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Navel Gazing with Burns & Dignan: Babel, Stranger Than Fiction, & Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus

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Navel Gazing with Burns & Dignan: Babel, Stranger Than Fiction, & Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus

This ongoing Monday column, the appropriately titled “Navel Gazing,” features House contributors Sean Burns and Andrew Dignan kicking around a few recent releases. Feel free to join them in the comments section.

Andrew Dignan: Alright, the first column seems to have gone fairly well. An observation though: not enough conflict. We’re in agreement on far too much. Let’s get this week’s piece started on a more contentious note then: How about Babel, which is already one of the most divisive films of the fall. A few years ago I was put-off by Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams, finding its game of narrative hopscotch a rather arbitrary stylistic tick meant to energize a tedious and gloomy melodrama never about much beyond its own self-imposed misery. Expecting more of the same from Babel, I was stunned at how unexpectedly hopeful—or if it’s not quite hope, then at least isolating a problem and splaying it out in a way where change seems possible—I found the film.

It’s still an at-times oppressive film that pulses with anger and frustration, and it seems very conscious of the fact that the browner your skin is the worse your prospects are. But I never felt like I was being beaten over the head with a message meant to stimulate liberal guilt and with only one exception (a lot of what happens to Adriana Barraza’s nanny character after they drive back to the border feels lifted from Lars von Trier’s playbook) I didn’t think the film was being overly cruel or manipulative just to hammer home a point. It’s a film about the horrible choices people make and how these choices often spring from fear, resentment or inability to communicate with others—either through the language barrier implied by the title, a set of prejudices or their own self-involvement—that I’m sure on paper just seems like a funeral procession and yet I can’t help but keep coming back to its pockets of humanity.

Although I must admit, a lot of that “humanity” can be attributed to the strength of the film’s casting and Babel’s Tokyo segment which, as it’s been pointed out by others is both tangentially connected to the rest of the film and good enough by itself to be a stand alone feature. The work by Rinko Kikuchi mines a similar vein as Emily Watson’s Bess in Breaking the Waves (yet another LvT name check); her deaf-mute school girl is physically unable to relate to the world at large so she uses the only tool she feels available to her, her teenage body, to try and bridge the language gap. It’s easy to toss around buzz words like “devastating” and “brave” to describe the laid-bare performance, but what really sold it for me was the scene in her apartment with the cop and how painfully lonely and naïve she comes across in just trying to keep the guy there at the culmination of a day filled with rejection. But even that situation isn’t resolved in quite the way I expected. It took a lot of guts on Iñárritu’s part to end the film with the shot he does; it’s such a theatrical conceit it practically begs for scorn and yet I found it quite haunting and primal.

Sean Burns: I’m sorry, Andrew, did you just say that Babel was “at times” oppressive? Was I somehow in the bathroom for all the scenes that don’t play like a 500 pound weight being dropped repeatedly on the viewer’s chest? Don’t get me wrong, the film is brilliantly put together and strikingly well-acted… but after awhile I found it impossible to take even remotely seriously.

How much horrible, stinking misery and catastrophe can one movie pile on, and on, and on to its characters? You mention “the Lars von Trier playbook,” a comparison that doesn’t quite work for me, as L’Arse tends to temper his relentless sadism with Brechtian distancing devices, reminding the audience at every turn that they’re watching a movie and asking them to reflect upon the melodramatic conventions he’s self-consciously employing. Iñárritu goes for gritty, hand-held realism and elicits believable, naturalistic performances from his cast. The level of “reality” he’s achieving makes the screenplay’s hyperbolic misery contortions feel far phonier than the (only slightly) wackier stuff you’ll find in something like Manderlay.

Writer Guillermo Arriaga bears the brunt of my anger here, which is a shame because I quite enjoyed his script for The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, and his first collaboration with Iñárritu, Amores Perros, still ranks as one of the liveliest and most impressive debuts I’ve seen in recent years. But the hard-to-watch Perros feels like a screwball comedy compared to the miserablist demolition derbies of 21 Grams and Babel. These guys are seriously starting to veer into self-parody, as of course Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett can’t just be doing something simple like having fun on vacation in Morocco, here they have to be mourning the death of their infant child and secretly blaming one another… and that’s before their day gets *really* rotten!

