Movie poster visually encapsulating the fragmented multicultural storylines in Babel.

Shots of wide open spaces in Morocco ...

... provide a stark contrast to establishing shots of Tokyo, in an attempt to convey geographical diversity.

The rifle that triggers the chain of events ...

... can be traced back to the Japanese businessman. Photographic evidence connects two of the characters and foreshadows underlying connections between seemingly disparate storylines.

Out of focus images contribute to a feeling of isolation and ...

... disorientation created by the disjunctive use of audio.

Promoting the soundtrack in more ways than one: Takashi Fujii’s song, ‘‘Oh My Juliet!’’ plays in the background while his music video briefly appears in the foreground.

Santiago wringing a chicken’s neck right before the wedding ceremony in Mexico.

Young Mike’s astonishment at this act of butchering mirrors most viewers' shock.

Together for now — the lovers visually reunite for the last scene in Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour.

Pushing and reaffirming
mainstream cinema's boundaries

by Marina Hassapopoulou

Any attempt to summarize Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006) is bound to be reductive, mainly because a film synopsis aims to impose a sense of linearity and causality that does not do justice to Babel’s complexity. However, to conceptualize a plot constitutes the inevitable act of trying to impose coherence on a work that consciously refuses to be pinned down. It turns out that Babel can actually be summarized in a linear manner – even if that linearity is the end result of fragmentary storylines and varying experimental sequences. Although the film initially appears to be lacking a central focus – especially in its scrambled up chronology and its geographic diversity – it unfolds in a puzzle-like manner that eventually interlocks the seemingly incongruent storylines. The chain of events is as follows: a deaf Japanese girl (Chieko) is the daughter of a Japanese businessman who gives a rifle to his Moroccan friend as a gift; that man sells it to another man whose son uses it to accidentally shoot the U.S. woman (Susan) vacationing in Morocco with her husband (Richard). Back home, their kids cross the Mexican border while under the supervision of their nanny (Amelia), whose nephew contributes to her eventual deportation from the U.S.  For some viewers, such a causality between events might seem implausibly fatalistic, while others may feel consoled by the fact that the film's narrative evinces an eventual possibility of coherence, albeit forced. 

Babel initially comes off as an uncompromising testament of artistic innovation, but – like all commercial films – its eccentricity is, in fact, compromised for the sake of mainstream appeal.[1][open endnotes in new window] Babel capitalizes on the viewers’ instinctive desire for making meaning, first by withholding or suspending that meaning, and finally by offering viewers the satisfaction of detecting meaning and unity in the seemingly arbitrary. Ultimately, Babel falls back on thematic clichés – such as female victimization and cultural Othering – in order to help viewers decipher the storyline's elusive meaning. This kind of social legibility undermines the film’s potential for destabilizing mainstream cinematic codes and ideologies. Nonetheless, Babel provides a useful case study in examining how far artistic innovation can push the boundaries of mainstream cinema without jeopardizing the prospect of commercial success.

Audience reception and closure

Although not strictly a Hollywood production, Babel – written by Guillermo Arriaga and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu – is one of those films that exemplify Hollywood postmodernism at its most profitable.  Any concrete definition of postmodern cinema is inevitably reductive, but theorization nonetheless provides a useful starting point in conceptualizing a cinema that is both modern by nature [i.e. as a medium] and postmodern in form. Babel fits the definition of a postmodern cinema that is, according to Carl Boggs and Tom Pollard,

‘‘characterized by disjointed narratives, a dark view of the human condition, images of chaos and random violence, death of the hero, emphasis on technique over content, and dystopic views of the future.’’[2]

However, since Babel is part of the new crop of commercial postmodernism in cinema, its subversive style does not completely alienate viewers. In order to attract international audiences, postmodern films desiring mainstream success make themselves accessible to viewers by retaining at least one classical aspect of storytelling. In the case of Babel, viewers are eventually rewarded for their patience by gaining insight into the interconnections between the four [initially] disjointed narrative strands. Most viewers and many film reviewers expect some kind of closure by the end of a film. Babel’s fragmentary vistas lure in viewers and sustain their interest by the implicit promise of some kind of revelation by the end of its visual and structural conundrum.

Arguably, mainstream cinema has become more susceptible to different modes of experimentation. According to various film critics and historians, mainstream cinema in the U.S. has been introducing innovative and experimental approaches to filmmaking since the breakdown of rigid studio control since the 1960s and the subsequent emergence of New Hollywood cinema. Consequently, the notion of ‘‘mass audiences’’ became (and is still becoming) more diverse in its meaning. Boggs and Pollard assert that film audiences

‘‘have become younger, more affluent, better educated, more cinematically sophisticated, more attuned to new ideas, techniques, and motifs, and more accustomed to a generation of actors famous for their nonconformist or ‘outlaw’ roles.’’ (98)

It would therefore be reductive to assume that all viewers expect to get the same thing out of their film experience (not everyone seeks entertainment and escapism, for example).

