JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Even the Rain recreates fifteenth-century Spanish colonialism so as to comment on contemporary multinational capital’s neocolonialism.

Within Even the Rain’s historical network narrative, the character Daniel serves to link present and past indigenous resistance movements.

Babel’s network narrative emphasizes spatial and accidental connections: the exchange of a gun connects these brothers in rural Morocco to characters in the United States, Mexico, and Japan.

In Babel a U.S. couple traveling in Morocco leaves their children in the care of this Mexican nanny. The nanny and children find themselves stranded on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The final shot of Babel: in Tokyo, a man comforts his naked teenage daughter. His gift to a Moroccan tourist guide set off a chain reaction that reverberates across three continents.

Babel exemplifies the contemporary network film’s global terrain and ensemble cast. A U.S. tourist (Brad Pitt) searches for medical care after his wife (Cate Blanchett) is shot at in a remote Moroccan village.

The Morocco scenes seem grainier compared to the rest of the film. Babel’s cinematographer confirms they used 16mm for these scenes so that the place appears “almost dirty, because of what transpires there.”

Brad Pitt’s character (on right) chases in vain after the tourist bus that abandons him in a remote Moroccan village. Mise-en-scene choices reinforce conventions of representing Americans as vulnerable when they travel to poor nations.

Babel’s filmmakers emphasized umber in the Morocco scenes.

The filmmakers chose to emphasize a primary red within the Mexico scenes.

The Moroccan brothers end up fighting one another when their father discovers they are responsible for shooting the U.S. tourist.

Crosscutting and a sound bridge take us from the brothers fighting in Morocco to a car horn punctuating chaotic wedding celebrations in Mexico. The Mexico and Morocco episodes highlight chaos and anarchy in contrast with the relatively calm, private worlds depicted in the U.S.- and Japan-based scenes.

The camera tilts up from a noisy car horn to the Mexican wedding festivities.

A gun is fired amidst the noisy wedding celebration.

We cut to the young Americans' frightened reaction. Despite its critique of U.S. insularity, Babel aligns us with the U.S. characters’ vulnerability in Morocco and Mexico.

 

Cinema and neoliberalism: network form and the politics of connection in Icíar Bollaín’s
Even the Rain

by Shakti Jaising

“The information that Columbus wanted most was: Where is the gold? ... Like other states of the modern world, Spain sought gold, which was becoming the new mark of wealth, more useful than land because it could buy anything” (2).
—Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present

“[I]n September 1999 [Bechtel] signed a 214-page agreement with Bolivian officials….The contract gave Bechtel and its co-investors control of the city’s water company for forty years and guaranteed them an average profit of 16 percent for each one of those years, to be financed by the families of Cochabamba” (16).
—Jim Shultz, “The Cochabamba Water Revolt and its Aftermath”

Even the Rain (También la lluvia, 2010) tells the story of a Spanish film crew shooting a period piece about Columbus in the midst of an uprising against water privatization in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Directed by Icíar Bollaín, the film re-creates the 2000 Cochabamba protests that challenged the take over of local water supply by U.S. multinational Bechtel, one of the world’s largest corporations. As the film reveals, the so-called “Water War” was triggered by Bechtel’s raising of water prices beyond what Bolivia’s low-income and indigenous populations could afford.[1] [open endnotes in new window] By paralleling the story of a contemporary uprising with that of indigenous resistance against the conquistadors during the early days of Spanish colonialism, Bollain’s film invites us to see multinational corporations and the governments that enable them as perpetrating a form of neo-colonialist violence that disproportionately affects economically deprived and historically marginalized populations.

This paper will analyze how Even the Rain juxtaposes past and present by drawing on but ultimately subverting the conventions of the “network narrative,” a form that since the 1990s has risen in prominence in conjunction with network science and theory. Alexandro Gonzales Iñárritu's 2006 film, Babel, exemplifies the contemporary network narrative and its basis in what David Bordwell calls “attenuated links” between multiple protagonists and plotlines (Hollywood 99). Interweaving episodes taking place in Morocco, the United States, Mexico, and Japan, Babel reveals how the circulation of a random object across these diverse locations connects characters that are otherwise strangers to one another. Whereas the network form has been used largely— as in the case of Babel—to suggest accidental connections between people and places, Even the Rain emphasizes instead the histories and longstanding political structures that shape human relations within the contemporary world system. In the process, Bollaín’s film counters what Patrick Jagoda calls the “the spatial bias of network science”—by prompting viewers to think “temporally and historically” about global interconnection rather than primarily in terms of space and geography (74).[2]

