Monday, May 17, 2010


On the surface, Babies is a masterwork of precision. The documentary, following the first year in the life of four human babies, is frame-by-frame exactly what it intends to be — that is, not very much. It offers a slim 80 minutes of footage of babies being cute. If director Thomas Balmes is trying to offer any kind of thesis or perspective, it's nothing more than "babies are cute", illustrated by the similarity of behavior across racial and cultural divides. Without even a hint of narrative (falsely constructed or otherwise), the film plays out like an 80-minute YouTube video. Why should we be taking this seriously?

According to the audience I saw it with, this thing is a laugh riot from start to finish. It recalls the inaugural Springfield Film Festival entry "Man Getting Hit By Football", which would later be remade with George C. Scott to beat out "A Burns For All Seasons" at that year's Academy Awards. It's an uneasy aggregate — a juncture between high and low art that asks nothing of its audience and is applauded for its simplicity. But what really bothers me about Babies is that the film is a stepping stone in our cultural devolution, and a deeply exploitative one at that.

The film plays out like any nature documentary (that's exactly what it is), with the infant hero a rare human subject that will not visibly alter its behavior under the influence of observation. Babies will laugh, cry and fall over whether or not they are being recorded. However, Balmes goes to great lengths to establish a fourth wall to 'protect' them: from the careful excision of the omnipresent parents to the stasis of the camera throughout the running time, we are (mis)lead to believe we are watching them through an inert window. It is as though we somehow deserve to do so - as though we are there with them.

But the fact is, unlike a lizard or a bird, these four will one day become self-aware. How will they feel about being the subject of something like this, having their naked bathtub photos already preserved on DVD and Blu-ray long before they have a chance to bring home a boyfriend or girlfriend? Did this occur to the parents, edited in here as though they are no more aware of the cameras than their children? It's a dazzling stylistic choice: a manipulation of our observation such that we forget we are witnessing this through the middleman of a film crew invasion. If there isn't a camera, the babies aren't being recorded and they're just there being cute. In pursuit of its purity of content — "Babies are cute!" — it omits the necessary facet of a film of this conceit: that babies are people.

We're here laughing at the foibles of strangers, and I don't think it's a coincidence that the white American girl gets the least screen time. To draw up another Simpsons reference, let us recall the incident of Homer watching a Bollywood musical suggested by Apu:
BART: This movie you rented sucks.
HOMER: No it doesn't, it's funny! Their clothes are different from my clothes! Look at what they're wearing!
Have we so little conscience about the sources of our entertainment that we're willing to make a cheap joke out of a goat drinking the baby's bathwater in Mongolia? Calling this a low common denominator doesn't really seem to do justice to the project, as a transcultural simplicity seems to have been Balmes' plan all along. The jokes are cheap, yes: easy, and of little value, but also they ring out as indicators of how little we require in our quest for superiority. We say we are laughing because the babies are cute, but really it's because they are different from us and in their pratfalls we can feel the wisdom of our age — we condescend to canonize them in a clip show with a wisp of relief that our babies, see, they don't have goats drinking out of their tubs.

On the other hand, if we choose not to laugh at the helpless infants, there remains some value in the piece as a great example of how anyone can film anything these days, and anyone will.

Perhaps we don't think about it too deeply because the little red light is ubiquitous now. Millions and millions of babies born to Americans in the past few years have already generated the raw footage necessary to cull together a "documentary" like this, and a sizable percentage of their parents have already done so on YouTube and Facebook. As we pawn off our privacy for the cheap cost of fifteen seconds of internet fame, the value of our children's privacy becomes difficult to calculate. They'll have facebook pages set up in their names before they know how to speak and if their clip on YouTube gets a million hits then, oh, then they've earned their Gerber.

They won't even have a chance to defend themselves.


  1. One note: I imagine plenty of parents, in fact the vast majority, who post videos of their babies on facebook are intending to share them with friends and relatives and not the viral video crowd. So, I think your characterization there is a bit off.

  2. Perhaps the viral nature of the videos is not intended, but it's still a shellacking of privacy. The very nature of sharing these things over the internet exposes and encourages *further* sharing, which in turn is how a very cute baby becomes a hit on YouTube.

    They may have the best of intentions, but our intentions and our actions in the Information Age are becoming more and more difficult to align.

  3. I guess I'm just not sure I share your horror at the idea of a grown-up having been featured, decades earlier, in a viral video (or feature film) of a cute baby. So...?

  4. Well, how do you feel about the "stage moms" who shop their babies and children around Hollywood trying to make them famous? They're just trying to capitalize on the cuteness of their children. Where do we draw the line?

  5. Here's where I draw the line: it depends on whether the kid's behavior is being guided or dictated by other people or surroundings.

    By your description of this film, it's babies in their natural setting, doing what they would be doing anyway. Sounds incredibly dull but harmless, to me. An older kid who is being given instructions for this audition or that video - or a baby whose routine is being upset or who is made anxious by an unfamiliar setting - would be a case where I think the parent is out of line.

  6. A fair distinction, Hilary.

  7. You make some good points, but what I got from this film is a celebration of life and things that are good in the world. It's more than just "babies are cute" -- when is the last time you watched a movie that was truly life affirming, beautiful, and happy?

    To do that requires stripping the babies down to their essence. They aren't removed from the people in their worlds completely -- they go to the park, are taken on walks, play with cats -- but "Babies" removes relationships between the babies and other people, notably their parents.
    Removing the parents removes a layer of influence that could dictate how we see their children. Without that, the babies speak for themselves. Could this film have been done just as well with the parents involved? Yes, but not necessarily.

    With so much bad stuff in the world getting shoved in our faces every time we turn on the news, why not celebrate something really happy and wonderful?