2012, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 54, fall 2012
Babel’s national frames in global Hollywood
by Leisa Rothlisberger
According to director Alejandro González Iñárritu, his 2006 film Babel “is about how our everyday lives are affected by walls, miscommunications and barriers” (quoted in Michael). Elsewhere, González Iñárritu emphasizes that what he “want[ed] to make clear in the film [is] that it’s not about the physical borders, it’s not the politics of the government, it’s about the politics of the human” (quoted in Stratton). Though González Iñárritu acknowledges the film uses contemporaneous sociopolitical issues as a backdrop, he repeatedly stresses that the humanistic aspects of Babel are primary. [open endnotes in new window] While the personal human conflicts of the film may be at the center of the message the filmmaker was trying to communicate, the film’s narrative development reveals its attitude toward and placement in the current globally-interconnected landscape.
The film melodramatically depicts characters in geographically diverse locations who struggle to communicate with one another and their respective environments. The interconnected storylines are put together like puzzle pieces that are not aligned chronologically or geographically, but the gist of the story is as follows: A well-off U.S. couple, Robert and Susan (played by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett), leave their children in San Diego with their Mexican nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), while they vacation in Morocco. While touring the country by bus, Susan is hit in the shoulder by a rifle shot. The shot was fired by a young Moroccan, Yussef (non-professional actor, Boubker Ait El Caid), whose father purchased the rifle from another Moroccan who received the rifle as a gift from a wealthy Japanese man (Kôji Yakusho) for being his hunting guide. As a result, police are sent to the Japanese man’s house to investigate whether the rifle was stolen. The police have a hard time getting in touch with the Japanese man, but they do interact with his attention-deprived deaf-mute daughter, Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), who assumes they are investigating the recent suicide of her mother. Through her contact with the police, she is unwittingly pulled into the international crisis of which she would otherwise have been completely oblivious. As the film unfolds, the audience gradually becomes aware of how the various segments are linked, but throughout, the diverse characters suffer because of their global interactions.
While González Iñárritu emphasizes the personal aspects of the film, its interconnecting storylines reflect its participation in recent trends in world cinema. For example, it fits into David Bordwell’s category “network narratives,” which has broad implications for the film’s depiction of its contemporaneous global circumstances. For Bordwell, the
“central formal principle [of network narratives] is that several protagonists are given more or less the same weight as they participate in intertwining plotlines. Usually these lines affect one another to some degree. The characters might be strangers, slight acquaintances, friends, or kinfolk. The film aims to show a larger pattern underlying their individual trajectories” (Bordwell 1).
Several other film critics have characterized this trend similarly:
“Variety’s critics call them crisscrossers, others call them thread structures or interwoven stories” (Bordwell 1).
Similar films include Crash (2004), Nine Lives (2005), Traffic (2000), and even the first two films in González Iñárritu’s loose trilogy: Amores perros (2000) and 21 Grams (2003). While the narratives hold audience interest well, they also portray the effects of globalization; as New York Times film critic A. O. Scott suggests, they tell
“small stories with big implications, examining the lives of individuals . . . in a way that suggests large, invisible forces pushing them through their passive, melancholy lives” (1).
Thus, Babel’s narrative structure has the potential to illustrate global processes, even if through a humanistic lens.
Babel’s affective force may come from the commonalities of human suffering, but the logistics and causes of the struggles depicted in the film reveal its response to globalization policies and trends. In an article on Babel, Deborah Shaw suggests the characters, who are mostly stereotypical,
“are connected within the text by their suffering: a reduction of heterogeneity is sought through an appeal to a universality of emotion and a globalised form of pain in a bid to create the sense of a ‘world village’ where we all care about each other” (Shaw 22).
Shaw quotes González Iñárritu to corroborate her articulation of the importance of common suffering in Babel; the director asserts that the causes for sadness are common across borders and socioeconomic divisions. However,
“this type of universality that rests on personal suffering is formed in the marketplace, and relies on melodramatic structures to pull in audiences” (Shaw 23).
