Friday, October 27, 2006

COMMUNICATION BREAKDOWN. I got to an advance screening of Babel this week. I've never seen Iñárritu's other movies (Amores Perros, 21 Grams), but I can see why he's a big deal. He's really good at showing the undramatic ways in which dramatic events develop. Two brothers, each jealous of the other's claims on their father, wind up shooting a tourist; a young deaf girl seems perfectly well-socialized within her peer group, but when she is casually reminded of the doors that are closed to her, she begins to act out sexually; a Mexican nanny wants to go to her son's wedding and takes a risk that has a good chance of working out -- until her nephew takes a risk of his own that turns everything into a nightmare.

This shows great storytelling craft, but Iñárritu wanted something bigger than a mere story, and mashed a bunch of them up into some sort of thread-crossing statement picture. Unfortunately I don't know what the statement is supposed to be. Communication is obviously a big part of it -- language barriers, deafness, "Babel." But if you want to say that communication breakdowns are the cause of all the problems in the film, you have to define both "communication" and "problem" so broadly that they barely mean anything. If the Americans have wound up in Morocco because they can't talk to each other, does that mean getting shot is a communications problem? And do the boys get to the point of target practice because their conflict resolution skills are imperfectly developed, or because they're boys and have a gun?

Also, the film slows way down at the end, so that we may more fully experience, or wallow in, the agonies of the characters -- but at that point they were still strangers to me, and in fact I cared much less about all but one of them than I had at the outset. Only the deaf girl's story held me -- partly because Kikuchi Rinko's performance is so amazing, but also because her story had suffered the least from distractions: her deafness, and her adolescent simplicity, made it necessary for Iñárritu to focus intensely on her, and we could read a world of details into her silence. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett just can't compete with that, no matter how photogenically they suffer.

It occurs to me that this sort of multi-thread strategy breaks down dramatic interest of necessity, and that it only works if the multiple plots and casts coalesce to suggest a community that we can care about, as in Nashville or Dodes'ka-den. God knows Altman's stars, wannabes, and innocent bystanders chronically talk past one another, but their town still lives because their blind, groping need holds them together; Kurosawa's dump-dwellers have communications problems, too, and there's even a character who doesn't speak (well, maybe because he's really a ghost), but that's just what you expect from people who live so close to one another that each man must jealously guard his identity, or the private pain that is all he knows of it. (Though spouses are interchangable. Damn, that's a beautiful movie; I wish I could watch it right now.)

If there's a community in Babel, it would seem to be The World. That may have been a little too big a target for Iñárritu, at least at this point. But he's got great skills, and he makes Morocco, Tokyo, and Tijuana feel so real in the short spaces devoted to each of them that I wonder what he could do for one place over an hour or so. Let me know when he makes a simpler movie.

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