Scene taking place at a Japanese bar. The camera focuses on the TV screen that was initially a minor part of the mise en scène. The central positioning of the TV screen emphasizes the importance of this news report to the storyline.

The camera zooms in on the TV screen until it takes up most of the frame. Susan and Richard's faces are recognizable, even though out of focus and slightly blurred. The news provides documented proof that they have survived their ordeal.

The camera zooms out but the TV screen remains in focus and commands our attention. The subtitles stop once the news about the couple end.

As the nude Chieko and her father embrace on the balcony, the camera tracks back to minimize sexual undertones and provide narrative closure.

Shot of Amelia talking to Richard on the phone in Scene 22 of the film…

…and delayed reverse shot. The reversed order of events facilitates a deceivingly positive ending. This scrambled chronological sequence comes full circle with the phone call ending on a positive note, thus de-emphasizing the tragic events that ensued afterwards.

In a blurred image at the end, Yussef smashes the lethal rifle in a symbolic act of pacifism.


‘‘The American people finally
have a happy ending…’’

Even when the U.S. focus becomes decentralized narrative-wise, the shooting incident still manages to permeate other parts of the film’s sphere, including the mise en scène. The film’s final scene concentrates on the Japanese characters, thus seemingly taking the focus off of the U.S. couple. The final shot is of the Japanese father hugging his naked daughter on the balcony while the camera keeps zooming out to indicate how miniscule the two characters are in comparison to their surroundings. The zooming out as well as the frequent aerial and/or establishing shots in the film are meant to put things into perspective, and perhaps – like in Crash – indicate that the personalized narratives are more than just personal. The shift in focus from the U.S. family to the Japanese characters superficially decentralizes the narrative fragments. In the previous scene, we were left wondering whether Susan would recover from her injury, since the doctor was not optimistic in his evaluation of her condition.  Even though this is the last scene where we ‘‘actually’’ see the couple, their virtual images re-appear in the Japanese setting (via a TV screen) to reassure us that Susan has survived her ordeal. The couple appears on a television screen at the bar where the Japanese investigator is trying to drink his pain away. The focus shifts from the man’s pain to the TV screen that ‘‘coincidentally’’ features an update on Susan Jones’ condition. The camera zooms in on the screen so we can see footage of Susan being discharged from the hospital; this footage serves as visual proof of the news report’s reliability (seeing as we have been getting diverse media reports on the event throughout the film). 

Although the investigator hardly pays attention to the TV, the camera’s focus on the TV screen forces us to pay attention to that narrative development. Moreover, the news segment on the shooting is the only one that is subtitled. After that, the news anchor says: ‘‘In other news…,’’ and the topic changes to something of a seemingly lighter tone; the news anchor keeps talking over the next topic, but we get no subtitles so we assume that the later new is not important to the film. All that matters in this case is the fact that, as the Japanese reporter says, ‘‘The American people finally have a happy ending after five days of frantic phone calls and hand wringing.’’ Thus, even though the police investigator seems disinterested in the news report, the editing of this scene makes the news report integral to the plot. Moreover, the suspended tension at the hospital finally gets [a media-facilitated] closure and the viewers are reassured that Susan did not die. Had she died, then there would have obviously been more political repercussions, which would have caused more complications to the story.

Coming full circle?

Babel’s fragmented narratives and experimental sequences not only emphasize the loss of historical depth (especially in their chronological discontinuity) typical in postmodern narratives, but also draw attention to the fact that ‘‘cinema serves up the past as present and virtual.’’ (Friedberg, 187)[16][open endnotes in new window]Babel’s jumbled up temporal sequences form their own intermediate/ associative linearity on the screen by being shown in a different order than that they ‘‘actually’’ happened in. This blurs the chronological order of the film’s narrative, and – at least on screen – makes it seem as though all events are taking place in a virtual and timeless present. In fact, some of the ‘‘past’’ is served up as virtual within the context of the film itself: for example, news reports of the shooting appear on Japanese TV screens and thus visually and spatially unite two Japanese characters (e.g. the police investigator and Chieko) with an event that took place in the past.

Babel’s discontinuous storylines expose the fact that the medium of cinema is experimental by nature, and that linearity does not automatically occur when shooting a film.[17] Babel's linearity is more abstract than the one in 21 Grams. In 21 Grams, the plot becomes increasingly linear, until it finally reaches the ‘‘present.’’[18] Babel’s plot follows a similar formula – the director’s trademark style – but that ultimate linearity exists in the viewer’s mind more so than in the film itself. In Babel,

‘‘the distant, intermediate, and recent past, as well as the present — are clearly marked elements in a chronological scheme that the viewer eventually assembles in his head as a continuous tale’’(Bordwell, 22).