I’ll agree with everything you’ve written about Rinko Kikuchi, and I’ll also concur with everyone else who’s already pointed out that the Tokyo storyline probably should have been its own movie. These scenes seem to be cut in a different, slightly dreamier (though no less depressing) time signature than the rest of Babel’s thudding gloom and doom. It’s almost as if the character’s deafness forces Iñárritu to explore different cinematic ways of establishing her point of view—and the nightclub sequence alone makes the film worth seeing, in spite of its countless, massive flaws.

I am, however, baffled by your assertion that this is a movie about people making horrible choices based on some sort of fear or communication breakdown. The movie I saw was nothing but a bunch of poor souls with really shitty luck being thrust into awful, unspeakable circumstances they have no control over. There’s no agency on the part of any of these characters—they just happen to stumble into the path of bullets, wind up abandoned in the desert, or get stuck watching people they love die in horrible ways. The only character who really makes any decisions in Babel is Gael García Bernal’s walking Writer’s Device, who exists in the film only to do the absolute stupidest things at the at the absolute worst time, and then right after causing the maximum amount of damage possible, he just up and disappears from the film altogether, as if he never existed… which, in a way, he doesn’t.

AD: Sean, I never thought I’d find myself on the director’s side of the Iñárritu vs. Arriaga grudge match, but I agree it’s a better directed film than it is a written one. The Mexican segments of the film are problematic and the behavior required for the four characters featured in that storyline to end up in the places that they do at the end of the film really require quite a bit of contortion and poorly thought-out behavior, but it was more a momentary annoyance than a deal breaker. I also, obviously, found the shifts in tone more subtle and varied than you did and never felt “like a 500 pound weight [was] being dropped repeatedly” on my chest. There probably won’t be a more intimate scene between a man and a woman this year than the one where Pitt must assist his infirmed wife go to the bathroom where the scene runs the emotional gamut using almost no dialogue and with the camera camped mere inches from the actor’s faces. I don’t see wall to wall misery; I see two people being brought closer together by this horrible ordeal and remembering what it is to be a human being held by another human which is an image that’s returned to later on in the film. It feels like an incredible maturation from the filmmaker.

Incidentally, you mention the Blanchett/Pitt scene and the motivation behind their trip to Morocco as one of the film’s failings, and yet the way that particular plot point is handled is one of the reasons I liked Babel so much. The dead child is never referred to (directly or indirectly) by either actor, with that particular piece of information only addressed in passing in another storyline and is never mentioned again. I think just about any other contemporary US-financed drama (say for example one directed by last week’s whipping-boy Paul Haggis) would foreground such a conflict and orchestrate a scene around our two talented performers verbally abusing one another over who’s to blame. I admire that the filmmaker trusts the viewers to connect the dots, as pandering to the cheap seats is the new epidemic of these high-minded, year-end “prestige films.”

The Blanchett/Pitt scene is also essential to my reading of the film. Rather than stay at home and address their problems and confront their guilt and anxiety, they travel thousands of miles to a third world country where they can continue to emotionally avoid one another and be miserable. If they’re direct with one another then they’re not off hiding in Morocco and Cate’s character isn’t shot. Or there’s the scene where an obviously frazzled Pitt barks at his housekeeper to cancel her son’s wedding, callously informing her that he’ll buy another one for her. We’re sympathetic to what the character has gone through up to this point (and a lot of that is owed to Pitt who brings much immediacy and fear to someone who is essentially a jerk and an Ugly American), but throwing money at a problem doesn’t fix everything no matter what we’ve been conditioned to believe in this country, and in failing to recognize the wedding as anything more than a big party with a bunch of Mexicans, he forces his nanny (herself a mother) to make an incredibly stupid decision that certainly could have been avoided if everyone had just calmly explained themselves instead of assuming the other person understands exactly how you feel.

And besides, even if you view the film as nothing but a well-acted misery-fest about how awful people are to one another, you’ve got to give this one credit for at least being well under three-hours-long.

SB: Well, it certainly doesn’t *feel* like it’s under three hours. You know, I interviewed Iñárritu a couple years back when 21 Grams was coming out, and what was supposed to be a throwaway puff piece for a commuter rag turned into a half hour of him burning with an almost feverish, borderline disturbing, intensity. My simple quickie breakfast chat turned into an overwrought, emotional discussion about 9/11, the consequences of addiction, and the role of religion in the world. (He also spoke fondly of his close friendship with Sean Penn, so ever since then I’ve imagined the two of them sitting around at one another’s houses being completely miserable and depressed together for hours and hours on end.)

