translating Babel


A Moroccan guy buys a hunting rifle plus three hundred shells for 500 hundred Dirham and a goat. The only ?joke? in the film in fact, is when this poor farmer offers a goat instead of the extra 500 Dirhams the gun seller wanted. Then he gives the gun to his two kids and tells them to shoot jackals and goes off to work/shopping. Now I don?t believe this. Call me an unreconstructed Marxist, but how much would it cost him to buy more bullets? A lot, maybe even another goat. Giving the whole box to his kids and leaving them with the gun doesn?t ring psychologically, economically or even emotionally true. But it all looks authentic. Well, it displays an authenticity we buy into when we go and see such a serious high minded movie, precisely because it is that ?authenticity? we have paid to see. Authenticity is commodified at the expense of what? Realism?

I don?t believe Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchette would go on an organised tour of Morocco in a coach with a group of lower middle class British people, including Harriet Walter. These people also wouldn?t turn on a fellow passenger after his wife gets shot in the neck by an unseen assailant, but that?s beside the point. Also nobody has a mobile phone, which is more than implausible, but in the context of the narrative, very convenient. It allows the action to move to the next authentic location.

The tour guide takes them to his village so they can phone an ambulance. He takes Cate and Brad to his house and they lie her on the bare floor. Why don?t they put her in a proper bed? She just ends up on the floor of an empty room. Where?s all the family?s stuff? Are they so rich that they just have this empty flat in case of just such an emergency? Is it more dramatic to have Cate lying on the (packed mud) floor than on a bed? Is this more authentic? The guy has lots of kids. Where are they? Do they have to scarper whilst Whitey is spilling blood all over the family house? Cate and Brad kiss and make up, healing the wounds caused by their child’s cot death as she pisses into a pan he holds under her, after having previously pissed herself. Don?t look at me. I didn?t write the fucking script. Momo?s is a more authentic experience of Morocco than this room without a bed. I hate this room without a bed and the prone white woman lying on the packed mud floor.

As soon as the kids get hold of the rifle we know that something terrible is going to happen. As soon as the Mexican nanny decides to take her white charges to Mexico for her sons wedding we know something terrible is going to happen. There?s no tension other than the anxiety that the audience brings to the cinema for just living in such ?troubled times?. We are called on to participate in this film as a gesture of conscience. Can this be true? Can these ?troubled times? themselves be something we have bought into, another obscene commodity?

At the wedding the two (uptight) white kids reconnect with the fun of being (real) kids when they help chase, capture and kill by hand lots of chickens. It?s what the old uptight white chick learns from the black guy in ?Driving Miss Daisy?. Same deal. Beat the truth out of the slave and then enjoy being uplifted by the self same truth. How can two healthy, wealthy white children be clueless? Is it a way of giving something back to those we have stolen so much from? Let the blacks be cool, let them have soul.

For a movie that must of cost $30m to make and will garner its cast and director accolades ranging from ?bravery? to groundbreaking performances, to bravura storytelling (three disparate tales linked by coincidence and television. falling for this audacious disparity is like being amazed when the magician at a kids party twists a few balloons into the facsimile of a giraffe right before your eyes ), I was surprised that the only attempt at emotionally engaging the audience was achieved through that most conventional and hackneyed of techniques, sequences of images of people travelling set to music. Albeit painfully authentic Moroccan, and Mexican songs, this smacks to me of deception. I can only surmise the fun/enriching life experience these cultural vampires had sourcing such perfect pieces of real music for the film. A few days at a bijou hotel down in Baja California, a whirlwind weekend deep in the souks of Marrakech.

What struck me most about this film was the self conscious ethnicity on display. The film pleaded its case with shots of sunken eyed Moroccan women with Kohl smudged eyes, lingering shots of the detritus and display of an impoverished Mexican wedding, alienated, drugged up Japanese youth adrift in the Tokyo house music sub-culture.

Yet I remember only a single moment of adequate resonance, despite all the shots of hands entwined in close up, it was the brides face pushed into her wedding cake by the groom that allowed me to smile.

Western cinema holds the world in its death-gaze. We turn everything we see to stone.

Murdering everything exterior to itself, each beautifully composed shot a nail in the coffin of whatever it was or could have been. The possibility of being exterior to this gaze is what we really kill. It?s just US right?

We hover around the ?other? taking our pictures as it expires. The Medivac was only ever going to come for Cate Blanchette in a scene that reminded me of nothing other than John Wayne in ?The Green Beret?.

It?s interesting that the best sequences in the film are set in Tokyo. The deaf mute girls story was engaging. We didn?t feel the same ethnic frisson here, there is no exploitation or poverty involved. The terrible thing had already happened in this story, her mum had killed herself off camera. The night club sequence was actually enjoyable and felt authentic because its authenticity wasn’t earnt at the cost of, at the expense of any Other; this story wasn?t lost in translation.

The director dedicates the film to his two daughters, ?the brightest lights in the darkest sky? or whatever. The vice like grip of all our families cloud our judgements and leeches our compassion. Brad Pitt is the direct expression of this dedication. In fact the film is in effect an expression of the sentiment in these words, which should read more like a valediction for those not loved, those who do not brighten our darkest skies.

