Although Academy voters were reportedly dulled by 2006-07’s offerings, the popular press heralded this year’s Oscars as one of the most exciting and international yet. Among the heavy-hitting categories (Best Actor and Actress, Best Supportings, Best Director, Best Picture) a more diverse playing field was certainly evident if by diverse, that is, we mean either American-funded (but internationally cast) or British.
Indeed, the British film industry was one of the apparent winners of 2007. Among its contenders were Notes on a Scandal, featuring a flint-faced, squinty-eyed, cackling Dame Judi, Helen Mirren as The Queen, and Venus, a sentimental yet agreeable film about lascivious, long-pensioned actor Peter O’Toole (sorry, played by Peter O’Toole) falling for the neck, breasts and, er, creative juices of a twenty-something chavette. As the barely-aged muse, Jodie Whittaker holds her own in flat Mancunian monosyllables and miniskirts. But there is something wonderful about seeing the eldest generation reclining not in Bournemouth but in Brixton, and as the octagenarian lothario, O’Toole glistens. With droll elocution and the bluest of eyes, he orates Hanif Kureishi’s witty script: upon being reprimanded for fantasising too salaciously, for instance, his character Maurice drawls, ‘There. Now I’m reflecting upon the imminence of my own mortality. Is that better?’
That said, none of these British films compares to the un-nominated Dogme 95-style film Red Road. Written and directed by the previously Oscar-winning director Andrea Arnold and shot at the eponymous Glaswegian tower block, Red Road has won the grand prize at eleven international film festivals. But then, it has only had a partial release in America thus far, so perhaps Arnold is hoping it will be considered for next year’s Oscars.
Realistically, though, Red Road’s chances are slim: it has neither American production money behind it nor the likelihood of mainstream American cineplex release. This is no different than any other art house film, be it American or East Timorese, but it does point to the obvious: that the Oscars are in the “Big 6” categories, anyway a largely Hollywood affair. Films like Pan’s Labyrinth, directed by Mexican Guillermo Del Toro, may have been nominated for cinematography, special effects and ‘Best Foreign Language Picture’, but these often serve as consolation-prize brackets for ‘Best Picture’-worthy films that fall outside of the wide-release mainstream--the Foreign Language winner, The Lives of Others, is an excellent example of this. (Incidentally, Del Toro’s film did very well in the end, with Pan’s Labyrinth winning for best Cinematography, Make-Up and Art Direction and thus justly trumping Pirates of the Caribbean II, whose aesthetics this time more resembled the Disney ride that spawned it, and this without the rumored cameo by the borderline animatronic Keith Richards).
But for an event supposedly highlighting world cinema, the 79th Annual Academy awards still oozed Hollywood. Without a big-name star or a US production company on board, it is difficult for a film to earn even a nomination, much less an award. Oscar eligibility stipulates that a film must run for at least a week in a Los Angeles theatre and ‘be advertised and exploited during their Los Angeles run in a manner considered normal and customary to the industry.’ (It does not, as we have seen this year, mandate English-language.) The Foreign Language, Short, Documentary and Animated Films, are exempted from the above requirements, but the high-profile categories are reserved primarily for stars and their vessels. Fair play: it is, after all, a red carpet awards show dreamed up by and showcasing the best of L.A.
But it should come as no surprise, then, that an Oscar year deemed particularly ‘international’ and, indeed, ‘political’ demands a relative reading of such modifiers. Although the Best Actress nominees included ‘internationals’ Penelope Cruz (for Volver), the Best Supporting Actress nominees included Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi (of Babel), and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu was nominated for Best Director (again Babel), the winners in the main categories were either US or UK actors and either US or US & UK productions (a coincidental inversion of this summer’s Cannes Festival, where Americans won nothing—blame The Da Vinci Code). Politically, while Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth won a close race with My Country, My Country and Iraq in Fragments (both razor-sharp documentaries about modern life in Iraq), the Big 6 categories seemed more politically-themed than genuinely political, just as, in fact, they seemed more internationally-themed than genuinely international.
This, again, is not necessarily a bad thing. The brilliant Forest Whitaker, for example, won Best Actor for playing an ominously jolly Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, and Clint Eastwood’s companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers (2006), the Japanese-language Letters from Iwo Jima, is moving, arresting, and sensitively scripted. While both films convey an international message—in the former, the dangers of totalitarianism and gap-year, touristy naïveté; in the latter, the simple tragedy of war--their power derives from a historical- and character-based focus, chronicling a particular real-life moment and the charismatic, sometimes monstrous figure at its centre. This is what Hollywood often excels at: nuanced characters and epic histories, not nuanced politics and epic insight.
