A Consideration of Two of the Mexican amigos
…And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.
3 And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter.
4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
6 And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.
8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.
9 Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
GENESIS CHAPTER 11
* * *
The People is One, scattered across the globe, brothers yet divided, separated by languages, nations, borders, prone to misunderstandings…it is one of those recurring themes humans have about our existence on the planet. The contemporary period, with its world wide web and airplane busy skies, returns us to the sense of the globe as one big community.
Babel and Children of Men appeared in theatres in the winter of 2006 – 07. Made with American and British movie stars, it was obvious there was something else that informed their aesthetic – another cultural referent or source seemed to inflect them. Both are expansive and ambitious films, conveying of an image of the world, the contemporary experience on a global scale. The sensibility seemed ancient and modern at the same time – of nomadic cosmopolitan émigrés with and old testament Biblical view of humanity. There is an evident interest in what is universal experience in the modern globalized world, looking for the positive spirit in globalization.
Globalization is not new, but global ‘immanence’ is. I use this term to refer to the fact that in our era of global capital, global production, global labor migrations, and global penetration by technologies of communication, there is no spatial outside, no ‘other’ of peoples, territory or environment against which some of us could conveniently define ourselves and, holding ourselves apart, control our fate….Our lived experiences are simultaneous and incongruous, resisting division into distinct nationalities, pure ethnicities, or racial differences… (Buck Morss, 93)
These films attempt to look at relationships or stories across this simultaneous large-scale environment – in Children of Men, it is the world arriving to Britain, and in Babel it is a web of stories around the planet. Both films center on children in different ways – while Babel looks close up at struggles and vulnerabilities in parent / child relationships, Children of Men is about the significance of children as hope and future.
This paper aims to explore the worlds and ambitions of these filmmakers, Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, looking at the sensibility behind the films – presumably determined in large part by their Mexican origins, and subsequent immigration to a first world country. A close consideration of context and career arc, is nourished in part by Hamid Naficy’s notion of an “accented” cinema, seeking to identify and articulate qualities in films produced by “liminals, transnationals and exiles…” (Accented, 205). The degree to which Babel and Children of Men do and do not correspond to Naficy’s categories is a helpful point of departure.
Naficy’s basic grouping of “accented” filmmaking begins with the life situation –
…exilic and diasporic filmmakers…are from Third World and postcolonial countries (or from the global South) who since the 1960’s have relocated to northern cosmopolitan centers where they exist in a state of tension and dissension with both their original and their current homes…
(Naficy, Accented, 10)
Children of Men and Babel are heavily marked by Naficy’s themes of borders and journeys, strongly linking them to his notion of an “accented cinema” by exilic filmmakers.
It is interesting that these global projects are from filmmakers who were credited with revitalizing Mexican cinema, both at home and on the international stage – they are part of a generation that includes Guillermo del Toro, whose work, for reasons relating primarily to genre, does not seem to belong in this paper, and others such as Carlos Reygadas, who has known a smaller degree of box-office success. A close consideration of the careers of Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu should reveal a sense of the perspective from which they work and the context in which they work.
En Mexico, en Chilango – the breakout films
It was Amores perros (2000) and Y tu mama tambien (2001) that introduced Gonzalez Iñarritu and Cuaron as original voices both in Mexico and around the world, injecting a sense of energy and vitality into what had been a rather lethargic Mexican film culture for many years. Vibrant, violent, hip, funny, and politicized, they were huge hits locally and internationally, drawing on the influences of pop culture and art cinema. Part of what was exciting when these films appeared was the sense that they were coming from and speaking to a captive Mexican populace – a huge urban middle class that was hungry for homegrown work.
Having endured a period of relative famine throughout the 1980’s and for much of the early 1990’s, Mexican audiences had, for the most part, given up on Mexican cinema… Now, though, they once more had a national cinema to be optimistic about, one that matched if not bettered the films imported form across the border… These Mexican audiences were once again able to recognize themselves, their hopes, aspirations and troubles, on screen.