Thus, the universal human experiences emphasized by the film rest on commercial principles that create divisions between audiences and the diverse characters the film introduces to them. Furthermore, the very socioeconomic realities the universal suffering purportedly negates are the logistical links among the characters. Those pragmatic connections reveal the realities of contemporaneous global processes, which not only make the series of events depicted plausible, but also influence the film’s relationship to the concept of world cinema and its complicated production details.
The vocabulary González Iñárritu and his collaborating screenwriter, Guillermo Arriaga, use to tell the interconnected stories shows their concern with the way commodities and individuals are treated differently by specific processes that impel globalization. In particular, the film’s logic comments on the prevalent influence of neoliberal free trade agreements and post-9/11 anxiety about terrorism and immigration. While melodrama pulls the audience in and the characters universally suffer, the geographically disparate storylines are connected by individual characters’ international travel (though they travel for different reasons) and the exchanges of a rifle. The way these mobile entities — the gun and individuals — are treated in the plot, by the camera, and by other characters, reveals a logic that favors the gun’s movement but also implies that global interaction has disastrous consequences for the poor, marginalized characters. The stories’ connections demonstrate how free trade policy and post-9/11 anti-immigration sentiment as exacerbated by the war on terror has shaped the way cultures, commodities, and individuals are treated differently from one another even though they are more interconnected and have more contact with and influence on one another than ever before.
Babel exemplifies some of the major conflicts encountered with globalization—alongside the possibilities facilitated by increased worldwide interconnectivity. It also illustrates the unevenness of the distribution of these global opportunities. The gun serves as the logistical connection between the U.S. tourists in Morocco, the Moroccan family, and the Japanese father and daughter. Each character’s relation to the gun has negative consequences, but by the end of the film, the poorer characters suffer the most because of it. As Bordwell puts it,
“despite Iñárritu’s claim that the film is about family and personal communication, something else is going on. After all, the drama is fundamentally about how prosperous white people have to suffer because Asian, Mexican, and North African men have guns” (Bordwell 3).
Indeed, the prosperous people suffer, the others take the blame, and one news reporter announces at the end of the film, the “Americans, once again, have their happy ending.” This ending re-affirms the privileged position of the U.S. citizens. Bordwell’s focus on the gun reveals that as the link between the characters, it represents economic and violent power. Accordingly, the film suggests that when in the possession of power, the underprivileged will use it irresponsibly with violent consequences for the global order.
That the film privileges the U.S. citizens and the upper class characters in general may be a reflection of how the world really works, but they also indicate the film’s conservative political attitude (see Tierney). Nevertheless, Babel confronts issues of national labels and their destructiveness, especially with the propensity for movement across national borders in the global era. The fact that it depicts crises that occur when people and commodities cross borders and their national labels determine their interactions indicates the negative potential of such labeling. This is true for the rifle, a symbolic commodity, as well as the individuals who are labeled by their citizenship in the media and legal assessments of their cross-border connections.
Though the film is driven by affect, the differences among the way commodities and individuals are treated according to their national label and contact with territory other than their own have implications for the film’s situation in the global market as both a commodity and symbolic representative of culture. In the course of this essay, I argue that the differences between the way the gun is treated as a commodity and the way the women are victimized in association with their national labels are analogues of Babel’s complicated production details and classification in world, Mexican, or Hollywood cinema.
To explain the way the film’s interconnecting narratives represent its own situation, I first discuss the implications of the way culture and commodities are treated differently in the global era and, second, how this is exemplified by the film’s depiction of the respective trajectories of the gun and individuals — mostly victimized females — who are framed nationally by the global crisis. Then I show that the film cannot be solely categorized as a cultural representative or commodity even though national frames are placed upon it in a way that parallels what happens to the female victims of the film’s plot. This is dramatized through the symbolically disjunctive segues between the varying film segments.
