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Dir: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Don Thompson

Babel is an important film because its director simultaneously takes on both new stylistic and thematic ground; rare enough to do one or the other, but not both at the same time. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is an explorer of New World Cinema, which in its multi-lingual, multi-threaded, multi-leveled narrative could be forging a new type of film grammar.

I won’t go much into the story here; suffice it to say there are four: the first of a Moroccan family, the second of an American and his wife and children, the third of a deaf Japanese girl and her father, and the fourth of a Mexican caregiver and her son. Some of these stories are more directly connected to each other; all are brought together by a random accidental shooting in Morocco where the sons in the Moroccan family are falsely accused of terrorism.

There are pleasures and there are problems with Babel. The pleasures are that it addresses the reality of globalization by integrating that reality into its essential narrative; the problem is that it may do so at the expense of characterization and the very humanity it attempts to reveal. Like with directors such as Steve Gaghan (Syriana) and Paul Haggis (Crash), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu tells us a multi-threaded tale through which random connections create meaning. All of these films question standard narrative conventions for feature films, linear storytelling, traditional character development, and the meaning of time. One could also argue this is all simply derivative of multi-threaded television series such as ER or West Wing, which deal with the inherent issues of shallow characterization by having those characters developed over a long-term series. To be sure, to the extent a director can transcend this similarity to television, the more successful they will be. Interestingly, both Haggis and Gaghan started in television.

Of the other films mentioned, Babel is by far the most successful at both using a new kind of multi-threaded narrative and maintaining a sense of authenticity and humanity, all with the help of a stellar cast. The women, in particular, are astounding. The Mexican caregiver (Adriana Barraza) and the Japanese deaf girl (Rinko Kikuchi) are immediately and profoundly moving in their portrayals of women subject to the various machinations of a mankind's increasingly globalized and terrorized world. In turn, Cate Blanchett again draws us immediately into a believable character of the shallow American wife of Brad Pitt. As with his previous film 21 Grams, Inarritu pulls incredible performances from his cast.

Babel also succeeds because Inarritu is leading us to a new kind of narrative of the moment, an experiment that is in many ways an extension of a style developed in 21 Grams. But as he does it might be good to talk about the grammar of such a cinema, and this in fact should be fertile ground for discussion and debate. Like globalization, will we like where this new type of narrative leads us?

The first thing evident in Babel and 21 Grams -- and seen in other films exploring this new kind of multi-threaded grammar -- is that lengthy exposition is thrown out the door. Instead the director trusts modern, multi-tasking, television and video-game savvy audiences can digest and process information quickly. But rather than become numb as a result, we are engaged in a kind of separate reality that transcends the individual stories. The fact that we are taken into each of the film's story realities immediately (at times in a documentary-like fashion), and the fact that we are given no context (unlike films such as Catch A Fire, Babel does note rely on location subtitles) creates an ambiguity which we then have to grapple, and a mystery we are implored to solve. When compared to earlier forms of cinematic ambiguity that has its roots in Hitchcock and Antonioni, this type of ambiguity at times can devolve into a mere puzzle. With filmmakers like Christopher Nolan (Memento), the puzzle can (problematically) become more important than the characters, but with Babel the result is a gestalt of humanity that forces us to see connections between cultures and people that we might otherwise not. And moreover, unlike films such as Michel Gondry's The Science Of Sleep, which one could say argues for a fatalistic and escapist attitude toward modern trends, Babel in particular helps us understand that all of our actions are in a sense "global" in nature; thus the ultimate question become one of our personal responsibility to communicate within a situation where we all share common bonds.

The benefits of the awareness that Babel prods us toward is that it is immediate and it is revolutionary in its immediacy. In Zen Buddhism, enlightenment can be immediate and complete as the veil of illusion shatters down around us in a state of timelessness. By creating a narrative of the moment, Inarritu and other filmmakers like him are struggling to find a film language that matches the current state of world culture, and to use film language to create new level of awareness -- an instant enlightenment if you will -- of a global culture seeking common values. By collapsing time, they make the possibility that such a new, and humanistic, global awareness can spread much sooner than might otherwise be possible. While the filmmaker might argue that he was trying to show us precisely how humanity cannot communicate (hence the title Babel, as in the tower of Babel), ironically he shows us how connections must transcend language and be found in an understanding of our common humanity. This, it would seem to me, is a good thing.

-- Don Thompson

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