Friday, October 22, 2010

The T.A.M.I. Show

The T.A.M.I. Show (1964; dir. Steve Binder) often appears on lists of the 5 or 10 best rock documentaries. It was shot with special television cameras that allowed conversion to film—not common in the early 60s. The black and white documentary is a compilation of two concerts held in Santa Monica, California, on April 28 and 29, 1964. In ways it resembles a television show of the day, with singers walking on and off stage with their own guitars, plugging them into small amplifiers, and then singing. Wildly distracting disco dancers are always gyrating in the background. They’re an artifact of the times. Also an artifact is how the film is introduced—by the 60s duo Jan and Dean, cruising on skateboards, driving cars, running along the sidewalk, heading for the concert, mimicking the requisite traits of what passed for “cool” in 1964. Among the aspects of the film that mark it historically and, occasionally, as dated, are Jan and Dean, who in 2010 simply come across as weird.

Once the show is underway, the film really moves. The sound equipment used in the film was by modern standards primitive, so it’s sometimes difficult to hear the singers (especially Chuck Berry), but usually the music is at least listenable. Among the best performers are the Beach Boys, the Supremes, the Rolling Stones, and James Brown. If not for any other reason, James Brown makes this film worth seeing. He gives a career-defining performance. He acts, struts, slides, croons, screams, screeches, and by the end of his 17-minute set he’s drenched in sweat and exhausted, and the audience verges on riot.

That audience is almost entirely white—middle-class teenagers and students in their 20s. You see, especially with James Brown and the Stones, the kind of hysteria we saw when the Beatles made their first appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. In one scene, a chic young woman screams and dances wildly to the music on stage. Her somewhat older boyfriend—staid and conventional, with a pipe and a tweed jacket (frankly, I don’t remember whether he was wearing the jacket or smoking the pipe, but it would have been in his character), gazes at her with shock and incredulity. It’s an image that defines the cultural divide this film is contributing to. One can imagine parents from the 1960s watching their sons and daughters (mostly their daughters) in the audience of this film with fear and uncertainty.

Here we find an early example of how the entertainment industry sought to market rock music to the young generation. The opening scenes of the film show Jan and Dean engaged in a series of hijinks as they make their way to the theatre. Jan and Dean also host the concert, introducing each act, continuing to play jokes and act up on stage. Disco dancers and their frenetic movements (which would bring anyone to exhaustion) keep the atmosphere energized, so that if a particular group fails to play well the audience won’t notice. There’s no suggestion here that rock music might appeal to a wider audience than the one in the film. It’s cool and it’s hip and it’s young. More than that, the film seems to argue, it’s an inherent product of the younger generation that marks and distinguishes it from the rest of society.

In The T.A.M.I. Show you see rock music as it was in 1964–still developing, moving towards the explosive middle years of the 60s (they’re almost here in the film) that forced some of these groups to grow and redefine themselves (particularly, the Beach Boys—the Stones were already on the way) and that consigned others (Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas) to obsolescence.

The Beach Boys give a strong performance that reminds us that their harmonies were not a product of studio engineering. They could really sing, despite their striped jackets. Their set is tight and fast-paced. In 1964 they were a few years away from the transformations that would bring Pet Sounds, one of the finest of American rock albums.

Chuck Berry seems almost out of place in the film. He’s the only performer who sings in the barebones rock style of the 1950s. In 1963 he had finished serving a jail sentence—he had been convicted of having sex with a 14-year old girl. He appears in three short segments at the beginning of the film, and the effect is that he seems segmented off from the rest of the performers, as if he is damaged goods. He’s clearly not among the featured singers in the film.

Lesley Gore was a popular, successful singer of the early 1960s, performing a type of music that would seem increasingly out of style as the decade progressed. Most of her songs about traditional romance hardly strain traditional boundaries, yet her performance of “You Don’t Own Me” in this film delivers a strong feminist message. It’s a remarkable statement.

