Sunday, January 21, 2007

Babel and Pho

Wow! Babel caught the feel of each of its locations - Southern California, Northern Mexico, Moroco, and Tokyo. OK, I haven't been to Moroco, but there was something about the camera and the editing that picked up lots of little details that said to me, "This director is seeing the world differently than most American directors." Having spent a fair amount of time in non-Western countries, I recognized these images. (And, of course Alejandro González Iñárritu isn't a United States citizen.) I knew that the film connected these different locations and perhaps the critics who didn't like the film thought the connections were too easy - the American tourists in Moroco, connected to their children left in Southern California in the care of their Mexican nanny. That doesn't spoil anything and I won't reveal the Japanese connection. The more complex, and to me more significant institutional connections were not even touched on. That would be a legitimate critique. But I doubt that was what they didn't like.

Or perhaps they thought the portrayal of the industrial world citizens too negative and the citizens of Moroco and Mexico too positive. While I suspect that some groups of tourists would have reacted better, I know that the impatient Brit on the bus has very real models. And that American tourists as wrought up as Richard (Brad Pitt) are also not uncommon. And I suspect the alienation of the Japanese school girl is also real. And the Morocan police weren't portrayed all that positively and Santiago (Gael García Bernal) certainly made some pretty bad choices. The fact that Pitt's character had no family or friends who could take the kids for a while, seemed a bit hard for me to conceive. While the mobility of Americans pulls many from their connections, it seems a family as well off and established as this family ought to have been able to call on friends or relatives. Perhaps that was the Mexican stereotype of Americans who have abandoned their kids to Mexican caregivers.

It did make the Morocans - the goat herders and the villagers where Pitt and Blanchet awaited help - into human beings. They weren't complete people, but we got past the normal stereotypes we might have had. And the Mexican wedding was something anyone in any culture could understand.

Having the Japanese girl be deaf was an unexpected extra twist, showing her own alienation not only from her Dad (who could sign), but from other Japanese.

But all in all, a film depicting the problems of communications really takes us a step closer to being able to communicate with others. This was a film with a different perspective, one that I recognize as closer to the world I see, than most Hollywood films. For that reason, I applaud it.

We talked about the film afterward over Vietnamese noodles at Pho Saigon restaurant.

I did peruse some of the reviews of the movie. Most were pretty positive and the negative ones were mostly about the gap between what was attempted and what was achieved by the film makers. But this comment on Lisa Schwartzbaum review is what I thought the negative American reviews would look like:

"This is a great movie for elitist and (properly) self-loathing white American liberals. They can sit in their comfy theatre chairs and watch Brad Pitt go through all of his cliche'd UgAm histrionics, contrasted with the Deep Nobility of the 3rd World characters and smile their self-satisfied smiles and say to themselves "How awful THOSE types of Americans behave... no wonder the rest of the world hates us !" Then they can drive home in their Prius or other socially acceptable vehicle, pick up a little Starbuck's on the way ("they DO support the environment, you know"), and revel that their sense of being "emotionally drained" at this experience of High and Culturally Sensitive Art is the stamp of legitimacy on their highly evolved Liberal Sensibilities. Truly, their emotional reaction to this formulaic drivel is proof of their Great Worldliness.
I want my 10 bucks back."

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