January 22, 2007

"Babel"

From my upcoming review in The American Conservative:


The director and the screenwriter of "Babel," the Golden Globe-winning "Best Drama" of 2006, have been feuding over who deserves credit for their trilogy of movies, which began with the Mexican "Amores Perros," followed by the American art-house melodrama "21 Grams." Is director Alejandro González Iñárritu the sole "auteur?" Or are he and writer Guillermo Arriaga the "auteurs?" Their spat culminated at Cannes, where the director banned the screenwriter from attending "Babel's" screening.

Although the screenplay is more fundamental, directors get the publicity because their jobs are harder. The writer resembles a staff general who draws up a battle plan on paper during the long years of peace, and the director a line general who must execute it in the fog of war. On the set, directors must make countless quick decisions because the budgetary burn rate sometimes exceeds $1,000 per minute.

"Babel," however, renders this debate academic because there is blame enough for both in this interminable Oscar-whoring ordeal. It's as contrived and implausible as last year's Best Picture, "Crash," but infinitely less entertaining. "Babel" is a compendium of all the mannerisms most irritating in contemporary prestige cinema.

In its scenario's portentous, tragic stupidity -- every single character in this glum epic that sprawls across three continents can be counted on to do whatever would be most moronic at the moment -- "Babel" resembles an Ingmar Bergman remake of "Idiocracy."


My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

While I did not find it bad technically -- e.g. the acting -- I did not really care for the movie. I also found the plot incredibly -- even stupidly -- contrived, and just didn't see the point of the movie, artistically.

There are some years where the Academy should take a pass on naming a 'Best Picture', rather than honor a mediocre (or worse) film. Perhaps 2006 is such a year, last year as well, perhaps also the year 'Titanic' won. Others may name additional years.

Anonymous said...

I am still kicking myself for sitting through that pointless mess. I kept thinking that maybe if I just gave it ten more minutes, everything would resolve itself. It never did. Babel is the worst movie I've ever seen; apparently all it takes to get an award is many extended scenery shots (would they ever end?) backed up with music. Plot, pacing and enjoyment are secondary.

Steve Sailer said...

And lousy scenery, too ...

Anonymous said...

Actually I enjoyed the scenery, and the cinematography.

I didn't enjoy the movie nearly as much as I'd hoped, but it was ok. I would summarize it as 4 beautifully done but relatively pointless stories.

Russell said...

I liked Stephen Hunter's summation:

"Yet as sophisticated a piece of filmmaking as it is, it seems hamstrung by the banality at its center; that's why it never assembles into a satisfying whole. It's pretty -- oh, what's the word? stupid , that's the word -- in its dramatization of the silly little connections that unite us and it's somewhat selective in its choice of them. I mean: Lots and lots and lots of whimsical connections lead absolutely nowhere. But I suppose nobody will ever make a movie out of that."

Anonymous said...

I have heard you state before that the job of a director is harder than the job of a screenwriter, but they are two vastly different animals requiring two distinct skill sets. Film is a collaborative art where the cinematographer, set designer, director, editor etc etc must all come together to create the final product. It is sophomoric to blankly say the director's job is harder.

Anonymous said...

"Babel" resembles an Ingmar Bergman remake of "Idiocracy."

Steve, you've excelled yourself. This is a killer line.

I, too, was kicking myself as soon as I left the theater for sitting through it. The best part of it was the ending: no, I mean the moment that piece of crap finally ended. What a relief!

As soon as I heard that it won that award, I remembered a friend of mine with a particular distaste for "arty" movies, quip like this: "The moment I figure out that I won't be able to figure out a thing from the movie, I realize it is award material: that either it's already won one, or we're doomed to eventually see it win one."

Thursday said...

Although the screenplay is more fundamental, directors get the publicity because their jobs are harder.

Depends what you mean by more fundamental. If you just want a decent popcorn flick, you're much more likely to get it with a solid screenplay and a good journeyman director. But if you want a piece of art that someone is going to remember 200 years from now, you're best to see if a directorial genius can manage to spin some gold out of a piece of fluff.

I think a good analogy is the opera. It really helps to have a solid underpinning, but we justly think of Mozart not Da Ponte as the auteur of The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi Fan Tutte. Those are arguably the three greatest operas ever, and having a very good librettist undoubtedly helped. But then Mozart went on to write the equally great Magic Flute out of what has to be one of the most ridiculous libretto's ever written. We barely remember the names of Verdi's librettists Piave and Boito or Puccini's Giacoso and Illica, and can anyone name the librettists for Carmen or The Barber of Seville? If we look at film, obvious examples of classic works with preposterous scripts have to include Apocalypse Now and most of the Hitchcock oeuvre. If you've seen the Psycho shot for shot remake you'll be left in no doubt that Hitchcock was the auteur of that film. In fact an awful lot of the best Hitchcock seems to consist of the director slyly making fun of his own screenwriters.

