Thursday, May 20, 2010

Intimate May: Babies (2010)

Babies: the stories of four infants during the first year of each of their lives, bracketed by birth and their first steps. The film, directed by Thomas Balmes, debuted a week ago, and this weekend I saw it with my fiancĂ©e at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema here in New York. We both responded well to the humor, pacing, and cultural insights the film provided; to her, it felt like an anthropology of childhood, as much as a tableaux of cute baby footage (thus thwarting the danger of being a film version of an Anne Geddes photoshoot). This impression – the story of four wildly different cultures, each with its own philosophies of work, play, nurture, and community – is the aspect of the film that’s easiest to intellectualize, and this is necessary, in a certain way, to build a full experience out of the movie. We may enjoy the simple sensory content of the film, but it requires a cohesive idea to act as connective tissue, so without this structure and framework, the film would have felt surprisingly empty. This angle also came naturally to her, being a researcher in cross-cultural development and education.

For my part, being a designer and an amateur photographer/filmmaker/critic/etc, I was most engaged by the babies’ direct experience of the world, which the film did a powerful job of evoking. Babies proved that the most effective way of making a film about a certain person’s perspective isn’t to put the camera behind their eyes, looking out at the world they see, but in front of them, looking into their faces as they’re seeing that world. Balmes’ camera fixates on his subjects, providing only occasional, incidental glimpses into the cultures where they’re being raised. This does a lot for the movie’s “cute” factor, but it also uses an element of craft to make an important creative statement.

In the first post this month, I mentioned Deleuze’s theories about the close-up, which is the paradigm case of what he calls the “affective image.” This sort of shot has the primary effect of isolating the expressive surface (i.e. the face) from its surroundings and making the emotion itself the primary subject of the shot. Babies makes inspiring use of this technique, and it’s one of the most affect-intensive movies I’ve seen since the The Trial of Joan of Arc. The entire two hours of Babies frames the reactions of these brand new humans as they fiddle with objects, scan landscapes for their parents (or for food), and exhibit pride and frustration in very small events (the annoyance with a confusing toy, the victory of dragging a roll of toilet paper across the room).

This is the life of a baby, a life that most of us have completely forgotten: an adult passes through a frame, we hear a fragment of a conversation, feet and hands distract us for a moment, words become meaningless white noise added to an abstracted soundscape. Rooms lose their emotional significance and are reduced to boundaries, and yet, as we inhabit these spaces, we see their meaning beginning to form: Ponijao’s watering hole, Hattie’s play room, the epic horizons spread out in a circle around Bayar. We have no relationships with these spaces, but through our baby subjects, we begin to form them. At the same time, all the actions and gestures of the adults are rendered insignificant, the automatic motions of unfamiliar objects, things we can consider for a second, and then dismiss as irrelevant to the current moment. This is probably why we forget our early childhood: there is no anchor of meaning or significance to remember it by. There’s just the passing of volumes, colors, sounds, and spaces, punctuated by an occasional fetish object or mother’s face, the first semantic building blocks of the child’s life-world.

The key moments in Babies, by my reading, aren't the adorable shots where the protagonists sit next to kitty cats or reach for their own feet... they're the immersive scenes of the babies are caught up in the mundane world, which they still find so alien. The shot of Mari cruising through a supermarket, overwhelmed by its kaleidoscopic colors; the scene where Ponijao is on his mother's back while she's washing clothes, and he experiences the process as a disorienting rocking forward and back, like he's on a boat in a storm; even the shot of Bayar being washed with his mother's milk, subject to a custom he doesn't necessarily understand, but whose significance for him is wholly different from its significance for us. We've lived in this world long enough to forget that it's a strange place. We have to see it through Mari, Hatti, Bayar, and Ponijao's eyes to remember.

INTIMATE MOMENT: Standing up is hard (also, like, the whole movie)