When it attempts the latter, Hollywood spawns films like Blood Diamond, the earnest, unsubtly-named film about conflict diamonds that rightly earned Djimon Hounsou and Leonardo DiCaprio acting nods; and Babel, whose claims upon cultural and political division is similarly intimated in its towering title, and which collected seven Oscar nominations (but no awards). These films treat their subjects with problematic glibness and excessive political correctness, and unlike Last King and Iwo Jima, moralise so aggressively that plot and character are soapboxed into irrelevance.
Both Hollywood to the hilt, the differences between Letters from Iwo Jima, which was a very good film, and Babel, which was a mind-numbing pile of multicultural offal, perhaps deserve closer scrutiny. In his commissioning of a Japanese-language script from Japanese scriptwriters to counterbalance the American perspective of Flags of Our Fathers, Clint Eastwood has produced a film that was well received by the Japanese film industry, despite a few reported inaccuracies. The Yomiuri newspaper even went so far to claim that, ‘Today the person who had the power to tell us the Japanese experience during the war was Clint Eastwood, an American.’ But more importantly, it is a good film, a blistering depiction of an all-out massacre, and one that for the most part eschews stereotype and simplistic characterisation.
Straight-forwardly organised, Letters from Iwo Jima begins with the Japanese troops preparing for the defense of Iwo Jima’s black sands and culminates in an extended battle sequence that is tragic, conclusive, and viscerally, starkly filmed. The titular letters home provide an uninventive but effective excuse for flashbacks into a few characters’ lives, a device that could easily slip into sentimentality and sometimes does, but more often merely provides a fascinating, fleeting glimpse into imperial Japan’s political climate.
The acting is uniformly strong. As General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the officer commissioned to lead his vastly outnumbered, outgunned troops to certain death, Ken Watanabe endows his character with independence, shrewdness and geniality. As Saigo, one of the few soldiers who survives (and, not coincidentally, one of the main characters), Japanese pop idol Kazunari Ninomiya is also convincing and provides much comic relief in a film that otherwise is unsurprisingly despairing. Filmed partially in situ, the washed-out colour-filters evoke the bunkers’ gloom and the island’s flattening, blanching heat with cinematographic brilliance, and the landscape is stunningly desolate.
Ironically, Eastwood seems at the height of his directorial powers in a context that must have been very foreign to him. Ultimately, it is a gripping film for all of the above components, but what is singularly impressive is that it doesn’t thump us over the head with the nobility of its balanced perspective. By avoiding the temptation of ‘Japanese are humans too’ moralising, Letters from Iwo Jima presents the bloody defense of a strategic strip of sand as the context for compelling human drama. In doing so produces a beautifully-shot, morally complex, cracking good war film that is internationally resonant and still pure Hollywood.
The sweeping ensemble-piece Babel, on the other hand, seems less a film than a contrivance. Amores Perros director Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (who are currently engaged in a very public debate as to who can claim more credit for this monumental waste of a popcorn tub) have created a movie that spans three continents, four languages, and many issues: terrorism, tourism, interracial misunderstanding, intercultural misunderstanding, interpersonal misunderstanding —really, misunderstandings of any kind, piled on so fast and thick that the resulting miasma of solitude becomes tedious even before the opening credits.
While it attempts the political edginess of 2005’s Syriana, Babel’s plot is excruciatingly underdeveloped. Here are the four strands: random A-listers Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett play an American couple on a tour-bus holiday in Morocco; Adriana Barraza plays the Mexican nanny who takes care of their strikingly Aryan children back in California; also in Morocco, a herdsman gives a gun to his shepherding two boys, which he’d gotten off of a Japanese trophy hunter; and in Japan, that trophy hunter struggles to understand the frustrations of his deaf-mute teenage daughter.
These stories are edited together jarringly and sometimes disjointedly so that, at least hypothetically, you have no sense of how they will interconnect, thus implying that actions can have wide-reaching, unintended consequences—the whole bird-crapping-in-jungle-causes-tornado-in-Torquay theory of international-relations causality. Unfortunately, this theme has been done more convincingly and more pointedly before (in screenwriter Arriaga’s earlier, subtler film The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, for example).
Moreover, the discontinuous narrative here seems like an editorial gimmick.The splicing of various stories and chronologies is neither a bad, nor an unusual, technique. It can be used to remove an audience’s dependence on expectation and foreshadowing, to suggest an unpredictable narrative trajectory and to promote fresh, unpresumptuous, character-driven viewing, largely because the climax and resolution are often depicted at the outset. In Iñárritu and Arriaga’s hands, unfortunately, what could be a subversive, suggestive inquiry becomes fatalistic and altogether too tidy, and the piecemeal editing simply serves to disguise a few melodramatic storylines and to add the illusion of depth where there is none.