In the concluding section, we see that even though there is an impulse, even in the globally interconnected world, to determine national provenance, the film warns against asking whether it is Mexican because of the hypocrisy it reveals. The film participates in a global cinema through the range of the film’s storylines in Morocco, along the U.S.-Mexico border, and in Japan. Though I expand on this later, the film’s relation to a singular national label is further complicated by its Mexican creative staff, its U.S. Hollywood funding, and its regional actors from each location. Moreover, the film was successfully distributed worldwide; it made more money outside the United States than in (it made more than $34 million domestically and more than $100 million abroad). While these global markers are not abnormal for Hollywood-funded projects, many scholars still focus on the national provenance of the director and creative staff for indications of the national characteristics of the film. Babel comments on the effects of national labeling and media influence in the pragmatic interconnections between the characters and the way those links are depicted to the audience.
Culture and commodities in the global era
Despite the filmmaker’s insistence on the humanist focus of the film, Babel illustrates conditions for cross-border contact that are particular to the film’s historical moment and its situation among many nations. It takes up the anxiety generated in the United States by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the “war on terror,” both of which have been accompanied by an anti-immigration fervor and the propensity to falsely fear all Arabs as terrorists. Addressing the question of the film’s national provenance and its ability to point out the hypocritical, uneven treatment of entities from different nations in the global era, Shaw points out that these are global concerns focalized through a U.S. perspective, which further privileges the United States and its citizens in the film’s schema (15). Shaw argues that the film’s implicit U.S. perspective compromises its participation in the utopian “world village” that it intended to portray. Moreover, the consequences for characters, like the Mexican ones, who have distinct roles in the U.S. imaginary, paradoxically contradict the lived experiences of the creative staff from Mexico. Specifically, in addition to its critique of post-9/11 fearmongering, the film’s depiction of a Mexican working illegally in the United States as a nanny for upper-class children is specific to U.S.-Mexican relations. Even though economic exchange between the United States and Mexico has amplified in recent decades, specifically with the 1994 implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), U.S. policies and sentiment continue to disdain the Mexican presence in the United States. NAFTA reasserts the long-standing relations among Mexico, the United States, and Canada, but in many regards it reinforces the power differential between Mexico and its northern neighbors, especially because of the way U.S. capital is welcome in Mexico but Mexican citizens are still rejected from U.S. territory. The contrast between the derision of human movement and the acceptance of a commodity’s movement typifies the inequalities perpetuated by free trade agreements — and is also dramatized significantly in Babel.
With the implementation of NAFTA, commodities, as representatives of capital, are treated very differently from individuals. This is common to neoliberal trade policy, but because of the deep cultural connections between the United States and Mexico the distinction has far-reaching repercussions. This is further complicated for products, like films, that are both cultural representatives and commodities. In fact, in order to try to keep products of the cultural industries from the competition of the free market, Canada insisted on a cultural exemption in NAFTA that allows Canada to take protectionist measures to support its cultural industries. Though the exemption has become more symbolic than effective because of other NAFTA provisions and Canada’s accession into other free trade agreements that do not have similar cultural protections, the fact that the negotiations focused on such measures indicates the perceived significance of the combination of culture and free market principles (see Goodenough and Beale, for examples).
As culture industries commodities have received attention in free trade negotiations, scholars have commented on how media and culture have been characterized traditionally. Toby Miller, co-author of Global Hollywood, asserts,
“in the embarrassingly macho language of U.S. political science, the media represent ‘soft power’ to match the ‘hard power’ of the military and the economy” (Miller, et al. 104).
For one example, Miller cites an article by Joseph Nye, a political scientist at Harvard, in which media influence, including film and cultural influence, is characterized as feminine and delicate, but also attractive and persuasive—in contrast to the macho “hard power” of military and economic policies that are more direct and forceful (see Nye 545). Nye acknowledges that the two types of power must be used together to benefit the purposes of the U.S. state. In the inclusion of the cultural industries in neoliberal trade agreements, soft and hard power have combined with significant consequences. While the culture industries used to be thought of as in need of essential protection, now the U.S. position is that “entertainment should be treated as a business,” because it is: it is hugely successful and brings in huge amounts of money for U.S. companies (García Canclini, Consumers and Citizens 98). Though the transition to include culture industries in agreements like NAFTA shows an acknowledgement that the audiovisual industries are huge business powers, it does not calm others’ concerns about the potentially deleterious effects of having Hollywood films dominate screens around the world. The clear motivator is the desire to capitalize on commodities, a justification strongly supported by neoliberal ideology. Consequently, the policy makers disregard the cultural effects. Because media influence is still thought of as “soft power,” the policy makers do not acknowledge the destructive effects of framing bodies as national and gendered according to how they are categorized and dealt with through the “macho” power of political and economic influence.
