"Sex, Drugs, Guns, and Terrorism" — Entertainment Weekly's cover reduces Babel's complexity to a clichéd tagline.

A husband in agony: the framing of this publicity still draws attention to Pitt’s face and suggestively commends the actor’s dramatic performance.

Chieko channel surfs TV in an apathetic manner...

... yet the TV screen commands our attention by occupying the entire space of the film screen.

The Japanese subtitles for this random program are not translated into English ...

... but the Japanese news report on the shooting incident is accompanied by English subtitles to emphasize news' centrality in developing the storyline. The TV screen showing the Moroccan boy’s mug shot is central to the mise en scène. Chieko’s reflection in the mirror (screen right) is out of focus, thus allowing us to concentrate on the televised image of the Moroccan boy. The shot not only suggests a temporal jump in the storyline but also informs us that the police have found the right suspect.

As the camera pans out, the TV screen becomes less integral to the space's composition but still commands our attention. Babel’s storylines visually converge thanks to technology and globalized news access.

The couple’s ordeal brings them closer together.

Female bodies provide the site for the culmination of melodramatic suffering.

Classic close-up: Amelia’s face highlights her anguish.

What is she looking at? Susan’s gaze remains largely unmediated.

Mediating a tourist’s viewpoint? On the tourist bus, Susan seems lost in her thoughts.

Yet the reverse shot of the outside view, from inside the bus, makes it seem as though she is actually just staring outside the window.


Subjective subtitling and disjointed audio

In my opinion, stylistic and narrative eccentricity in box office hits is usually nothing but a gimmick to lure audiences by promising them something different (and establishing product differentiation), while at the same time recycling familiar cinematic practices to reassure viewers that ‘‘different’’ does not mean incomprehensible. In fact, ‘‘different’’ usually turns out not that different after all. The critical acclaim cause-and-effect films such as Babel and Crash have met – evident in Oscar nominations above all – might indicate that viewers are beginning to adopt a new, more flexible sensibility when it comes to watching films. But I do not think that the mainstream is quite ready to leave their comfortable viewing zone just yet. The jolts in Babel occur in brief, spasmodic doses that last long enough for viewers to become aware of the filmic composition… and are short enough so as not to completely deprive audiences of their viewing pleasure. Examples where Babel shakes the viewer out of a passive absorption of the film include sound experimentation and – in a more subtle way – the subtitles.

The most viewers would not understand at least one of the languages in the film, so subtitles shape how the ‘‘foreign’’ characters are perceived. At times, a selective use of subtitles enhances an irreparable barrier between viewer and characters. For example, during the scenes where Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) communicates in Japanese sign language with her other deaf friends, not everything ‘‘said’’ between the girls is communicated to the audience via subtitling, thus rendering the viewers as outsiders to the girls’ world. In this instance, the lack of subtitles exposes that we, as viewers, will never experience firsthand the reality of the girls’ situation. Moreover, the viewer is no longer granted a privileged position where communication barriers are overcome via the use of subtitles. Granted, sometimes we can infer what is being said. For example, when Chieko flashes some boys at the bar where she hangs out with her friends, her friends burst into laughter and one of them signs to the other girls something that probably means: ‘‘Did you see the look on their faces?’’ Since I do not know Japanese sign language, I am inferring this based on the tone and the fact that the girl does a sign gesture that possibly refers to the word ‘‘face.’’

In any case, the lack of subtitles forces the viewer to pay attention to the Japanese sign language and work towards extracting meaning, as opposed to having the dialogue mechanically conveyed through subtitles. At times, I felt frustrated at not being able to understand everything that was being said. Emotionally I could thus relate to the frustration Chieko was feeling whenever her deafness was holding her back. Unfortunately, many viewers are not even consciously aware of this selective subtitling (none of the reviews I have read makes reference to it), so such a meta-filmic awareness is probably lost on or at best a fleeting insight for the majority of viewers.

Nonetheless, some more conspicuous experiments in form and plot are more likely to make viewers aware of Babel’s self- reflexive dimension. What I appreciated most about the film is its attempt to push the boundaries – albeit without transcending them – of conventional Hollywood storytelling. The viewer’s limited vista as a spectator is often emphasized. An example is when Susan (Cate Blanchett) gets shot on the bus, and we do not actually see who shot her. The mobile camera enhances the feeling of disorientation on the bus and the husband’s frantic state of mind. In an effort to decentralize that narrative, the film abruptly jumps to a volleyball game in Japan and suspends the tension from the previous scene.