My wife points out that this is same director who made ?21 Grams?, a film we laughed at for twenty minutes and then walked out of. So it?s my fault already, thank God it was an Orange Wednesday and we got two for one on the tickets

This movie, like his last, most resembled those TV melodramas set in hospitals. In the UK we have Holby City itself a spin off of another long running show, Casualty, to fulfil the schadenfreude we all clamour for. The pleasure of knowing something terrible is going to happen to somebody else and watching it happen. The tragedy of a movie so bloated with noble intention, so blown up and full of its own worth like Babel, is that it obviates our need to engage with non western culture and non western peoples. Like the current trend in big/medium budget movies ?about Africa? these movies make us feel better and more engaged. Which is the point I guess, our right to be happy, to prosper, to make important movies, to watch them, to share such a generous Liberalism with the world. Isn?t that what awards season is all about? a gift to the world.

The final image I will leave you with is from another movie, ?Children of men?. A sequence where the director mixes Holocaust images, well, his idea of Holocaust imagery, with images from Abu Graib/Guantanamo, to make his point about fortress Europe, immigration control, basically our racism, fear of the other in a Sci-Fi movie about a world where we can?t have children. Piss again saves the day, when the Nazi British guard demurs from taking the black heroine to her death because he thinks she pissed herself on the bus. Oh for the magical protection of piss on the transports to Auschwitz. And he calls himself a Fascist? A world without children indeed.

No children to brighten up the darkest sky.

That and Cate Blanchette pissing herself. Brad Pitt pulling down her sodden knickers on the floor of that Moroccan family room.

Fuck off. Fuck off. Fuck off. How dare you, how fucking dare you.

If it could my voice would ululate like the voices of the women in the final scene of the Battle of Algiers. I would bay for revenge. Not on a fucking movie, but revenge for another defeat in this great ?War for Civilisation? that we are all, whether we like it or not, engaged in.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.

7 Comments to “translating Babel”

  1. Forgive me for being dense, but it was only recently that it struck me that Hollywood sold out the whole of history in favour of the happy ending.

    There were probably other kinds of stories to tell in films, but when the talkies came about, the world was falling apart, as usual, and all anyone had any stomach for was wish-fulfilment and fantasy. (Suspect it’s the same depressed era impulse that means all video games give you the opportunity to be someone you’re not and conquer the world/outer space/nazi germany).

    Once that happened, there was never going to be anything other than crass attempts to manipulate us by creating a fake kind of tension that you’re seeing in Babel. Picture the pitch: ‘what would happen if…’ a lot of unconnected and fairly random ideas for shorts were nailed together to make a feature for 30 bar? Well, what would happen is what happens in Lost, mutatis mutandis.

    There’s never any real tension, just some unpsecified anxiety that something BAD is going to happen. (A kind of watered down hubris for Brad and Cate, a bit of guilty cosncience massaging over the mexican stuff and a potentially interesting indie film kind of thing about being alienated in the most alienating culture that still has a lot of conspicuous consumption). All wrapped up as ‘art’ with a capital ‘F’

  2. but it is this very shadenfruede, this elitist indulgence of generation anxiety that is so pernicious. Feel good movies for bad times is a whole lot more innocent than this non sense.

    Come back Cary Grant all is forgiven. Even play t again Sam was more resonant in terms of a european melancholia than Brads puffed up face andMerril pants and the dreary fashion mag attempt at ennui accomplished by the blanchette!

    we are going out with a nasty whimper.

  3. we are terrified of pain but deep down we all know this is what life is. we spend all our time trying to distance ourselves from pain because we actually believe we can get away from it. the idea is laughable. we all think we deserve happiness this is also laughable. someone else’s pain like brad and cate’s is the way we have come to experience pain. our salvation lies in going through it using whatever we have at our disposal. only by going through our own pain and not running away to the cinema to watch facsimilies of feeling do we begin to understand each other. brotherhood begins in shared pain.

  4. This is the best movie review I have ever read. Absolutely superb and sadly true.

  5. Blindestiff: some tips for the next review you write:

    - Please note that the people you watch films like Babel, are actors. In that sense, even if “Cate or Brad” wouldn’t even dream of being surrounded by lower class british people, their characters within the film are just a couple of tourists. Not rich and famous. So, remember, they are actors.

    - It wouldn’t hurt to document yourself a little. Maybe reading about the social context within the stories? How do you know what kind of moroccan village they are in? Do ALL moroocan people have beds? do mobile phones work everywhere? do you have to watch lots of children to prove a man has lots of children? is that relevant in anyway? (there was a shot of the children, by the way). Have you been in Mexico? do you know how weddings are? Just because it looks impoverished to you, does it mean it is?

    - Er, nevermind…

    As it happened to you with 21 grams, I couldn’t even finished reading your poor attempt of a review. So please, if you are going to be such a smart arse and criticize others’ work at least make an effort.

  6. what led you to think this was a ‘film review’ nothing so beourgoise my friend. So, to your points. Do you think that a film star, an actor never brings somewhat too much of themselves to their role, obscuring our view of their ‘character’. Al Pacino, Bobby De Niro Jack Nicholson are now, have become only themselves in their movies. I was questioning the plausability of casting such names in a film that purports to be about ‘people’. Cate and Brad unbalance the film from the first frame. Not a particularly unique or difficult observation that you didn’t understand! Point 2. Dcumen myself? Why? who cares about my biography? I have no interest in myself except for my ability to exprss ideas. I am not in the business of reviewing films, but in attempting to understand the ways in which we percieve and belittle ‘other’ people, how our privelidged Gaze cauterises the ability of the oher to express themselves; much like Nazis listening to captive Jewish orchestras, we extract pleasure from the suffering of others for the purposes of garnering rave liberal film reviews and ‘awards’. I only want to question this. It goes way beyond any criticism of a piece of work…for that I suggest you read Time out or a newspaper.

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