The author would like to give special thanks to Julia Lesage for the helpful feedback and suggestions she has provided.
1. For the purposes of this paper and for lack of a more adequate term, ‘‘mainstream’’ will be generally defined as: targeting and/or appealing to a broad range of audiences, and belonging to popular culture. Admittedly, the word mainstream is a reductive classifying term, but this category is still the implicit target audience for Hollywood productions. [return to page 1 of essay]
Even a lot of foreign directors define ‘‘mainstream’’ in terms of U.S. popular culture; making it in the U.S. is often equated to meeting success globally. Just one example is Japanese director Takashi Shimizu (The Grudge film series), who – with the help of Hollywood executives – tailored the English remakes of his Ju-On films to primarily fit the demands of U.S. audiences. This cinematic ‘‘translation’’ resulted in watered-down versions of Shimizu’s original works because the originals (Ju-On and Ju-On 2) were deemed too eccentric, too grotesque and too horrifying for the U.S. mainstream (See: M. Gillis, A Powerful Rage: Behind ‘‘The Grudge,’’ 2005).
2. The abstract of Boggs and Pollard’s essay was published along with the first version of this article, which appeared in Democracy & Nature. 1 March 2001. pp. 159-181. All other quotations from their essay are taken from the most recent version (see Works Cited).
3. It should be noted, however, that Lost ratings have been consistently decreasing. This indicates that such fragmentary narratives and styles are difficult to sustain, and viewers do not have high tolerance for on-going confusion. This is a point I will later discuss in relation to mainstream cinema. David Bordwell argues that commercial hits like Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) inspired other filmmakers to experiment more with form, since they
For more insights into Hollywood aesthetics, marketing and economics, see Bordwell’s The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
4. It should also be mentioned that Chieko and her friends are on drugs, so the director is aesthetically trying to convey two sensibilities: deafness and intoxication. In part, the film tries to reconcile these two sensibilities by incorporating silent and out of focus shots to the sequence. [return to page 2]
5. Fatboy Slim is a popular big beat DJ in the United Kingdom, who has also earned mainstream recognition in the U.S. (evident in the many MTV music video awards he has received so far). The scenes with the Japanese teenage girls are the ones showcasing the other commercial songs on the soundtrack, such as catchy J-Pop tunes by artists like Takashi Fujii. This is fitting, since the Japanese girls are at the center of a consumerist-driven age and culture (see discussion related to the Japanese shõjo later).
7. Cited in: Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden, eds. Transnational Cinema: The Film Reader. New York: Routledge, 2006, p.5. In light of this comment, Babel could be regarded as ‘‘a foreign film for people who don’t see foreign films’’ (Scott Foundas, ibid) – or, Hollywood’s idea of cultural pluralism.
8. Other directors have used the technique of loosely connecting multiple storylines to each other by using a single event or theme as the unifying factor. A hit-and-run incident connects the fragmented stories in Jill Sprecher’s Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (2001). Parallel events such as an earthquake chronologically connect some of the stories in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993), and a snowfall theme helps transition from one story to the next in Resnais’ Coeurs (2006). [return to page 3 ]
9. David Denby, for example, states that the creators’ flair for human strife ‘‘made [him] wonder if Arriaga and Iñárritu hadn’t fallen into the fallacy of thinking that misery was somehow more real than happiness.’’ (‘‘The New Disorder…’’).
10. Shõjo, or shoujo, is not to be confused with shojo (unmarked), which means ‘‘virgin’’ in Japanese.
I found Chieko and her friends’ appearance to be very stereotypical, especially because it is reminiscent of Japanese schoolgirl portrayals in U.S. versions of Japanese films such as Shimizu’s The Grudge (2005). However, Chieko’s personality does not have the cuteness and naiveté present in typical portrayals of Japanese shõjos; in this respect, Chieko’s character gains depth. For more information on the role of the shõjo in Japanese popular culture (particularly anime) see Susan Napier’s extensive work on the subject.
11. The Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com) also lists French and Berber as spoken in the film, although those two languages are not spoken at length in the film.
12. This quote is from an Australian interview, and the previous one is from a U.S. source. The few Mexican interviews I have read do not make explicit references to politics either.
13. Pollard and Boggs claim that postmodern films’ ‘‘pronounced cultural radicalism… is rarely associated with any sort of political radicalism even where a harsh social critique might be visible’’ (abstract). In the case of Babel, I think the director’s nationality might have given rise to some of the anti-American sentiments that U.S. critics read into the film.
14. As much as I dislike using the term minority, I think U.S. mainstream culture is still thinking of other cultures in terms of their minority status – or, even worse, indiscriminately lumps minorities together under the elusive ‘‘diversity’’ label.
