2008, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 50, spring 2008
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.[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.’’
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. 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?
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.
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. 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. 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.’’
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.
Female suffering, objectification, and victimization
The web of globalized narratives intricately woven by Arriaga and Iñárritu has a U.S. focus that helps center the overarching storyline and simultaneously helps viewers navigate through the convoluted plot. Much like the car crash that loosely connects the stories in Amores Perros to each other, the shooting of Susan is the incident that consistently reappears, influences and/or informs the other narratives in Babel. The Japanese father may have been the one who provided the weapon that started the chain of events, but if the victim were not American then the event of the shooting might not have taken international proportions. All media coverage on the shooting – Moroccan, U.S. and Japanese – lay emphasis on the victim’s nationality. Inevitably, the film’s underlying discourse becomes politicized – at least on the level of reception. This happens despite the fact that the film tries to evade any overt political associations by adopting the same tactic Hollywood uses to evade ideological clashes: that of personalizing sociopolitical conflicts. Iñárritu himself claims that the ‘‘Babel’’ metaphor alludes to personal loneliness and isolation, rather than just linguistic and cultural barriers. According to Iñárritu,
‘‘the most terrifying loneliness and isolation is the one that we experiment with ourselves, our wives, and our children’’ (quoted in Levy).
The director’s humanist interpretation of Babel seems like an attempt to avoid discussing the inevitable political implications in his film (to be discussed in the next section).
The characters in Babel initially seem flat, and the jumps from one locality and situation to another do not allow us to adequately develop an emotional connection to any of them. But, as the film develops, there are various attempts to embellish the characters with an illusory three-dimensionality. Characters become more ‘‘real’’ – and thus more relatable – through their personal strife. Obviously, the individual performances must have appealed to the U.S. public because two of the actresses, Adrianna Barraza (Amelia) and Rinko Kikuchi (Chieko), were nominated for the Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role Academy Award.
Nevertheless, some critics interpret the characters’ individual suffering as a transparent attempt to make them appear three dimensional. Furthermore, suffering is deceptively individualized to detract from the fact that female bodies are actually the ones that become sites of melodramatic suffering. For a film that spends most of its time concentrating on its female characters’ plight, Babel’s female protagonists are not dynamically scripted. Yes, the women do dominate most of the narrative and thus have more on-screen time, but that is mostly because they become passive recipients of male-induced tragedies. Intentionally or not, Babel’s penchant for female victimization exposes an underlying conservatism when it comes to gender roles. Women’s bodies – particularly Amelia and Susan’s – become consumed by suffering. Consequently, these women are presented as (more or less) innocent victims of circumstance. Furthermore, as we later find out, those women are not just victims of fate: they are victims of the consequences of male actions. Amelia risks her life and gets deported out of fear of disobeying her boss’ (Richard) orders, while Susan gets shot by Yussef who got the rifle from his father (who in turn bought the rifle from a man who got it as a gift from Chieko’s father). Female victimization is thus something that occurs in all locales of the film and as a thematic motif, it provides an underlying sense of narrative cohesion.
Female objectification is another motif that is both thematically and stylistically endorsed in Babel. The more attractive (by Hollywood standards) women become objects of the camera’s gaze, but their own gaze is rarely mediated. This mostly applies to Susan, who represents a Western ideal of beauty. Susan is dressed in a white blouse that makes her fair complexion and blonde hair stand out even more in the Moroccan setting. The camera frequently lingers on Blanchett’s face but does not penetrate the surface. We see her looking outside the bus window, for instance, but we do not see what she is looking at because her gaze remains largely unmediated to the viewer. The shots of the Moroccan desert and people as seen from inside the bus are primarily there to set the scene, so that Susan’s point of view represents a tourist’s detached point of view, or even a typical U.S. tourist’s superficial look at other cultures.