David Harvey’s account of a late twentieth-century culture of postmodernity is helpful for understanding the “spatial bias” of network science as well as the contemporary network narrative. According to Harvey,

“[T]he history of capitalism has been characterized by ‘speed-up’ in the pace of life, while so overcoming spatial barriers that the world sometimes seems to collapse inwards upon us…. [A]s the time horizons shorten to the point where the present is all there is… we have to learn how to cope with an overwhelming sense of compression of our spatial and temporal worlds.” (Condition 240)

Harvey uses the term “time-space compression” to refer to the effects of speed-up and expansion of capitalist processes. Postmodern art, he argues, gives expression to a heightened experience of time-space compression in the late twentieth century. By depicting flat or “depthless” surfaces that are placed in relation to one another via strategies of collage, postmodern art conveys a perceived “loss of temporality” (Harvey, Condition 58) and a sense that “the present is all there is” (Condition 240).

Contemporary network narratives’ reliance on juxtaposition resonates with a postmodern aesthetics of collage. Although network narratives link their various parts whereas postmodernism “swims, even wallows, in the fragmentary and the chaotic currents of change” (Harvey, Condition 44), linkages in both cases are depicted as superficial and contingent rather than based in historical causality. For the most part, like postmodern art, network narratives avoid historical explanations of cause and effect in preference for random and accidental connections in the present, thereby mirroring rather than questioning capitalism’s shaping of our temporal and spatial imaginations.

By alternating between past and present—and connecting characters across space as well as time—Even the Rain resembles the contemporary network narrative but transforms it in a radical way. Although market pressures limit to some extent its political critique, Bollaín’s film nevertheless counters a simplistic logic of interconnectedness that tends to be used within contemporary globalization discourse to celebrate the “flexibility” and mobility of private capital across space while obscuring its egregious histories and ongoing practices of exploitation.[3]

Harvey has argued that with the global turn to neoliberalism, or an extremist ideology of free market capitalism,

“Deregulation, privatization, and withdrawal of the state from many areas of social provision have been all too common” (Neoliberalism 3)[4]

Over the last four decades corporate power, its think tanks, as well as transnational institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank have pressured governments of poor countries like Bolivia to privatize even basic resources such as water supply[5]. Within a climate in which privatization is promoted globally as an indomitable logic, Even the Rain’s alternative network narrative highlights the longstanding injustices of private and multinational capital and provides us with an example of successful popular resistance against the political regimes that prop it up.

Network narratives in contemporary cinema
and the case of Babel

The form of the network narrative is by no means new.[6] Wesley Beal and Stacy Lavin point out that “the network narrative genre and the widespread ideology of networks that we recognize today are not the exclusive domain of a digitized society, but they are also part of a trajectory that reaches back into the earliest decades of the twentieth century.” Caroline Levine goes back further in time and argues that Charles Dickens’

Bleak House relies heavily on the form of the network in a way that paves the way for recent narratives about political, technological, economic, and social networks, including such films as Traffic, Syriana, and Babel.”

In fact, “the expansive length of Bleak House,” according to Levine, “makes the nineteenth-century novel more successful than any recent film at capturing the complexity and power of networked social experience” (517). In her view, Dickens’ novel “structures the unfolding of its plot around multiple conflicting and competing webs of interconnection.” Moreover,

“Characters are not centered subjects but points of social intersection. By hanging his novel not on individuals but on networks, Dickens is able to undermine the usual novelistic reliance on individual agency” (519).

Levine thus sees in Dickens’ novel potential for the network form to be “ideologically unsettling” (520) because it shows how individuals play “crucial roles in social, economic, and institutional networks” (519).[7]

Like Bleak House, contemporary “hyperlink” cinema—as described by Patrick Jagoda—is based on “cutting across numerous locations, institutions, and characters in order to explore a complex social field.”[8] Jagoda argues, “This form is especially effective at rendering networks that interlink cultural, economic, and political nodes” (75). Describing the origins of the cinematic network narrative, David Bordwell goes back to the 1932 Hollywood film, Grand Hotel, directed by Edmund Goulding, that “laid down some basic conventions: in one locale, a star-packed cast portrays characters linked by contingency” (Hollywood 94). He observes, however, “Between Grand Hotel and the early 1990s, there don’t seem to be a lot of network films,” and that “the current vogue can be dated to a batch of films from 1993-1994” including Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993), Michael Haneke’s 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994), Atom Egoyan’s Exotica (1994), Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express (1994), and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) (Poetics 194).