I do not want to let a so-called biographical reading of the film determine this part of my analysis, but I do believe that foreknowledge (e.g. of the director’s background) can play a role in shaping viewer expectations. This also applies to the fact that viewers tend to expect more eccentricity and unconventionality when they know the director or writer of a film is ‘‘foreign.’’
15. Notably, a blog entry titled: ‘‘Babel: The last note you never read’’ has attempted to translate the parts of the letter visible to the audience, and to offer a few plausible interpretations of its contents. The blogger offers a few possible readings of the letter, some of which contradict each other. ‘‘Hey! I’m not Home!’’ blog, 13 March 2007 entry.
16. Jameson, in Postmodernism; or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), mentions the loss of historical depth as an indicator of postmodernism because films recreate a simulation of the past that is based upon inauthentic representations of that past. In other words, the past represented in film becomes present (or: immediate) every time that film is being watched. Jean-Luc Godard said it best when he observed that cinema allows the flexibility to reorder the beginning, the middle and the end of a film, and therefore play with chronology as well. [return to page 4]
17. Like other postmodern works, Babel ‘‘lays stress on the heterogeneity and fragmented character of social and cultural ‘realities’ and identities as well as the impossibility of any unified, or comprehensible, account of them,’’ according to John Hill’s articulation of postmodern sentiment (Hill, 97).
18. It should be noted that 21 Grams was written and shot in chronological order. The order of events became scrambled up in post-production. This is information is mentioned in various sources, such as the Internet Movie Database Website, Wikipedia, and Gabriela Davies’ ‘‘21 Grams’’ on Hackwriters.com
19. Judging from the miscellaneous responses to the ending of the film, some viewers choose to accept the forced closure the film offers, while others consider the loose ends (e.g. in the father-daughter closing sequence) in the storyline as preventing emotional closure. As Denby observes, ‘‘in the Arriaga-Iñárritu world, if something bad can happen it happens — hardly a typical American movie’s view of life.’’ It seems that, despite the negative overtones of the film, some viewers are still trying to read Babel according to ‘‘a typical American movie’s view of life.’’ Peter Travers, of Rolling Stone, detects a pacifist message in the film, and asserts that: ‘‘in the year's richest, most complex and ultimately most heartbreaking film, Iñárritu invites us to get past the babble of modern civilization and start listening to each other.’’ (Babel review. Rolling Stone online. 20 October, 2006.
20. David Denby sees the technique of diverting or postponing the audience’s pleasure in finding closure as a means of getting viewers to
Boggs, Carl and Tom Pollard. ‘‘Postmodern Cinema and Hollywood Culture in an Age of Corporate Colonization.’’ Julie Codell, ed. Genre, Gender, Race, and World Cinema. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. The quotations in my essay from the article's abstract are taken from: the first version of this essay which appeared in Democracy & Nature. 1 March 2001. pp. 159-181. All other quotations are taken from the latest version (see note 3).
Bordwell, David. The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
Charity, Tom. ‘‘Babel: Tough to Handle.’’ CNN.com. 27 October, 2006.
Covert, Colin. Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Davies, Gabriela.‘‘21 Grams.’’ Hackwriters.com. January 2007.
Denby, David. ‘‘The New Disorder: Adventures in Film Narrative.’’ The New Yorker online. 5 March, 2007.
Ezra, Elizabeth and Terry Rowden, eds. Transnational Cinema: The Film Reader. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Foundas, Scott. ‘‘BABEL: Speaking in Tongues.’’ LA Weekly. 25 October 2006.
Friedberg, Anne. Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern. California: University of California Press, 1993.
Guillen, Michael. ‘‘2006 MVFF — Alejandro González Iñárritu Babel Q&A.’’ Twitch. 26 October 2006.
Hill, John. ‘‘Film and Postmodernism.’’ John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson, eds. The Oxford Guide to Film Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Jameson, Frederick. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.
Kaufman, Debra. ‘‘D.P. Rodrigo Prieto on Shooting Babel.’’ Film & Video. 5 June 2006.
Levy, Emanuel. ‘‘Inarritu on Babel and Brad Pitt.’’ 2006. EmanuelleLevy.com
McCarthy, Todd. ‘‘Babel.’’ Variety. 23 May, 2006.
Stratton, David. ‘‘At the Movies: Babel Interview.’’ 2006. ABC Australia Online.
Templeton, Molly. ‘‘A Weave of Lives: Making Connections across the Gulf of Isolation.’’ Eugene Weekly. 11 September 2006.
Travers, Peter. ‘‘Babel.’’ Rolling Stone online. 20 October, 2006.