Now, there are undoubtedly instances when the composer and librettist are equals, but the only one I can think of of the top of my head is Strauss and Hoffmansthal. Perhaps, the collaboration of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman is one such instance in the film world. Kubrick and Terry Southern on Dr. Strangelove might be another. (It is said that Kubrick didn't like sharing credit with Southern and made his nearly silent masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey because he wanted to emphatically make the point that it was his baby.)

Very rarely in opera will the librettist be the prime mover. I would say W.S. Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan qualifies. So there are undoubtedly a very few classic films too where the screenwriter deserves most of the credit, but they are going to be pretty few and far between.

The fact is that virtually every really great film you can name is associated with an overwhelming directorial presence: Griffith, Chaplin, Keaton, Welles, Donen and Kelly, Ford, Hawks, Capra, Lubitsch, Wilder, Kubrick, Allen, Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Lean, Hitchcock, Powell and Pressburger, Renoir, Truffaut, Fellini, Kurosawa, DeSica, Lang, Riefenstahl, Herzog, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Eisenstein. Every last frame is so stamped with their extraordinary personalities that it seems ludicrous to claim authorship for anyone else. Film is a visual medium and whoever gets those perfect movements, perfect performances and perfect images up on the screen and then puts them into a coherent order is deservedly given the credit. In my opinion its just as crazy to claim equal billing for even the estimable Paul Schrader on Taxi Driver or Raging Bull as it is to claim equal billing for Da Ponte on Figaro or Boito on Falstaff.

Steve Sailer said...

Originally, neither directors nor screenwriters were seen as the driving force behind a movie. Instead, it was the producer, such as David O. Selznick with Gone With the Wind or Hal Wallis with Casablanca or Sam Goldwyn with a dozen movies. Directors were seen about like they are in television today -- hired craftsmen. Writers were more lusted after by Golden Age moguls -- until they hired them. Then Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Huxley, Waugh, Brecht, Mann, etc. turned into schmucks with Underwoods.

The idea that Hollywood directors were the auteurs of their movie was made up by the young Truffaut and Godard when they were critics in the 1950s, mostly because they wanted to be auteurs.

These days, a typical career path is to begin as a screenwriter, then after having a successful screenplay, moving into directing -- e.g., Oliver Stone. This suggests that Hollywood puts a lot of faith in the primacy of the idea and the word.

Another problem with the auteur theory is that the director is hardly the only contributor to the visual side of the film. Stone won two Best Director Oscars, but when he tried to make an epic without his old technical team, "Alexander" was the result. Who is the visual genius behind Wong Kar-wai's films? Wong or cinematographer Christopher Doyle? It's hard for an outsider to say.

This is not to say that directors aren't very important, just that their role is often more of the leader who gets a lot of talented people to work together rather than the lone visionary artist.

pete said...

"Kubrick didn't like sharing credit with Southern and made his nearly silent masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey because he wanted to emphatically make the point that it was his baby."

Kubrick co-wrote the screenplay with Arthur C. Clarke. The film wasn't his baby.

The analogy between opera and film seems tenuous to me. First, the libretto is fundamentally secondary to the music. If the music is strong, the libretto is irrelevant. In a film, the screenplay is key: it provides the structure that ties together the images, sounds, and characters. Most movies tell stories. If the screenplay sucks, the film won't work.

The fundamental importance of the screenplay is also evidenced by the number of great directors who write their own: Kubrick, Darren Aronofsky, Tom Tykwer, Gaspar Noe. Guys who can direct great films often can write great screenplays.

Steve, On the subject of Aronofsky, are going to review The Fountain?

Thursday said...

Originally, neither directors nor screenwriters were seen as the driving force behind a movie. Instead, it was the producer, such as David O. Selznick with Gone With the Wind or Hal Wallis with Casablanca or Sam Goldwyn with a dozen movies.

