Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Universality of Babies

Last night we watched the movie, “Babies”. The film is a fascinating – and almost entirely wordless – documentary following four babies from different parts of the world through their first year or so of life.

The opening of the film shows a close-up of a heavily pregnant mother in Namibia grinding berries to make a kind of red dye that she uses to paint her belly. We see a seconds-old baby, still connected to her mother by her umbilical cord, in a modern hospital in Tokyo. We see an hours-old baby in San Francisco, hooked up to tubes and monitors in another modern hospital. And we see a days-old baby being tightly swaddled in blankets and tucked in his mother’s arms as she climbs onto the back of a motorbike, apparently for the trip back to her home in Mongolia.

As the movie progresses, each group of scenes seems to have a kind of a theme: how the babies eat, how the babies interact with their siblings and parents and pets, the various environmental dangers that the babies face. Some groups of scenes are remarkably similar, and some are literally worlds apart. We see each baby being fed by its parents – in three cases, being nursed by a mother, and in the fourth, being given a bottle by a father. The details may be different – the Namibian mother, for example, nurses her baby while sitting in the dirt, leaning over him to grind grain, while a second, slightly older baby nurses at her other breast, while the Japanese mother reclines comfortably in her bed as she nurses – but the essentials are universal. Even the sibling interactions are hilariously similar. The Mongolian baby sits in the middle of a yurt draped with colorful woven rugs and wails periodically as his older brother flicks him in the face with a scrap of cloth. The Namibian baby sits on the ground and periodically wails as his older brother pushes him away. One of the funniest sequences in the entire film is a series of scenes involving very patient and long-suffering family cats. We see one of the babies looking on as his brother pulls on a leash around the neck of a large (and recumbent) cat, the cat limply allowing itself to be dragged with an expression on its face that would certainly be an eyeroll, if cats could roll their eyes. We see another baby sitting with a similarly patient cat on his lap, roughly grabbing at the cat’s fur and ear as the cat simply lies there, apparently resigned to its fate. And in an especially hysterical transition, we then cut to one more cat, carefully sitting out of reach of a baby and watching it warily.

Even the scenes that show how different the babies’ upbringings are have a core of universality, though. We see the Namibian baby calmly playing in the dirt as a herd of cattle wanders around him, the solid, powerful hooves looking no less dangerous than the heavy, wicked horns. The Mongolian child lies on a rug-draped couch as a large rooster with huge, dagger-like spurs casually hops up and saunters past. The American child careens across a playground on a little car, plowing through a crowded sidewalk and face-planting magnificently in a large sandbox. The dangers may vary from place to place, but there are dangers in every environment, no matter how primitive or how progressive.

But aside from the anthropological fascination I found with the film, I was also fascinated with how much of Ryan I saw in each baby. From the funny little newborn facial expressions, to the wide-eyed curiosity, to the babbling and mouth sounds, to random objects going directly into the mouth, to the jelly-legged attempts to stand up, there was a sense of familiarity in every scene and with every child. The soft cooing and singing of the mothers as they rocked sleepy babies made me smile as I thought of myself doing the same thing. Even the tightening in my chest as I saw each baby in danger of being hurt was recognizable as a sensation felt by every parent in a similar situation.

Ryan is not exactly like any other baby that ever has or ever will be on this earth, but there are some things about his life that have been experienced by every other baby that ever has or ever will be on this earth. It’s a wonderful blend of uniqueness and commonality.

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