Chieko is the culmination of female objectification and victimization in the film. Chieko is fetishized as an exotic ideal of sexuality, and strangely complements the visual embodiment of female purity/ victimization that Susan arguably represents. Chieko is presented as a typical shõjo (= young girl). In Japan, the figure of the shõjo has come to be regarded as a site of consumption and materialism. Chieko’s cluttered room acts as a manifestation of the shõjo’s consumerist drive. Outside Japan, the shõjo is – among other things – a symbol of taboo sexuality, primarily due to the shõjo’s young age. The film plays on that idea of the hypersexualized shõjo by filming Chieko from angles that tease by revealing intimate parts of her body. The film seems to justify Chieko’s visual objectification as a reflection of her personality. In other words, her objectification is made to appear self-provoked because she actually pursues this to-be-looked-at-ness (to use Laura Mulvey’s term). Chieko’s longing for a male touch is presented in conjunction with the absence of patriarchal control in her household but also implies that she is secretly desiring that lost patriarchal control. Chieko’s obsession with attracting male attention is used as an excuse for the film’s objectification of her body. The fragmentary shots of her body parts (e.g. her buttocks and vagina) signify a loss of control on Chieko’s part as to how her body is mediated to others (both the viewers and the men she is surrounded by). Chieko measures her self-worth according to the male attention she attracts, and she is obsessed with how the male gaze(s) sees her. For example, when some boys fail to take her seriously, she complains to her girl friend that ‘‘they look at us like we’re monsters.’’
Ironically, Chieko’s story reaches closure when she emotionally reaches out to her father after being rejected by a series of emotionally unavailable men. The reaching out is not only emotional, but also – and most importantly – physical. In this final scene, a naked girl is embraced by her father as they stand on their apartment's balcony against a nighttime Tokyo view. Chieko’s pale naked body renders her vulnerable and creates a stark contrast next to her father’s dark suit. Her father visually covers up part of her nakedness by hugging her, which makes the underlying sexual connotations all the more disturbing. The narrative's forced closure conveyed by the camera zooming out to reveal an establishing shot of Tokyo undermines the fact that our last impression of Chieko consisted of seeing her glistening body.
Incestuous desire is – to some extent – latent in the closing scene of Babel, but it is more manifest in the Moroccan segment of the story. In the first part of the film, Zohra (Wahiba Sahmi), the young sister of Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid), the boy who shot Susan with the rifle, undresses while her brother spies on her through a hole in her room’s wall. Zohra is well aware of Yussef peeping; she welcomes his gaze and suggestively smiles at him. Yussef and a viewer’s scopophilic pleasure gets interrupted when the older brother, Ahmed, scolds Yussef. Ahmed implicitly reminds Yussef (and the viewer) that his desire is taboo, but Yussef does not appear to be embarrassed by his sexual attraction towards his sister. In fact, he masturbates shortly after he sees his sister naked.
Since the very beginning of the film, Ahmed is made to feel less competent than his younger brother because Yussef is better at shooting. Ahmed tries in vain to impress his father, and is envious of his brother’s dexterity when handling the rifle. The father’s approval is tied to each boy’s sense of masculinity, and the rifle is the measurement of that masculinity. Ahmed’s inability to shoot a target is, in his eyes, a form of castration: it deprives him of his self-worth and makes him even more eager to impress his father. Conversely, Yussef effortlessly embodies the hypermasculine qualities Ahmed covets. Surprisingly, the majority of critics have not commented on the incestuous desires manifest in the film, nor have they criticized the controversial images of young Yussef masturbating and proudly holding the rifle.
Despite Babel’s avant-garde exterior, the aforementioned gender portrayals indicate that some aspects of the film must abide by certain conventions in order to compensate for more forward-moving elements such as stylistic and narrative experimentation.
Transnationalism and political implications
With a film title as ambitious as this, Babel’s five languages (English, Arabic, Spanish, Japanese and Japanese sign language ) and four ‘‘multicultural’’ settings (San Diego, Morocco, Tokyo and Mexico) do not even begin to encapsulate the diversity that the name of the film lays claim to. The film’s creators rework the myth of Babel as the source of the world’s linguistic and cultural diversity in light of global communication and transnationalism. On the surface, the film acts as a metaphor for transnationalism, defined as ‘‘the global forces that link people or institutions across nations’’ (Ezra & Rowden, 1). The film’s cinematography consciously hints at such an interconnection between the initially fragmented storylines. Babel cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto states that the most challenging part in making the film was combining all the different locations, crews, languages and formats into a single movie. Prieto says that
‘‘it was important that it didn’t feel so different that it looked like different films spliced together. I wanted a different texture and feel for each part, but for them to be part of the same film’’(Kaufman).