Sure, the studios thought of the directors as hired guns, but so what? It doesn't really matter what the studios thought about directors, its how the movie actually got made. I'll give you Gone With The Wind and Casablanca, two of the best films ever made. There are always exceptions. (Though Cukor, Fleming, Vidor, and Curtiz are all name brand directors.) However, since the introduction of television movies tend to be a kind of special treat, so we tend to forget how often people went to the movies in Hollywood's golden age. It wasn't about huge hits, it was about getting people to come in week after week to see the new films. The studios were pumping out so much product they couldn't possibly keep track of it all, so if people like Hawks, Sturges, Capra, Hitchcock and Ford reliably turned in decent product on time and on budget the studio would pretty much leave them alone. If you earned a bit of trust, you were allowed to do pretty much whatever you wanted. So, most of the really great films from that era, give or take a Gone With The Wind or two, are stuff that slipped under the radar, not the big prestige pictures helmed by people like William Wyler that the studio heads really cared about. (Wyler's two best known films, The Best Years of Our Lives and Ben Hur, are complete snores, except for the Chariot race in the latter.)

Also, you are discounting people like Griffith or Chaplin who went off to form their own studios because they wanted creative control.

These days, a typical career path is to begin as a screenwriter, then after having a successful screenplay, moving into directing -- e.g., Oliver Stone. This suggests that Hollywood puts a lot of faith in the primacy of the idea and the word.

Again, this is true, but so what? Most people in Hollywood are in it for the money, not art. And as I said, if all you want is a decent popcorn flick, you're much more likely to get it with a solid screenplay and a good journeyman director. But its not a recipe for artistic greatness.

As for Hollywood's emphasis on the word, its almost certainly wrong. Think of the greatest film moments in the sound era: Lawrence emerging out of the desert with the rescued Arab in Lawrence of Arabia. The shower scene in Psycho. The chase up the stairs of the Spanish Mission in Vertigo. The clearing of the ghetto in Schindler's List. The opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan. The ballet that ends The Red Shoes. Almost all of Kubrick's 2001. The sacrifice at the end of Apocalypse Now. Virtually without dialogue and owing everything to the directors' vision and pacing. Scorsese's films are famously about his anti-heroes' inarticuateness. When he and Schrader try and take on someone articulate, like say Jesus, they make a complete hash of it.

As for the emphasis on the "idea," well original plot ideas are massively overrated. Shakespeare didn't invent a single one of his plots, except for The Tempest, and who would argue with his claim to authorship of his plays.

I think this also speaks to a more general misunderstanding about what a creative artist is. It doesn't mean you've thought of everything yourself. Most creative artists, even at the highest levels, are often best thought of as editors. They throw together the best ideas they can find, some of them they have thought up themselves, others they've come across. Chaucer came up with some of his own ideas, but mostly he was an inveterate pillager of other's stuff. But he arranges things so much better than his sources that we rightly forget about people like Gower and just read him. Painters use models. Bach pillaged old hymns. Other composers used folk tunes. (I once had a music teacher who told me, "Its not the theme that matters, its the development.") So, sure, Spielberg's late films wouldn't be so great without Kaminski's cinematography or Tom Hank's acting, but is that really any different than T.S. Eliot or James Joyce creating collages or any other novelist including a sparkling quote he heard at some dinner party in his novel. Being a great artist is as much or more about recognizing good stuff, whatever its source, dusting it up a bit and including it in your work, as it is about coming up with your own ideas. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "The originals are not original, but they know how to borrow."

Besides if coming up with the idea was all that mattered, we could say that Julius II was responsible for the Sistine Chapel. Or that the Medicis were co-authors of the paintings they ordered and supervised. Or that the made-to-order Odes of Pindar were co-authored by the ancient Olympic champions who commissioned them (often with very specific instructions).

So, at least for all that list of directors I gave above, I'm still going to stick by the auteur theory. They were all easily the prime mover behind the works associated with them, and deserve the credit for those works, no matter what they took from others.

Thursday said...

Pete:
I'll paraphrase the great critic Samuel Johnson on Clarissa. If you watch 2001 for the plot, you might as well hang yourself.

pete said...

2001 unites sound and image into a brilliant package, but you misunderstand how the film works if you think the plot isn't just as significant.

The reason the imagery and score have transcendental power is the epic scope of the story - which shows life on earth evolve to our current technical state and then to a still higher state. It shows us how far life has progressed, and inspires us to continue evolving.

The story is an essential component of any great narrative film.

Steve Sailer said...

It's quite likely that David Lean was inspired to rise to the peak of his career by the quality of Robert Bolt's script. Lawrence of Arabia has one of the most quotable script since Casablanca. See

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056172/quotes

for a huge number of quotes entered by fans of the film.

And many of the great nearly wordless scenes in the film were patched together by Bolt out of various historical incidents that didn't actually happen in such a dramatic sequence. So screenwriting isn't just dialogue, it's also laying out potential visuals.

