Saturday, November 28, 2009

Babel



Alejandro González Iñárritu sits at his desk, looking pensively at a screenplay he's just read. After taking a few deep breaths, he picks up the phone and calls Guillermo Arriaga. The phone barely rings once before a voice answers.

Guillermo Arriaga: Alejandro?
Alejandro González Iñárritu: Guillermo? I just finished reading your script.
GA: What did you think?
AGI: Well, that's what I'm calling about. Um -- oh Christ I don't know how to say this -- Ar--are you kidding me?
GA: Wha--what's the problem?
AGI: Are you serious? This is the exact same script you gave me six years ago.

The sound in Iñárittu's phone suddenly drops to a low hiss. He strains his ear and hears a faintly whispered, "¡coño!" Suddenly the sound of Arriaga's breathing intensifies.

GA: I don't--I don't know what you're talking about.
AGI: Really? A script about the lives of separate people all joined by an unlikely root? Doesn't ring any bells?
GA: I think you're being kind of childish about this.
AGI: I think you're trying to end me! We've already made this movie. Twice. If we do this again the townspeople are going to ignore us crying wolf.
GA: I'm telling you, these movies are different.
AGI: [hissing through the eroded barriers of patience] How?

Iñárittu absent-mindedly fingers his scarf, wondering if its stretching wool could conceivably asphyxiate someone.

GA: I keep broadening the scope. We started in the Mexican underworld, expanded to America, and now we're traveling the world.
AGI: Expanding the stories doesn't make them different!
GA: It does, though! Amores Perros was about surviving into adulthood, 21 Grams was a romance, and this is about couples becoming parents and their relationships with their children, who will then grow up and start the cycle anew. It's a logical progression of my cartography of the human condition.

This time, Iñárittu pauses. He swears he can hear the writer holding his breath.

AGI: [calming] Wel-um, fine then. That does sound interesting. Why don't we cut out one or two of these plotlines though and focus on the rest.
GA: Absolutely not! We have to do all of them!
AGI: Why?
GA: B--because the multiple stories show how the generation gap is universal and that we're always at a crossroads with our children and unsure in which direction to continue.
AGI: Yeah, but it's overly repetitive and it gets bogged down at multiple intervals to openly discuss the same message. And I don't even see the point of putting the Jones family in the story at all. The parents do absolutely nothing and the kids only serve to set up the story of the maid. Her part is nice, so you should separate her story from the Joneses and just throw them away all together.
GA: Have you gone insane?! If I take one element out the stories lose their connection.
AGI: What connection? This is the most contrived bit of nonsense I've ever seen. A rifle links 4 families from across the globe? Are you kidding me? Why not just write in a precocious Scottish child called MacGuffin while you're at it?
GA: The rifle gives the story meaning! You don't think it's interesting that the object that links the world together is a deadly weapon?
AGI: NO! You can't just throw in a symbol without any connection to the story and expect anyone to pick up on it or care. It is pretentious, freshman-year-at-film-school bullshit and I'm better than this. Let's cut back a bit and just make them vignettes, like Jim Jarmusch films.
GA: I will not change a word. The connection is solid and it's genius. We'll get Brad Pitt for the star power, throw in some nudity and ride that critical wave to Oscar gold.
AGI: You have truly lost your mind. This is barely passable and contrived and stilted and preaching. I have worked too hard and come too far to let myself make this. This is outright self-parody and none of the pros overcomes its matching con. I can't take this anymore; you and I are done professionally.

Iñárittu goes to slam the phone, but stops. He thinks for a moment, the hand holding the receiver moving closer and farther away from the base as if literally weighing his options through it. Finally, he brings the phone back to his ear.

AGI: You really think we can get Brad Pitt?

7 comments:

  1. But it's a good movie. It evokes a vivid sense of place in three countries: Morocco (where I lived for three years), Japan, and Mexico. It's got some great performances. The portrayal of the deaf girl is done very well - especially when she goes to the disco and it's all lights and color and no sound. I can see what you're saying here - about the film's obvious contrivances - but the contrivances work for me. I think most films are contrived in some way.

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  2. I agree that Iñárittu and his cinematographers do an excellent job of evoking the film's locations (though I would argue that it does so for Japan to far, far less an extent the U.S.-Mexico border and Morocco. My chief problem is that the script takes so many of the Iñárittu/Arriaga tropes -- time-jumping, multiple perspectives connected through means that make the character web of Magnolia look perfectly natural -- and it just pushes everything to be bigger until finally the whole thing just pops like a balloon.

    As I pointed out even in this joking piece, I knew what Arriaga was trying to do and how the story does make sense in the context of their work together, but by the end of it I felt that I'd only gotten an interesting character in Kikuchi's character and an emotional ride with the Barraza's. Everything else, be it the narrative or the subtext, was so forced that, having seen it before, I was tempted simply to mute the film and watch the visuals (in that respect, no wonder the deaf girl comes out on top here).

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  3. Jake: I think the film is worthwhile and that the linking of the stories -- while hardly original -- works as a single thread to weave the stories together. I don't believe that the thread is supposed to be deeply profound, but most of the film's detractors assume that must have been the case and responded thusly. Take away the thread and it still works as intended, I believe.

    Having said that, this is smart and hilarious. Well done.

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  4. Actually, Jason, I think I might have responded to the story more had there been no narrative links and instead asked the audience to infer connections. I think I placed a lot of emphasis on the rifle for this post simply because this imagined setup can only hit upon so many topics -- I think if I do something like this again I'll post an accompanying review to discuss stuff like acting and direction, or I'll just find a way to hold a conversation down the line, such as in a test screening. But I think that Inarritu places a great deal of visual emphasis on the rifle; it's like he watched old Hitchcock movies where Hitch intently gazed upon the MacGuffin but stopped playing the films before Hitch then revealed them to be ancillary and a means to an end. Too much screen time involves that rifle and too little of any of that time speaks to the emotional journey the director and writer were going for (which looked good on paper, as I said, but fell short for me in comparison to Inarritu's other films). But this post I think reads more negatively than my opinion of the film would warrant, which is why I threw in the star rating as a desperate attempt to show that I don't hate it; it just disappointed me greatly.

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  5. Oh, I had a sense that you didn't think all was lost with this picture. My response, I suppose, wasn't just to you but to a group that existed at the time that seemed to think the gun was The Point of the story. Some people jumped to that conclusion out of, well, stupidity, and others of them jumped to that conclusion because it reminded them of other films (sounds like that happened with you). Either way, given the number of people who found the gun a distraction, it was a mistake to use the device. And even though it didn't bother me, I'd certainly agree more with those who are critical of it than with someone who said, "Wow, awesome movie! The gun! The gun!"

    ("The gun! The gun!" Shit. My comment just broke into a musical number from Chicago. How'd that happen?)

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  6. Babel resembles 21 Grams or their even earlier collaboration, Amores Perros, with its series of interwoven stories whose connection to one another only becomes plain in the final minutes. That connection might be easily guessed, but this harrowing film about a boy, a gun, the person heshoots and the ripple effects around the ever-shrinking planet is engaging, thought-provoking and incredibly moving.

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