Bordwell proposes that while it has a long history in the novel, the form’s recent popularity is attributable to market forces as well as the proliferation of network theory. As “Big stars didn’t have to commit many days to an ensemble vehicle, and they didn’t demand their usual high salaries” (Bordwell 197), directors realized the practical appeal of working on network films. Simultaneously, the rise of network science in the final decades of the twentieth century brought the language and logic of networks into popular consciousness:

“Scientists began to explore the nature of small worlds and the connectedness of apparently random phenomena, from cricket-chirping rhythms to the organization of the Internet. As chaos theory came to be called the ‘butterfly effect,’ popular culture conceived network theory as ‘six degrees of separation.’”  (Hollywood 100)

Bordwell suggests,

“After 1990 the phrase [six degrees of separation] passed into common use, thanks largely to John Guare’s play and the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, and it seems to have inspired art works both high and low” (Hollywood 99).

Indeed, the network form featured in not only independent or art house films but also advertisements, music videos, and other sites of popular culture. For example, a 1992 music video for the R.E.M. song “Everybody Hurts” deploys strategies reminiscent of the opening sequence of Wim Wenders’ critically acclaimed film, Wings of Desire (1987). If in Wenders’ film a roving camera and internal diegetic sound link the experiences of a diverse group of anonymous urban characters, then in the R.E. M. music video the camera pans in slow motion across cars stuck in a traffic jam as the subtitles transcribe—mostly in English and occasionally in Spanish—the thoughts of drivers and passengers. In the end, the diverse characters leave their stagnant cars and start walking away, a move initiated by the lead singer who ascends on car roofs—like the omniscient invisible angel of Wings of Desire—and sings of shared hurt and pain. The 1999 film Magnolia further exemplifies the use of network form across music videos and art house films—as well as the embedding of music video aesthetics in film. In one memorable scene, camera movements are timed to music as the film cuts between its various characters singing an Aimee Mann song playing in the soundtrack. Like “Everybody Hurts,” the Aimee Mann song, “Wise Up,” is about shared pain. Thus like most network films Magnolia explores the coincidences that link multiple protagonists whose “projects are largely decoupled from one another, or only contingently linked” (Bordwell, Poetics 192).

In recent years, the network narrative has expanded to connecting protagonists and projects across national boundaries. Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006) exemplifies the global terrain of the contemporary network film as well as its potential for bringing together an ensemble cast of internationally renowned stars.

The film opens with a Moroccan man selling a rifle to a poor rural family. In subsequent scenes, the youngest member of this family unwittingly shoots at a female U.S. tourist (Cate Blanchett). From Morocco, the woman’s husband (Brad Pitt) calls their Mexican nanny in California and asks her to stay with their children while he procures medical help for his wife. The nanny agrees but ends up taking the children to her son’s wedding in Mexico. Meanwhile, we are introduced to an adolescent deaf and mute girl in Tokyo who is exploring her sexuality for the first time. Unlike the other characters, we have greater subjective insight into her experience although we remain uncertain about her connection to the Morocco- and Mexico-based plots. Eventually, the children and Mexican nanny end up alone in the desert when the nanny’s nephew (Gael García Bernal) abandons them, fearing trouble from U.S. authorities. Although they make it back to the United States, the nanny is deported because she is an undocumented worker. In Morocco, the village boy confesses to his accidental shooting of the tourist—though the police kill his brother in the process—while the U.S. couple is flown to an urban hospital. At the end we learn that we have been watching these seemingly parallel stories out of order; and that a Japanese tourist in Morocco had tipped his guide with a rifle that was later sold to the young shooter’s family, triggering a chain reaction. It is this Japanese tourist’s daughter who figures in the Tokyo episodes. Unknown to her, the girl’s story is connected tangentially to lives in Morocco, Mexico, and the United States. As Bordwell puts it, “[N]etwork movies trade on …remote and fragile connections” (Poetics 198), so that even “stray objects [can] hook people up” (Poetics 204).