If Bolt's screenplay had been made by a lesser director than David Lean at his best, how good would the film still be? Probably about as good as "The Man Who Would Be King," which had budgetary restrictions and was made by John Huston when he was past his prime for the huge demands of making an epic. Yet, it's still one helluva movie.

This isn't to say that the director's isn't usually the most important single figure. It's just that a director's real contribution is often less as a solitary artistic visionary and more as an entrepreneur and salesman who inspires confidence in everyone involved that -- if they give their best -- he can pull it off.

Anonymous said...

I'd still like to hear how being a director is "harder" than being a screenwriter as you admit that a director is little more than a glorified cheerleader.

Steve Sailer said...

The screenwriter, although he may faces deadlines, is typically operating offline at his own pace.

While the shoot is in process, however, a director is operating in real time, and time is money -- roughly $1,000 per minute for a big movie. And the variety of decisions he must make are much wider than in most comparable field. Leading troops in battle is dramatically more stressful than directing a movie, but not too many other jobs are clearly more stressful.

dan g. said...

Thanks for formulating my opinion of this movie. I admit, I haven't seen it, nor do I ever intend to. The preview was quite enough - that and having endured this director's previous two overrated, pretentious, tortuous telenovelas.

Anonymous said...

I'm baffled as to why The Departed is favored to win best picture, while The Good Shepherd, similar in cast and style but much tighter in delivery and stronger in effect, was not nominated. If only we lived in France, the President could call for a sweeping reform of the Oscar selection process, reducing gay and jewish voters to proportions no greater than reflected in the general population, eliminating gossipy in-crowd entertaintment types from the electorate (from 65% or whatever), and requiring voters be physically present for screenings to ensure they have actually seen the films. The reformed electorate could then become a sort of house of representatives, with a 5 person Senate (consisting of Sailer, Roger Ebert, and a few others) vetoing its more foolish impulses. A review of the last 20 years of awards could be undertaken, with such as Halle Barry being stripped and such as Hoopdreams being instated with apologies.

Steve Sailer said...

There is a lot to admire about the CIA film "The Good Shepherd," but its central goal -- for a Catholic director and a Jewish screenwriter to show you how boring WASPs are -- runs into the almost inevitable problem that it winds up a little boring. "The Departed," in contrast, is enormously entertaining. I'm not sure how far it succeeds beyond that, but that's quite a lot.

Glaivester said...

As for the emphasis on the "idea," well original plot ideas are massively overrated. Shakespeare didn't invent a single one of his plots, except for The Tempest, and who would argue with his claim to authorship of his plays.

Shakespeare didn't even invent the plot for The Tempest, but rather managed to write the play without one.

Actually, a lot of people would argue with his claim to authorship, including one person that your page links to, Joseph Sobran. But of course, the general point is correct, as no one has questioned his authorship for the reasons we are discussing here.

Anonymous said...

I went to a Hollywood "insider" screening of Babel, followed by a talk by the writer, Arriaga.

Arriaga is a balding, middle aged, left wing hack who (reading 'twixt the lines of his comments) produced "industrials" in Mexico City for decades before he broke into "art movies" with his pal Inarritu, the director.

Left wing Hollywood rewards these jerks as an affirmative action program to third world fellow travelers. The glue that ties the piece together is multiculturalism in a global context.

The "auteurs" strain for meaningfulness with ugly, banal sex scenes (the Arab boy jerking off, the Japanese girl flashing beaver and getting naked prior to a possible suicide)that, according to Arriaga's comments in the Q&A show "loneliness" and "alienation".

But the politics come out clearly through the mouth of the Ugly American INS agent who denies the Good Mexican immigrant status because she's an illegal.

No wonder it was such a crushing BORE!

Archana said...

I'm glad I saw the movie, but felt it certainly wasn't as good as Crash, whose plot twists and dialogue really moved me. Babel was full of self-indulgent (directorially) scenes, particularly the few with music - I appreciated the first few minutes in the Japanese techno club, for example, but it got old after awhile. I was also left only with a feeling of isolation and disappointment at the end...

Anonymous said...

I thought Babel was a great film, not to mention ten times better than Crash. I first learned who Arriaga and Iñárritu were after 21 Grams, and since then, have gone back and checked out their first film working together Amores Perros. They are easily one of the best production teams out there, and I'm looking forward to seeing what they're next project will be. I found an interview with screenwriter Arriaga here:
http://tinyurl.com/27sl4a