Babel Is Best Film of 2006

Babel is a brilliant, profound and devastating film that explores the dangers and consequences of what can happen when words fail, communication ceases and all you’ve got left are feelings. Babel is a masterpiece.

This is the third time that director Alejandro González Iñárritu has entered the rundown fray of contemporary ho-hum filmmaking to bring along his own emergency generator. His breakthrough film, Amores Perros (2000), won prizes and caused riots, while his second feature, 21 Grams (2003), became the ensemble-film model for scores of imitators like Crash. Babel, his most calibrated and grandly conceived epic yet, won several awards this year in Cannes, including the prestigious Best Director prize.

Personally, I have seen only two films this year to which I would apply the word “masterpiece”: Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers and Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu’s Babel. I never see anything twice, but I was so electrified by Babel that I went to see it again, ignoring one reader’s concern (“It’s not another of those Biblical epics with Brad Pitt in a toga, is it?”) and another fan’s question (“What is it about?”)

Babel is a vast and complex work, told in five separate languages and filmed in four corners of the world, involving a uniformly perfect cast of actors who never appear in the same scenes together but share links in four story lines that require concentration and analysis. The sensational screenplay by Mr. Iñárritu’s longtime collaborator, Guillermo Arriaga, is so honest and suspenseful that I don’t think your mind will ever wander. It is two and a half hours long, but you won’t miss those goddamn cell phones for a second, and at neither of the screenings I attended has one person left the room for so much as a bathroom break. What you must do is let Babel happen right before your eyes. It will wash over you like warm surf and take you hostage.

Once you surrender, it will all make perfect sense, because in addition to forming ideas that are not predictable or safe, Mr. Iñárritu has a healthy respect for traditional narrative filmmaking. No loose ends here, no pretentious red herrings, no arty scrambled-brain tapas to keep your mind confused and your stomach empty. You will go away sated, satisfied, fulfilled and feeling like you’ve seen four movies instead of one. I can’t wait to see what I’ll discover on my third visit—maybe Merlin, Rosebud or Oz.

In the rocky mountains of Morocco, a poor goatherd buys a .20-caliber M70 Winchester rifle to protect his herds from jackals. In his absence, his two mischievous sons defy his warnings and take the gun out on the ridge to see if it can hit a target three kilometers away. On a road far below, a bullet cracks the glass window of a tourist bus carrying Susan and Richard, a vacationing American couple (Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt), lodging in Susan’s neck and breaking her collarbone. Hours away from a doctor or a hospital, with the American Embassy suspicious of a terrorist attack and afraid to send a helicopter, Richard is left to desperately plead for help while his wife is carried through the dust and camel dung to a mud hut in a nearby mountain village.

Back in San Diego, their loyal, longtime housekeeper Amelia (heartbreakingly played by wonderful character actress Adriana Barraza) searches frantically for a baby-sitter who can stay with Susan and Richard’s two children while she attends her son’s wedding across the border in Tijuana. Nobody is free, so she packs them up without permission and takes them with her, in a truck driven by her cocky, not entirely reliable nephew Santiago (Gael García Bernal). Too drunk to drive them safely home, Santiago brushes with the California border patrol and leaves his aunt and the two blond American children lost in the snake-infested desert. Meanwhile, in the hustle and traffic of Japan, a miserable teenage deaf mute named Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), neglected by a father who travels the globe and traumatized by her mother’s suicide, searches for love in all the wrong places.

The director cuts from the carnival mariachis of the Mexican wedding to the ringing phone in the empty kitchen in San Diego, to the neon lights, technology and sexual tension of Tokyo, to the panic and suffering of the lost children, to an old woman who relieves Susan’s pain with homemade hash in North Africa.

It takes some time to figure out what it is that links these four narratives, but Mr. Iñárritu stitches the pieces together like fine petit point—and then you see how tender and fragile the membrane can be between innocence and tragedy. Horrible things can happen to good people, but when they operate outside their own radar, things can often get worse. Everything that happens to every character is due to circumstances beyond their control. Separated by distant geographical frontiers as well as by language barriers, the characters are still capable of basic human decency when the chips are down. They have lost the ability to reason that comes with the privilege of conversation, yet they all have two things in common: They love their children, and they know what it means to be in trouble. Tragedy brings out the best in some people and the worst in others. But in the darkest moments, everyone understands the desperate need for survival.