The T.A.M.I. Show offers an interesting study of the racial politics of the music industry in 1964. The only time we see color among the dancers on stage is when a black group is playing. There’s a different performance style among these black groups—the white singers tend simply to stand and sing, while Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, James Brown, and the Supremes dance and move in rhythm, acting out as they perform. Compared to them, most of the white singers are stale. (The Rolling Stones, who perform songs written out of the American blues tradition, are the exception). Some of the black singers almost seem to ingratiate themselves to the audience—at the end of their songs, the Supremes bow their heads in humility but also one might suggest in submission. There’s still a subtle disconnect and discomfort among these singers racially. Only at the end of the film do they appear on stage together, and even then they’re singing alongside rather than with each other. The fact that black singers are here at all is a statement. Yet when James Brown and the Famous Flames step on stage everything changes. In Brown’s performance, and in the performance of the Rolling Stones, you can see the pop world of Jan and Dean and Gerry and the Pacemakers and Lesley Gore coming to an end.

This fascinating and often exciting film is entertaining from beginning to end, if only you give yourself up to the time and its contexts.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Arabian Nights, by Mary Zimmerman, as produced by the UGA Department of Theatre and Film

The Arabian Night (1992) by Mary Zimmerman interweaves creative imagination, storytelling, fantasy, patriarchy, the struggle of women for self-determination, love and trust, sex and death. The latter two concepts are interdependent—Scheherazade uses her imagination and narrative abilities to escape death by the sultan, who for the last three or four years in the play has each night married a virgin and then killed her, out of anger over betrayal by his first wife. The sultan is a monster of the worst sort, but can he be redeemed?

As Scheherazade tells her tales, her characters literally come alive on the stage, materializing out of the shadows. She stops telling each tale just as dawn breaks, on a note of suspense or discovery, so that the sultan delays his plan to kill her in order to hear the end. The existence of the play itself, woven from her tales, depends on her success in maintaining the sultan’s interest. Sometimes a character in one of the tales will begin telling a second tale, and new characters appear. The pace of the play is fast, but not so much that the audience can’t enjoy the tales as they are told. As Scheherazade talks, over nearly a three-year period, her stories take on faintly allegorical or parabolic meanings, all designed, we can guess, to bring about a certain transformation.

As produced by the UGA Department of Theatre and Film Studies in October 2010, this play was entrancing and magical. Under the direction of David Saltz, the actors were in constant motion. They seemed to enjoy the play as much as the audience did. When they laughed in certain scenes, I wasn’t sure they were doing so because the play called for their laughter, or because they were entertained by what particular actors were doing. Jennifer Schottstädt as Scheherazade and Lynwoodt Jenkins as Harun al-Rashid were especially outstanding. Both are MFA performance students. Many others in the cast gave fine performances. Everyone, audience and players alike, seemed caught up in the play’s enthrallment.

The two acts of the play differ in mood. The first is wild and frenetic, full of comedy and ribaldry, while the second is more somber, drawing from Arabian myths and stories, Muslim teachings. The Arabian Nights calls in a subtle yet earnest way for cultural understanding. It dramatizes the power of imagination to create tales, to create life out of nothing, and to abolish it. It shows how imagination can enable self-definition and empowerment. Imagination is the source of the magic in this play, along with the inventiveness of the director, his crew, and the actors themselves. This UGA production was as entertaining as one could possible want.