Critics have drawn attention to the continuities between Babel and Iñárritu’s earlier films, Amores Perros (2000) and 21 Grams (2003) that were similarly premised on revealing hidden links between diverse characters and plots. In “Fictions of the Global” Rita Barnard points out that “Iñárritu's interest in this kind of plot arises, to judge from his interviews, from a sense that Hollywood's canned narrative forms have desensitized the filmgoing audience and made it impossible for people really to see the contemporary world.” In response, Barnard proposes,

“While [Iñárritu] describes his films as experiments in breaking away from plot-driven cinema, we may view them not as attempts to abandon plot as such but as attempts to devise new and more cosmopolitan narrative forms: forms that might reshape our received notions of human interconnection, causality, temporality, social space, and so forth.” (208)

Barnard sees Babel as well as David Mitchell’s novel Ghostwritten (1999) as characterized by

“a new kind of plot, with new coordinates of time and space, that may serve as a corollary to the brave neo world of millennial capitalism and perhaps even provide the conceptual preconditions for a cosmopolitan society” (208).

The temporal non-simultaneity of the individual narratives in Babel is, for Barnard, evidence of how the film departs from Benedict Anderson’s conception of the national novel and signals instead a new, more cosmopolitan, form:

“While one might assume that the three stories are connected by their temporal simultaneity, the ending reveals (such is the film's equivalent to a plot twist) that this interpretive assumption is false…. This twist seems to me extremely important: it retroactively disables or falsifies the "meanwhile" principle, which, in Anderson's view, holds together the national novel and provides its readers with a shared sense of space and time.” (209)

Barnard argues that instead of the “meanwhile principle,”

“What enables us to connect the three stories and three social locales is ultimately an intense, overarching affect: a kind of globalization of compassion that arises from a profound sense of human isolation and physical vulnerability” (209).

David Bordwell is more measured in his appreciation of Babel. In his blog post on the film Bordwell writes,

“It would be worthwhile building a symptomatic interpretation of Babel. My hunch is that 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.”

Developing Bordwell’s brief symptomatic reading of Babel I would add that although the spaces in the film are linked, there is a distinct difference in how we are prompted to respond to the advanced capitalist contexts—United States and Japan—on the one hand, and the “developing” or “peripheral” nations—Morocco and Mexico—on the other.[9]

Barnard correctly points out,

“A sense of a vast and disjunct world is conveyed by the film's very different mise-en-scènes, a difference underscored by the fact that three very different cinematic techniques are deployed (different lenses, different formats of film, etc)” (209).

I would add, however, that the different mise-en-scenes reinforce Hollywoodesque depictions of Morocco and Mexico as sites of danger and heighten a sense of white Americans’ vulnerability in this “vast and disjunct world.”

In an interview, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto speaks of how Iñárritu wanted the film to seem unified and yet convey “different feels” for the diverse national contexts. The filmmakers wanted Morocco in particular “to feel different, almost dirty, because of what transpires there.”The Morocco episodes are therefore shot mostly with Super 16 mm film and appear grainier and bleached out compared to the rest of the movie. Even within these episodes, moreover, Prieto alternated between four different 16 mm film stocks to differentiate the Americans’ story from that of the rural Moroccan family.[10] On the whole, the Morocco episodes emphasize the vast desert landscape and the Americans’ isolation within it. The tension created by handheld camerawork further accentuates the sense that something is about to go wrong for the Americans.

Prieto also speaks of how the filmmakers chose red as the “one color to carry through all three stories.” However, owing in part to the different film stocks used, “it appears as umber in Morocco and as primary red in Mexico.”The emphasis on deep, primary reds in the staging of the Mexican wedding scenes highlights local color but also the frenetic quality of the celebrations, thereby building suspense about the U.S. children’s fates. Crosscutting, moreover, reinforces a sense of doom awaiting the U.S. children. In one instance, the film cuts from an intense scene of the Moroccan brothers fighting one another to the sound of a car horn noisily punctuating the chaotic celebration in Mexico. Moments later, the nanny’s nephew fires gunshots in the air to mark the occasion—much to the horror of the U.S. boy to whose perspective we cut.

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