May 14, 2010

Babies (05/14/2010)

Lettergrade: C+

One of the big factors in me wanting to get into film professionally was my father, something of a late-bloomer who did not get around to starting a family until he was nearly 40. He felt a strong compulsion to document his children's early years as thoroughly as he could on super 8mm film, and we practically grew up with his camera in our faces, which we hated. Even more so, we bitched and moaned on the occasional evening when my dad would bring the screen and projector out from the hall closet, and show sections of the films he had made to us and whomever else was over for dinner that night.

After a couple years of this, however, it became clear that my dad's home filmmaking had a certain kind of genius to it. He was a master at knowing exactly when to turn the camera on us when we were about to do something silly or entertaining, and then, more importantly, he understood the exact right time to cut away before the moment overstayed its welcome. Now, it's not like the doings of my sister Elisabeth and I were super revolutionary or interesting, but I think my father, in addition to wanting to record and remember as much of our early years as he could, simply understood the extreme entertainment value in watching little children explore, discover and learn.

It's hard for me to believe that the makers of Canal Plus's Babies had anything much deeper than that in mind when they decided to document the first 12 months or so of four newborns in different parts of the world: Mongolia, Namibia, Tokyo, and San Francisco. There's no real story to speak of, and in fact there isn't even much structure. Nevertheless, the picture's 79 minute run time held my attention, and is a different kind of movie going experience in this, an age of 3D epics and endless Shrek sequels.

It's hard to recommend that you spend 12 bucks per ticket to see it in a theater, honestly, but at the same time seeing it that way, with an audience, seems to be the only real way to make the experience worth it. I'm trying to imagine watching it in my living room on DVD, and it just doesn't seem like it'd be the same movie. There's something about the fact that this is a picture featuring four children born into different cultures and languages (but who all grow and develop in similar ways) that makes seeing it in a big theater with strangers seem to speak to the universal point it's driving at (if that makes sense).

Now, while I did enjoy the movie, light as it is on substance, I will put on my critical cap for a moment here and say that I wish the whole thing had felt a little less random and more structured. I think the four babies are followed more or less chronologically throughout their first year of life, however, I felt like the transitions from one to the next were haphazard and without much logic. Every once in a while, certain events are grouped by theme (such as children interacting with animals, or everyone taking a bath, etc), but more often than not, the way the footage is edited together just feels like they just put it there because, well, they wanted to include it and it had to go somewhere.

Another thought I had was that perhaps there should have been more title cards throughout the picture, so that when we go back to Ponijao, for example, we know that he's eight months old and he's doing a certain set of things already, which we can then compare with, say, Hattie in San Francisco who is developing other skills at a different rate, due in part to her environment.

Filmmaking gripes aside, though, I usually like it when different types of pictures get a wide release into theaters and do well, and I'm glad that Babies has done the same. Really, I'm not sure that it amounts to much more than 80 minutes of porn for new and aspiring parents, but at least you can't blame it for delivering what the title promises.

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