Inspired by the chaos that erupted in the Biblical allegory about the Tower of Babel, where nobody was intelligible to anyone else, the film is about fate and the terrible, unplanned things that can happen to people far from home in a senseless time of global uncertainty. The saddest person of all is the Japanese mute, for she cannot speak at all. Every member of the vast cast is splendid, truthful and emotionally committed—especially Adriana Barraza (who played the mother in Amores Perros) as the responsible, dedicated maid whose one misjudgment costs her everything she stands for. Cate Blanchett’s diversity is a matter of record, but nothing will prepare you for the power and depth of Brad Pitt’s gut-wrenching performance as the brave, fiercely protective and helpless husband. There’s one scene, where he covers his wife from the prying eyes of African children and helps her pee into a pan in the dirt, that will either move you to tears or remind you that you need to see a shrink.

One tragic incident may have shock waves around the world, but in Babel the inability to communicate—between cultures or even within relationships—forms the basis of an astonishing series of interwoven stories covering the globe in ways that make you think and empathize. It is filled with haunting elements of pathos, integrity, beauty, grace and terror that are quite simply transcendent. We have two months to go, but at this point, in my opinion, I consider Babel the best film of 2006.

Marilyn Sings

When a legendary singer comes out of retirement and makes a rare appearance in a New York club, the cabaret world suddenly, and temporarily, comes alive. It happened a few years ago, when Polly Bergen took Feinstein’s at the Regency by storm, generating her own lightning, and audiences didn’t know what hit them. It happened again last week when the great Marilyn Maye—one of the brightest lights of television, supper clubs and the recording industry in the 1950’s—invaded the Apple from her home in Kansas City and conquered the town at the cabaret convention, and in a one-night triumph at a smart, intimate new club in Chelsea called the Metropolitan Room that turned into the “event” of the cabaret season. If the people who book the Algonquin, Feinstein’s or Birdland have any intelligence, taste or foresight, they will hand over a contract for a major engagement to this singing miracle worker before you can yell “Excelsior!” There is simply nobody around with more talent, personality and class.

Marilyn Maye is a true original. Her treasured albums for RCA Victor, arranged by the likes of Don Costa and Peter Matz, are collectors’ items, filled with so many great songs that every time this collector plays them, I learn things. Her peers are gone now. Peggy and Dinah and Carmen and Sarah and Ella have all left the room. Eydie Gorme rarely appears on a stage. Kay Starr, Kitty Kallen and Jo Stafford are retired. By her own admission, there’s not a drug strong enough to get Doris Day back in front of a microphone. So is it any wonder that last week’s sold-out show at the Metropolitan Room felt and sounded like the good old days? While many cherished broads lose their chops with age, Marilyn Maye sounds like a 35-year-old. Of course, she has the benefit of decades of experience and showmanship, and she’s learned her trade and paid her dues in every kind of room, from clip joints to the Copacabana. But who knew she could still do it all and leave the audience screaming for more?

This woman has everything. She can belt, and she can sing ballads with the kind of warmth that makes your heart smile. She has a theatrical flair that captivates and enthralls, and jazz-spiced chops that can reach notes most singers one-third her age can’t even hit in their dreams. Her wicked sense of humor is laced with the wisdom of life. She thinks on her feet. She never wastes your time. She has pertinence and flair. Her repertoire runs the gamut, from tender love songs (Steve Allen’s rare, poignant “I Love You Today” and André and Dory Previn’s immaculate and melodic “You’re Gonna Hear from Me”) to battery-charging blockbusters (an entire segment dedicated to Ray Charles). The leader of her trio was pianist and wunderkind Billy Stritch, who arranged a show-stopping scat duet for their two voices on “Mountain Greenery” that stopped the show.

With a voice strong and clear and filled with both power and nuance, Marilyn Maye wound the audience around her fingers—and they still couldn’t get enough. I haven’t seen people held in that kind of bondage since Mabel Mercer. Tackling everything from boozy 3 a.m. classics like “Something Cool” and “Angel Eyes” to the 5/4 throb of Dave Brubeck’s syncopated jazz anthem “Take Five,” there doesn’t seem to be anything she can’t do, and she does it with a long-lost word Kay Thompson invented called “bazazz.” There also used to be a word called “presence.” Now we get crooning zombies like Diana Krall, finger-popping phonies like Tierney Sutton or Poor Pitiful Pearl dolls like Stacey Kent. Marilyn Maye rocks.

The cheers and the screams from New York’s cabaret elite (so many singers in the audience that it took her 10 minutes to introduce them all) must have awakened the neighborhood nightingales on sleepy West 22nd Street, and the standing ovations were unlike anything I’ve seen since the halcyon days of Lena Horne at the Waldorf. Marilyn Maye turned a one-night stand into a love affair for life. She’s the real deal. Now it’s time for a real engagement to revive not only the dying art of the American popular song, but the surviving art of the perfect American popular singer.

Babel Is Best Film of 2006