WE ESSENTIALLY SPEAK IN THE SAME TONGUE : on ensemble films BABEL, THE BURNING PLAIN and 20TH CENTURY WOMEN.

I’ve wondered about the nature of interconnectedness. There is no one explicable point of distinction that makes human bonds resonate , whether in the rough and tumble of hardships or the great realizations that well wrought power of companionship comes to extract from our everyday interactions.

Ensemble works, where a host of people’s narratives intertwine even when they don’t meet each other, point at the personal journeys that are shaped by destiny and which bring each personage closer to the inescapable truth. The multiplicity in intimate unravelings are straight out of the sudden, sometimes transitory and storied bonds that define us all as we undergo odysseys of great import. The memory claims each encounter as especial. No matter what the outcome of the encounter , our minds record moments where we saw, felt and ingested events commonplace and beyond our grasps. Conflicts, epiphanies, unlikely friendships and authoritarian strictures make or break these relationships and in the hour of desperate need, emotions come into their own. Language barriers break down or camouflage progress. Distances melt and sometimes become wider. Human agency, above all, constantly makes efforts to inch closer to an understanding where body language and sustained looks support a global construct for effecting real change.

The three cinematic works that grace this post allows viewers to keep ears and eyes open, view the whole length and breadth of human endeavour in sometimes very darkened halls of consciousness whereas in others the soul is alighted by bitter revelations with life altering pronouncements. The final work discussed here, a love letter to the retro timeline where fundamental social change seeped in like fresh rays of sunshine, celebrates the frictions and frissons of an era, suggesting the particularity in universality of our shared wavelengths. Hence the tapestry of life unfolds.

*****

BABEL(2006)

When I think of Babel(2006), I think of the first time I was fascinated by the titular word, about the cross continental quartet it addressed in terms of the delicately connected threads of these human narratives, back in the day when not just blockbusters were heavily advertised on movie channels, with full features dedicated to each film that mattered and was released worldwide. Having seen quite a bit of it on telly previously , I was as fascinated by the humane manner of delineating the universality of experiences here as the rest of the cinephiles. BABEL was indeed highly praised and watched.

The title also exposed me to the hard hitting Biblical myth about the Tower of Babel and how human ego had made it impossible to communicate in a common tongue hence leading to chaos borne out of different languages. Babel means a chaotic unraveling in which clarity eludes us.

In Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ‘s carefully constructed world of multiple voices, some of the people never meet but a moment in time dictates the trickle effect of their distresses, hopes, humanity and revelations in foreign lands. The moral weight of encountering events beyond the people and places they already know comes with the pathos and poignancy intrinsic to each chapter as the back and forth juxtaposition draws parallels to the fact that ultimately we all share the same language, age, gender, nationality no bar. For these are tales conditioned by cultural / universal traits, xenophobia, disability and the dance of life and death, make or break situations. It affects me profoundly because I believe that one person’s life is being shared by another somewhere in this vast global panorama, not in its exactitude but the circumstances and particulars.

A young boy ( Boubker Ait El Caid) and his brother toy with a gun given to them by their father and a power play of premature and inherited masculinity leads to a reverberating shot, in a remote mountainous terrain of Morocco. Reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s short story FLIGHT, this event leads to chaos in a tourist couple ( Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) when the lady receives a bullet in her shoulder and its perilous journey revolves around imminent death even as the locals rally around with limited sources and traditional cures to support them before medical aid reaches their destination . On the other end of this duet is a lonely young girl ( Rinko Kikuchi) in Tokyo, distanced from her father (Koji Yakusho), who had used the gun in Morocco for hunting(hence connecting him to the unraveling), suffering the pangs of her mother’s suicide and inability to hear along with her teenage awakening. Her world of silence is dealt with the pain of solitude and joy and wonder of sensory experiences to go with her desperation for approval that the Oscar nominated Kikuchi is able to extract from her inner recesses. The sting and the hope of her station is a masterclass in expressive transparency; it’s performative alchemy of the highest order, relying on the absence of words to prove what performance truly rests on: pure instinct and nothing else, to draw on the same pain, ire and desperation of millions like the anonymous girl here.

Then there’s the beloved nanny(Adriana Barraza, also Oscar nominated for her great performance here ) of the kids of the couple stranded in Morocco, who herself, is away from home, family in order to raise another. Her chance journey to Mexico for her relative’s wedding in her native place , across the border from San Diego where she works, leads to a harrowingly transformative experience in the journey back home where her trusted aide ( Gael Garcia Bernal) deserts her after a heated exchange with racist authorities and she has to run for her life with the kids in tow across the burning plain. Contemporary instances of cross border xenophobia are reflected in this instance where the cost of humanity is stretched to render her own individual status dry. Those moments where she searches for a way back home, is arrested by authorities and then deported back to Mexico are heart shattering.

It connects each tale with the state of affairs in the here and now. The connections are absolutely essential and never on the nose. The subtlety of the thematic presentation unlocks sudden ways in which we are rooted in commonalities.

Gustavo Santaolalla’s musical score further has been imprinted in my mind, bringing the pathos of its unpredictable, unexpected stakes closer to a viewer’s skin. The modern world needs to watch BABEL to understand its urgent predicaments.

