Panache and a breakdown in communication
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There is a scene in Cool Hand Luke that once performed a great service to humanity. Strother Martin, playing a squat, malevolent prison guard with a meanly grandiloquent southern accent, sends rebellious convict Paul Newman sprawling with a punch to the jaw and then says, summing up for the surrounding prisoners: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
The line was hilarious at the time (1967). At a stroke the mid-late 20th century’s weariest culture trope, failure of communication, was consigned to derision. But now it pops up again for the 21st century, thanks to Babel, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and written by Guillermo Arriaga. This pair made tectonic plates shift in world cinema with Amores Perros, followed by the lesser tremor of 21 Grams. Like those, Babel aims to create a quake with colliding stories, here three initially far-sundered dramas set in Morocco, Japan and California/Mexico.
In Morocco, Cate Blanchett is the American tourist struck by a Berber boy’s accidental bullet and tended by desperate husband Brad Pitt in the one-mule local village. In this story we also track the after-traumas in the boy shooter’s family. In Tokyo a deaf-mute girl (Rinko Kikuchi) tries to relate to the world, the flesh (teenage sexuality) and the devil hiding in her family history. In California a Latin nanny hauls her charges off to Mexico, in the parents’ absence, for her son’s wedding. But on the way back there is a nasty border incident provoked by her drunk-driving nephew (Gael García Bernal).
The stories finally link up, sort of. And yes, they are filmed with a panache that puts Babel on a higher level than Crash in the skyscraper of multi-story cinema (whose penthouse is still occupied by Robert Altman, with death a minor detail in his ongoing ascendancy). Yes, too, Arriaga’s script – early at least – brandishes its ideas with a bare, forked ferocity that reminds you this man also wrote The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.
Yet Babel soon discloses itself as a movie mortgaged to a single, self-important message. The title says all. Iñárritu and Arriaga invented a fridge sticker – “failure to communicate” – then built the fridge. The American couple in Morocco trying to loudhail their untranslatable distress, the Japanese girl sans speech or hearing, the Hispanics panicking at the patrol point: all tell us, in their chorus of amplified platitude, that in a shrinking world where technology has joined up continents and cultures, People Still Cannot Connect.
It may be true, but it isn’t fresh. It may be food for thought, but it doesn’t feed the imagination. None of these characters is given a history, nor do we believe they have a life outside the projector beam. Babel re-educates us in an old truth, newly urgent in the age of the jet-set co-production. Living movies, not cine-sermons sign-languaged by star-led casts, are what we pay to see at cinemas.
In his Hollywood years the Dutch director Paul Verhoeven was a master of blue-ribbon hokum. RoboCop, Total Recall and Basic Instinct were adrenal super-thrillers fearless of gimmickry. Now, returning to Holland to make Black Book, a second world war resistance movie, Verhoeven has said: “I have found my soul again.”
Oh, let’s hope not. Who wants a gifted vulgarian turning into a common film artist? Happily, when you scrape off the posh surface deposits (subtitled dialogue, sombre varnish of history), Black Book is as pacy and populist as his American films. The pulse races from the moment the group of escaping Jews is gunned down by a tipped-off patrol boat, leaving heroine Ellis (Carice van Houten) to join her fate to the Dutch resistance. This outfit, she learns, is almost as perfidious as the occupying force. No wonder she falls for the Gestapo officer (Sebastian Koch) she is sent to seduce and manipulate.
There are bits of sex and nudity. Ex-chanteuse Ellis sometimes sings a song. Every 20 minutes there is a big plot reversal. And I liked the bottle that flaunted the label “Chloroform”, as proudly as gag bombs once wore the word “Bomb”. Above all, there is a raid on a Gestapo jail very nearly as preposterous as the heist in Where Eagles Dare. Art? I don’t think so. But a dashing story, yes, expertly told. And on its merry way it manages to reposition the war movie dial from “gung-ho Manicheism” to “enlightened cynicism”.
“It’s my turn to play Truman Capote.” “No, it’s my turn.” These are quarrelsome times at Central Casting. Everyone wants a piece of the late literary dandy. In Infamous the prissy tones are managed, skilfully, by the British actor Toby Jones. Douglas McGrath, American writer-director and English Literature carpetbagger (Emma, Nicholas Nickleby), fashions a same-with-differences version of Capote. Here we go researching the Kansas killings again for the writing of In Cold Blood. And here we go as Boondocks Man, in the shape of slow-thinking sheriff Jeff Daniels, tries to learn about the New Journalism – “I see, so you’re doing something different from a regular reporter?” – from Big Apple Man.
The best news is the female cast. Sandra Bullock, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sigourney Weaver, Isabella Rossellini and Hope Davis are all here, even if none but Bullock’s Harper Lee has much to do but glitter. The worst news is Daniel Craig’s casting as the murderer Perry Smith, supposed object, in both Capote films, of the author’s amorous interest. Palely assailed in his machismo, and visibly unhappy when Capote tries a lip-locking kiss, Craig looks in urgent need of a vodkatini, both shaken and stirred.
In Rocky Balboa Sylvester Stallone re-dons the shorts and gumshield to battle with another world boxing champ. Although both actor and hero now qualify for senior citizen benefits, Rocky goes at the roadwork once more, heaves the barbells and checks into the packed and glitzy superdrome for the climactic slugfest. (Warning: there is flash editing.)
Even so, you fear that whenever Stallone lifts his Rocky hat the hair might come with it. And if you add the letters “t” and “o” to the middle of “box”, you get a suspicion about the provenance of that enamelled-looking face. But who’s complaining? Stallone, who also wrote and directed, can still grind out the adenoidal soundbites and cock the lopsided grins. And in making Philadelphia seem an iconic town, he has done much to reverse the damage once done by W.C. Fields.
Iraq in Fragments is a kaleidoscopic picture of a land coming apart. Made amid battle, civil breakdown and anti-Americanism, the US filmmaker James Longley’s three-part documentary is eerily accomplished. A Baghdad boy bullied by work, life and the ubiquity of death; a Shia activist in Sadr City; northern Kurds praying for nationhood amid fiery brick kilns. Handsomely shot, overvoiced by the participants’ spoken thoughts, it should be required viewing at the White House and in every place where people think the world is a simple division between Them and Us.