For this reason, unifying aesthetic motifs were used visually to ease the transitions from one place to the next. An example of such construction of aesthetic unity is the use of the color red, which is used in all locations in varying shades and intensity.
On a profounder level, however, Babel alludes to the miscommunications that persist despite –and sometimes because of – technological advancements and global networks. The economic foundations of contemporary globalism are presented in the form of monetary exchanges, tourism and labor migration. The exchange of goods and money advances in conjunction with tourism in poor countries. In the film, material exchanges (e.g. the rifle, and even the exchange of family photos) only forge temporary cultural connections. A breakdown in communication may appear to have a domino effect because it permeates all locales in the film, but, in fact, some locales suffer more than others from this kind of disconnect. By the end of the film, characters seem to return to their cultural origins. Richard briefly connects with the medic Anwar when they share pictures of their children, but Richard basically sees Anwar’s friendship as a form of service and thus tries to offer him money in exchange for taking care of his wounded wife. The deportation of Amelia, a Mexican working as a domestic in the U.S., shows how some parts of the world (or, in this case, some ethnicities) do not benefit from global networking as much as others. While Babel ostensibly hints at the economic dynamics of tourism in poor countries and of labor migration, it fails to explore these dynamics.
The film’s progressive emphasis on multinational identities backfires in the same way as Crash’s depictions of diversity do. In other words, it is hard to see beyond the nationality of the characters. Thus, most Babel reviews in the United States refer to the characters as ‘‘the Mexican nanny,’’ ‘‘the Moroccan father,’’ ‘‘the Japanese girl’’ instead of their scripted names. At the same time, critics persistently refuse to identify Pitt and Blanchett by the names of the characters they play, and refer to the two actors’ performances instead (which might suggest that their star texts make it hard for viewers to see them as characters rather than actors).
In interviews, the director of Babel claims he does not have a specific political agenda, and chooses to emphasize the humanist implications of his work instead:
‘‘for me, the story is about how vulnerable and fragile we are as human beings, and when a link is broken, it's not the link that is rotten but the chain itself’’ (Iñárritu, quoted in Levy).
In another interview, Iñárritu once again insists that the film
‘‘is not about the physical borders, it's not [about] the politics of the government, it's about the politics of the human’’ (quoted in Stratton).
However, this does not prevent some viewers from interpreting the focus of the globalist drama as
‘‘highly specific, with each case involving wrenching life-and-death situations that on one hand are highly circumstantial and didn't have to happen, but on the other involve socio-political fallout that speaks directly to the current moment’’ (McCarthy).
Another example of a political reading is Tom Charity’s assertion that:
‘‘underneath its ‘We Are the World’ humanism, Babel comes with its own geo-political agenda. It's a critique of isolationism, power and privilege that is most explicit – or at least, assumes the greatest resonance – [in the part where] Western paranoia turns an accident into a full-blown international crisis.’’
Another reviewer, Scott Foundas, sees an even more straight-forward message to the film’s globalized setting, and claims that Iñárritu and Arriaga
‘‘[make the] aggressive suggestion that we Americans and white Europeans are something less than exemplary citizens of the world, particularly in times of crisis.’’
Within the context of the film's narrative, the shooting accident inevitably assumes political motives. A random act of thoughtlessness escalates into rumors of a terrorist conspiracy in the U.S. (and Japanese) media. The U.S. embassy tells Richard on the phone that the incident is ‘‘all over the news, everybody’s paying attention, doing everything they can.’’ While Moroccan authorities speculate that the cause of shooting is an attempted robbery, the Moroccan media still make note of the fact that ‘‘the American government was quick to suggest a terrorist link.’’ Moreover, Susan’s Red Cross helicopter transportation is the climax to the part of the story taking place in Morocco. Susan and her husband’s aerial departure is witnessed by various Moroccan people: we see the local people gathered outside, looking up at the helicopter taking the American couple to the hospital. The U.S. couple not only becomes the center of this Moroccan gathering, but is also at the center of a media frenzy once they reach the hospital. Therefore, even if the film’s discourse does not ultimately favor the ‘‘Western’’ side of the story, the film’s focus suggests that the U.S. couple is the most influential part of the chain of events.
