The Too-Towering Babel


Globally grim: Brad Pitt in 'Babel'Why is it that the skillfully made and human Babel doesn’t resonate more, and feel more honest and rich?

Its blunt-instrument trailer aside, the movie from director/co-scenarist Alejandro González Iñárritu is sensitive and restrained, letting its four loosely related stories stand largely independent of each other and never forcing additional connections between them. The movie is never maudlin, its performances and individual plot strands are credible and involving, and the character of a deaf Japanese teenager is written and performed with an alarming authenticity as it moves toward literal and emotional nakedness.

Yet as well crafted as Babel is — a huge improvement over the director’s unnecessarily convoluted 21 Grams — there’s something off about it.

Some people have faulted the movie for its unrelenting misery, although I don’t think having a consistent tone is a fair criticism. To use another fractured, grim film as a comparison, Robert Altman’s Short Cuts was even more uniformly dour.

Others have claimed that the movie doesn’t make good on the thematic promise of its title:

“It’s not really a film about the complications that arise due to people speaking different languages, or even an examination of communication in general. It’s actually a film that says when people do really stupid things, bad stuff happens to them. This is the kind of thing you don’t really need a film to point out to you.”

But is Babel meant to be about communication? The trailer and one of its taglines (“Listen”) certainly frame the film that way, but for the most part we should divorce a movie from its marketing.

That’s particularly wise given that the Babel story in Genesis is about much more than communication:

“And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.”

The humans in the story are punished for their aspiration to reach heaven, for their thirst for knowledge or power. God didn’t react because they’d done anything wrong; on the contrary, he perceived them as a threat: “[A]nd now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.” And then God divides them by hindering their ability to communicate, rather than smiting them as he did the world with the flood that Noah survived. The story of Babel is the tale of a power struggle.

I don’t know what this movie means in the context of Babel; I’m only suggesting that the allusion of the title is more complex than the trailer would lead you to believe. And unlike 2005’s Crash, Babel is ambiguous enough to transcend an easy reading.

But the movie still doesn’t work, and the problem is relatively straightforward: Iñárritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga want to tell the audience something, and that purpose dictates the paths of the individual stories. It’s fine that Babel wants to meaningfully communicate about the human condition, but it does so from the top down, rather than letting the stories work their natural magic from the bottom up.

The movie operates as a parable, in the sense that the story is crafted around a message rather than existing as an organic, stand-alone object. The movie has a sense of self-importance, a confidence that these woven threads will teach you about life, that they will impart truth to the viewer. What’s missing is an inquisitiveness; they think they know instead of trying to learn.

In Babel, a Japanese man gives away a gun that is then sold and used to injure an American tourist, whose children are endangered when their housekeeper takes them to a wedding in Mexico. In that plot summary are four separate narratives — each of which is compelling and sharply drawn enough for its own feature — in four separate countries. Together they are significantly less than they should be.

Contrast this film with the similarly expansive Short Cuts and Magnolia and some of the problems with Babel become more apparent. The coincidences and connections in Altman’s and Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies are arguably sillier than those in Babel — there is no convenient earthquake or rain of frogs here — but the older works are intimate in their geography (specific to Los Angeles) and show no interest in social issues. They don’t lay claim to a global agenda.

Babel does, spanning the world, touching on politics — terrorism, immigration, guns — and turning three of its stories into international incidents. The section featuring Rinko Kikuchi as the Japanese teenager works so well because it is not exploited for a larger aim.

Everywhere else, though, there’s a tension between the obvious craft of Babel — the attention to character and detail — and its purpose; the movie’s emotional accuracy is undercut by the size of its canvas and the juxtaposition of fundamentally disparate narratives.

If my argument seems abstract, it’s because the primary flaw of Babel is in the conception of the whole rather than execution of its parts. My complaint is philosophical; I’m sure many people want bold statements of truth from their art — and Babel wears its truth like cheap cologne — but I prefer an authorial modesty.

Last month, physicist S. James Gates Jr. was discussing Einstein on the public-radio program Speaking of Faith and said something that immediately struck me:

“Many people often are confused about what is the essential nature of science. And again I’ll paraphrase Einstein. Once he said he wasn’t even sure the phrase ‘scientific truth’ had any meaning, and for someone who’s worked in science, I think I understand what that means because, you see, science is not about truths. What science is about is making our beliefs less false.”

Many people will see that as splitting hairs. After all, doesn’t “less false” equal “more true”? Of course it does.

And it doesn’t. The distinction between those phrases is subtle but meaningful, both semantic and critical. Adding truth to something can be very different from removing falseness, as dissimilar as painting is to chipping away at a block of marble.

I was reminded of a term that David Bordwell used in relation to film criticism. He said he wanted writing about the cinema to teach him “approximately true” things about movies.

These words reflect an essential agnosticism about how much we can know. The phrases suggest that Gates and Bordwell believe that “truth” is an unattainable goal — that it’s too lofty for the tools we have at our disposal, whether it’s science or words or film.

Instead, we should aspire to approximate truth, or less falseness. Put simply, the trouble with Babel is that reaches for truth, just as the people of Babel reached for heaven.

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