Nevertheless, the numerous reviews that measure Babel’s merit by the enlightenment it offers (in relation to its storylines) prove that the majority of viewers still expect coherence, closure and/or catharsis by the end of a mainstream film. Case in point is Molly Templeton’s critique of Babel, ‘‘A Weave of Lives: Making Connections Across the Gulf of Isolation,’’ published in the Eugene Weekly newspaper. Templeton warns her readers that ‘‘it takes time for the film to sink in,’’ but also assures them that

‘‘watching its flawed, struggling characters make their way through an unpredictable world is strangely, inexplicably rewarding… it’s time well spent’’ [my emphasis].

Similarly, Colin Covert, of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, praises the film for

‘‘teasing out suspense here, adding foreboding there, bringing in a surge of crushing pathos, but then providing a blessed note of hope and reconciliation’’ [my emphasis].

Whether the film’s goal is, indeed, to reward its viewers for putting up with its confounding narrative structure and to provide a note of optimism is ultimately irrelevant. The film may not be making any claims to provide closure and emotional catharsis, but it seems that the majority of viewers wish to interpret the ending that way. The illusion – or, in this case, the reality – that artistic expression must be made accessible (and, therefore, comprehensible) to wide audiences makes it seem as though artistic vision must inevitably be compromised for the sake of mainstream appeal. This artistic compromise might be, however, the only way for experimental and avant-garde cinema to cross over to the mainstream.

In the film industry, films are not just testaments of artistic vision: they are also a commodity. This means that product diversification and differentiation are essential for competing in an increasingly competitive international film market. In the case of Babel, differentiation comes in the form of its cultural diversity, scrambled up chronological sequence, and seemingly disconnected narratives that promise viewers a unique viewing experience. 

Disordered cinema: a brief overview

Fragmented narratives and convoluted plots have become a trend in contemporary cinema. Films such as Crash (2005), Syriana (2005), The Good Shepherd (2006), and Premonition (2007) represent only a few of the most recent examples of the narrative and stylistic experimentation permeating mainstream cinema. Television has also picked up on this trend: Lost is possibly the most profitable example of non-linear, puzzle-like storylines on primetime television that has, debatably, managed to sustain suspense and simultaneously build a solid fanbase.[3] Nonetheless, stylistic experimentation has a limit if a film aims to reach a wide audience. Accordingly, most mainstream examples of cinéma désordonné  (= disordered cinema, David Denby’s term) confirm David Bordwell’s observation:

‘‘the Setup is tantalizingly fragmentary, but the plot becomes steadily linear, presenting more sequential scenes… as it proceeds… achieves closure, and it motivates this [closure] as at once random and determined’’ (102). 

In international cinema, disordered and multilayered storylines are nothing new. Examples range from Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon (1950) to Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run (1998). Closure in less commercial forms of cinéma désordonné is usually more elusive and subjective than the contrived closure in films like Crash and Memento (2000). The closure in French director Alain Resnais’ disordered storylines, for instance, is self-reflexive: it is aware of its contrived nature but also of the necessity of closure (or Fin, the End). Resnais can be regarded as one of the predecessors of disordered cinema. Significantly, a recurring preoccupation in Resnais’ films is the precarious relationship between memory and reality, a theme that a lot of recent désordonné films dwell on. Resnais’ disordered films may not provide narrative closure, but they do provide a kind of emotional closure.

Hiroshima My Love (Hiroshima Mon Amour, 1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (L’Année Dernière à Marienbad, 1961) present disjunctive recreations of their leading characters’ pasts, filtered through various stages of consciousness and perception. Both films ultimately refuse to rest on a single interpretation of the past and offer no clear insight into the lovers’ future. However, both films arrive at a certain degree of emotional and aesthetic closure right before the ending. The couples in each film are reunited, even if that reunion happens primarily on a visual level. In other words, Elle and Lui in Hiroshima, and A and X in Marienbad occupy the same visual space in the closing scene. Hiroshima’s ending suggests that the couple may soon forget about their affair, just as the tragedies and scars of the past (Hiroshima, World War II) may soon be forgotten by the world. Despite this harsh reality, Elle and Lui are shown together in the closing scene of Hiroshima, even though they have already decided that their relationship is doomed. Lui’s tight clasping of Elle’s hand hints at a desire for connectedness, even if that connection is fleeting. As a viewer, I find it hard not to detect a glimmer of hope in the lovers’ body language.

In the closing scene of Marienbad, A and X are seen walking next to each other, something that I interpret as a positive sign because X is no longer walking behind A, and now they are, as the voiceover says, ‘‘together at last.’’ Therefore, even if the future is uncertain for both couples, they remain together in the final mise en scène. Resnais’ disordered narratives provide an alternative example of closure to the one Bordwell talks about above. My point in alluding to Resnais’ work is to show that even avant-garde cinema can narratively provide closure for viewers, even if that closure is subjective and problematic. However, to consider the historical trajectory of this kind of film, here looking back to Resnais, raises an important question regarding the current state of cinéma désordonné  and mainstream viewership. Are mainstream audiences finally becoming equated to knowing audiences (dare I call them a ‘‘cine-elite’’?) who sought out Resnais and other avant-garde directors? Is the Hollywood mainstream finally ready for the kind of experimentalism previously limited to selected audiences and directors? 

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