The jump cuts from one setting to a completely different context contribute to the viewer’s disorientation. The most effective use of the jump cut is when Susan is screaming while the Moroccan doctor is sewing her bullet wound. Susan’s scream is abruptly interrupted by a jump cut to a scene taking place at Chieko’s dentist’s office. The juxtaposition of high-pitched sound (in the first scene) and complete silence (muted sound in the next scene) creates an increased awareness of the filmic devices on the viewer’s part (such as post-production sound manipulation).

In some of the scenes with Chieko, he film does not just show us what it is like to feel isolated and discriminated against due to a hearing disability; it goes even further and tries to convey the deaf girl’s [Chieko] subjectivity. This draws attention to the sound manipulation, and also to the fact that events are filtered through various sensibilities. The director’s experimentation with sound pushes the boundaries of what is ‘‘acceptable’’ for a mainstream film. Since film viewing is usually based on the viewer's sensory experience of an amalgamation of sound and images, a deaf person’s point of view cannot be conveyed for a prolonged period of time. There are times where the film completely mutes conversations: even though the deaf girls are not mute (we can sometimes hear them laugh, for instance), the exaggeration of the silenced sound makes it seem as though they are mute as well as deaf. In other instances, the muted sound is synchronous with a plot development; for example, the music in the nightclub sound is off when Chieko sees the guy she is interested in kissing her friend. Paradoxically, the muted sound – that is, the complete absence of sound – points to the heightened tension (whereas, conventionally, there would have been a crescendo of sound or other sound effects to emphasize that mounting tension). The catchy dance music that starts playing once the group enters the club makes the viewer temporarily forget that Chieko cannot hear the music. As soon as the viewer starts getting into the beat, the music abruptly stops and thus shocks the viewer back into Chieko’s perspective. The moments where Chieko’s outlook is mediated to the viewer expose just how reliable film is on sound. Some viewers may regard the abrupt silences as fleeting insights into Chieko’s sensibility, while others might initially think that the film is damaged or that something is broken, especially if they are watching Babel on DVD.[4][open endnotes in new window] 

The feel-good song playing in the club – ‘‘September/The Joker’’ (ATFC's Aces High Remix) by Earth, Wind & Fire and Fatboy Slim – reminded me of the role a soundtrack can play in a film’s commercial success.[5]   Babel’s award winning soundtrack consists of no less than 2 CDs, and features an array of global sounds that reflect the film’s multicultural mixture. Incidentally, the most memorable song in the film for me is the aforementioned ‘‘September/ The Joker’’ remix. This song is arguably the most commercial one on the soundtrack, and it is featured in the film at the most opportune moment, where sound (and is subsequent absence) is integral to the heightening of dramatic tension. The recurrent interruption of the music makes viewers want to listen to the entire song uninterrupted, and what better way to do that than buy the soundtrack?

Most audiences would not be tolerant of prolonged silences, which is why we are only allowed partial (and brief) glimpses of Chieko’s disability. Iñárritu’s experimentation with form and style forces viewers out of their comfort zone – but not for a prolonged period of time. The same kind of stylistic limit applies to the film’s use of the grotesque: we are forced to watch Anwar sew Susan’s wound since the camera remains fixated on this act, but the unsettling sight does not last for long. Similarly, the camera lingers on Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal) wringing a chicken’s neck, but this controversial act of animal cruelty, or ordinary act for those who raise chickens for food, only lasts for a few seconds before our attention is turned to something new. Such examples of limited experimentation expose the boundaries of stylistic and visual representation in mainstream cinema. Cinematic experimentation in Babel ultimately gives way to the development of thematic unity, at least as far as the majority of audiences are concerned.

Iñárritu-Arriaga: making the crossover

Babel is considered as the third and final installment in the Iñárritu-Arriaga collaboration. Babel is the third installment to a trilogy which also consists of Amores Perros (2000) and 21 Grams (2003). The three films have some recurring stylistic and thematic motifs, but are not connected to each other by any continuity in their plots or characters (although Gael García Bernal and Adrianna Barraza star in two of the three films, playing different characters). Amores Perros deals with the theme of converging fates. 21 Grams takes this theme further by scrambling up the temporal sequence, and Babel takes the experimentation one step further by adding multiple countries/ settings to the mix. Amores Perros (shot in Mexico) could be regarded as the less ‘‘mainstreamed’’ of the three, while 21 Grams is perhaps more communicative (to U.S. audiences) than Babel because of its setting and production (e.g. it was filmed in the United States and features a predominantly English-speaking cast). Amores Perros was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in 2001, while 21 Grams made the crossover to ‘‘native’’ nominations such as the Best Actress category (Naomi Watts) and Best Supporting Actor (Benicio Del Torro). 21 Grams’s English-speaking, star-filled cast was what helped Iñárritu’s work make the crossover to the U.S. mainstream, while Babel’s star appeal was what probably made many U.S. viewers sit through a film where subtitles occur in nearly half of its duration.

