I saw the Cannes Film Festival “Best Director” prize winner Babel last night at the newly re-opened Capawok. This is the third film in a series, the other two being 21 Grams and Amores Perros.
After seeing the film I glanced at a few online reviews to see what others had made of it. Andrew O’Hehir of Salon, for example, liked a lot of what I liked about it and didn’t like some of the things that I didn’t like. Actually, I liked some stuff that he didn’t. He said it was philospophically lightweight, but I don’t think it was at all. Others have said it was more philosophically lightweight that the other two movies in this series, and there again I disagree.
However, no review that I’ve seen (I’ve only read a few) mentioned what to me was the most jarring thing about the movie, which was the exploitation of children; in particular of the child actors. There are scenes in this movie, whole themes, that very explicitly involve the sexual confusion of adolescents and the terror of very young children in bewildering, frightening situations. Especially in the case of the younger children, there is no way that they were “acting” confused and terrified. They were made so by the director, and he filmed them. The sexual scenes were in no way prurient, but I still found myself pulled totally out of the movie and thinking about the actors. Maybe I’m an old fuddy-duddy, but I think there are things you just shouldn’t ask young actors to do. I think the movie could have worked as well without several of the scenes; I’m thinking of the minor subplot about the boy and his sister in Morrocco. I’m less bothered by the Tokyo subplot because it’s about an older child and it’s central to the story. Nevertheless I think it was exploitative.
Are there certain things you can do in literature that you just can’t do in movies without breaking the implicit contract between children and adults? I think the answer is yes.
I sent a note to a friend of mine, a longtime working Hollywood TV/movie actor & recently award-winning producer. I asked him to tell me if I was being too prudish. Here was is his answer:
I liked Babel very much, flawed though it was. I thought the Japanese
segment was nothing short of astonishing- the disco sequence is far and away
one of the best pieces of cinema I’ve seen in some time. I think he
generally pushes the drama too far, bordering on ludicrous, but I also think
he manages a “reality” few filmmakers can come close to, and I believe
you’re suggesting this “reality” is too real for the kids in the film. My
answer is- I doubt it. I suspect that it’s all staged on the up and up and
that he’s just that good a director. I could be wrong, but the financing
deals alone for these type of film ventures demand very professional,
heavily insured productions, and there are laws about this stuff. If you’re
saying that “reality” or no, kids shouldn’t be in those kind of situations,
I also disagree. They likely do more/worse on their own, and the positive
lesson kids learn as they participate in discipline and hard work that goes
into actual filmmaking would most likely overshadow the situations they’re
Plus, my wife tells me that the actress in the Japan story is 25 years old. To be clear, my concern was about the actors, not about the story being told or the characters portrayed by the actors. So maybe I went overboard. I’m not quite at Emily Litella’s “nevermind”, but maybe a bit closer to it.