JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Though Chieko is more actively involved in bringing the news reports into the realm of the film, she passively ignores the information. She disinterestedly channel surfs while waiting for her friend to arrive.

Despite Chieko’s disinterest in the news reports on Susan’s shooting, she is implicated in the event through her father’s rifle. When police officers come to question her father about the rifle, she understandably assumes they came to talk to her about something in her purview. She thinks they have come to investigate her mother’s suicide, showing she is focused on concerns closer to home.

We also begin to be disconnected from Amelia following the brilliant long shots of the desert landscape along the border between the United States and Mexico.

Perhaps most striking in their forced disconnection from the characters, the last shots of the Moroccan brothers are of the older brother being carried down the hill lifeless after the younger brother surrenders to the police, asking them to blame him, not his brother, for the shooting.

Treating the young boy like a terrorist seems also to shock the police officers who have been searching for him and now shoot at him.

Robert offers the Moroccan tourist guide money to thank him for helping him and Susan, but the Moroccan declines, accepting a hug and a simple expression of gratitude instead.

 

Their underprivileged position is not the determining factor that makes them oblivious to their global links, though. Their ignorance is somehow related to their suffering, but even though their socioeconomic status connects to their suffering, it is not to blame. In fact, Chieko, who is the daughter of an apparently wealthy family is also incapable of imagining how she is involved in the media reports that are constantly onscreen in her sections of the film. Most often, it is during the segments that take place in Japan that the film shows us reports on the “terrorist attack.” By and large, Chieko ignores the media reports when she encounters them while disinterestedly surfing television channels.

This still strikingly juxtaposes Chieko and Yussef. Both are unwittingly pulled into the global implications of the incident, but the consequences for Yussef are much more dire. Indicative of the film’s deliberate reasons for showing the news reports about the so-called terrorist attack, the other television programs Chieko casually encounters do not have subtitles to translate from Japanese to English for the audience.

As a result, the reports are for the benefit of the audience; they provide updates on how the media is framing the victims and perpetrators according to nationalist frames and anxieties. They offer an initial superficial connection among the storylines, which remarkably privileges the U.S. perspective and further distances Chieko. The fact that not all of the news is translated from the Japanese in subtitles for the audience limit the film’s ability to accomplish its goal, as articulated by Hassapopoulou, of

“offer[ing] 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” (7).

Hassapopoulou suggests that by only translating the television shows Chieko watches that relate to the U.S. woman’s shooting, the film focuses on information “integral to the overarching plot” while it “tries to put into perspective how insignificant the shooting is for some of the characters” (8). In doing so, it prevents the audience from connecting with Chieko; moreover, it shows how disconnected Chieko is from the global range of the film.

Chieko is oblivious to the international crises that are the focus of the film’s storylines and while she is not victimized by a nationalist frame directly placed upon her body — as Amelia and Susan are — Chieko’s vulnerability intensifies as she is pulled into the global context. The film segments filmed in Japan that focus on Chieko feel conspicuously disconnected from the other scenarios for much of the film. They show her struggling to communicate and fit in; she is ostracized from other Japanese youth her age because of her deafness and she does not connect with her father. Though we do not have much information about her past, she is characterized as very self-focused as she struggles to deal with herself, her sexuality, and her mother’s recent suicide. Her disinterest in the news reports on Susan’s injury and other media she encounters indicates her self-centeredness, but when she is pulled into the global perspective her reactions further confuse her global connections with her natural self-concern. When Japanese policemen come to talk to her father about the rifle he owned that was connected to the shooting of the U.S. tourist in Morocco, Chieko assumes they want to talk about her father’s involvement in her mother's death. She, understandably, personalizes their interest in her family because it is the event she focuses on and has influenced her disconnection from normal interaction. She cannot imagine the global context — that the police are simply tracking the “terrorist’s” gun that has been the subject of news reports playing in her presence — and so takes their interest in her personally.

The characterization of Chieko’s inability to fit in emphasizes her sexuality and vulnerability. Because of her deafness, she is forced to communicate bodily, but she desperately wants to connect with others, so she throws herself at any male who gets even mildly close to her (even the dentist). She invites the younger policeman back to her house. He thinks she wants to talk more about the gun or her mother’s death, but she appears before him naked, offering herself sexually to him. He does not know how to respond, so covers her with his overcoat and leaves, but not before she gives him a mysterious note that can be interpreted as a suicide note. His reaction of covering her because he is caught off guard by her vulnerability, because he was primarily interested in her global connections with the “terrorist’s” gun symbolically portrays the objectification of bodies when putting them in the sociopolitical context.