The different treatment of representatives of culture and commodities collides in Babel, particularly in the contradictions between the mobility of the gun and the so-labeled illegal migration of Amelia, the Mexican nanny. Though the gun moves unhindered across borders, when it changes ownership and then is used irresponsibly, the national classifications placed on it are reviewed to determine the legality of its being owned and traded by Moroccans. By presuming the gun’s exchange between the Japanese man and the Moroccans was illegal, the government officials working behind the scenes in the storylines of Babel reveal prejudices against the underprivileged. In the end, officials determine that the gun moved legally across borders, but the fact that the international police force became so involved shows the concern for national origins of products under globalizing policies.
Similarly, under NAFTA, goods can move freely across borders when their national origin is determined to be one of the North American signatory countries. As set out in the NAFTA document, their national origin is determined by complicated formulae that take into consideration the origins and value of materials from around the world, as well as the location of transformative production. As in Babel, the commodity has to be authorized to confirm the legitimacy of its movement. Because the gun was exchanged between individuals, instead of between a recognized seller and a customer, its exchange was not trusted and had to be tracked, engaging individuals from around the globe in the crisis.
As we see with the gun, even though free trade policies have a hierarchical logic determining which products can be sold in which nations, inanimate commodities cross borders freely. Here, the literal danger represented by the gun marks the irony of the preferential treatment commodities are given. People do not enjoy that same mobility, despite the frequent necessity of their movement. In Babel, people move and interact globally, but only upper class individuals are able to cross borders without disastrous end results.
The results of unauthorized human movement are seen most drastically when Amelia takes Robert and Susan’s children across the U.S.-Mexican border. Amelia’s son’s wedding was scheduled to take place shortly after Robert and Susan would return from their trip to Morocco. Because of the delay in Robert and Susan’s return home and their inability to find another caretaker for the children, Amelia decides to take the children she cares for to the wedding. On the way back to San Diego, border officers question Amelia about the two white children asleep in the back of the car and ask for notes from the children’s parents giving permission for Amelia to take them out of the United States, paperwork Amelia does not have. The car’s driver, Amelia’s nephew, gets nervous and drives through the barricades into the darkness of the desert. He tells Amelia and the kids to get out of the car, thinking it will be better if they find their way to safety on their own, but the natural elements and lack of direction overwhelm the three.
Upon finding Amelia, who left the children to search for help on her own, U.S. border officials only pay attention to her legal status in relation to the two nations. She did not have the official paperwork to allow her to live and work in the United States, so she is reduced to the body that was ill-equipped to deal with the border space; she becomes nothing more than an “illegal alien.” Though she had been characterized throughout the film as a benevolent caretaker, once she is labeled an illegal alien, the camera follows the lead of the border officials and only focuses on her overexposed body—she is not even allowed to see the children before she is deported. Once she is labeled according to her nationality and her illegality, Amelia’s natural qualities do not influence how she is treated. Instead, the suffering she experiences on the geographic border translates into strife in relation to the political border between the United States and Mexico.