(Wood xi – xii)
For any populace, this self-recognition is important, but Mexico has a particularly powerful national culture and sense of national identity. The very dramatic history, built on the back of two major MesoAmerican civilizations, and the ensuing complex colonial encounters, gave rise to a varied and lively popular culture. What remains is a strong sense of Mexicanidad, born out of these syncretic streams –
…of Catholic colonial hispanism, and of modern political, educational and communicational actions… This multitemporal heterogeneity of modern culture is a consequence of a history in which modernization rarely operated through the substitution of the traditional and the ancient.
(Garcia Canclini, Hybrid Cultures, 46 – 47)
This phenomenon of the traditional and modern coexisting is worth looking at closer, as it is very visible in the work of these filmmakers, informing their sensibility, approach to social relations, characterizations, and visual choices. Ana Lopez articulates this mutltitemporal notion in more detail –
Another crucial sign of Latin American modernity is a kind of temporal warp in which the premodern coexists and interacts with the modern, a differential plotting of time and space, and subsequently, of history and time. In Anibal Quijano’s words, ‘In Latin America, what is sequence in other countries is a simultaneity. It is also a sequence. But in the first place it is a simultaneity.’
Part of what can be felt in these films is this tension, this pull between concurrent worlds, social and cultural. There is the extent to which they are living out a contemporary urban context, and reflect the tensions of modern existence in a third world country –
Es major ser contemporaneo que ser mexicano. Es major estar al dia que rodearse con el anacronismo. Pronto, una parte esencial de la vida nacional en su conjunto se ha “americanizado” sin remedio possible. El nacionalismo deviene esperanza inerme, a merced de las fluctuaciones de la movilidad social.1
(Monsivais, Entrada libre, 210)
This expresses the impulse of younger generations and the aspirations of business classes in many places in the world, but the sense of the continued relentless push into modernity at whatever cultural cost is a recurring theme.
However, to be precise it must be pointed out Amores Perros and Y tu mama tambien were not only very Mexican, but also very city films, very “chilango”. Chilango refers to both the people from Mexico City and the slang spoken by its residents. The language in both films is hardcore chilango: words unique to Mexico – naco, fresa, chelas, lana, mota, galan, pedo, orale, chingon, pendejo, cabron, hijueputa, putito, no mames guay, que se chinga tu madre 2 – form the majority of the dialogue.
One senses the cosmopolitan sensibility of the hipster set in any major urban center, yet the Mexican version of ‘cool’ is recognizable in the writing of the characters as much as the language from the streets of Mexico. Reflecting and speaking to generations raised on music videos, slick advertising, and a good helping of international film and television, these films addressed and observed the tensions between social classes in Mexican society.
Moreover, these films were thematically provocative in their treatment of prescient social issues, and thrillingly forthright in their willingness to address the ills afflicting contemporary Mexican society.
The politics are not hard edge explicit politics, but a perspective on social relations, political relations that are evident within the storytelling – they are not the strident radical politics of early Solanas, but there is social and political commentary embedded, implicit in the storytelling choices, the details of social analysis.
Gonzalez Iñarritu had worked in advertising and had been a very successful DJ in Mexico City. Amores perros was his first feature film, appearing suddenly in 2000 and creating a huge impact on the local scene. The three stories intertwined that make up the movie are ostensibly stories of love or stories of dogs, or stories of love gone to the dogs. They are all stories of heartbreak and betrayal, sadness and loss within one of the biggest urban centers in the world. The film becomes a kind of portrait of the city itself through these three stories of families in disarray, revealing the striking class disparities in the society. By turns violent and melancholy, solitude becomes almost a respite from the sordid entertainments, the brutality of the young toughs, the guns and drugs. From the opening sequence, the film conveys the constant violent nature of the city. Gonzalez Iñarritu tells one typical anecdote from city life,
…in the scouting of locations, I was assaulted, with all the crew, outside the house where the dogfights take place. 14 and 15 year old boys took out all the crew and forced us on the floor and took all our things.. If you call the police you are dead, because they kill the police and they kill you…
(quoted in Kaufman)
Implicit through the different stories is a sense of the local politics of different social stratas, the portrayal of different coexisting realities, including the character of the ex-guerrillero, referencing nostalgically a more strident political position.
