February 19, 2007
After being turned away from In the Lives of Others at the Angelica, Jenn and I finally got around to seeing Babel tonight... Neither of us was excited about the movie as we both thought Iñárritu had lost his touch after the success of the great Amores Perros (hostile reviews also put a damper on our enthusiasm). We both found 21 Grams to be heavy handed and sort of falsely arty, and feared Babel was more of the same—maybe even more annoying. But both of us were pleasantly wowed. Jenn deemed it 'pitch perfect.' I kept thinking about how the scenes that were supposed to evoke 'the other'—the scenes in Morocco, and Mexico, and Japan—were all familiar to me via both travel and family... so the film felt oddly close even though all the situations were extreme...
Anyway in the cab home, we were discussing what we had just seen, when the cabdriver, a man named Mohammed from Dhaka turned to us and said, "You are talking about Babel. I didn't understand this movie. Why did they have a story about Morocco boy shooting tourist together with a girl looking for love in Japan and a story in Mexico?" We explained as best we could.
The conversation reminded me of discussions with my grandfather who remembered being confused during his first movie experiences by cuts. He remembered not being able to figure out how the actor got from one place to another so quickly.
Jenn's mother, a woman who grew up in the shadow of the Korean war, has a hard time understanding fiction. "Is this story a real thing?" she will ask. If it's not "real", more often than not the story will be dismissed. Movie flashbacks are confusing to her. "Why is it out of order," she asked once, "They should put the beginning at the beginning."
The parents of a friend of mine from India have a somewhat different problem. Having grown up on Bollywood films in which plots are endlessly recycled, they only accept a narrow set of possible storylines. They dismiss American films by saying, "No singing. No dancing. No hero. No wedding." It's almost as if for them the building blocks of narrative are hard coded and they can't deviate from the pattern.
The cabdriver listened carefully to our explanations about the connections between the various storylines. We explained things literally: The Japanese man gave his gun to the Moroccan and the woman who was shot was the mother of the kids the maid took to Mexico, but I wanted to say this, "The director is Mexican, all good Mexican directors tell stories about death. These were all stories about dealing with the death of family members." But I said nothing, knowing the words would have been wasted. "This was a strange movie" the driver replied, "you know it was very hot in the theater. It was hard to think."