The film portrays Chieko's difficulties communicating as a result of her deafness. She tries to fit in by using her body to connect with others. Here she engages with the police officers in a self-centered way by presenting herself naked to one of them, seeking a sexual encounter. Chieko seeks acceptance and physical comfort by trying to entice any man with whom she comes in contact.Throughout the film, she is frustrated in these attempts, as seen here by the officer turning away from her. The officer tries to console Chieko, but in doing so, he rejects physical contact with her and instead covers her with his overcoat. His covering her nakedness in this way shows symbolically how her attempts to understand her place in the world physically are ineffective. All female bodies in the film are objectified and framed by their situation in the global context. Here the police officer represents the global context because he visits Chieko as a result of international police coordination.
Chieko finally finds physical comfort and perhaps understanding when her father finds her naked on the balcony of their apartment in a Tokyo high-rise building. The audience is led to believe that since the police officer left, she has been contemplating suicide. Father embraces daughter, again covering her naked body in a way that symbolizes the way objectified, vulnerable bodies are framed in the film.

This follows the pattern established throughout the film: the camera continuously objectifies Chieko’s body as she tries to communicate with others and deal with her sexuality. The camera focuses on the transgressive spaces where she is trying to obtain physical and sexual interaction with men. This makes the audience either complicit in the objectification of her vulnerable body or made uncomfortable by her vulnerability in the global context. The audience is thereby given the opportunity to think through that discomfort and the reason why the camera is able to cause it. Significant for its relation to the film’s purported humanistic message — as well as the way it symbolically matches the victimization and subsequent external framing of female bodies — the film ends with Chieko standing naked on the balcony of her Tokyo high-rise apartment building. Her father finds her there and the two embrace, giving relatively positive narrative closure to the film. As Hassapopoulou notes, the accompanying soundtrack optimistically frames their embrace, and the subsequent zoom out to reframe the two in an aerial shot of Tokyo dissolves the personal tensions on which the film focused:

“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” (Hassapopoulou 17).

The closure offered by the father’s embrace of Chieko’s vulnerable body does not resolve her inability to understand the global context that drew her to such an extreme; rather, it literally and figuratively covers her exposed global objectification. Chieko’s marginalization contradicts her military and economic global connection through her father’s gun. Resolving the film with a simple, though overdetermined, paternal enclosure symbolically reinforces the way the other victimized female bodies in the film are treated. Though Chieko’s nationality does not specifically matter, she is the exception that proves the rule: by being pulled into the global context unwittingly, her vulnerability magnifies to the extent that she is reduced to extreme measures to try to understand the meaning of her body in this new context.

The last scene in the film ends with the camera zooming out away from Chieko and her father, showing how small they are in comparison to Tokyo’s vast sea of buildings and lights. By ending on the relatively positive note of their embrace, the film gives a sense of narrative closure. However, by ending the storyline with a long shot, the film undermines its attempts to prioritize interpersonal connections even in the global landscape. It shows instead the insignificance of the characters in a larger perspective.
The film ends its other storylines with similar long shots that disconnect the audience once again from the characters with whom it encouraged the audience to empathize. For example, we see Richard and Susan fly back to the “first world” in a helicopter that traverses different kinds of rural and foreign landscapes.

The personal inflections of the globally interconnected storylines offer the film’s viewers a privileged perspective of the details and broad landscape of the effects of globalization. The film’s navigation of these two registers gives insight into the treatment of individuals and objects by the policies that advance such global interconnections. The logic that facilitates jumping back and forth between personalized details and global perspectives allows us to see how individuals — in Babel, feminized victims — are destructively framed by the sociopolitical schema. Analogous to the way the final shots of Chieko’s naked body being embraced by her father disappear in the aerial shot of the Tokyo landscape offer the viewer a privileged amount of closure, recall that Amelia’s travails in the desert border geography are accompanied by brilliant shots of the landscape and that Susan’s rescue is facilitated by a high-flying helicopter from which we see views of the Moroccan countryside. These views give the viewer distance from the personal strife of the characters; paradoxically, that strife deliberately pulled the audience in only to be left behind in the end.

Nonetheless, the vulnerable female bodies in Babel signify more than the sites on which the plot develops; they metonymically represent the consequences of the disjunction between geographic territory and cultural identity caused by neoliberal globalization policies. The film’s participation in the “network narrative” trend also indicates that it follows the model of having “small stories” with broad implications. The global range of the characters also follows the recent pattern in cinema worldwide to depict the effect when “protagonists of films move or are moved out of the space or territory that they know, whose values they ascribe to and from which their subjectivities are constructed.” As presented by Caitlin Manning and Julie Shackford-Bradley,

“these characters represent larger ideologies or cultural forces, their deterritorialization within small stories becomes a vehicle for understanding what happens when ideologies and other cultural constructs are moved from their origins into new spaces, a process that globalization has accelerated” (Manning and Shackford-Bradley 37).