The gun clearly poses more danger to the U.S. citizens than Amelia’s movement across the territorial border with Mexico. Nevertheless, she is punished and her life is turned upside down while the rifle’s consequences are blamed on the underprivileged who made a mistake, not the original owner of the gun. Amelia’s illegal movement contrasts the U.S. couple’s and the Japanese man’s tourist trips, but the relatively positive endings they enjoy also contrasts with the concluding punishment suffered by the lower class characters. The gun’s movement labeled as legal—despite its destructive power — illustrates the irony of the xenophobia that punishes Amelia for her cross-border actions, originally motivated by care and concern for her and her charges’ well-being. As analogues for the hard and soft power employed in international affairs, the differences between the gun and Amelia’s cross-border interactions in Babel raise questions about the film’s own role in articulating international connections. As metonymic representatives of the effect of globalization on entities, Amelia and the gun exemplify conflicting perspectives on what film represents — as discussed above, films are understood as either commodities or representatives of culture. If we are to believe this dichotomy, then the film is either merely a commodity, like the gun, or it is solely a cultural representative that naturally crosses national borders, like Amelia. Of course, neither classification can be totally isolated, but Babel depicts the disastrous potential of the uneven treatment of commodities, culture, and individuals with its distinct treatment of the links generated respectively between other film elements and the gun and Amelia.
Nationalized, victimized, feminized bodies
While the gun serves as the pragmatic connection among the storylines—as well as the object that impels the crisis—recall that the director emphasized the universal suffering depicted in the film. Amelia’s travails in particular represent that suffering. Following the director’s logic, she is linked to the other female characters in the film because of how she suffers on screen. Remarkably, the most prominent victims in the film are women who are vulnerable and suffer when framed according to their nationality by external entities that focus on the global context of the plot’s overarching crisis. The young Moroccan boys are also victims, but the film blames their irresponsible use of the gun for the crisis. The converse of the vulnerable females, the film portrays the boys’ decision to test their aim and the rifle’s range as a test of their masculinity. By using female victimization as an affective link among the storylines and contrasting that link with the gun’s logistical connections, the film symbolically explores the consequences of the divergent treatment of culture and commodities in the global era.
Amelia’s transformation from capable caretaker to illegal alien is indicative of the counterproductivity of discrimination according to nationality in the global era, especially because of the way that kind of discrimination is specifically overcome for commodities by free trade agreements. The film’s cinematic illustration of her transformation shows the barriers put in place that obfuscate her qualities as the kind woman the rest of the film established. Her suffering is palpable onscreen, but it is important to note that Amelia is not the only woman victimized in the film; other key female characters are deleteriously affected by being reduced to a female body with a national label. Because of the coordinated symbolism of cultural influence characterized as feminine in political rhetoric, the film’s pattern of female suffering potently comments on the systematic treatment of culture — and women — in the increasingly globally connected world. From Babel’s narrative logic, we see that those connections are not necessarily controlled by the females victimized; rather, their situations are made worse by the national labels externally imposed upon them.
In particular, the way Amelia and Susan’s respective trajectories are filmed and communicated show a pattern of female victimization related to national framing. Chieko, the Japanese teenager, is also the site of suffering, but her obliviousness to the international crisis and the way she is pulled into it brings us to the same point about the negative consequences of the way the storylines are interconnected on political lines. If we keep in mind the filmmakers’ emphasis on universal suffering, it is logical that we see characters suffer, but the film’s focus on female bodies as vulnerable sites indicates the perpetuation of traditional characterizations of women and culture. For Marina Hassapopoulou, in Babel,
“suffering is deceptively individualized to detract from the fact that female bodies are actually the ones that become sites of melodramatic suffering” (9).
Even though the film devotes much of its screen time and narrative to the plights of its female protagonists, “that is mostly because they become passive recipients of male-induced tragedies.” For Hassapopoulou,
“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. . . . Furthermore, as we later find out, those women are not just victims of fate: they are victims of the consequences of male actions” (Hassapopoulou 9).
I go further to suggest the symbolic implications of the male actions that victimize the women—and the way their suffering is exacerbated by the political labels placed upon them. The film dramatizes these implications in such a way that it is hard to tell the filmmakers’ intentions and political stance. It is possible that they are conservative in their understanding of gender stereotypes, or perhaps they depict the unjust reality in order to critique it. Regardless of their intention, their use of such a narrative vocabulary in a commercial film with global range speaks volumes about the landscape in which it was created.
