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    Panijao in Namibia, from Babies. in Babies
    Panijao in Namibia, from "Babies."

    Little creatures

    "Babies" offers simply that — a documentary that gazes at babies. Think deep thoughts if you must, or just soak up the adorability.


    Just as babies are fascinated with everything they see, we are somehow fascinated with seeing babies. So unless you are a child-hater of W.C. Fields proportions, you will surely get some enjoyment out of the documentary "Babies," featuring nonstop footage of ... yes, babies.

    Original title: Bébés.
    Directed by: Thomas Balmès.
    Produced by: Amandine Billot, Alain Chabat, Christine Rouxel.
    Featuring: Bayar, Hattie, Mari, Ponijao.
    Cinematography: Jérôme Alméras, Frazer Bradshaw, Steeven Petitteville.
    Edited by: Reynald Bertrand, Craig McKay.
    Music by: Bruno Coulais.

    Related links: Official site
    Landmark Sunshine Cinema
    143 East Houston St
    Paris Theater
    4 West 58th St.
    (212) 688-3800

    To some extent, the film defies any further description. French filmmaker Thomas Balmès has simply traveled to four countries — Mongolia, Namibia, Japan and the United States — and patiently observed the unexceptional doings of four newborns in their first year of life. That's about it.

    But does it go any further? Does it tell us anything about these places or about babies themselves?

    Well, sure. Keep your eyes open and you'll observe a few things.

    One thing I observed is, I'm really happy not to be from Namibia.

    Not that it bothers our little subject there, Ponijao. He's growing up in a little goat-herding clan on the plains, without possessions and close to a state of nature, perhaps bored but seemingly content. He doesn't even have anything you could even call a toy, but like the other youngsters, his upbringing is clearly suited to the life he is growing into. By the end of the film, he has had no beeping electronic gizmos or baby yoga classes — or even clothes to speak of — but he does master walking long before any of the others.

    Bayar in Mongolia, from Babies. in Babies  
    Bayar in Mongolia, from "Babies."
    The American, a girl in San Francisco named Hattie, has her parents' loving attention and all the advantages they can provide, but doesn't actually seem very happy. Then again, it's going to take two decades for her to learn the complexity of the culture she is born into, and every day (within the camera's sight) is devoted to some kind of presumably necessary personal development. You can see how every baby's upbringing is not only a product of its parents' intentions but also of what its culture is going to require. Their baby skills are matched to their cultures' skills; their baby talk even resembles their future language at half a year old.

    Here's another thing that jumped out at me — two of our babies grow up out on the range, wandering, with a degree of non-supervision that would appall western parents, among a menagerie of clan animals. The Western babies — in modern San Francisco and even more hypermodern Tokyo — grow up surrounded by stuffed animals and one pet cat each. Why do we in the west obsessively surround our youngsters with fake animals? You can see the connection in this movie — surely it's an instinct that we're barely aware of from an earlier era, when our kids would have been plopped down cheek-to-jowl alongside nature's multitude. For some reason deep in our subconscious, we need our teddy bears.

      Mari in Japan, from Babies. in Babies
      Mari in Japan, from "Babies."
    Oh, and here's one last observation — big brothers are meanies.

    Balmès has made something of a no-brainer film, culling an hour and 20 eye-tickling minutes out of four baby-years of life. It would have been hard to make it bad. The film is smartly made, though, in terms of perspective — we see most of it from a foot above the ground, not adult-level. We keep our eyes on the babies, and grown-ups only occasionally drift in and out of the frame. The photography highlights these babies' adorableness, and in the frequent absence of adults, we see many personal baby moments — the mental wheels turning and the hands and feet churning — that their own parents missed. It's a lovely view into the little tykes' own experiences. So bravo for the filmmakers.

    Still, there's one proviso for those who think they might want to check it out — it makes a huge difference where you see it. This will surely be a much lesser movie on video than it is in the theater. Why? So much of the joy in what we see depends on our own reaction. A baby, for example, tries flailingly to grab his own feet, and it's thoroughly entertaining — and we in the theater all laugh. You, at home, probably won't. By yourself, at home, it risks turning into just somebody else's baby video; in a crowded, frankly estrogen-filled theater, it's a collective celebration of what we all see when we look at our tiny little selves.

    MAY 23, 2010

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