Monday, February 26, 2007


dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu

And the Oscar goes to: Earth Wind & Fire (as remixed by Fantastic Plastic Machine)!

Spencer Owen, BERKELEY

February 24, 2007 - DVD/Academy screener (thanks, Anonymous!)

What needs to be said about Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel? Hopefully not much; it's a bad film, and the Academy saw fit to recognize this fact by... well, by doing whatever they wanted, since as we're all aware, neither a nomination nor a win means a thing about the quality of a movie. It was nominated for several awards and it won only one. Yet, of the nominations for which it had any sort of decent odds (not, for instance, best picture), best score, its sole and meager prize, is the most offensive one of all. Why? It's a fascinating story! Promise!

But let's talk movie shop before we talk music shop. People talk about Crash and Babel in the same general category, and so here I distinguish between them. Crash is an incompetent time-waster, akin to the rough cut of a made-for-TV movie or, in my dream world, a local film festival also-ran. Its condescending and pretentious intentions are painfully obvious, its insipid situations painfully unconvincing and contrived. It is about racism. Babel is competent, just quite obnoxious. It is not about racism; if it is trying to be, it fails. It paints a somber picture of a globe easily tipped to crisis, and does so with a pointlessly-structured set of four "interlocking" stories by turns boring and infuriatingly manipulative.

Like Crash, it is based on a lot of contrivances, but these aren't as irritating as the manner of narrative assemblage, and most importantly the effort one has to expend to care about Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett and their two kids. I spent a good deal of time on my critique of Babel's construction and ultimately decided to heed the advice of my opening sentences. I will, however, bring in my comment about the nominated Adriana Barazza (who lost to Jennifer Hudson): good acting, but by the time she has her climactic scenes, we're so infuriated at her puppet-masters that we'd rather see the strings cut.

Now I'd like to talk about someone offscreen, Gustavo Santaolalla. What is his role in this free-for-all? He's a Los Angeles-based Argentinian composer and solo recording artist, and has also been the producer for a wonderful Mexican band, Café Tacuba, and others, too. He provided the musical backdrop, in part, for Iñárritu's previous films as well as this one. This man just won last year for the score to Brokeback Mountain, and I was not wholly displeased by that choice. Though I wasn't enamored with the theme, it gave the movie a memorable, non-regrettable signature. And now, it's 2007 – another year, another Santaolalla, this time for Babel. He sure seems to have the stuff! Let's look closely.

Santaolalla has several cues in the film, and they're all rather insignificant, very brief mood enhancers and segues. Fine; this is the stuff of a score, more often than not. But in Babel, it often seems arbitrary. So much of the movie does a fine job without music, and it doesn't seem particularly organic when Santaolalla's worldly noodlings show up. There is other music in the movie, and it's all perfectly appropriate; in fact, generally, the music from outside sources works much more organically within the film than Santaolalla's original compositions. Past the one-hour mark, in the film's best sequence, the deaf Japanese girl (my favorite character) has a delightful day with some of her disabled and non-disabled peers, feeling accepted and feeling finally like a part of the world she lives in. This day climaxes in a dance club, and as they enter, the Fantastic Plastic Machine remix of "September" by Earth Wind & Fire is gradually introduced into the ambience of the soundtrack and then joyfully takes over. As the revellers revelled, I felt completely involved in the movie for the first time. Rather effectively, Iñárritu takes this opportunity – for the first and only time in the movie, tastefully – to occasionally cut the sound out completely with the edits, to remind us that this girl is inherently alienated. It isn't the first time someone's employed this technique, but since he'd withheld it this far along, it comes in as a surprise, and casts a perfect emotional contrast in the moment.

But that's Fantastic Plastic Machine! Criminy, where is Santaolalla's big Academy-baiting moment? Where's the sweeping statement equal to Pan's Labyrinth's lullaby theme? The Pan's theme took over a half-hour to show up; with Babel, we're at the two-hour mark! The trusted name of Gustavo isn't enough for the Academy to nominate a sparse and ambient tapestry, is it?

No, but "Iguazu" is enough. Yes, it's a song by the man himself. I've gotta admit – it's not bad. It's named after a waterfall, and it sounds like an imitation of one, a harp-like pattern of quick, arpeggiated string plucking on an instrument I can't quite recognize. You might recognize this piece of music not by name, but by source. Iñárritu used it previously in Amores Perros. You can also find it in Michael Mann's The Insider from 1999. More recently, it also showed up, I'm told, in the cable serial Deadwood. The first place you'll find it is on Santaolalla's 1998 solo album for Nonesuch entitled Ronroco. The latest place you'll find it is in Babel. This is correct, and you'll find few who deny it: Santaolalla's music makes, incomparably, its biggest impact on Babel when "Iguazu" is used as backdrop to a climactic montage over two hours into the film.

Let's recap. A song is released on CD, without film accompaniment or the intention thereof, nearly a decade before a particular Oscar year. It is used in at least two other films during the interim. It is then the primary force leading to an Oscar nomination, in said decade-later Oscar year, for best original score. There's a first for everything, I suppose. (By the way, if anything like this has happened before and you're aware of it, I urge you to comment on this post; I love to learn.)

I will allow you to guess what piece of the soundtrack they chose to represent the score during the presenter's nomination montage. Then the thing straight up won. It is perhaps hyperbole to add up all the elements of this situation and call it an insult to the art of musical composition for film, because it's the Oscars. But I'm insulted, as a music enthusiast first and a film enthusiast first-and-a-half. So should be, at the very least, the other four composers that were nominated. (Even Javier Navarrete for Pan's Labyrinth.)

A coda. In the film's final scene, we wrap up our Japanese story, and a lovely piano trio is introduced, fittingly melancholy with a beautiful tune. This piece is called "Bibo no Aozora." It is written by Ryuichi Sakamoto, and it is performed by Sakamoto, accompanied by the cellist Jacques Morelenbaum (with whom Sakamoto has recorded a couple of albums) and the violinist Everton Nelson. After about four minutes of this piece, the final shot fades to credits, and the music crossfades awkwardly to more Santaolalla. It isn't "Iguazu," but it sounds just like "Iguazu" ... "Son of Iguazu," maybe. At the end of the credits, you can hear some of the noodling that makes up some of the rest of the score. Here's that whole cue. Thanks to whoever uploaded this to Odeo.

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