biggest fan of handheld
shots--after Von Triers and Tony Scott and more than half the horror
movies made in recent years, if I don't see another lurching point-of-view
camera for the rest of my life it'd be too soon--but Inarritu is
able to stitch the footage together to produce a tempo that's both
graceful and genuinely exciting; exciting not because the beat is
so fast, but because it's clear that the man knows what he's doing
(visually and rhythmically, anyway).
And knowing that the man came from radio (he was a DJ for some years),
it's not surprising that, like Orson Welles, he can do breathtaking
things with sound--I remember in particular a scene where the camera
follows a Japanese deaf-mute girl into a dance club, and the flashing
lights and throbbing music rise to a crescendo, only to suddenly
fall away in silence. The lights still flash, but we're hearing
the world through the girl's nonfunctioning ears, and the shock
of silence, the sudden remove from all that is aurally familiar,
The Japanese segment is the weakest and least thematically relevant
segment in the film, and the main character as written (and played
with misplaced sincerity by Oscar-nominated Rinko Kikuchi) is more
a storytelling conceit (nymphomaniac teeny bopper seeks sex from
the nearest available man) than a real character, but for at least
those few moments style wins out over substance (or the lack of
it), and we feel we understand the girl's awful loneliness.
for a few moments; for the rest of the film's length--all 142 minutes
of it--we're subject to a treatise on how Life Can Be a Bitch (Even
in Wealthy Tokyo). One expects more from Inarritu; hopefully one
will, in future projects.
First published in Businessworld, 01/26/07.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org