Framing the female bodies nationalistically — or following sociopolitical anxieties in the global context even when the characters do not leave their territory — reveals the extent to which the globalization processes have complicated interaction across borders. With Manning and Shackford-Bradley’s insight, we see that the feminized characters and the duress they undergo are representative of the changes in cultural processes that have accompanied globalization.

The way the film connects the characters and the storylines reveals further the implications of what the film reveals about how cultural processes have been affected by globalization. In particular, the storylines are connected and impelled by the rifle and by the media reports about the shooting in Morocco. While the media reports indicate the denigrating nationalistic framing of the shooting, its perpetrator, and its victim, it also functions as a connector among the different fragments. Additionally, the way each woman connects across borders and is treated contrasts significantly with the gun’s role in the film. The gun’s status as a commodity that can move across borders differs from the nationalistic limitations placed on the female characters by the media and the government officials who interact with those victims. Moreover, when we realize the broader, symbolic implications of the female characters as representatives of culture and cultural processes, we see that the gun as commodity — despite its literal destructive potential — is treated preferentially by the policies that facilitate globalization.

The disjunctive segues of Babel as
cultural representative and commodity

In the context of the film industry, which creates products that are divergently considered to be commodities and cultural representatives, the implications of the contrasting treatment of the gun and the female characters are brought into an even more significant perspective. Through the syntactical connections among the storylines, we see the potential for the film to represent its own position in the globally-interconnected world. By portraying victimized female bodies framed by nationalist and media biases, it raises concerns about films’ categorization as cultural representatives or commodities with national or international labels. Moreover, the syntax of the connections and differences established by the film deconstruct those categories.

Babel’s Hollywood funding and distribution is not necessarily incompatible with the fact that it was made under a Mexican director. Rather, its global links are characteristic of the majority of Hollywood films and meet neoliberal policies’ (like NAFTA’s) ideals of cross-border corporate collaboration. The film embodies the complications of cultural products’ relation to national identity in the global era. Like the gun, the film legally crosses national borders, but significantly the most negative consequences rest on the underprivileged like Amelia and the Moroccan brothers or helpless females like Susan. Amelia’s life is completely destroyed as punishment for trying to cross the border illegally — and in retaliation for working and building a life in the United States. Her immobility stands in stark contrast to the global travels and influence of the film’s director and creative staff, who are also Mexican. However, though the film production (its capital and its directors) moved across borders, most of the individual laborers are immobile and must seek their livelihoods from whatever jobs are available in their locale. In this register, the film’s economic aspects butt up against its cultural representations. The film connects these two registers: commodity — like the gun — and symbolic representative of culture — like Amelia. And within the film these two registers conflict most powerfully.

Ultimately, Babel’s movement is more akin to the gun’s movement across borders than Amelia’s. However, by showing Amelia’s treatment as illogical and unfair, the film has critical potential for showing what happens to cultural representatives when they are separated from their natural territory and labeled as illegal because of it. However, the film still perpetuates the logic that the underprivileged are to blame when their decisions negatively impact the upper class, and in this way the film destructively reinforces stereotypes. Just as the camera’s perspective allows its connection with Amelia to be mediated by the border official’s viewpoint, stripping Amelia of her past contextualization, underprivileged characters throughout the film are reduced to their nationality and legal status within the territory they occupy.

The final shots of Amelia are similarly distancing. After she is deported, we see her hugging her son and crying in a relative close up ... ... but we no longer hear diegetic sound from her world.

For example, following the unfavorable close-ups of Amelia from the perspective of the border official, the film does not allow the audience to connect with Amelia again. Instead, we see her from a distance after she has been deported back to Mexico and her son comes to pick her up. Extradiegetic music plays, so the audience has been forcibly disconnected from her world. In this indication of what the future holds for Amelia, the audience’s connection to her is reduced to her emotions; it calls upon the empathy the film has been building in the audience only to establish distance from the character anew. In a film about learning to listen in order to understand, our last encounters with central characters are significantly mediated by music and longer shots than the typical close-ups.[7] [open endnotes in new window] With this distance, the film reports the consequences of Amelia’s encounter with the border, indicates her future sadness, and then the plot moves on.