The treatment of Amelia is particularly illustrative of the film’s focus on female suffering. Though Amelia is ostensibly the victim of circumstance — her employers’ absence combined with her nephew’s anxiety-produced rashness — she is ultimately blamed for her actions. The cinematography distances the audience from her, even though it encourages empathy for her losses. Specifically, the way her trajectory is filmed matches the limitations placed on her natural characteristics once her nationality comes to the fore. It is late at night when Amelia’s nephew recklessly drives through the barricades at the border crossing, so the screen is dark, with the only light coming from the cars’ headlights as it speeds through the pitch black landscape, with the flashing lights of the border officials in pursuit.
In contrast to the dark screen with little light, the next sequence overexposes Amelia and the children in the hot California sun. The sequence is filled with innumerable long shots of the children and Amelia wandering in the desert. The shots are stunning, with brilliant colors and a sense of how beautiful the landscape can be when observed from the perspective González Iñárritu and the audience enjoy. The sky dominates the screen with its beautiful blue, but it is balanced by the rich gold hue of the sand. Complementing the other lush colors, the dress Amelia wore to celebrate her son’s wedding is a deep red. The red starkly contrasts with the natural colors of the landscape, and as the sequence continues it becomes more and more tattered. Eventually, the camera starts to focus on Amelia’s ripped nylons and her dirty dress shoes, which are completely inadequate for hiking around in the desert. Despite the way the border geography abuses Amelia and the children, the camera still communicates its awesome brilliance, downplaying the characters’ agony.
Minimizing Amelia’s prior competence, once the border officials find her, the camera emphasizes the ugly consequences of her overexposure. She is overexposed by the sun as well as by the revelation that she was working without legal papers. When she is taken and questioned by U.S. border officials, the camera relentlessly focuses on her sunburned face, wind-chapped lips, and sand-dirtied hair. Just as the border official does not care about her lived experience, about what predicaments led her to be abandoned in the desert, caring only about her legal relation to the United States, the camera decontextualizes her and focuses only on her bodily circumstance. The camera literally and figuratively takes the position of the border official. In this sequence, the screen is mostly taken up by Amelia’s face, but occasionally it shows the cheek of the border official questioning her, signifying that the camera is behind his back, looking over his shoulder. That the camera so willingly takes this perspective shows the film’s propensity to side with the officials, to blame the poor, underprivileged for their rash decisions. While the camera shows an insensitivity to Amelia’s former characterization, the distance it is creating between the viewer and the character indicates that the way she is officially labeled is counterintuitive to the kind woman the rest of the film shows her to be. That the camera is mediated by the border official’s harsh treatment shows the dominance of the national label at this point — and illegality — placed upon Amelia — as a victimized female body.
The separation between the camera and the character is especially noticeable because it starkly contrasts with the position the camera takes in the majority of the film. Often, the viewer has direct access to the main characters through frequent close-ups. Shaw notes the camera removes “any sense of distance” between the viewer and the characters to the degree that that the viewer becomes an “invisible member of the group”:
“whip pans and abrupt edits that follow conversations convert the implied viewer into one of the characters present, but invisible” (Shaw 24).
For Shaw, this camera technique encourages the “viewer to care about all the characters and empathise with their suffering” (25). While it encourages the viewer to empathize with the characters’ suffering, it also gives a privileged position to the viewer, allowing her to think that she can relate to everything the character is going through. Additionally, when the close access to the character is removed, as in the case of the shots of Amelia’s over-exposed body being mediated by the border official, we see that the frames placed upon the suffering bodies externally prevent us from empathizing with their plights. Even if González Iñárritu wants the film to be about universal suffering, the pragmatic aspects of the storyline belie the political implications of what causes the female bodies to suffer.
Perhaps the suffering female body that spends most time on screen is that of Susan Jones. After she is shot, which occurs relatively early on in the film, Susan’s body is often screened in tortured positions with blood everywhere and agony apparent on her face. The extent of Susan’s pain is filmed with just the kind of close-ups that Shaw argues gives the audience a privileged position and generate empathy between the characters and viewer. While these images are very affective, they are also uncomfortable to watch because of their duration. In fact, reviewers complained that the film is “unrelentingly, unremittingly sad, excruciatingly painful,” especially because Cate Blanchett, who plays Susan,
“writhes in agony for most of the film.” She “writhes well, and when she screams in agonized pain after a local vet sews her bullet wound, [the reviewer] not only closed [her] eyes, but put [her] fingers in [her] ears” (Dermansky).
