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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.