Other films that take a ‘‘mindfuck’’ approach include: Rashomon (1950), Hiroshima My Love, Last Year at Marienbad, Run Lola Run, Magnolia (1999), Donny Darko (2001), Mulholland Drive (2001), Memento, Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (2001), The Butterfly Effect (2004) and Premonition (2006). These films' narratives offer alternative vistas of the past and/or future and do not necessarily rest on a single, inclusive version of events. While some of the aforementioned films show a fictional character trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together (in the more commercial The Butterfly Effect, Premonition and Memento), the rest place the viewer in the role of ‘‘detective’’ and let her/ him figure out some of the missing pieces in the storyline, narrative, and chronological order. On the contrary, Babel offers enough ‘‘clues’’ to provide partial closure to the interweaving stories, even if that closure is unsatisfactory for inquisitive viewers.

Chieko’s reaching out to her father is optimistically framed through the accompanying soundtrack that signals the end of the film, as the two are locked in a tender embrace. It seems that the move towards emotional and narrative closure wants us to ignore the fact that Chieko is standing naked outside, and that her father’s embrace is laden with sexual undertones. The reframing into an aerial shot of Tokyo takes away the focus from the father and daughter and is thus reminiscent of the ending of Crash. In both films, personal tensions are dissolved once the cinematic focus is off the characters. The socio-political tension may still linger in the viewer’s mind, but the zoom out makes it easier for the viewers to detach themselves from the film’s content.

Moreover, in Babel there is the (misleading) sense of the temporal sequence and the plot coming full circle towards the end of the film. The next to the last scene where Richard makes a phone call from the hospital ties back to the scene in the beginning of the film where Amelia and Mike are on the other end of the phone conversation. Thus, by the end of the film, the viewer understand the earlier part of the narrative because she/ he has now witnessed both sides of the phone conversation. Our last view of the phone conversation ends with Richard breaking down in tears after hearing his son’s voice. The score betrays a hint of optimism in Richard’s reassurance that ‘‘everything’s ok,’’ even if at the time Susan’s condition was still critical. When we later find out through the TV news (in the Japanese setting) that Susan got better, that narrative segment ‘‘ends’’ on a deceptively optimistic note. But, this optimism is only possible because the parts of the story that chronologically take place later (Amelia and the children stranded in the desert and Amelia getting deported) have been shown in a scrambled up order. Thus, Amalia's segment's ‘‘sad’’ ending has been shown before the movie’s happier ending to facilitate a sense of closure. When we later see the news report of Susan's ‘‘happy ending’’ - as the news anchor calls it - we tend to forget that that occurrence is not actually the end of the story – it is simply the fragment that gets shown last on the screen.[19]

‘‘If you want to be understood, listen’’—
simplifying complexity

Babel’s trailer distills the essence of the film into the didactic message:

‘‘If you want to be understood…listen.’’

One would expect that a film which offers an overload of sensory images, plots and characters would resist such reductive interpretations and that an all-encompassing philosophy would be hard to decipher. But, this is not the case – at least according to the trailer. The trailer suggests to viewers that there is a clear-cut meaning behind the film, despite its confusing structure. The film’s stylistic experimentation might be postmodern in that

‘‘it helps reproduce the very popular mood of anxiety, uncertainty, fear, and cynicism that it mirrors in the general society’’ (Boggs & Pollard).

However, what the trailer and optimistic interpretations of the film do is reproduce the also popular Hollywood tendency of trying to detect optimism even in the most hopeless situations to make us feel better about ourselves. Beneath this optimism may lie another popular desire, to be able to dismiss the problematic undertones of the film as part of its entertainment value.

And yet, Babel is perhaps the best we can expect in terms of mainstream experimentation – at least for now. Babel could be as close to getting viewers to actively (not just retrospectively) think about the film’s form and content as mainstream postmodernism can get. Even if the filmic text and its reception ultimately try to impose unity and coherence on heterogeneity, it could be said that the film still forces viewers to pay attention to the fact that linearity and continuity are subjective. In making viewers question the causality of events, temporal continuity and narrative space, Babel demonstrates how contrived continuity actually is in film.[20] Nonetheless, in the case of Babel, the film's narrative compromises defeat the possibility of an unfettered artistic creation and suggest that the film’s ultimate aim is to be – as Babel’s tagline says – ‘‘understood.’’

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