Monday, October 18, 2010


None of the science in 2012 (dir. Roland Emmerich, 2009) works, first of all. Logic doesn’t work either. I could offer explanation, but why bother? In this film, around a million people survive an incredible catastrophe that wipes out (apparently) all other life on the planet. They are so happy to be alive in the end that no one seems to have noticed the disappeared five billion, nine hundred and ninety-nine million others. The supposed humanism of this film (one scene in particular strains to ensure we’re aware of it) is astoundingly smarmy. We are asked to feel somber and meditative as we see numerous scenes of people waiting to die and then meeting their miserable fates in various cataclysms. In death, the film intones, we all are united, and never more so than when tidal waves, exploding volcanoes, the collapse of the earth’s mantle, and swarming neutrinos from the sun bring an end to it all. We see numerous images of people falling into endlessly deep cracks in the earth, of skyscrapers falling, of great monuments crumbling, of California sliding into the sea, of an air craft carrier crushing the White House. In one scene, a multitude is gathered in Vatican Square waiting for the End. The Sistine Chapel frescoes of Michelangelo crumble, and the dome of St. Peter’s itself falls and rolls around the square, squashing all the faithful gathered there. We follow the efforts of a failed writer and limousine driver as he tries to save himself, his ex-wife, their two children, and her new husband. Woody Harrelson (who looks amazingly like the Lt. Governor of Georgia, Casey Cagle) appears in a small role as a nutcase Internet preacher of doom camped out at Yellowstone Park, waiting for the gigantic caldera there to blow. There are special effects everywhere, none especially impressive given what we have already seen in films like War of the Worlds (2005) and The Day after Tomorrow (2004). Mt. Everest has a role, and we are prodded to think about the Book of Genesis and Noah’s Ark. But at least there is tension (when is that tidal wave gonna wash over the Himalayas, and, hey, how about the obligatory last-minute, cliff-hanging suspense scene?). Supposedly, according to 2012, which cites Mayan prophecy and astrophysics all in the same sentence, this catastrophe, which causes the earth’s magnetic poles to shift and the continents to collapse and reform and all life to be wiped out, happens every six or seven hundred thousand years. Then life somehow regenerates--evolution sure does happen fast! Catastrophes on film are supposed to be heart-rending and entertaining—I could reel off a list a mile long, but, hey, why bother?

2012 is a yawner!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Conversations with Cosmo: At Home with an African Grey Parrot, by Betty Jean Craige

The relationship Betty Jean Craige describes in Conversations with Cosmo (Sherman Asher Publishers, 2010) is not a simple owner-pet bond. It is a much closer connection, almost as if she and her parrot have become partners in life, a symbiotic animal-human relationship. Although in the early chapters Craige describes how she acquired and began adjusting to life with her African Grey parrot, and how the parrot began talking, her most interesting and thought-provoking discussions come later in the book when she contemplates Cosmo’s acquisition of language and how it defines her not only as a parrot but as a member, in a certain sense, of a human linguistic community. Cosmo’s ability to talk back and forth with humans brings into question traditional conceptions of how birds can acquire speech, and of whether their speaking is mimicry or something more significant. These discussions touch on such issues as the meaning of consciousness, identity in both human and parrot form, the rights of animals to exist in a human-dominated world, the obligations of humans to protect and secure the survival of animals in the natural world. Cosmo can communicate in English in a way that often seems to use some of the more advanced features of language.  This distinguishes her from parrots who live in the wild, and from most non-human animals in general.

Craige is careful to explain that she acquired Cosmo from a domestic breeder, not from someone who caught her in the wild. Raised in captivity, Cosmo would not survive in the wild. She depends on her owner for food, protection, and companionship. Craige makes clear that Cosmo provides a close and meaningful companion for her. I am not well read in some of the issues Craige considers in this book, but I have never read a discussion of the animal-human relationship that approaches its subject in precisely this way. This book is entertaining from beginning to last, at times quite moving, and in the final chapters often profound.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Valley of Light, by Terry Kay

Terry Kay’s novel The Valley of Light (New York: Washington Square Press, 2003) is set in the fictional community of Bowerstown, in the North Carolina mountains, just north of the Georgia border. It could just as well have been set in North Georgia, near Young Harris College, where the poet Byron Herbert Reece taught English for a number of years before committing suicide (he was ill with tuberculosis). Reece plays no role in Kay’s novel, but his influence is there, in the rhythms and imagery of the prose, in how Kay draws his characters as both individuals and as emblems of something larger. Reece’s novel Better a Dinner of Herbs especially comes to mind—it describes people of the North Georgia mountains in a similar way.