The storytelling style marks the beginning of the trilogy of interwoven cause-effect narrative approaches found in the collaboration between Gonzalez Iñarritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga that is pursued in 21 Grams and Babel as well. Here the interlocking narratives are fairly loose, not really serving towards revelations in the juxtaposition and lending to the sensation ultimately of a slice-of-life portrait of a place.
Y tu mama tambien
Alfonso Cuaron had had some success with his first feature Solo con tu pareja, went to Hollywood, made A Little Princess and Great Expectations, and returned to Mexico to make Y tu mama tambien. It was this film, released in 2001, that really made people sit up and notice, it was this film that had the distinctive aesthetic – the long takes, the camerawork loose and handheld and wandering, the narration contrapuntal.
A road movie premise, suggesting a kind of Dumb and Dumber frat boy teen movie, it was in fact, made for Cuaron’s then teenaged son. But the unusual narrator, coupled with Emmanuel Lubezki’s wandering camera, politicize an otherwise teen-comedy genre. The forays of the camera into roadside realities of police checks and intimidation, a small town kitchen, or the sea of security guards in the parking lot, reveal the deep class divisions, the economic and cultural forces at work in the society.
The names of the main characters are ironic riffs on Mexican history, lending to the sense of the “temporal time warp” identified by Lopez and Garcia Canclini. Tenoch – short for Tenochtitlan, the ancient Aztec name for Mexico City – is given to Diego Luna’s character in a “sudden nationalist impulse” – the aristocracy appropriating an indigenous reference. Julio Zapata’s name is mentioned but not lingered on, the reference being more obvious, as is the Spanish woman’s name, Luisa Cortes – both of these names simply being allowed to echo as part of the cultural landscape.
The narrator delivers these unexpected side notes and revealing socio-political back-story for the main narrative, as an apparently wise omniscient elder imposing gravitas on the juvenile story – this is a major element of the originality in the film. The oblivion of the two juvenile and self-absorbed young men to their broader social context both highlights their silliness and gives a sense of the world into which these characters are growing up. The narrator’s and camera’s seeking out of social issue concerns marks the beginning of Cuaron’s style of foregrounding the background, or context as character.
Leaving Mexico – money and migration
Several factors and timelines apply to the choice of each of the “three amigos” (friend and colleague, Guillermo del Toro, being the third of the group) to leave Mexico – not least important was the issue of personal security. Del Toro’s father was kidnapped and held for ransom money, and Gonzalez Iñarritu, at a similar level of fame, said,
…the level of insecurity is very high in Mexico, and to live in Mexico with two children was becoming very hard for me. Some people incorrectly thought that Amores Perros had made me a millionaire, and it was a little bit frightening dealing with the possibility of being kidnapped…
(quoted in Kaufman)
Aside from this were the financial considerations – both Amores Perros and Y tu mama tambien had been privately produced, a route with limited possibilities for further projects in Mexico, as was the very small state-funded option. Career choices in Mexico at the time must have looked to be quite limited.
The global media, ever eager to pinpoint a new trend, wasted little time in devoting many columns to predicting an exciting new wave, or buena onda, and Mexican cinema immediately became its darling. However, a more informed assessment of film production in Mexico, largely through the pages of industry periodicals such as Screen International and Variety, soon revealed a harsher and somewhat paradoxical reality; and in turn the headlines just as quickly became epitaphs….
Both Cuaron and Gonzalez Iñarritu exhibited an early realism about the cinema as an art form that involved copious amounts of money, and were not conflicted or inhibited by perceived nefarious art / industry contradictions. They were interested in trying different things and in the opportunities afforded by their international success as the latest hot thing. They moved into the production of larger-scale English-language movies in the way migrants have often fuelled Hollywood filmmaking –
…Filmmakers from Eastern Europe and Russia in the early twentieth century to those from Germany in the second to the fifth decades dominated both the studio system and the master genres of Hollywood cinema.
