JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Even though the “three amigos” directors do not always make films that are about or take place in Mexico, their nationality is emphasized to establish a connection among them and to make statements about the trends in cinema classified as “Mexican.”

Babel, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth [El laberinto del fauno], and Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men have little in common, but they are linked because they were released in 2006 by Mexican directors. Their success has been said to indicate a rekindling of Mexican cinema. However, it could also indicate that Hollywood is more “global” than ever and follows the patterns of neoliberal free trade.

Interestingly, some have interpreted the wedding scenes in Mexico to be authentic, drawing on the director’s nationality for corroboration, while others find them to be disturbingly stereotypical, also referencing the Mexican citizenship of the filmmakers.

The wedding scenes feature norteño music, dusty roads, and lots of people, food, and alcohol, stereotypes about Mexican culture.

When Amelia, Mike, and Debbie cross into Mexico, the children are wide-eyed and wonder if Mexico meets the stereotypes their mother has used to describe their southern neighbors. ...

... The images the filmmakers put onscreen emphasize bright colors, street food, and religious imagery, supporting the stereotypes by making Mexico seem immediately very different from the United States.

 

 

Babel’s Mexican frames

Despite the film’s Hollywood provenance, Babel purports to be part of a blossoming world cinema.[9] [open endotes in new window] But the position the camera takes to depict underprivileged characters reinforces a Hollywood perspective. For example, when the U.S. border official questions Amelia, the camera takes his perspective, focusing on her illegal status and ignoring her comfortable life in San Diego, despite the fact that the director and most of the film’s creative staff are Mexican. Though Babel ostensibly shows the negative consequences of the way neoliberal policies, like NAFTA, preferentially treat commodities over individuals and U.S. citizens above all others through depicting the consequences of different types of movement across borders, the way the film reinforces national labels and stereotypes contradicts that critique. The film’s perpetuation of the typical Hollywood happy-ending for the U.S. citizens at the expense of the underprivileged, including a Mexican, seems paradoxical when considering the Mexican creative staff. Especially after NAFTA, because the film navigates the conflicts between how to treat commodities and cultural products, the national label given to it has distinct implications for its interpretation and the facility with which it crosses borders and is consumed globally.

Even though the global links depicted in the film and found in its production details are common for global Hollywood, many still pay attention to the director’s nationality to characterize the film. Regardless of whether the director is cognizant of the film’s analogies to the storylines, the film’s syntax and the logic scholars use when characterizing the film are indicative of the global landscape — of the film industry and the many registers of global exchange. I have argued that from Babel, we learn the consequence of national labels in the global era, especially in the movement of commodities and cultural representatives, represented in the film by the gun and Amelia, respectively. So when it comes to thinking about the film’s national origin, we know the significance of such a question, especially because of the implications of stereotypes and depictions of social inequality. The fact that the film has connections to multiple nations, in its funding, creative staff, and filming locations is characteristic of global films, but that the film and globalizing policies like NAFTA emphasize the determination of national origin so rigorously encourages us to think through the connection between the film and its national origin, or lack thereof.

This is especially important in the case of the Mexican film industry, which many argue has been in decline since NAFTA, despite the success of globally-distributed, profitable films from Mexican filmmakers, which exhibit a different complication of the relations between national geographic territory and cultural identity. Several film critics have suggested that the success of such films as González Iñárritu’s Babel, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth [El laberinto del fauno], and Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, which were all released in 2006, piqued the latest wave of interest in Mexican cinema (see, for example, O’Boyle).[10] But is there anything specifically “Mexican” about these films beyond their directors’ nationalities? A Hollywood corporation funded each of the three films and only Babel was filmed (but only partially) in Mexico. As a result, the use of the Mexican national adjective for these films, while complicated, indicates an interest in understanding what these pairings mean for Mexico and Hollywood. This combination indicates one example of how the “concepts of nation, people, and identity” have been redefined with the “deterritorialization of symbolic processes,” whih García Canclini argues is caused by globalization policies like NAFTA (Hybrid Cultures 10).