The Valley of Light describes the impact on a small mountain community of an itinerant fisherman named Noah who wanders into the town, stays a few weeks, and then goes on his way. Noah has an almost magical ability to catch fish, and he uses it to make a living. Near the town lives a young woman named Eleanor who recently lost her husband to suicide—he returned traumatized from WWII and never recovered, and he brought secrets back with him as well. Eleanor lives in isolation, is a deep reader (the novel she is reading is The Grapes of Wrath—there are similarities between the prose style of that book and Kay’s as well). Noah befriends her. He becomes friends with a store owner, Boyd, who wants to woo Eleanor when she stops mourning. Noah is the unifying force, the focal point, a catalyst, in a melodrama of entanglements among these characters. Yet there’s no sensationalism here. One might expect certain developments to occur—some do and others don’t. One particular focus for the community is a fishing competition—everyone is looking forward to Noah’s taking part. There’s an attraction between Noah and Eleanor.

A bittersweet nostalgia underlies the novel, which takes place in the late 1940s. Set in the isolation of the North Carolina mountains, the novel portrays the community both as a living force and as a conglomeration of individuals. The developments of the 1950s—highway systems, easy air travel, television—all of which will bring an end to the loneliness as well as the distinctive identity of Bowerstown—loom just beyond the mountains that surround the town.

Kay’s narrative voice is powerful and dominating. It moves the story forward with skill and momentum, as if there is an inevitability to the events that occur.

Noah has what in modern times we call a learning disability. He can’t handle mathematics. He may be slightly below average in intelligence. But he thinks and feels deeply. His parents are dead, his brother is in prison, and he walks through the countryside, from one community to another. He has no sense of where he is going. Noah himself served in WWII and was present for the liberation of one of the death camps, where he saw suffering prisoners and stacks of bodies. He carries a small souvenir from the camp, fashioned by one of the inmates. Boyd served in the War as well. In a sense The Valley of Light is a recovery novel—recovery from the trauma of the War (which leads Eleanor’s husband to suicide), recovery for Eleanor from her husband’s death.

I enjoyed The Valley of Light. What most impressed me was the final chapter. It is the kind of chapter any novelist would yearn to write. It left me gasping.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Blind Side

The Blind Side (2009; dir. John Lee Hancock) offers another melodrama about white and black folks getting acquainted in the American South. The message: mutual interdependence will make us better people. In the film, a conservative, wealthy Christian woman befriends a large and passive African American boy who is practically a street person. She feels sorry for him. His mother is an addict, and his father is nowhere to be seen. When she sees him walking down the street in the rain and asks where he is headed, he answers that he is going to the gym. She knows the gym is closed and realizes he has nowhere to sleep. To the surprise of her family, she offers to let him stay at her house for the night, and then for as long as he wants. She buys him clothes, pays his tuition at the local private school that her children attend, and ultimately she and her husband become his legal guardians. He calls her Mom, and she calls him her son.

There is much potential for sentimentality and stereotyping here, but though the film has its sentimental moments it for the most part evades both pitfalls. The characters run contrary to type. The woman, Leigh Anne Tuohy, is exactly the sort of person you’d expect to have no interest at all in homeless black kids. Michael Oher, the kid she takes in, is not your stereotypical street-smart black teen-ager. He’s shy, unassertive, and virtually never talks. He’s been bruised and traumatized by his difficult life. School bores him because he’s convinced he can’t do the work. He’s given up on himself and on life—he’s fundamentally depressed. Most of all he’s alone. Tuohy would undoubtedly say that Christian charity is why she took Oher in, and the movie offers no alternative explanation. It’s fairly free of platitudes and points of view. It speaks through the actions of its characters.

I dreaded watching this film for three reasons: it was about football, it featured Sandra Bullock, and because of the first two reasons the advertised length seemed too much to ask. It’s difficult to conceive of a subject less interesting on film than football. Unless it is golf, or maybe bowling. And Sandra Bullock, well, I’m just not a fan. On all three counts, the film won me over. Football is an issue, but only a minor one. Sandra Bullock, though she still plays another version of herself, is fully convincing as Tuohy. Quinton Aaron, who plays Oher, is excellent. There’s not tremendous depth to this film, but there is a winning and earnest sincerity. Sincere films normally drive me howling out of the theater. But in this case I was entertained and moved.