What’s more, having messed up the puzzle, they then insist on solving it for you. Plot-twists are sign-posted more frequently than a roadside attraction on the Iowa plains. As soon as the boys get the gun, you know that Cate Blanchett will be shot and that the boys will end up screwed. As soon as García Bernal picks up the nanny and children, you know their cross-border trip is ill-fated. And although the film dangles the alluring possibility that some of the disparate strands will not join up (thus keeping the screenplay messy and therefore lifelike), in the end Babel ties up as neatly as Julie Andrews’s brown-paper packages. This makes for boring cinema, leaving the audience nothing left to guess and leaving the actors struggling to flesh out roles that leave little to interpretation.
Although it is clearly angling for the position of global commentator, Babel is actually just a movie about stupid people, doing stupid, oftentimes unrealistic things. No matter how authentic the bigotry and ignorance of the average tour-bus crowd, I fail to believe that they would have left behind a dying woman because they wanted the air-conditioning switched back on. García Bernal’s car chase is stupid, as is the nanny taking the children across the border and the herdsman giving the high-powered rifle to his young boys. (And does no one have mobiles or satellite phones? There’d be no film if so.)
Babel also occasionally promotes the stereotypes it presumably is aiming to offset. Indeed, the Moroccan men are not terrorists—‘yup, the Americans got that one wrong’—but the character played by Gael García Bernal, whose talent is wasted in this film, doesn’t exactly disprove much about America’s ‘dangerous, irresponsible’ neighbour to the south. And the improbabilities keep on coming: after the aggressive American border guards embark on a car chase after a drunken Mexican (García Bernal), the nanny (well-played by Adriana Barraza) and two children end up wandering lost through the arroyos of the Californian desert. After the nanny leaves the children to go find help and the children —you guessed it—are gone when she returns, you start to hope that the lot of them get eaten by coyotes, thus at least adding a bit of migrácion tongue-in-cheek to a film otherwise devoid of irony.
It does, however, have steaming shovels of self-awareness and tailors the film to an audience of politically-correct moralisers. The message is placed in the mouths of tousled blonde innocents, the cherubic film offspring of Cate and Brad: ‘…but why are they looking for us? We didn’t do anything wrong.’ No, but your parents did, and so did the whole damn world. Blanched colour filters here seem calculating: we’re supposed to feel relentlessly bleak. This is ostensibly a movie about international responsibility: a Japanese man gives a gun to a Moroccan herdsman, a woman is shot, a boy is shot, a diplomatic incident is catalysed, a deaf-mute Tokyo girl who likes to go commando hits the club scene, a Mexican wedding ends in a deportation and everyone, generally, is meant to feel guilty about the state of the world and perhaps purified by their guilt. It’s a movie that allows the armchair liberal to lean back and correct Pitt’s ugly American ignorance (‘but, man, of course he doesn’t have two wives: he’s Moroccan’) and to reflect sagely on the blinding inequalities of the world and the dazzling ignorance of his own kind. It’s manipulative, back-patting, and facile.
The film isn’t entirely without merits: the panorama of the Atlas Mountains is stunning; it has one of the best clubbing-on-Ecstasy cams I’ve yet seen; and there was one incident of humour, when the deaf-mute schoolgirls banter (in sign-language) in the locker room after a volleyball match (‘She’s just premenstrual.’ ‘No, she’s horny.’ ‘Yeah? I’m going to fuck your dad to get rid of my mood.’). The most intriguing and sustained role is also, perhaps not coincidentally, the most tangential, the least politicised, and necessarily the least scripted: as the deaf-mute Japanese schoolgirl Chieko, Rinko Kikuchi is brilliantly seething and emotive in a side-story that deserved a film to itself.
But at the end of the day, all of the components that make Letters from Iwo Jima an interesting, Oscar-worthy film—in-depth characters, authentic emotion, common humanity and a sense of grounded reality—are missing in Babel. Babel has the ambition of an award-winning ‘international issue’ film without the filmic and political content. What little message it has even seems internally inconsistent. Babel’s tagline reads, ‘If you want to be understood…Listen,’ suggesting—as does its title—that it chronicles the dangers of cultural intolerance and promotes transcendent connection. Yet in the end it endorses a deeply isolationist view of the world, suggesting that if lucky we might shelter in the family unit, and that intercultural communication is at best a futile dream.
All it all, with its tricksy editing and multinational settings, Babel seems like globalism lite, profundity-by-numbers, a cynical ploy for a few statuettes. Despite the titular inference, the wedge driven between Babel’s inhabitants isn’t linguistic: it’s opportunistic. Brokeback Mountain composer Gustavo Santaolalla won his second straight Oscar for scoring Babel, a film ‘that helped us understand better who we are and why and what we are here for,’ he said. If we take him at his word, I understand myself to be an inchoate, reductive pile of bleakness and stereotypes that came to be for the sake of pretension, profit and award-pandering. As its posters advertised, it was indeed this year’s Crash. More’s the pity.
Kristin Anderson is a DPhil Candidate in English literature at Exeter College, Oxford. She is an editor of The Oxonian Review of Books.