*******

THE BURNING PLAIN (2008)

The interconnectedness between BABEL and THE BURNING PLAIN rests with Guillermo Arriaga, who wrote the former and has done the same as well as fulfilling the directorial duties here. His penchant for diverse voices and shared lives is a beacon of commonality, making the ensemble piece one of profound agency in both instances.

This underrated 2008 feature film is about a sense of physical awakening as three women ( one being a teenager) find past and present overlapping. These are bodies in flush of post coital weariness, tenderness, bodies that don’t feel beautiful owing to surgical incisions as on the part of a harried housewife who had undergone a mastectomy (Kim Basinger). Here as in real life, physical intimacy embodies variables of lust, salve for emotional wounds or numbing the conscience against waves of uncomfortable memories .

In locating a shared pain for all the people and addressing a soul sapping mood, Arriaga evinces a cracked earth sensibility, a melancholy fueled by this backwater’s remote location and the secrets that get exchanged in mortal whispers. These are secrets that unwittingly get passed down from mothers to daughters, gape open eyed at one’s reflections in the mirror and reduce individual point of views and self definition to an extremely lonely endpoint. As per the locations then Portland’s sea side town in which a loner( Charlize Theron) fills up her void by dint of her beguiling beauty and drawing unwanted attention to her body and the desert town in New Mexico where the mother (Basinger) and daughter ( Jennifer Lawrence) stay are correlated by this insularity of being that the people choose for themselves, embalming themselves against not just great personal tumults but, it seems, the scorching surroundings that they seek respite from, whether in terms of clandestine lovemaking or asylum away from one’s past in a lone housing space. All indoor spaces.

The bordertown here is a link to the similitude of weary souls residing in neglected shells of their own because it is the main center for bringing these three women (and the men in their lives) together . True to the title and the opening image of a burning trailer van, with the dry backdrop of the New Mexico desert, simmering angst informs the screenplay. These lives are hot to the touch. Tenderness still percolates in the silences teeming with meanings.

The performances have been lodged in my mind and a shaft of hope comes after a period of distance has rendered life lessons to each and the burden of personal history has passed . Realism is the key in ensemble works at large and THE BURNING PLAIN is effectively intimate.

*****

20TH CENTURY WOMEN (2016)

The interconnectedness in 20th Century Women, set in the final year of an epoch making 1970s, is about an enduring sense of community that is propagated by a middle aged woman( Annette Bening) , giving birth to an extended family that includes a photographer ( Greta Gerwig) who is a tenant occupying her upper floor, a teenager ( Elle Fanning) who also happens to be the best friend of her son ( Lucas Jade Zumann) and a man Friday (Billy Crudup) This is a tale focusing on a strong mother and son bonhomie and currents of social churning owing to which (inclusive of the teenager’s rebellion and coming of age apprehensions) she lets the two ladies create a matrix of good influence on the young boy’s overall awakening. I know it sounds quirky but the charm of this Oscar nominated original screenplay is as ‘original’ as it comes. Director Mike Mills was literally raised by this formidable consortium of women with individual outlooks in spite of the age differences between all and it is transported with the same novelty as the original set up was in his youth.

The storytelling uses a mosaic like structure to unveil a cultural collage of the people corresponding with the times in which they lived, using little instances of it literally for interesting exposition .
The monologue by the young adult protagonist makes sense .
All these are employed to characteristically express the lack of impersonality of the events unfolding here.
Most importantly, it adopts a gender inclusive approach.

The scene where the young male protagonist gets roughed up by a schoolmate when he enunciates basic feminist ideas which the other is bewildered to listen to, owing to the sheer, abject absence of such worldly wise words that sensitises women’s issues, is strikingly original. Set in the last year of the epoch making 70s, it beautifully shows an integrated household where bonds are not glued by blood lines but the very real change or progressive imprints of it happening in the era. It’s about mothers and sons, the other figures who become friends and guides for life owing to the informality of not being related to you and coming of age that the director culls from his impressionable days where structure and form of life flowed with the liberation of discovery. What a wonderful world he possessed. What an impressive ode to life has he recreated here. Such is the passion, detail and universality of his images where rebellion coincides with confusion, era specific ideas run the gamut for each yet interdependence is made possible.

I have to say I thought the mother (Annette) to be totally bohemian and she is indeed a free minded woman but being from the post World War era, she has her beliefs and tastes. The generational difference is there as an integrated mesh of influences in the whole. The younger girls too must have seen voices of yesteryears impinge upon their present and this confrontation of ideas among the three women creates a memorable dinner scene . So the fifty plus senior prefect is in a flexible flush, with a forward looking attitude without betraying that she is from an earlier time. She is assertive and maintains vigil over her only child. Yet she has reserves of self dependence to evince, having fended for herself always and still thriving as a single working woman, giving him the chance to separate truth from fiction.
20TH CENTURY WOMEN is a film for all age groups and eras. It is intimate and particular and I reiterate universal.

It also has the universal thought that leave it or cling to it, the levers of change start with the young. Passing the baton takes real courage, foresight and wisdom. In short, a good, flexible upbringing is what made Mr. Mills a filmmaker, raconteur and person of great transparency.
The climactic flash forward narration, of possible future events, is absolutely novel as 20th Century Women draws to a close. It is about the rite of passage that marks a growing up for everyone. Everybody will be interconnected to its universality.

****

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