Typically, the discourses underlying postmodern cinema are purposely depoliticized, or refrain from any overt political criticism. In the case of Babel, however, the fact that the shooting incident manages either to affect or visually infiltrate other narrative segments forces us to recognize the centrality of Western identity in the film. Amelia (Adriana Barraza), the Mexican nanny babysitting the U.S. couple’s children back in California, is expected to make the U.S. children her priority at all costs. After his wife’s shooting, her boss tells Amelia: ‘‘This is an emergency, cancel your son’s wedding,’’ implying that his family matters more than hers. Amelia’s attempt to balance work and family obligations gets her deported and nearly killed; this melodramatic twist could be the film’s attempt to convey the absurdity in U.S. behavior and paranoia. Interestingly, whenever he is asked to make a comparison between the events of 9/11 and the function of terrorism in his film, the director refuses to make the focus of his film political. Although he was emotionally affected by the events of 9/11, he repeatedly claims that Babel is primarily about ‘‘the politics of human interaction’’ (Guillen).
Iñárritu’s diplomatic response to political readings of his film is, above all, a clever marketing move, given the fact that the film has been shown in countries with varying political convictions. But does a deliberately depoliticized reading of Babel make the film more transnational in its appeal? In other words, could Babel be seen as a metaphor for a transnational cinema that
‘‘imagines its audiences consisting of viewers who have expectations and types of cinematic literacy that go beyond the desire for and mindlessly appreciative consumption of national narratives that audiences can identify as their ‘own’ ’’? (Ezra and Rowden’s definition of transnational cinema).
If the reviews of Babel are any indication, then it is impossible to ignore the specificity of the national narratives – and therefore our own cultural/ political/ personal bias – in favor of a (surprisingly) homogenizing ‘‘transnationalist’’ response.
In the film’s defense, the filmmaker does make an effort to keep an equal focus on all nationalities. Even the scene distribution in Babel aims to focus evenly (at least visually) on all characters/ settings (the character focus follows this symmetric pattern: Moroccan – Mexican –U.S. – Japanese, and repeats the rotation five times). Despite the film’s longer duration compared to most mainstream films (142 minutes), I think Arriaga and Iñárritu’s attempts at conveying various nationalities are still restricted because of the many layers to the film. The creators’ flair for multiple, convoluted storylines means that some depth has to be sacrificed in other departments of the film, such as characterization.
The fragments that make up Babel are not all equally shallow; this makes me look at the film as more than a ‘‘postmodern’’ accumulation of surfaces because I, as all viewers, am drawn to some parts of it more so than others. In other words, the film does not indiscriminately formulate a pastiche of surfaces. Some parts of the narrative and some characters stand out more than others, although of course this has a lot to do with individuas' film reception (perhaps more so than authorial intention). The Moroccan and Japanese settings, for instance, seem generic compared to the deeper depiction of Iñárritu’s home country of Mexico; similarly, the Moroccan characters are (arguably) more flat than more impressionable characters such as Amelia and Chieko.
The scenes taking place in Mexico are possibly the densest parts of the film. Of course, I might not have thought so if I was not aware of the director’s (Mexican( nationality. Despite their complexity, the scenes taking place in Mexico bear the burden of representation. In other words, the Mexican scenes could be regarded as the director/ writer’s attempt at visibility for a particular ‘‘minority’’ viewpoint. If we are aware that the director is Mexican, then we might interpret the Mexican wedding scene as more culturally authentic/ accurate than other parts of the film. The director’s background is part of that representational burden because he not only has to present a scene in ‘‘Mexico,’’ in a sense he also has to represent (the real) Mexico. In light of this, the wedding scenes have a richer sense of traditionalism and cultural awareness. Comparatively speaking, the scenes in Mexico are much more layered than the scenes taking place in San Diego. This is partly due to the fact that the scenes supposedly taking place in North America were actually shot in Tijuana, Mexico, and, of course, so were the Mexican scenes (Kaufman). In fact, out of the four geographical locations in Babel, the only one not visited by the film crew is San Diego.
