Welcome to the Jungle

It takes some work to make people into wildlife. Nature shows, for starters, have narration. They are shot from the perspective of the scientist, or the tour guide, or the hunter—some human spectator. Babies does the reverse. It takes away the linguistic meaning "natural" to human life, transforming it into a mere sound, pleasant as a rushing stream or a whistling wind.

Babies as wildlife

  • Thomas Balmes. Babies. Focus Features. May 7, 2010.

Here are the things that made a theater of moviegoers laugh at a recent screening of Babies:

• Babies suffering, especially sibling-on-sibling violence.

• Tiny Godzilla babies shot from below against a clear blue sky.

• Babies making that face babies make when they poop; also, fart.

• Babies crying. (Note: Babies crying in real life incite terror—what if they cry forever? Audience laughter indicates the faith that crying on film will, before too long—unless the film is a European auteur production—cease. Besides, a baby crying on film presumably stopped crying long ago; a baby crying now must be attended to right now.)

And, hands down, the most popular gag:

• Inter-species slapstick. Including but not limited to: Babies pulling the ears of cats. Babies sticking tiny baby fists into dogs’ mouths. Babies stepping on the faces of baby goats. Babies surrounded by cows. (All related to the previously noted joys of baby suffering, but perhaps more profitably categorized under the rubric of “babies courting danger.” Again, funny on film; not usually funny in real life.)

Babies is an 80 minute French film documenting a year in the life of four babies from around the globe—Opuwo, Namibia; Bayanchandmani, Mongolia; Tokyo, Japan; and San Francisco, USA. Widely characterized as an artfully edited, extended YouTube clip of hijinks and tender moments, it issues a defiant challenge to Avatar. That film dispensed the familiar moral of Internet ideology: We are all connected. The moral of this film is: We are all the same.

Or rather, babies are all the same. Newborns challenge the diversity of adult life and the bells and whistles of civilization. Truss them up in blankets, strap them into an all-terrain stroller, take them into the hot tub on the porch or let them splash in the spring on the savannah, they will defy you with one universal will. The original “soft despots,” they insist on indistinguishable bonds with mothers who, Babies teaches us, all learn to love in the same way—in the esperanto of hugs, kisses, and nuzzles. The film introduces a diversity of human geographies while erasing the diversity of human tongues; remarkably few scenes include speech among adults, and when dialogue intrudes it’s never accompanied by subtitles.

Babies are funny when they try to do stuff they can’t do, or when they do something that, if a person bigger and stronger did it, would be met with “real” consequences. (It’s funny when a toddler gently whips a scarf at an infant; this would be less funny if he were a teenager using his fist.) They’re the original Stooges, natural Buster Keatons. The near-escape is their milieu. Babies revels in this brand of physical comedy. It’s about the efforts of supremely uncoordinated creatures to master their uncooperative limbs, to integrate them into one working whole. The poop face is funny because it connects the parts of the body—something hidden (and trying to get out) united to something visible.

And yet the critics are right: Babies is a series of clips. Literally. The film dismembers its world—infants and mothers—reducing wholes to pieces. All the humor of the baby body coming into its own is counterbalanced with snips and rhymes of constituent parts. Tiny dancing feet montaged together, pink baby mouths, beige baby limbs, round baby butt cheeks, giant brown nipples.

The film see-saws between these two poles: funny shots of whole babies in motion, giving it their all, and baby parts, greeted with silent awe or even audible coos. It’s strange for a movie to break a baby into pieces, like King Solomon meeting a kinder Hans Bellmer. Why would you want to see a baby as a collection of parts, a catalog, one of those “baby book” albums with slots for pictures of giant toes and fists? “Cute” is the word that keeps surfacing around this movie, but “cute” is about little versions of big things—a toddler in a tuxedo, a stick of baby corn in your Buddha’s delight. The visual principle here isn’t “cute” so much as “precious.” “Precious” is the judgment of the part isolated from the whole; the preciousness of a baby’s hand comes from its breakability, its fragility, especially when removed from nature’s largess of bodily redundance (babies come with two, or even ten, of everything in case any isolated part happens to break). Precious baby parts can then be frozen or edited into a montage—an aesthetic well-suited to establishing similarities, the appearances of biology overriding the sounds of culture.

Babies are also funny when they don’t recognize species boundaries, when they make no distinction between putting a hand into an animal’s mouth or a parent’s. The movie Babies doesn’t think much of the distinction between animals and parents, either. The film turns humans into animals, or something bigger, something more like “nature” itself. The adults in Babies come across like resources, “the environment” as such, an ecosystem fecund as well as fickle.

No surprise, then, that Babies was originally conceived to be a nature program—humans as wildlife. But it takes some work to make people into wildlife. Nature shows, for starters, have narration. They are shot from the perspective of the scientist, or the tour guide, or the hunter—some human spectator. (If animal’s voices are not translated, it is because they are not “saying” things for which we have correlates.) Babies does the reverse. It takes away the linguistic meaning “natural” to human life, transforming it into a mere sound, pleasant as a rushing stream or a whistling wind. Everything is reduced to the same level. No sense pollutes the babbling, gurgling, and wailing.

English speaking viewers will have the privilege of comprehending two exchanges. In one scene, American Mom says something about SIDS to a health care professional. In another, she reads a book with her child and makes, yes, animal noises at her. No baby will ever have this aural experience—a limited exposure to adult speech, and the frustration of recognizing distinct but unintelligible languages. Babies hear a wall of sound until one day sense emerges from that soundscape; the film is not interested in recreating that experience of coming into comprehension. Instead, we get a limited cacophony masked by background pop treacle. (Like hugs and nuzzles, indie pop is our lingua franca.)

As in a nature program, feeding dominates the plot. Breasts are everywhere, hovering like an overwhelming weather pattern. A crisis erupts when one child won’t suck. The mother responds by grasping her nipple and dribbling milk all over the baby’s face. There is no escape, for the baby or for us; the camera is in extreme close-up, the entire screen filled by nipple, face, milk. Imagine if suddenly the sky all around you poured down ginger ale. You would cry, too. Finally the mother, like some giant rain goddess, shows mercy and wipes his face clean.

Which leads one to ask—from whose perspective is Babies made? Not the babies. Babies look up from the breast, not across at it. The mother’s face is the object of the baby’s eyes, but the mother’s face is just what the camera hides, again and again. Stanley Cavell once claimed that film is an infantilizing medium—that we look up at the screen as if for the mother’s gaze. Babies refuses this: Maternal eyes and mouths, if seen, are buried in baby, snuggling silently in stomachs, hair covering up tickling fingers. (The men have a bit more freedom to triangulate with the world—they talk on the phone or watch TV while keeping one eye out for the baby.) The film functions like a bizarre visual seminar in object relations theory. The mothers, alas, never emerge as whole persons.

If human women are animals, they are animals whose natural environment is language. Different languages. Surely it matters what they are saying when they speak to each other, to their children, to their husbands. The birth of children is the death of parents. This film is a silent killer.

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