(Naficy, “Phobic Spaces” 203)
After Amores Perros, Gonzalez Iñarritu did 21 Grams in the U.S., saying that he, “wanted and needed to work with the very best actors in the world…” (Wood, 45). Prior to making Y tu mama tambien, Cuaron spent time in L.A., making A Little Princess and Great Expectations. He has since done an installment in the Harry Potter franchise. Repeatedly, Cuaron is asked, “will you abandon Mexico for Hollywood?”, and his answer is always essentially the same –
“I don’t see Hollywood as the ‘dark side’. Again, it’s all about film… For me, independence has nothing to do with budget … My point is that Hollywood is what it is: it’s an industry and I don’t feel that the mission of Hollywood is to corrupt filmmakers…”
(quoted in Wood, 42)
Cuaron’s position on this may appear disingenuous or opportunistic, yet it can be clearly seen that he expresses a genuine desire to make films for kids, as for example, he has explained that Y tu mama tambien originated from a desire to make a film for his then-teenaged son. In this vein, making a choice to make a Harry Potter film seems like part of an ongoing interest in addressing a younger audience. He consistently rejects any facile conclusions about “selling out” to larger budget or English-language productions.
This is a very different approach from the classically “accented” or “third cinema” of say, the highly political Fernando Solanas, who refers to Hollywood as a “mechanical shark” (Naficy, Accented, 107). Solanas fits quite neatly into Naficy’s identification of diasporic and exilic filmmakers, in terms of the smaller scale of production and distribution –
…many independent transnational filmmakers who make films about their homelands and its peoples, cultures and politics…are often marginalized as merely “ethnic”, “national”, “Third World”, or “third cinema” filmmakers, unable to reach mainstream audiences in either their country of residence or origin….
(Naficy, “Phobic Spaces” 204)
The scale of production is one of the variables with which Gonzalez Iñarritu and Cuaron are consistently juggling. They apparently attempt to maintain all options at once: they may do larger budget films in English, but they may well be doing something in Spanish in Mexico or Spain. They vary from project to project. Naficy allows for this, “…the accented style is not a fully recognized and sanctioned film genre, and the exilic and diasporic filmmakers do not always make accented films” (Naficy, Accented 39). Presumably the more important question is to what degree they are able to maintain their integrity thoughout these ventures – are they simply being absorbed into the studio system, or can they continue to do work of some significance? If their films are not always “Mexican”, or even “accented”, perhaps this is not so terrible. Cuaron is continually pushing the boundaries of being categorized –
A mi me cuesta un poco el concepto de cine mexicano, porque me cuesta trabajo eso de cine gay y cine de mujeres. Los calificativos en el cine me cuestan trabajo….Creo que las definiciones de lo que podria ser un cine mexicano son ya un poco del siglo XX, en donde todo tenia que estar delineado en fronteras y estados…3
(quoted in Galan)
Yet this shrug at nationalist categorizations does not take away from is conviction that his perspective, his sensibility, his understanding of the world is distinctly Mexican, because when the interviewer says, “siempre hay un poco de esa identidad o esa carga de donde naciste”, he replies, “No es un poco, es el todo.” Or as he says elsewhere, “puedo viajar por todo el mundo pero sigo pensando en chilango” 4 (quoted in Caballero). Gonzalez Iñarritu echoes these apparently contradictory impulses, saying –
…I am a very proud Mexican and I feel even more Mexican the further I go from my country…I think that a country is not a piece of land or a flag. A country is an idea that can be expressed through images, words and many other forms of expression. I feel very proud to be part of the community of world cinema and to tell whatever story I want to tell in whatever country.
(quoted in Wood, 142)
As exiles they become distinctively and clearly rooted in a sense of national identity at the same time as they assert their right to live elsewhere and make any form of film that strikes their fancy.
We come to nationalism and its essential association with exile. Nationalism is an assertion of belonging in and to a place, a people, a heritage. It affirms the home created by a community of language, culture, and customs; and, by so doing, it fends off exile, fights to prevent its ravages.
Away from home, they become fiercely Mexican, and yet interested in what may be universal in human experience. One dimension of this push and pull of the lived experience is the engagement with politics, both in their work and in their lives, their careers using leftist politics as something central to story and style. Yet there is a fundamental attitude continues to be one of creative freedom – while there is the frequently acknowledged influence of the likes of Pontecorvo and Zizek, there is a resistance to being expected to always do a certain genre of political filmmaking because of birthplace.
