The Movie Club

In Defense of Babel
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 3 2007 3:44 PM

The Movie Club

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Dear all,

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Let's bid a fond farewell to Giovanni Ribisi's intestines (about which Carina had some marvelous last thoughts) and Mel Gibson's glistening tapir balls. Thanks for indulging my confessional impulse—if you want to come clean about some of your own cinematic resistances, or fetishes, or disavowals, you're in a safe place here. But I promise that, for this year's Club at least, I ain't gonna study war no more.

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

Harder, of course, than dissecting one's resistances is defending one's passions. To those readers who have written in about this in tones ranging from gratitude to dismay: Babel is not my candidate for best film of the year for 2006. It's at the top of my list because the list is alphabetical. But I did love Iñárritu's grand and teetering folly, what A.O. Scott in the Times called "an incomplete monument to its own limitless ambition." I loved that it was a film about language as what separates and connects us, the medium we move in and struggle against, and sometimes the border patrol that harasses us and searches our car. Keith's reading, that the film's wandering souls are just "people in need of a phrasebook," seems to me too quickly dismissive. Who isn't? Isn't it our condition, especially post-globalization and post-9/11, to race around the globe in search of a universal idiom (democracy, human rights, capitalism) that turns out not to exist? Too many movies about "multiculturalism" pretend to speak Esperanto, or worse yet, James L. Brooks-ian Spanglish. I felt, paradoxically, at home in the rich chaos of Babel's untranslated cacophony.

I know a lot of people felt bludgeoned by Babel's operatic emotions (was that your problem, Wesley?), but there's no denying the technical wizardry involved in wringing those emotions from an audience. What about the separate visual worlds Iñárritu and his whiz of a DP, Rodrigo Prieto, invented for each of the movie's story lines: the cold, glassy surfaces of the Tokyo scenes, the ocher expanses of Morocco, the warm reds of the Mexican wedding sequence? Or Adriana Barraza's fierce performance as the nanny, Rinko Kikuchi's as the deaf teen rebel, and the amazing nonprofessional kids who played the sons of the Berber shepherd?

Babel is the third and last of Iñárritu's collaborations with the screenwriter and novelist Guillermo Arriaga. I wouldn't be surprised to see him leave behind the multipart, "for-want-of-a-shoe-the-horse-was-lost" narrative structures that have dominated his three Arriaga-scripted films (not that that's necessarily a bad thing) and to throw his considerable talent and passion into something totally unexpected. Whatever he does, I think he stands a chance of becoming one of our great international filmmakers. Cuarón, Del Toro, Iñárritu—the future is Mexican, man. (Even if I can't stop hearing that sentence in the flat faux-vato accent of Jack Black in Nacho Libre.)

And quickly on Borat: Though I happened to catch Snakes on a Plane with an exuberant opening-night crowd and enjoyed myself hugely, Carina's right that no other movie this year could touch the Kazakh for sheer audience appeal. But I'm somewhat baffled by the school of thought (to which Wesley seems to belong) that holds the movie up as a formal innovation the likes of which has never been seen before. There are so many generic antecedents to Borat: the cringe theater of the Jackass movies and Curb Your Enthusiasm, the Jewish vaudeville tradition (nailed by Slate's Jody Rosen in this piece), even Da Ali G Show itself. Wesley, when you talk about Cohen's "ever-changing, superhuman purpose," I'm so with you; there's something almost alien about the purity of his devotion to artifice. But doesn't that function, almost by definition, to outstrip whatever movie or talk show or rodeo ring he happens to be performing in? The whole joke of Borat is that he doesn't fit anywhere; why should he fit seamlessly in his own movie? It doesn't seem necessary to admire Larry Charles' direction as a miracle of cohesion in order to appreciate the comic novelty of the conceit. As for the faint sense of moral queasiness I felt while watching Borat—which had more to do with the film's likely reception than its content—George Saunders blew it wide open in a savage little New Yorker spoof that imagined a careerist intern pitching extras for the Borat DVD.

Wesley's excellent question about the place of love in the movies has my mind so thoroughly blown that I'll hand the baton off for now while I ponder it further. Why does the representation of human pair bonding continue to compel us, particularly in romantic comedies where we know perfectly damn well who's kissing whom in the end? Are we just lab rats in some vast behaviorist experiment, endlessly pressing a lever for our evolutionary reward pellets? (I hate this kind of argument, and the use of the term hard-wired, more than any cliché in current pop rhetoric. But I'm just trying to keep the conversation lively.)

Keith, you're it!

Dana