The colorful sequences that geographically and culturally represent Mexico are loaded with visual and sensory imagery. The montages convey the director’s familiarity with Mexico, and his attention to detail betrays his cultural bias. In discussing the Mexican part of the film, Iñárritu reveals his personal attachment to this specific storyline when he says that:
‘‘the border issue that I put in this film in the Amelia story, the border of United States and Mexico, which is my country […] is not about the physical space, it's about the idea of who the other are and who I think the other are and why I'm building that barrier within [myself]… the borders that are within ourselves are the most dangerous’’ (Stratton interview).
Once again, the director chooses to discuss the personal aspect of the story over its political dimension.
Furthermore, the scenes in Mexico – and, consequently, the Mexican characters (notably Amelia and her nephew) – are endowed with hints of profundity, even if that depth is not adequately explored on screen. By this I mean that in the Mexico scenes, more so than in any other part of the film, there are glimpses of other narratives that do not unfold but still indicate that there is more complexity than meets the eye. An example of implicit depth is the montage that covers various fragments from the wedding of Amelia’s son. We not only see people celebrating, dancing, eating, drinking and participating in other festivities, but we catch a glimpse of Amelia letting a man grope her (the widower she was dancing with seconds ago), and then another shot of them kissing. That sexual tension, however, is subdued because those fleeting shots are merely a tiny part in the montage of wedding celebrations. In fact, I hadn’t even processed what those fleeting images meant the first time I saw the film because the fast-paced editing does not allow time for the viewer to take everything in. When the film returns to the Mexican setting after going back to the other three locations, there is no sign of the man, and the sexual encounter does not seem to have made a lasting impression on Amelia because her only visible concern is the children.
Of course, that is not to say that there aren’t any complicated narrative ellipses in other parts of the film. The enigmatic death of Chieko’s mother and the varying accounts of what happened, the vague reasons behind the friction between Richard and Susan, and the Yussef's fate are just some of the suspended enigmas in the film that are purposely left unexplored. Nonetheless, the film provides inquiring viewers with information that hints at the causes of these suspended mysteries. For example, Richard mentions that he left the family at some point, and the death of the couple’s second son is also mentioned by their daughter – these seem to be adequate (albeit vague) reasons to explain to the viewer the couple’s strained relationship. Also, the letter Chieko hands to the police detective could hold the key to Chieko’s actions. Part of the letter is briefly shown when the detective unfolds it, but the camera does not focus on it, and therefore does not allow us to view it in its entirety. However, this hasn’t stopped some inquiring viewers from trying to figure out what it means. The viewers’ tendency to try to fill in the hermeneutic gaps in Babel (evident in film-related discussions, reviews, and this very essay) reflects a significant part of the film-viewing experience: making meaning. Detecting and deciphering meaning makes the film experience worthwhile, at least for the majority of audiences.
‘‘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) 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. 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.’’ 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.
‘‘If you want to be understood, listen’’—
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. 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.’’
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.
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
‘‘proved that tricky storytelling could be profitable, particularly if it offered a fresh take on genre ingredients’’ (73).
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.
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).
6. For example, Scott Foundas of LA Weekly states that: ‘‘the mere presence of Pitt assures that Babel will be seen by audiences whose only prior encounter with subtitles may have been an episode of Lost.’’ Interestingly, more TV shows are beginning to integrate multilingual dialogue into their storylines. Notably, in the second season of NBC’s Heroes (starting September 2007), the use of subtitles has increased because the show has added more dialogue in languages such as Spanish and Japanese. However, as in the case of Babel, Heroes’ most popular stars – in the United States, at least – are the All-American cheerleader (played by Hollywood’s newest sweetheart, Hayden Panettiere) and U.S. actor Milo Ventimiglia.
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).
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.
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: Gabriela Davies’ ‘‘21 Grams’’ on Hackwriters.com
the Internet Movie Database Website, and Wikipedia).
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
‘‘realize how conventional that pleasure usually is … [and] how easily most movies yield to the desire for tension, release, and resolution.’’
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.
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