Saturday, August 18, 2007

Movie review: "Babel"

Thursday night we finally watched the movie "Babel" (2006: Alejandro González Iñárritu). Wow, what a profound film, utterly engrossing. Its 135 minutes seemed only about as long as Woody Allen's perfect 87. Director Iñárritu seems to be saying that however compartmentalized and divergent peoples may be by their languages, cultures, and belief systems, they are nevertheless extremely interdependent, at least in the sense that a random act in one place can have huge consequences for individuals in others.

My first thought on the title, relative to the Biblical Tower of Babel, was that it's intended ironically, showing that contrary to the non-communication implied by the story in Chapter 11 of Genesis, everyone is nevertheless very closely linked. But if the title was meant ironically, I'm not sure that it works, for the "link" portrayed in "Babel" is rather dysfunctional, and the point of the Genesis story seems to be that the divisions among people prevent them from coming together constructively. On that reading, it appears that the movie's title isn't ironic at all but rather functions as a label to describe our dysfunctional world, in which the primary connection among disparate people is destructive, tragic.

My friend Ed commented that he
enjoyed the movie, but the odds of that many things happening, because of one rifle...well, I feel the writer entertained us, but in order to do so, we had to believe in the improbable....I was entertained, but not enlightened.
Ed made me realize that I'd been assuming that because the particular matrix depicted in the movie seemed so plausible, then "that sort of thing" must be happening "all of the time." I'm still inclined to think so, but I'd feel more confident of it if I could think of some examples.

I wonder whether an incident that my manager at IBM told me about almost forty years ago might qualify. He was commuting to work by train one morning when the train struck a section of rail that was lying on the track and the end of the rail swung up, smashed through a window, and decapitated the woman sitting in front of him. (My manager had barely recovered his composure by the time he described the incident.)

All that's needed for an "international" connection of the sort used in "Babel" would be for the workman presumably responsible for the rail's lying on the track to have been an immigrant and to have just received horrible news from back home (maybe somewhere in Asia or Africa or South America) that distracted him...the way a phone call early in "Babel" sets in motion the Mexican sequences of the film. If you who are reading this can supply other possible examples, please be so kind as to tell me about them in a comment.

Another thing that struck me about the story told by "Babel" is the crucial role that Iñárritu seems to assign to human stupidity. The father's handing the aforementioned rifle to his children to go shoot jackals with. The young Mexican (played by Gael García Bernal's) irresponsibility in trying to drive the children back to San Diego. That young Japanese girl's perilously wanton sexual behavior, utterly naive as to the provocation she was offering. Indeed, the arrogant stupidity of the American tourists blithely assuming—apparently because they're Americans—that they're impervious to mischance. I too have behaved stupidly and can only wonder at how narrowly I may have escaped much more unforgiving consequences than the ones I actually experienced.

Note: an excerpt from this review can be seen at's entry for "Babel." The Internet Movie Database welcomes reviews, so you might consider sharing there your own reactions to movies you even lets you edit your review after you've posted it.

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