A tough film, this Babel, as it’s clearly too well directed and acted for me to dismiss, but also just too doltish and ludicrous for me not to scoff at. (Sam Jackson’s oft-quoted “Benetton Crash review is funny mostly because it’s true.) There’s also one more pesky matter, which I think speaks to a certain sadism on the part of the filmmakers, but the few happy endings in this picture take place off-screen, and are only conveyed through clutzy exposition from secondary characters. Iñárritu shoots the suffering in unflinching, bracing telephoto close-ups, but anything that isn’t downright awful takes place off camera? Haven’t we earned a little catharsis here? We’ve watched these folks sweat and pee and cry and scream, but we’re not allowed to see them get home okay? When trying to explain the movie to people, I just keep thinking of Alvy Singer’s line about how he was impressed by that one band’s “total heavy-osity.”

AD: Stranger Than Fiction opened this past weekend and here we have a film I wanted to hate with every fiber of my being. Not only did the premise scream “Charlie Kaufman-lite” but it’s another one of these movies where a comedian known for playing big, dumb, broad characters suddenly decide they want to be taken seriously as an actor which means lots of stiff upper lip and sapped energy. Plus it’s the kind of film that bandies about notions like “the triumph of the human spirit” which always strikes me as less than stirring when it’s being delivered by millionaires who have just stepped down from their mansions to teach us little people how to live our lives to the fullest. So now that I’ve seen the film and half-liked it, I find myself in a bit of a corner here as to explaining why exactly. It’s pure formulaic pone and the film doesn’t even really play that fair with its own rules (if Emma Thompson’s character is writing a book about Will Ferrell’s character and he’s hearing everything she’s writing, than wouldn’t that mean her “character” in the book is hearing her voice as well?), yet I found parts of the film charming thanks in large part to a truly Herculean performance by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Playing something of an impossible part, oscillating from Hollywood-safe perception of a punk rock girl to doting kewpie doll based on the requirements of the scene, she’s not only completely disarming but also humanizes Ferrell somewhat. I’m not entirely convinced of the Anchorman’s future career as a dramatic actor but I found the performance on par with Jim Carrey’s in the film’s unmistakable harbinger, The Truman Show. It’s all a little too high concept smoke and mirrors with no real insight but I can’t deny how touched I was by Maggie and Will’s unlikely and agreeably awkward courtship.

You’re always completely aware of the gears turning behind the scenes to get to that warm and fuzzy happy ending that’s inevitably coming, but that’s sort of the point of the film though, isn’t it? Around the same time the “Syd-Fieldian” formula kicks in we have Dustin Hoffman’s character (who after playing a string of unbearable cartoon characters in the likes of I [Heart] Huckabees and this winter’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, I found refreshingly down to earth as a self-centered literary scholar) chiming in with less than helpful advice about which narrative formula he’s likely adhering to. Allowing Harold Crick to live may be a thematic cop-out, but the film certainly seems to realize it. But as I suspect that you despised this film, please tell me why this inoffensive trifle is worthy of anything more than casual dismissal or indifference.

SB: You’’re absolutely correct, Andrew, but only in that I loathed and detested every minute of this insufferable little movie. For starters, it’s appallingly made. Marc Forster is one of the most gawdawfully obvious filmmakers working, and he seemed to spend most of this picture either trying to over art-direct every set until it looked like some sort of Kubrickian waiting room, or he was otherwise occupied doing stupid pet tricks, like putting the camera inside Will Ferrell’s mouth while he brushes his teeth.

What he certainly wasn’t doing was getting anybody onscreen to act like they’re in the same movie, that’s for sure. Ferrell is trying one of those gawdawful Jim Carrey-esque stabs at “respectability,” mistakenly assuming that the key to being taken seriously as an actor lies in tamping down all the manic energy that made you remotely interesting in the first place, and offering nothing in its place. I was especially embarrassed for Emma Thompson, as her sole character trait seemed to be putting out cigarettes in wadded up Kleenexes, and she spent every scene crying. I’m frankly stunned that you fell for any of this shit. Once Maggie Gyllenhaal’s anarchist baker said something to the effect of: “I decided if I can’t make the world a better place by practicing law, I was going to do it with cookies,” I threw up a little in my mouth.