But perhaps also I was seduced, lulled, by the vulnerability of Oher, by Tuohy’s earnest concern for his well-being, into overlooking other aspects of the film. In a sense, by choosing characters that run counter to type or stereotype, the film is able to avoid specific commentary on race and economic disparities. It’s focused on individuals, not on their social and racial contexts. Tuohy never comes to any realization about the conditions of life in the projects—she knows something about the projects because she visits them twice in the film. She even threatens a drug dealer. She sees Oher as someone who needs help, and she responds to him on that basis. Oher’s passive vulnerability wins our sympathy, and as he begins responding to Tuohy’s efforts to help him, we like him all the better, but that’s because he’s trying to become the kind of person Tuohy wants him to be. When he becomes a member of her family, he does so primarily on her terms, not his.

I have no arguments with Christian charity. But in this film it operates on the premise that people like Oher are victims incapable of raising themselves up without the white folks’ help. Moreover, where the victims are raised up to is defined by the white folks too—eating well, living in a nice house, showing courtesy and manners, studying, attending college, acting like white folks. This is made all the more clear in how the film divides its characters into categories: the rich white people on the one side, the poor and drug-addicted black folks in the projects on the other side. In this film, solving the problems of the projects means getting people like Oher to live and be like their white benefactors. I am oversimplifying, but my point is that The Blind Side does not argue for social change. There is nothing radical or even moderately progressive about its solution to social problems. It argues the case of the Good Samaritan. Be good to people fallen by the wayside, but pay no attention to how they got there, to their ethnic or social origins.

Oher’s immense size automatically makes his high school football coach see him as a valuable addition to the team. He convinces the school admissions officer to admit Oher, despite his academic problems. (The football coach is played by Ray McKinnon, who played the title character in The Accountant, 2001, and in the recent film That Evening Sun, 2009). In fact, Oher is so shy and unaggressive that he bumbles around during practice and during games. Tuohy finally realizes that he’s afraid of hurting other people, so she persuades him to think of his team as his family, which he must defend. This does the job. The white lady shows the black kid how to play football and rise to his potential.

The Blind Side at moments seems almost aware of its disingenuousness. Tuohy and her husband as graduates of the University of Mississippi are archly fierce football fans. They want all their children, including Oher, to attend the school. Tuohy early on recognizes that Oher might qualify for a football scholarship to Ole Miss, and she does everything she can to help him qualify, which primarily means giving him pep talks and hiring a tutor (another arch Ole Miss fan) to help him with his studies. When an NCAA officer tells Oher that the Tuohy’s might have befriended him solely so that he could play football at Ole Miss, there is a genuine crisis. Oher wonders whether his new family loves him after all. And Tuohy questions her own motives. The film resolves the crisis in a way that seems satisfactory to the viewers, and to the characters, without wholly answering the question about motives. In real life, whatever that is, motives are always tangled, never pure and simple. In The Blind Side, what matters from the film’s point of view is the way in which racial and economic divides are bridged through the kindness and love of one family for a young man in need. If every wealthy family behaved like the Touhys, many problems in our nation might be solved, though we’d have a less diverse, more homogeneous nation as a result. And here we have another film suggesting that the way to success for a disadvantaged, minority character is through sports. The fact is that most families do not behave like the Tuohys, or cannot afford to, so what The Blind Side gives us is an isolated incident rather than a program for change. It makes us feel good without asking us to question how we live our lives.

[Old Smiley’s note:  A recent Slate article argues that the befriending of black athletes by white families is not as unusual as I’ve suggested.  See]

I’d Climb the Highest Mountain

I’d Climb the Highest Mountain (dir. Henry King, 1951) is a small and pious film. Nether adjective is meant to slight. Although one can always find reason to question the motives behind why a film of this type is made, the product itself is earnest enough. Based on a novel by the Georgia writer Corra Harris, the film chronicles the experience of Mary Elizabeth (Susan Hayward), a young woman who comes South to marry minister William Thompson (William Lundigan), assigned to a church in the North Georgia mountains. The house they move to is so isolated that the nearest neighbor is five miles away. The film was made largely where it was set, and numerous scenes show authentic mountain people (the film used numerous people from the region as extras) going about their daily business. Their faces are drawn and often haggard. Their children wear worn clothing and go bare footed (and often seem to have come straight out of Walker Evans photographs). They travel on horse and in buggies on washed out dirt roads. In many ways the use of setting and local inhabitants in the film is a major virtue. It rarely condescends. The only automobile in the area is driven by a rich woman from Atlanta who has a summer home in the mountains. She’s driven around by a chauffeur. The appearance of her car suggests that the film is set around 1920.

