Two More from 2006

Perhaps it was the coincidence that I saw Babel the day after I made my first trip across the border into Tijuana—bringing on the realization that disparate worlds really aren’t all that far apart—made me so receptive to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film, the latest, impeccably acted installment in the current penchant for the-world-is-a-connect-the-dot-puzzle type of film that has many film buffs moaning in Crash-inspired lamentation. The biggest flaw (and the element that causes the greatest rankle among critics) seems to be Iñárritu and script co-writer Guillermo Arriaga’s insistence on linking the three continent-spanning storylines together, something which really didn’t bother me all that much since it’s an extremely common device found in literature. And that is how Babel worked most strongly for me—as a short story collection, or a triptych not all that far away from another 2006 film, Hou Hsio-Hsein’s Three Times. Yeah, in both films it might be possible stitch the stories thematically together, but isn’t it a much more pleasurable experience to simply savor the individual elements that make each story unique?

Perhaps it’s because the Japanese storyline centering around Rinko Kikuch is so beautifully rendered that I’m willing to give the rest of the film—whose admirable qualities are much more intermittent in nature—an easy pass. I’d go as far as to say that Iñárritu’s spin on essentially the same material taken on in the third section of Three Times is infinitely more successful than what Hou ended up with. While Iñárritu may initially have it easier because the character’s deafness literalizes the sensation of alienation, the way it plays out—fragilely, unexpectedly—is ultimately more satisfying because it shows that beneath the modern-day emotional malaise there is a beating heart aching to connect with someone or something. Which brings me to a quote I recently happened to come across in my recent readings of poet Anne Carson:

clear as Babel,

such a tower! scattered through the heart…

While the metaphor of the film’s title seems just a tad too opaque (and the decision to annunciate the word like “babble” at the Golden Globes is just too funny, especially considering the complaints of many of its detractors), I think Carson sums up the general sentiment behind Iñárritu’s film—that we’re still trying to overcome the seeds of disconnection and discontent that began back the Biblical story of Babel.  I’m still undecided whether or not Iñárritu’s effort to help bridge that gap succeeds or fail to acheive its lofty goals, but there is some undeniable resonance in his frantic attempt.  Babel is, at the very least, a collection of wonderfully rendered moments packaged in a slightly-less-than-desirable package, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t work for me.

***

Notes on a Scandal (2006) is what happens when the prune-faced busybody glimpsed on the fringes of hundreds of books and films—the type always peering through pulled curtains at her passing neighbors—is placed front center, given her own film to wreak havoc on. Dame Judi Dench is the latest in an ever-growing line of actresses willing to de-glam for a showy role (as funny as it is to say it)–the regal thespian here plays a mousy, undistinguished schoolteacher bitter at how her life has played out, which manifests itself in the cultivation of odd obsessions with younger female colleagues. Cate Blanchett plays the latest victim to find herself caught in the web of this black widow, giving a performance that is so subtly shaded that its complexity can be easily overlooked (for once, the Academy can’t be blamed for doing this). 

Essentially, this is the stuff of Sirk films and countless studio-era melodramas are made of, the difference being the lurid subject matter (pedophilia! lesbianism! blowjobs behind closed doors!) can be more explicitly disclosed than it ever was in the past.  And it seems it is on that level that most reviewers have reacted to the film—overblown melodrama—with some even expressing disappointment that director Richard Eyre doesn’t take the material to its campy extreme. God knows this is a film rife with potential “Neely O’Haaaaaaara!” moments—and it’s testament to the acting skills of Dench and Blanchett that the film never lapses into such ridiculousness (as sublime as the effect can be, admittedly). And that’s where I think the film is at its most interesting—it constantly subverts the audience expectation for high camp, transforming what could easily have been a screamer into something more thoughtful, and ultimately haunting. Because how is one supposed to react to a woman who can use phrases like “prepubescent paramour” as she describes her humdrum day in her nightly journal? Laugh? Perhaps, but at the same time there’s also something implicitly sad about the entire situation—this is obviously the warped perspective of a person who has suffered a lifetime full of unfulfilled dreams and constant disillusionment, a realization that makes this film more poignant than perhaps it was ever intended to be.

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4 thoughts on “Two More from 2006

  1. I’ve not yet seen ‘Notes’ (soon!) but I coincidentally just came out of watching ‘Babel’ myself and am glad to find someone who reacted as I did. I did think the film had it’s problems, and for a fair way in I was still prepared to dislike it, but I ultimately found it all really quite powerful. And I especially agree with your thoughts on how the attempt to link them together wasn’t bothersome- I think already knowing how they linked together removed that element and I simply let the separate threads work by themselves. A great review, and I’ll be returning to read the one of ‘Notes’ after I see it. Keep up the good work, I’ve always thought your journal(s) were really insightful and personal.

  2. I haven’t seen any of the two, because I’m waiting for them to be shown on a film festival this month. I have been in love with Cate Blanchett ever since I have had the pleasure of seeing her in Tom Tykwer’s “Heaven”, and have been a great admirer of everything Iñárritu has made so far, so I must say that I’m slightly more interested in “Babel”, than “Notes on a Scandal”, although both seem really appealing.

    I would also like to salute you and wish you all the luck with your new journal, which already looks absolutely amazing.

  3. Dave – I’m glad to see somebody else liked it–I know it has its (several) defenders over at MC, but I think there’s a lot of “hate for hate’s sake” going on with it. And thank you for the kind words.

    Radovan – One of the things I didn’t go into was how Babel unfortunately wastes Blanchett–when it comes down to it it’s an extremely tiny part, nearly a cameo, really. And while she does make an impact whenever she’s on screen (she’s Cate Blanchett, for heaven’s sake!). Scandal is definitely the film where she gives a noteworthy performance, and I hope you get a chance to see both.

  4. I’ve enjoyed what you’ve written and I’m pleased that others are sharing similar thoughts in regards to the film. The thing is that my viewing of Babel wasn’t a typical one for me. I sometimes tend to watch a film, all the while I’m pointing out editing/shooting mistakes to myself. This wasn’t the case for Babel. Aside from it’s attributes and admissible shortcomings, I was right through relating to all story lines, especially Amelia’s. Perhaps it was a little too familiar. For this the film took on a whole new aspect personally. This never happens.

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