Sorry, but who are these people? Nobody in this film has any life or interest outside of what Zach Helm’s painfully thin screenplay requires of them. Maggie improbably falls head over heels for Ferrell’s coma patient about as quickly as the entire meta-movie aspect of the “omniscient narrator” is discarded. Ferrell’s meeting his maker—cornering Thompson’s novelist—and yet the movie has nothing to say about an artist’s life or relationship with their creations… it just gets all sanctimonious and tells us that cookies are yummy. I call bullshit. This is one of the worst movies of the year.

AD: Lest you accuse me of liking everything that’s in theaters, I should report that Steven Shainberg’s Fur is the sort of disaster that can only come about when everyone involved has utter contempt for the audience. An arid, self-important “fictionalization” of the life of an artist that 99.9% of the film-going public will have zero familiarity with (the full title is Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, which as cumbersome monikers go, is up there with the one currently following Borat), I found Fur’s cardinal sin to be its inability to justify why we even need a film on this subject. The film is set in the “oppressive, creatively stifling” 1950’s when Diane (pronounced “Dee-Anne”) is “just” a wife and photographer’s assistant to her happily oblivious husband and mother to two precocious children, and her years as an award winning photographer and chronicler of the fringes of society are still years away. We see Diane surrounded by boring Bourgeoisie types as she mopes around her spacious New York apartment with the sort of bird-lipped Ennui that Nicole Kidman’s been wearing in half the films she’s made in the last decade. Oh if only she had an opportunity to let her freak flag fly…

Fur is so insistent on being more than “just another tormented artist” biopic that it fabricates an embarrassingly baroque romance between Diane and Robert Downey Jr.’s ex-circus-sideshow neighbor, who is covered from head to toe in thick fur (the effect of seeing Kidman interact with the prosthetic-wearing Downey Jr. is like watching her trying to seduce Cousin Itt), as some sort of Rosetta Stone to her fascination with transgression and outsiders. Yet this approach is as schematic and reductive as any at getting to the heart of its character and, in the process, is much less informative. No one who goes into the film without an appreciation of Arbus’ photography is going to leave with much of one, and all but the most devoted of admirers of her work are likely to grow restless at a relatively staid chamber drama between a tall, mousey woman and a wookie.

But what I ultimately found most frustrating about the film is how safe it is, keeping Diane’s own budding deviancy within the most comfortable of parameters (the film’s bookends take place at a nudist colony yet Shainberg shoots Kidman’s body double discreetly from behind or with a telescopic lens at a great distance). Diane may long for Downey Jr.’s dog-boy but she still takes a razor to him before she’ll lie down with him. What should come across as audacious or at the very least liberating is mostly dreary and somnambulistic, like everyone in the film has been dosed with Quaaludes. But should any of this come as a surprise considering Shainberg’s last film made self-mutilation and sadomasochism as sitcom-cozy as a Sandra Bullock film?

SB: Well, I wasn’t a big fan of Shainberg’s Secretary myself, but at least that picture had a sense of humor about its subject, and floated the crazy idea that sexual deviancy might be kind of fun. Fur is just a total drag. Granted, it all kind of plays out like dopey fan-fiction, but what really bugged me was the movie’s notion that Arbus’ artistry had nothing to do with her own inner drive or hard work, and the brilliance behind all those photos (none of which are even seen in the film) just emerged after making whoopee with a hairball. It’s a common gripe of mine with these “great artist” bio-pics, in crud like Ray we never actually see the hard work that goes into the process—everything just springs fully formed, on the spot, thanks to some easily dramatized, Freud 101 inciting incident.

Fur is an even more extreme example, as it’s foolish and myopic enough to never even acquaint us with Arbus’ work, giving the audience no earthly reason whatsoever to be interested in her fake, fairy tale biography—which itself is just another “Whoa, weren"t the fifties repressed?” riff from people who clearly think this is somehow something new. I could go on about how tired I am of Kidman recycling the same trembling-voiced waif schtick from movie to movie, or what a shockingly inert performance Robert Downey gives, but I think you’ve already said it all about this reductive, silly little waste of time.