Through her own narration, we learn how Mary Elizabeth adjusts to marriage, to the rigors of life as a preacher’s wife, to the isolated mountains region where she lives. Most of all she has to adjust to her husband William. He has a lot of modern views, has a couple of wild streaks, rarely loses his temper, but is stubborn. He’s not afraid to argue with unbelievers or with the richest man in town, who makes donations to the church. (On occasion his virtuousness seems difficult to bear, even for his wife). As modern as William might be, she is even more so. When a local young man (Rory Calhoun) widely regarded as a ne’er-do-well falls in love with the daughter of the wealthiest man in town, both she and her husband take his side. In one prolonged episode, an unspecified pestilence strikes the area, and Mary Elizabeth and William assist the local medical doctor in caring for the ill.

In a certain way the film dramatizes an ongoing conflict between faith and reason, belief and disbelief. A Harvard-educated man and his family live nearby. He has taught his children that religion is false and raises them in a firm and unyielding way. He and William have several discussions about reason and faith. As the pestilence wears on, the local doctor questions why God would inflict such suffering. Even Mary Elizabeth seems to have doubts. William is an unwavering believer. He’s never swayed by arguments against the existence of God, by the pestilence, by personal tragedies. Gradually his piety wins over his wife, and gradually her willingness to break with traditions and even to break some rules in service of a good cause wins him over too.

There’s only a tenuous relationship between the film’s title and its subject. In addition to the title’s being a vague expression of religious faith, it also implies all the challenges Mary Elizabeth must face as she learns to live with her husband. In the end, she explains to him that she’s realized her destiny is to be a minister’s wife, to go with him wherever his calling takes him, quoting from the Book of Ruth, “Whither thou go’est, I will go, and whither thou lodge, I will lodge,” and so on.

This brings us to some of the more archaic aspects of this film. Shortly after the death of a neighborhood boy by drowning, Mary Elizabeth goes into labor and delivers a stillborn son. She is, understandably, grief stricken. She rouses from unconsciousness to insist that her husband baptize the child because she doesn’t want to believe he isn’t alive somewhere. For months she says she is in mourning, hardly aware of where she is. She then says that she commits “the gravest sin a woman can commit against her husband: I ceased to care how I looked.” Only the visit of a wealthy woman from Atlanta, who says she wants William to explain “some Biblical questions,” brings her out of her stupor. As Mary puts it, she was “rudely awakened” by the sight of this woman. After the second visit, Mary warns the Atlanta woman to go back to her own husband and to leave William alone. She goes to the local store and buys expensive fabric to make a dress that will win William’s notice. Later she confesses to him that this wasteful act inspired all the women in the church to spend money on expensive fabric rather than donate to the local mission. So it takes jealousy, envy, and self-indulgence to rescue this woman from grief—no spiritual or emotional or philosophical coming to terms with tragedy, not the passage of time, but jealousy, and at the cost of the local mission to boot!

The poorly hidden subtexts of this film (reinforced by the quotation from Ruth above) are that woman is shallow and fickle and that marriage is a sacred institution to be revered above all others, and that a woman must accept her subordinate place within it—to follow her husband’s will, to play a subservient role. Although we are told that William’s stubbornness is a weakness he must struggle to overcome, it is Mary who does most of the struggling. Her litany of mistakes and small sins are all what we would expect from a female character in a 1950s melodrama or comedy about marriage—a woman who does not closely cleave to her expected role as wife (and, in this case, minister’s wife)—must be brought back into the fold. Mary Elizabeth is a North Georgia version of Lucy Ricardo, always getting into trouble, always in need of gentle correction. Her husband is invariably smarter and more perceptive than she—when she confesses (on several occasions) that she has lied to him, he tells her that he knew she had lied all along—all of this in the lightest and most flirtatious of marital banter.