Brad Pitt and – to a lesser extent – Cate Blanchett’s star appeal were regarded by many U.S. viewers as a gimmick that lured them into watching Babel.[6] The U.S. promotion of the film – which mostly revolved around its Hollywood celebrities – created some false assumptions about the centrality of the Pitt and Blanchett’s performances in the film, and some critics expressed their disappointment at the fact that Pitt and – to a lesser degree – Blanchett did not get as much screen time as expected. Babel’s daring aspects, narratively speaking, like its multinational ensemble cast and large chunks of foreign-speaking dialogue, needed to be balanced by something U.S. audiences would recognize. In this case, Hollywood stars. Notably, it appears as though the makeup artists went to great lengths to make Brad Pitt as unglamorous looking as possible (and, perhaps, less all-American). However, the camera still lingers on his face on numerous occasions, reminding us of his internationally recognizable face.

Critics such as Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden maintain that mainstream U.S. cinema is becoming more prone– at least on the surface – to cultural exchange and diversity. Nonetheless, this cultural exchange and diversity need to be contained within a marketable framework that appeals to mass audiences globally. It has been observed that the films that usually cross over are the ones with ‘‘higher production values and access to more extensive distribution networks and marketing campaigns’’ and are also, as Jigna Desai puts it,

‘‘‘Western friendly,’ adopting familiar genres, narratives, or themes in their hybrid production and setting.’’[7]

Babel offers U.S. audiences a glimpse of what other parts of the world are like without forcing them out of their comfort zone for too long.  Subtitles are there to remind U.S. viewers that ‘‘foreignness’’ can be made accessible through the wonders of media technology and via relatable characters like Richard/Brad Pitt.

Most viewers might not even notice that the subtitling is selective and that those supposed glimpses into other cultures are, for the most part, selected based on their relevance to the overarching storyline. A function of the subtitles is to draw our attention to the moments most integral to the overarching plot. In a way, the subtitles frame our limited perception of international media in the film since they mediate the essence of various internal newscasts. The news reports translated for us are the ones focusing on the shooting of Susan. The film tries to put into perspective how insignificant the shooting is for some of the characters by incorporating news reports on the event into a pastiche of commercials, nudity and other news. Still, the subtitles only translate the news relevant to the U.S. woman’s shooting.

For example, as the incident is reported in Japan, the news report on the shooting is dismissed by Chieko as she is flipping through television channels in a blasé manner. The TV screen – which takes up the entire frame – abruptly jumps from a Japanese girl being photographed jumping rope in her underwear, to what looks like a documentary on marine life (no English subtitles). Visually, the channel surfing is momentarily intercut by a shot of Chieko’s bored face and the sound of an explosion coming from the TV that suggests she has changed the channel once more. Then, while the camera is still focused on Chieko, subtitles pop up to accompany a newscaster’s voice. The subtitles indicate that Chieko’s channel surfing has stumbled onto something we need to pay attention to. Incidentally, Chieko stops changing channels long enough for us to hear (or, rather, read), ‘‘Moroccan officials are investigating suspects in the shooting of an American tourist,’’ and the camera tracks back so we can see mug shots of the suspects on TV. The camera’s broader view suggests a detachment from the television, but this detachment merely reflects Chieko’s disinterested attitude. As far as viewers are concerned, the subtitled newscast is the first hint that connects the Tokyo narrative to the Moroccan setting, and thus the first clue that indicates that all fragmentary stories are part of a larger, globalized puzzle.

At first, the Tokyo story seems to be the segment most unrelated to the events taking place in Morocco. The establishing shots of the sparsely populated Moroccan setting are deliberately contrasted with the crowded shots of Tokyo in order to intensify how disparate these two places are. However, the film uses the classic technique of foreshadowing to hint at underlying connections between these two sections in Babel. The photograph showing Chieko’s father holding a rifle and kneeling next to Hassan Ibrahim (the man who sells the rifle to the Moroccan father in the beginning of the film) indicates that the rifle is the link between these two stories.

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