Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Oscarblogging, Year the Second, Part the First: Towering and Cowering

So yeah, there's these awards.

I want to emphasize again, to anyone who's hopped on this blog-train since last year, that I don't consider the Oscars to be the ultimate in cinematic judgment (since, after all, I'm pretty bloody egotistical about my own). I do, however, consider them an important marker of the social climate for art in America. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is simply an association of artists honoring other artists; for some reason, we're more interested about the honors members of this field bestow upon each other than we are about, say, plumbers or mathematicians. Members of the Academy are part of a field dependent upon audience reaction—read, the social climate of America—for financial success. So the Oscars, while not by any means earth-shattering, are pretty important indicators of the American mindset.

So I'm going to see and blog every Best Picture nominee, probably with some forays into films nominated for other awards. Today, I'll look at the only one I've seen so far: Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel.

I haven't seen the other two major Iñárritu films, 21 Grams or Amores Perros, so I'm speaking from a position of mild ignorance; however, I've heard that they utilize the recent cinematic vogue of overlapping, seemingly-unrelated stories made to connect, a techniquethat seems particularly useful for Issue Films of various quality, from Traffic to Crash. It makes sense: to explore a social theme as thoroughly as possible, one would reasonably want to show as many facets of it as possible. To make a successful film in such a genre, however, you must have a much clearer idea of your theme than Iñárritu conveys in Babel. Ostensibly, the film centers around the failures of communication in a global society, and I suppose, technically, it succeeds at portraying that. As in, yes, the film follows multiple characters in and of multiple different cultures who, for one reason and another, have tremendous difficulty communicating with the social world that immediately surrounds them. Ultimately, the Westerners—American and Japanese families—get to come through these communication problems with their lives fundamentally intact; not so the Berber and Mexican characters, because the harm the Western world can inflict upon them is much greater than vice versa. And if we didn't already know that, it's unlikely we would have sought out the film. There's substantially more character development in Babel than in Crash, making it by several yards a better film, and the acting is tremendously well-done even by Brad Pitt, but nevertheless Iñárritu fails to provide any insight on the bleak, divided world he portrays.

The movie's first major failing is the Japanese storyline's extraordinarily tenuous connection to the other three. Reviews claim that we don't learn of that storyline's stunning connection to the other three until the very end of the film; I'm telling you now that we don't really learn it, because it barely even qualifies as a connection. Why, by god, there is an international weapons trade. And lo and behold, there are Japanese and American tourists in North Africa who have no idea what the social world to which they are paying a brief and shallow visit is really like. My god, what next. It's a shame, because Rinko Kikuchi very much deserves her Oscar nomination—what she had to do was, honestly, far more challenging than what Adriana Barraza had to do—and the tale of this sexually asea deaf adolescent girl and her lost, well-intentioned father in a Tokyo made even more dizzying on an ecstacy trip could have been a movie of its own. Instead, Iñárritu forced this storyline, because it was also about communication, to connect with the others but couldn't be bothered to make the connection matter. When the anticlimactic link was presented, I felt betrayed. Here I'd thought Babel was trying to tell different sides of one global story that represented an idea, rather than just sides of an idea, which latter makes for some interesting thought but not much of a useful narrative.

The second real issue is, as per our usual agreement, the form-content divide. That is to say, complex storytelling does not necessarily make a complex story, and it was unfair for Iñárritu to behave as if it did. The story would be made complex only by allowing the our understanding of each character to enhance our understanding of another, but they really don't. Bad things happen to the Westerners, but they start and end privileged and that's what saves them from the fates to which we leave the Berber and Mexican characters, even though the latter two had some good times in the course of the film. The journeys in the movie, with the exception of the Rinko Kikuchi story, happen only in the sense of stuff happening, rather than people changing, internally, as a result of stuff happening. Which means that Iñárritu is trying to make the story happen to the audience without having it happen to the characters. Which is manipulation into coming to a conclusion, rather than manipulation into going through a process. We learn no more from going through these harrowing events with these characters than we would from hearing about their results.

Let me say it again: I like Babel better than Crash. Much, much better. You could have changed things that aren't the fundamental core of the concept to make Babel a genuinely good movie; the acting is of a uniformly high caliber and the cinematography really serves the storytelling in an interesting and well-thought-out fashion. It's Guillermo Arriaga's script (he collaborated with Iñárritu on the previous two films as well, but by most reports this plans to be their last) that causes the bulk of the problems; the performers, however strong, can't transcend its limitations because they simply have nowhere to go, and Iñárritu plays into the script's problems, building towards climaxes too foreseeable to be truly climactic.

According to IMDB, the film's tagline is "If you want to be understood … Listen." I never encountered that in its advertisements, but I suppose it makes sense. Literally or figuratively, no one in the movie can really hear anyone else. But its author and director are equally tone-deaf to the nuances of the social world they aim to portray, and as such run from the possibility of any real artistic insight.


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