Thursday, July 3, 2008
Babel and The Edge of Heaven
By Elise Nakhnikian
The Edge of Heaven is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year—and if that sounds like faint praise, it shouldn’t; it’s been a good year. The gracefully interwoven stories of three sets of people covers a lot of emotional ground as it shuttles between Turkey and Germany. You learn so much about its six main characters—three parents and their adult children—that, by the end of the movie, you feel almost as if they were part of your own family. It’s an amazing achievement: an intelligently structured, deeply felt, ultimately uplifting story about the power of old-fashioned virtues like kindness, foregiveness, and love.
It’s also amazingly similar to Babel, at least on paper. Both are cautionary fables for a globalized world, following several sets of people from distant cultures who intersect with one another in unpredictable, life-altering ways. Violence and death disrupt both stories—there’s even an accidental shooting in both of a woman by a young boy. Political disagreements quickly escalate to accusations of terrorism. Everyday people suffer, struggling with political corruption and repression in their own lands and xenophobia and alienation abroad. Lapses in communication cause crises, and so does Western imperialism.
Both movies are also about a sometimes fatal failure to communicate, but in both there are more good people than bad wherever you go, and when good people from different cultures connect, they generally manage to reduce the walls between them to rubble.
So why does the sadness-tinged optimism of Edge of Heaven stay with me like a benediction, while Babel’s portentous gloom dissipated as quickly as an early-morning mist? What makes Edge the kind of movie where you can imagine all the main characters’ lives continuing after the credits roll, while in Babel you can never quite forget that you’re watching what Jon Lovitz’s smoking-jacketed ham used to call “THESpians — ACTing”? And why did Babel get so much more attention — so many more awards, so much more press, and, most of all, so much more screen time — in the U.S.?
The things that made me love Edge are probably the same ones that made it teeter on the knife edge of the U.S. distribution network. For instance:
No huge international stars
If you're making a movie about how global politics affect regular people, you might want to go easy on the big international movie stars. I don't mean great actors who are beloved in their own countries and among film buffs, like Babel's Adriana Barraza or Edge's Hanna Schygulla, both of them fairly bursting with sad-eyed, full-hearted soul. I'm talking stars so big they can't just disappear into a role any more even if they want to—and let's face it, most of them don't.
This seems pretty obvious to me, but then I'm not a producer, and I'm sure casting Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as a married couple from the U.S. whose Moroccan vacation goes horribly wrong didn't hurt Babel when it came time to raise money or get booked into theaters. Yet it's the cast of Edge of Heaven that gets under your skin—people like Baki Davrak as Nejat, a Turkish-German professor, and Tuncel Kurtiz as his life-loving father Ali, whose natural empathy is tragically overcome by his threatened machismo.
Sure, melodrama tugs at our heartstrings, but realistic, human-scale drama can play them like Itzak Perlman. Judging by how rarely it's done, I'm guessing that mimicking the random encounters and seismic emotional shifts of an average day is one of the hardest things you can do in a movie, but done right it's utterly engrossing, and Edge of Heaven does it right. The only time I came up for air while watching it was when the main characters' paths crossed two or three times too often, drawing attention to a thicket of Dickensian coincidences.
But Babel kept distracting me, trying to dazzle me with its Important Movie moves. Like the way every main character has one big conflict, which you learn about as soon as you meet them. ("Why can't we just relax? Why are you so stressed?" an annoyed Pitt asks a sullen Blanchett in their first scene together. Looking at him accusingly, her eyes brimming over, she says: "You don't think I tried?" Ooo-kay, folks; I think we got it.) No subtext or indirection here; everyone just blurts out whatever they're thinking. Maybe that's why the story of the deaf Japanese girl was my favorite part of Babel: While Rinko Kikuchi's Chieko is morose and inarticulate, her lively friend's broad smile and easy giggle is like the release valve on a hot air balloon.
A little mystery is a good thing
While everything in Babel is spelled out in capital letters, like the captions in a Barbara Kruger photo, and all the big events are foreshadowed, it sometimes takes a while to figure out what's going on in Edge. That can be a little disorienting—you don't know what the opening scene is about until it's replayed at the end, by which time the context of the rest of the movie gives it resonance to burn—but you always wind up learning what you need to know. Meanwhile, trying to figure it out helps keep you on your toes, and makes the movie feel that much more like life.
You have to know your characters inside out
It might have helped if Babel had only covered three stories instead of four, like Edge, but that probably wouldn't have made much difference. Its characters are too flat, lacking the complexities and contradictions of real life—and of Edge. There are also lots of wordless montage sequences in Babel, which I see as a sign that screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga and co-creator/director Alejandro González Iñárritu just didn't know their characters well enough to let them talk very much, aside from those expository speeches.
Avoid the National Geo close-ups
Babel is big on lingering on picturesquely winkled faces. This just makes people seem more foreign and "other," more set dressing than autonomous beings.
Go easy on the portentous music
The gloomily plunk-plunking strings and eerie keyboards that play behind virtually every scene set in Morocco set the mood a tad too insistently in Babel, while Edge uses its sad Turkish music with typical restraint and sensitivity, providing emotional release rather than constantly yakking about how you should be feeling.
Use silence judiciously
Those montages Babel keeps hurling our way may be wordless, but they never feel quiet, as one clichéd image tumbles after another onto the screen. In contrast, several key scenes in Edge are played out purely visually, and they are among the most haunting in the movie.
In one bracketed pair of scenes, a coffin holding one of the main characters is taken on or off an airplane, the first one going from Germany to Turkey and the second heading in the opposite direction. And in the last scene of the movie, Nejat sits on a beach on Turkey's Black Sea coast and waits for his father to come in from fishing as the camera sits patiently behind him. We can look on too, absorbing his measured excitement and soaking in the calm beauty of the scene. It may be silent, but it's breathtakingly eloquent, giving us space to contemplate the journey he has made and to wonder what his future may hold.
Written for The House Next Door