On one hand, the Mexican directors’ Hollywood success makes their criticism of the government and distributors for stifling the Mexican film industry seem duplicitous (see O’Boyle). On the other hand, their use of Hollywood funding indicates that they have been able to overcome the obstacles put in place with NAFTA that hinder the Mexican film industry. In some ways, they have had to embrace the open market policies of globalization to succeed internationally. Directors have to do this in order to have the freedom to make widely distributed films. As García Canclini suggests, though artists often express dissent against neoliberal policies, their ability to

“go on filming or distributing pictures, videos, and books relevant to local cultures depends on the degree of control that they secure within the most advanced networks of transnational communications” (García Canclini 101).

González Iñárritu, Del Toro, and Cuarón have effectively secured the control García Canclini talks about by receiving Hollywood’s support and producing films that recoup their production costs. For example, in an article regarding a contract Alfonso Cuarón signed with Warner Brothers and Warner International to produce films in Mexico and around the world, Cuarón is quoted saying: “The freedom I’ve been given is impressive” (Ciuk, n.p.). Even though Cuarón emphasizes that the contract gave him “a lot of creative independence in local productions,” the directors’ control is not predicated on any desire to produce films relevant to Mexico. Rather, the directors secure funding because of the commercial success of their films. So, what I wish to interrogate here is whether looking for a connection between these films and a cultural sense of Mexico is justified.

In scholarship considering the Mexican nationality of such films, there are two prevalent trends. One is to consider how the Hollywood budgets of films by Mexican directors are emblematic of the shifts encouraged by NAFTA in relation to the traditional unity of national territory and culture. This trend convincingly demonstrates the prevalence of NAFTA’s influential ideology (see Menne, Baer and Long, and Saldaña-Portillo). Scholarship on films by these Mexican directors also frequently looks deliberately for Mexican characteristics, even though such films do not necessarily have any thematic or plot connection to Mexican territory or culture. Both trends indicate the complexity of how territory and culture are being remapped in the era of globalization, but I focus below on the latter to show how Babel’s depiction of the divergent treatment of commodities and individuals collides when considering the global context of the film industry.

Several scholars present the specifically “Mexican” characteristics of the globally successful, often Hollywood-funded, films by Mexican filmmakers. They often suggest the filmmakers use Mexican culture furtively even as they secure future financing from U.S.-based Hollywood corporations.[11] A striking example is how Juan Pellicer identifies aspects of Babel’s narrative and cinematography that seem Mexican because of their resemblance to Mexico’s ancient cultures’ understanding of time and space. For him, in Babel, “time is presented in a circular way and events are repeated from different perspectives” and that “circular design fits in particular Mexican traditions, especially those regarding circular time” (Pellicer 247). He also makes a link to the Mexican artistic movement of muralismo, suggesting that Babel’s attempt to piece together different story threads is akin to the murals’

“historic perspective by depicting different historic events and peoples […] all sharing the same instant, all contemporaries of each other” (248).

These connections, though interesting, require Pellicer to stretch his arguments merely for the sake of suggesting a link between aspects of the film and Mexican history and culture.[12]

Further proof of the unsustainability of this stretch is the fact that in the end, Pellicer moves away from arguing for the film’s formal Mexican qualities. Instead, he says that Babel is “formally a U.S. production.” Nevertheless, he does emphasize that because its creative staff is Mexican, it is

“a work of art achieved in the boundaries where two different cultures meet. But it is also a work of art depicting prejudices that, rather than different languages, provoke mis-readings and prevent understanding among people otherwise as close to each other as human beings can be” (Pellicer 248).

The way that Pellicer reads the film to emblematize the stereotypically highlighted aspects of Mexican culture only to disregard them subsequently for a different national label is symptomatic of the very type of misreadings and misunderstandings that Pellicer articulates as a theme of the film, especially because of the power dynamic it reveals between the United States and Mexico. Pellicer’s analysis is an extreme example of the characteristic of post-NAFTA film criticism, where the critic looks for the local aspects of the cultural product at the same time as acknowledging the global forces’ effects in reconfiguring relations between individuals, goods, territories, and national frames. Especially in this case, the constant desire to find the local in the global commodity is reductive and denigrating to Mexican culture. It justifies the assumption that a modern Mexican would always be referring to the pre-historic tradition, as if Mexico has not progressed or modernized.[13]

Additionally, though Pellicer offers an interesting formalist analysis of the film, especially its montage patterns, such editing techniques also characterize contemporary Hollywood films. In Bordwell’s discussion of Babel, he not only places it firmly in the global aesthetic trend of network narratives, but he also suggests it is unified with a technical fetishization and an ability to travel the world doing location-specific shooting. As chronicled in Rachael Bosley’s article on Babel in the November 2006 American Cinematographer, González Iñárritu and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto deliberately distinguished different story threads through color, grain, film stock, film gauge, lab processing, and even aspect ratio. The segments that take place in the “third world” are on grainier film stock with less vibrant colors. Bordwell characterizes these types of decisions within a current

“tendency of contemporary American filmmakers to develop subtle, maybe unnoticeable patterns of technique that run alongside the film’s story” (2).