One wonders about the domestic life of the screenwriter, Lamar Trotti, an Atlanta native. Was he trying to deliver a message to someone at home? Or was he just speaking for the culture at large? In 1951 marriage was a revered institution, a pillar of the social structure, and this film, through frequent demonstrations of piety and good heartedness, makes the dramatic moment for Mary Elizabeth not her recognition of the value and goodness of the community where she has come to live but instead her willing and happy acceptance of her role as obedient wife of the church minister.

The Circuit Rider’s Wife (1910) by Corra Harris is often described as semi-autobiographical, but it doesn’t reveal the less-than-satisfactory nature of her marriage to her own husband, a philandering and alcoholic Methodist minister whose adultery cost him his position and led to his ultimate suicide, and to her public shame and humiliation. The marriage of William and Mary Elizabeth is sometimes faced with minor challenges, but not of the sort Harris faced in her own life.


Babies (2010; dir. Thomas Balmès) is both an entertaining and disturbing documentary about the first year of life for four babies born in different parts of the world—Namibia, San Francisco, Mongolia, and Tokyo. There is no narration and virtually no dialogue, other than what people in the film occasionally say to one another. The camera moves back and forth from one baby to another, paralleling their growth and experiences. All these babies are cute, but their cuteness quickly becomes (despite the trailers) a secondary interest. The film focuses both on what these babies and their families have in common, and on differences. For instance, while we see three of the babies looking at, reacting to, cats and dogs and other animals, we see the Namibian baby, Ponijao, entranced by swarming flies. The conditions of his life, especially compared with the lives of the San Francisco and Tokyo babies, seem severe and deprived. He will grow up in challenging circumstances, but the film suggests that his life is what he will have—his mother cares for him, his siblings play with or sometimes ignore him, the world rolls on around him. He will grow up as most children grow up. The film does not ask its viewers to feel sorry for him. Instead it wants us (I think) to see him and his life as an example of human and cultural diversity.

Compared to the Mongolian and African babies, the babies in Tokyo and San Francisco are growing up in world of affluence and self-indulgence. In one scene the mother of the San Francisco baby takes her to a class where mothers and their babies sing a song to Mother Earth. The Tokyo baby rides with its mother on a glass-lined elevator and gazes in awe at the brilliant lights of the city skyline. The Mongolian baby has the rolling grass-covered hills of the steppes surrounding him, and for the African baby there is bare dirt and dry grass.

The Mongolian child, Bayar, a boy, was my favorite among the babies. His family loves and cares for him but often leaves him untended. We often see him by himself, as he lies swaddled on a bed (surrounded by goats) or sitting in a water-filled basin or standing in a doorway. His is a rich environment. He lives in an elaborate tent with the rest of his family (a tent with electricity and television). His brother is jealous of him and in one scene rolls him in a carriage out into the middle of a field full of cows and leaves him. The film’s final scene is a moment for Bayar of triumph and transformation.

The most poignant and painful moment in the film comes when Bayar accidentally spills a bowl of milk on the floor. He’s not really aware of what he has done or of the mess he has made. When he sees his mother come into the room he smiles at her, but then she speaks roughly and swats him. The look of confusion, pain, unhappiness, and despair that passes in waves over his face as he becomes suddenly aware of the world of sorrow and separateness is hard to see.

I have difficulty accepting what Babies seems to argue—that the common experiences shared among these babies are more important than the differences that separate them. The film leaves no doubt about the material and social differences in their lives. It is difficult not to wish for Ponijao a better life, to worry about the conditions in which he lives. The mortality rate for children younger than five years in Namibia is 65.6 deaths per thousand children, as compared to 4.2 for Japanese children and 7.8 for children of the United States. The mortality rate for children in Mongolia is 53.8 deaths per thousand.[1] The futures for some of these babies may be no future at all. These painful facts for me undercut the feel-good intentions of the film.

[1] CIA Factbook, April 2009.