Other reviewers also complain about the frequent depiction of Blanchett’s tortured body, with one complaining:
“Cate Blanchett has nothing much to do other than lie on the floor whimpering, and her prone position is emblematic of the passive agony underlying the movie’s body language” (Bradshaw).
The reviewers’ focus on Cate Blanchett playing the woman in agony is compounded by others noticing that though advertising and previews for the film focused on Brad Pitt’s and Blanchett’s participation, these two actors play a comparatively small role in the film given their star notoriety. The suffering the film depicts emphasizes the actors’ bodies and frames them in ways Hollywood stars are not typically treated. In continued contrast to the audience’s expectations for how the Hollywood stars and their U.S. tourist characters are treated, Susan’s suffering is made more interminable by the way her body is labeled according to her national citizenship.
Once she sustains the shot wound, Susan is simply a woman in need of medical care, but when the governments get involved, she becomes a U.S. citizen hit by a bullet in the foreign country of Morocco, and it is that identification that makes her the unsuspecting victim of a terrorist attack. Her female body is victimized and the fact that she is an U.S. citizen in an Arab country post-9/11 results in diplomatic posturing. Governmental involvement only complicates getting aid for Susan. A U.S. government official tells Richard over the phone that they (we assume he means US diplomats) are doing everything they can, but that the incident “is all over the news,” insinuating that because of the media attention, securing appropriate aid for the bleeding woman cannot be done quickly because of its political implications. Richard does not care whether the ambulance is Moroccan or from the United States, but the way the media and the governments label the incident makes that difference insurmountable for the U.S. official.
Because the United States labels the event a terrorist attack, and that information is spread globally through the media, we see how the posturing, labeling, and so-called diplomatic offense of the two governments puts all of the film’s interconnected characters, especially the young Moroccan boys who have now been labeled terrorists, at risk. As Hassopopoulou notes,
“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” (Hassapopoulou 8–9).
Despite the personal melodrama, the vocabulary the film uses to connect the characters and communicate the intensification of the event indicates its attitude about the political logic behind it. Placing the responsibility on the media and government standoff is the critique the film offers of globalization: though there are benefits to increased global interconnections, the way that officials’ involvement negatively impacts marginalized people around the world who can too easily be labeled as terrorists, vulnerable, symbolic victims, and illegal aliens.
Through screens and radios transmitting updates about Susan’s status and the attempts to track down her shooter, the film tracks the escalation of the global media interest in the event and of the governmental standoff it causes between US and Moroccan officials. Indeed, throughout the film, the links between the characters around the world are communicated through international media outlets that emphasize the individuals’ nationality and the political implications of the crisis. Not all of the characters know how they fit into the global schema. In fact, several characters only learn of their national framing through media reports that sensationalize the government posturing over the accidental shooting that is labeled as a terrorist attack. The frames politicize the characters in ways that make them not even recognize each other. The boys first learn of the consequences of the shot they fired at the bus and the American victim when their father returns home late with news that the road on which he normally returns home was blocked off because of a so-called terrorist attack that is garnering international attention. The father does not suspect the boys’ involvement because the possibility of them being involved in an internationally significant event is beyond his purview as a goatherd in rural Morocco. Their inability to think globally, despite their real links to people from other parts of the world, is indicative of the unexpected consequences of globalization, and also marks a critique of the treatment of these underprivileged characters and the depiction of their vulnerability.
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. 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 US 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 US 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.
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 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.
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. 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. 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 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.
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.
Babel’s Mexican frames
Despite the film’s Hollywood provenance, Babel purports to be part of a blossoming world cinema. 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). 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. 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.
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.
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). 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).
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.
