Watching “Babel” on Christmas Eve was not my plan. It just happened that way. Two DVD’s came at the same time and I watched the other one first. My queue was composed long ago. I had thought the movie was probably some kind of Biblical take-off, another dystopia movie. It was, but nothing like what I had imagined.
Three plots entwine, each centered on the divide, the “failure to communicate” of a juxtaposed set of people both closely linked and deeply divided. They are not unique but certainly contemporary: illegal Mexican immigrants who supply cheap labor for wealthy white people; third-world tourism; and the generational divide, in this case accentuated by following a deaf-mute teenaged girl who tries to use sex, drugs and defiance to escape a family estrangement, a mother’s suicide.
The wealthy white people, unhappy and argumentative, are the main strand -- not so much in terms of story but in terms of pure acting charisma since they are Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. We want them, we worry about them, we identify with them. It is their children who have been caught in border-crossing danger. It is Cate who is shot by children in Morocco, which is quickly defined as terrorism which blocks the use of air-space that could save her. The rifle that makes the trouble has been brought to Morocco on a hunting trip by the Japanese businessman whose wife shot herself. But in the beginning all these connections are unknown, the consequences are unknown, the people charged with maintaining order (Moroccan police, border patrol, Japanese police) cannot figure out what’s going on, so they confuse the issue.
One of the criticisms of this movie is that its polemic makes the authority figures more rigid, bullying, and destructive than they really are. They say also that the bus load of tourists acts much worse than any true tourist group would. But I disagree. I think in both cases the writer/director is within reality. People try to save themselves and the potential heart attacks, heat prostration, fear of being stranded in a hostile place, would make anyone want to protect their own partners, even if it has to be at the expense of others. Sometimes I think that everyone ought to be compelled to act as law enforcers for a while, so that they can understand that paranoia (often justified) can only be held at bay by very strong protocols and tight group morale. Having weapons and being sanctioned by society only goes a short way when dealing with people who are outside the law and the mainstream.
The original question of the movie is “why are we here?” Why is a rich white couple from San Diego sitting in a bus in Morocco, a country that they know nothing about and seem to have little interest in. The vehicle (these tall window buses roll through Montana all the time -- we are a Third World country to many people) roars up the winding barren mountains with only one local guide who knows what things are where. The indigenous families are as invisible to them as the tourists are to the boys who are only target shooting when they hit an innocent woman. They have no idea how swift and fatal the consequences can be.
Everything turns out all right (except for a dead boy) and maybe that’s a spoiler, but most Americans I know won’t go to a movie where things end badly. I think they will say that boy was stupid and deserved punishment (maybe not death). The real reason the script ends “okay” is that the end of the story is not the point -- the point is the dynamics between people struggling to understand what’s going on and get other people to understand them. So Brad Pitt tries to comfort his wife while she lies on a mat in a stone hut and he screams America’s favorite curse word (the “f” one) over and over, while the doctor quietly arrives on a bicycle, sterilizes his needle in a lighter flame, and sews up the bullet wound to stop the bleeding. Then an ancient granny crouched in a corner gives Cate opium instead of a pill. Help is there, they just have trouble recognizing it.
Meanwhile, the very lovingness and family feeling of the Mexican woman that the couple has counted on to protect their children has caused her to miscalculate badly. Those two little pale fronds of humanity will need expensive therapy later, but maybe their parents -- also traumatized -- will go along and the whole outfit will come to reality. Rich white people are not entirely without resources and sometimes end up coping very well, not just by writing checks.
The Japanese failure to communicate between generations would be dramatic and engrossing enough to cop an Oscar if it were a stand-alone story, but it benefits from being mysterious, hard to grasp. The deaf/mute girls have formed their own tiny culture -- as we all try to do -- defying even the slightly larger context of their school. No less than speaking hearers, they want to be part of the action. Being articulate would not necessarily have saved them from risk, because at that age everyone is deafened by hormones and the media and the loud music, blinded by the flashing lights, hypnotized by the cyber-signals everywhere. Then there are drugs, guaranteed to shut down eloquence while intensifying need. In this case the policeman must step outside his protocol and peer group. Why is it that these Japanese faces (as well as the Moroccan faces) no longer look inscrutable and alien? Is it just me, or have we all grown more able to interpret faces that aren’t just like our own?
In my multi-tasking way, as I watched this movie I tried to digest a paper on drug addiction which reasserted something I’ve just started to hear. The premise is that people who are susceptible to drugs are people who refuse to feel anything unpleasant and who feel entitled to use pharmaceutical means, as though unpleasant emotions were a disease. Feeling good is an entitlement. I suppose they mean depression mostly, plus anxiety, anger, loneliness, and the like. Instead of searching for either the cause or the solution (which surely is what such emotions evolved to force us to do) people take a pill, get drunk, get laid, or just run. Naturally, it doesn’t work and leaves a serotonin deficit that renews the depression.
Some would say that therapy is also a drug, making it possible to go on with a basically miserable life. But “Babel” is suggesting there are larger solutions, human communication and solidarity that can change the terms of many lives. So maybe this was not a bad movie to watch on Christmas Eve, just past the Solstice and a little earlier than the Inauguration.