Importantly, the shot of Amelia embracing her son while sobbing cuts to a scene of Robert getting on the helicopter that has finally arrived to take Susan to a U.S.-approved hospital. With the extradiegetic music still playing, he tries to give money to the Moroccan guide who has tried to help the tourists throughout the ordeal. The guide refuses the money, showing that he helped Robert and Susan out of genuine concern for their well-being. Robert’s inability to recognize altruism in his third-world assistant, but a trait he apparently appreciates with the guide’s refusal of remuneration, makes a complicated juxtaposition with Amelia’s final dejection.[8] The scenes are connected by the extradiegetic music, but what they communicate about the hierarchical relations between the characters because of their national provenance and socioeconomic statuses might contrast with the utopian impulses of the film’s humanism. These types of juxtapositions are found throughout the film and further indicate how the logic of the film reveals its relation to the sociopolitical implications of global interconnections it uses as a backdrop.

The shot of the Moroccan brothers running to hide after they realize one of them has shot the bus jumps to ... ... Mike running to hide during a game of hide-and-seek with Amelia and his sister. Though the shots are matched visually, a thematic contrast is established. The different reasons the children hide show vastly different lifestyles and privileges.
The scene of Santiago killing the chickens by wringing their necks in front of the children jumps to an image of... ... Susan lying on the floor of the bus bleeding from her wound. Underprivileged characters have the power to cause the shock on the mother and son’s faces, but they suffer dire consequences for jeopardizing the privileged characters’ happy ending.

The patterns of Babel’s transitions between the storylines complicate the film’s attitude about globalization and the borders rendered permeable, especially as these transitions contrast the logic of the narrative connections established by the gun, personal relationships, and media and police reports. There are moments when the transitions between scenes are logical segues, but often the jumps are jarring and emphasize discontinuity between the segments. The soundbridge discussed above between the last scene of Amelia and the last exchange between Robert and the tour guide is a good example; it blends tense, ethnic music into a high-pitched ambulance siren and helicopter coming to save Susan. By paying attention to the transitions between shots, we see that

“the meaning of each sequence or ‘stanza’ is conditioned [by the] juxtaposition achieved through Babel’s montage” (Pellicer 244).

Other examples include the juxtaposition of a shot of the Moroccan children running to hide after one of them has shot the bus, which is followed immediately by Mike running to hide in a game of hide-and-seek with Amelia. Also illustrative of these disjunctive, shocking parallels is the jump from Amelia’s nephew killing a hen at the wedding by twisting its neck to an image of Susan laying on the floor of the bus bleeding from her shot wound. The links between these shots are not causal, but their aesthetic and thematic connections seem to stress the similarities between the stories. In that way the film attempts to suggest that the connections are deep, even though the logic that connects them evinces the uneven hierarchies perpetuated by the globalization processes the film portrays. The jump from the Mexican killing the chicken to the U.S. woman bleeding on a dirty bus floor would imply savage power for the Mexican and victimization for the woman, but the narrative works to correct this upside-down hierarchy to punish the Mexican by rendering him invisible and safeguarding the U.S. woman through force and government posturing. The dynamics between the characters as victims or as perpetrators of violence are further complicated by the visual logic’s propensity to promulgate stereotypes.

The camera’s angles and focus objectify Chieko’s body by showing it in parts, often emphasizing her bare legs. Though Chieko seems to want to be treated as a sexual object ... ... she is really seeking acceptance and understanding from a group of people she can only communicate with bodily.
The film also exacerbates the problems it claims to want to fix by perpetuating misconceptions about and taking advantage of underprivileged characters. For example, the scenes of the younger Moroccan brother masturbating shortly after he is shown spying on his sister while she undresses present the Moroccan family in a bad light contrary to their belief system.
The integrity of the character and the non-professional actor may have been compromised by the film’s portrayal of him as an incestuous voyeur. But the real voyeurs in this situation are the camera, the filmmakers, and the audience.

Though González Iñárritu optimistically suggests the links among the storylines emphasize commonalities of human suffering, the shocking jump cuts and compromising depictions of characters treated as distinctly “other” perpetuate stereotypes. In addition to the objectification of Chieko’s body from a variety of perspectives, the scenes of the younger Moroccan brother masturbating shortly after he is shown spying on his sister while she undresses takes advantage of the underprivileged characters (as well as the non-professional actors). These and other scenes evince the privileged perspective the film affords the audience. Shaw also suggests that despite efforts to overcome the distance created by cinematic and tourist voyeurism,

Babel ultimately relies on images of otherness as familiar to the tourist as to the film spectator” (Shaw 22).

What makes Babel's inability to overcome that distancing most significant is the film’s own global connections.

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