1. Marina Hassapopoulou quotes from several interviews in which González Iñárritu claims that he did not want to emphasize a political agenda in the film, but rather focus on human interactions (see Hassapopoulou 12). [return to text]
2. See also Baer and Long.
3. According to “Babel,” boxofficemojo.com,
http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=babel.htm (accessed May 5, 2009).
The estimated budget comes from “Babel,” Internet Movie DataBase,
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0449467/ (accessed May 5, 2009).
4. Chuck Kleinhans recently published an article in Jump Cut on the “creative industries” in the current recession. While he shows that the term “culture industries” is only really used in academic circles anymore, he argues that as capitalist commodities, cultural products are imbricated in the point of capitalism (“expanding and maximizing capital itself”); moreover, the
“larger forces of neoliberalism, such as speedup and outsourcing even ‘creative’ work overseas, are more decisive in shaping the actual creative work climate and the possibilities that individual face as employees than the wispy utopianism of turning on the creative faucet to get a stream of new jobs, opportunities, and adventures” (3).
5. This is one of the two fatal flaws of the film, according to Mexican filmmaker, José Luis Pardo. In an interview with the author in Tijuana, MX in May 2011, Sr. Pardo argued that it was unconscionable for González Iñárritu to suggest that someone from the border would drive through the barricades in the way Santiago does.
6. The paradoxes and xenophobia of this term further emphasizes the complications between territories and national categories. Thought it probably doesn’t need a definition, here it means that Amelia is a Mexican citizen living and working in the US without permission.
7. The film’s tagline is: “If you want to be understood, listen.”
8. Shaw suggests this scene evinces the director’s optimism about worldwide collaboration (20).
9. Shaw chronicles this especially well.
10. Like O’Boyle, Perla Ciuk suggests that the success of films like Y tu mamá también and Amores perros “has done a lot to raise international awareness of Mexican cinema.” Again, it is important to keep questioning what these authors are referring to in talking about “Mexican cinema.” Ciuk goes on to quote Cuarón and suggest that he “cites a different factor” to understand the success of these films: “‘Mexican movies accept reality, embrace and express it, and the contact they make with the public is harsh’” (Ciuk). Here is another definition of what is special about Mexican cinema that makes it globally successful even in being locally grounded. The implication of the way Mexican films depict reality and make contact with the public implies, even though vaguely, a not-only Mexican audience and an attempt to move beyond the normal limitations set on film—as affected by globalization forces through increasingly permeable borders for commodities, faster technology, and media.
11. For example, Cuarón directed the 2004 installment of the Harry Potter series(Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), which Jeffrey Menne asserts,
12. Dolores Tierney also situates the Hollywood films in a Mexican national cinema.
13. In fact, it is precisely this type of statement about Mexico’s need to modernize or inability to modernize on its own that echoes the NAFTA negotiations and justification. The lack of the acknowledgement that Mexico has modernized, or the emphasis on the pre-Colonial tradition is similar to arguments made by Jaime Serra Puche and Rafael Tovar y de Teresa, and even President Carlos Salinas about the importance of NAFTA in Mexico’s modernization process. On the other hand, and somewhat paradoxically, in conversations about the vitality of Mexican culture these same politicians and even author Carlos Fuentes suggest that because Mexican culture is so old, there is no way that a culture as young as US culture can trample it. Again, the basic, and fallacious, assumption is that Mexican culture has essentially remained constant and committed to the ideas of pre-Colombian times, even in the face of acknowledged hybridization.
14. This aesthetic of unity, in the face of emphasizing difference (even if only technologically) resonates with Hardt and Negri discussion in Empire of globalization’s creation of a “regime of production of identity and difference,” which encourages difference and the multiplicity of products, but may actually create false desire.
15. I interviewed film workers in Tijuana, Mexico in May 2011. Without exception, they expressed dislike for Babel because of the stereotypical Mexican wedding scene. It should be noted that they disliked the scene even more because it came from a Mexican creative staff. Their focus on the director’s nationality also indicates that even though we are talking more and more about global commodities, we are still forced to think about national labels.
Babel. Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu. 2006. Paramount MX/FR/US
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