That Bordwell, a trained cinephile, “could spot almost none of this finesse on the screen” suggests the superficiality of the attempt to differentiate the storylines stereotypically (Bordwell 3). Instead, it suggests that González Iñárritu and Prieto fetishize the technology and mobility they have access to because of their big budget and Hollywood support. Their decisions about how to differentiate the storylines show that the filmmakers were more concerned with documenting difference, or at least calling attention to perceptions of difference, and metaphorically showing the effects of being underprivileged than in trying to encourage audiences to look beyond differences to bring together the global population. Even though they privilege difference, because it is facilitated by the global mobility and expensive technology afforded by the big Hollywood budget, Bordwell argues “that Hollywood is as committed to an aesthetic of unity as it ever was — maybe even more committed” (3).[14] The emphasis on diversity paradoxically indicates a uniform treatment of subject matter that can only be achieved from the privileged position of Hollywood funding.

This paradox is emblematic of the way that Babel and other global network narratives commodify difference through depicting global interconnections. These “international” cinemas practice neoliberal ideology to generate as much revenue as possible. Additionally, Hollywood funding affects the films of the Mexican directors: the Hollywood budget allows for a fetishization of technology that influences the aesthetic decisions about how and what stories to tell in the films. While not only Mexican directors make such films, it shows that Hollywood investments result in a particular type of product —ones polished with evidence of global mobility that are also marketed and distributed in such a way practically to guarantee their global success.

And yet, scholars still look to the director’s nationality for a sense of authenticity. For example, Hassapapoulou argues that audiences who are aware of the director’s Mexican nationality see that the scenes that take place in Mexico, including the wedding scene, are “more culturally authentic/ accurate than other parts of the film” because the director felt a “representational burden” to “represent (the real) Mexico” (Hassapopoulou 14). Hassapopoulou goes on to suggest that “in light of this, the wedding scenes have a richer sense of traditionalism and cultural awareness” (14). However, others, see those scenes to be largely stereotypical — for example, Shaw argues that the film stereotypically shows

“Mexico [to be] rural and poor, replete with dusty tracks and a drunken wedding with traditional norteño music” (Shaw 21).[15]

Other scenes of the Mexican characters, especially those featuring Amelia’s nephew, exoticize Mexican culture and make it seem dangerous and reckless. The stereotypes are not exclusively the responsibility of the Mexican director, but the emphasis on the director’s nationality frames the film and its creative staff in a way similar to the way the female victims are framed — with destructive consequences in the plot of the film. Even though the film depicts universal suffering and posits a world village, the fact that we are still focusing on national labels and national stereotypes proves that even in the global era, we need to deliberately address the hierarchies perpetuated by the global interconnections.

Through the depiction of the negative consequences of national framing and the uneven logic of border crossing, the film warns against relying on national labels to determine the acceptability of commodities and individuals in certain territories, especially in their exchange with others. Thus, while there may not be anything particularly Mexican about Babel, it dramatizes its own circumstances, which are indicative of the ubiquity of globalization and the policies enacted to benefit capital-seeking corporations. As a result, Babel exemplifies the benefits and dangers of the way globalization policies — neoliberal free trade in particular — suggest the permeability of borders while also reinforcing them. Though the production of the film was successfully global, the storyline depicts the perils of cross-border interaction, especially for the underprivileged. While the film harmfully stereotypes characters in a way that also reflects the limitations of global cultural exchange, its commentary on the effects of labeling individuals and commodities by their nationality illustrates the divisions between territory and culture characteristic of the global era. Babel portrays the end results of deterritorializing cultural representatives and commodities, which, by extension, are analogues for the film industry’s circumstances in the global, neoliberal landscape in which it operates.

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