A number of contemporary films such as Syriana, Rendition, Road to Guantanamo, Constant Gardener, Crash, Blood Diamond – display a politicization that is critical of foreign policy, social stratification. They are morality plays, political thrillers and ensemble dramas, speaking to a growing audience hungry for films that address current world issues. It is in this environment of liberal left production that Cuaron and Gonzalez Iñarritu find the flexibility to make their films –
Cuaron, un tipo educado y culto que ha sabido convivir con la industria de Hollywood sin que perder su identidad, cree que esta en su derecho de hacer la pelicula que quiera…’Eso de que el cine mexicano, y el latinoamericano en general, tenga que ser de denuncia me parece un concepto de una izquierda sesentera, rancia, que es un lastre para cualquier pensamiento de izquierda contemporanea. Es como los que dicen que estan en contra de la globalizacion, pero eso es como estar en contra de las leyes de la gravedad. Puedes estar en contra todo lo que quieras, pero esas leyes siguen existiendo. Creo que se confunde el asunto, porque lo que hay que tener es conciencia de que existe y que de lo que se trata es de democratizar la globalizacion, no de rechazarla. De hecho, hasta el subcomandante Marcos ha utilizado la globalizacion en su Guerra revolucionaria. Marcos, curiosament tampoco eta en contra de la globalizaciton, sino que es partidario de su democratizacion”.5
The reference to Marcos, or to an obviously radical figure in politics, is not simply an empty gesture. The Children of Men DVD includes a documentary about the ravages of mass migration and environmental issues on the planet, and more recently Cuaron has collaborated with Naomi Klein (the poster child of late-capitalism critique) around her newest publication. All three of the “amigos” – Cuaron, Gonzalez Iñarritu and del Toro – have been active in lobbying to improve the state of filmmaking within Mexico for those who continue to work there.
Children of Men was produced by the American production company, Beacon Pictures, for $76 million, and was shot in England. Babel was produced by Paramount Vantage – charged with producing films with a more “art house” feel than those made by its parent company – for $25 million, cobbled together from various sources. It was shot in Morocco, Tokyo and around the Mexican / American border. They are both transnational products from American companies, and interestingly, both speak directly to a transnational context. However within this global scenario, it must be kept in mind that:
…in the Western community of nations presided over by the United States…it has given itself an internationalized and normative identity with authority and hegemony to adjudicate the relative value of human rights. All the discourse that purports to speak for civilization, human rights, principle, universality, and acceptability accrues to it… So completely has the power of the United States – under which, in some measure, we all live – invested even the vocabulary of universality that the search for “new ideological means” to challenge it has become, in fact, more difficult…
Said’s observations clearly address the nebulous waters into which Cuaron and Gonzalez Iñarritu wade. Cultural products within this system are obviously going to be caught up with these problems on many levels. To date, many productions that have had the means to evoke a global scale of events have been American films, leading to and maintaining a dominance of a particular perspective on the world. Whether or not “accented” filmmakers can offer something truly different from within this system is a question up for debate. Of particular interest is the notion of universality –
…In the real world of politics and influence, certain nationalisms, cultures, ideas and interpretations are more transnationally powerful, assertive and successful than others…. The more powerful ones tend toward a universality of meanings, impact and acceptance, as their national-cultural currency becomes transnationally adopted, mixes and mingles with more long-standing cultural legacies, syncretises with them …As is the case with the English language in the world today, such assertive and hegemonising cultural processes at their most successful turn into a global cultural lingua franca, a transborder space of shared assumptions, material landmarks and discursive references.
Again, our questions here will inevitably be, to what extent or in what way do Gonzalez Iñarritu and Cuaron become absorbed into, engage with, resist, provoke, regurgitate, critique, or rescind, these cultural references and assumptions? Are they simply being co-opted into mainstream Hollywood cinema, or is there a possibility that even from within the grip American production companies, they are holding onto something original in the examination of global relations in their films?
…the interaction between popular and hegemonic groups, between the local and the transnational, cannot be read only as antagonism. The major labels of the music industry, for example, are companies that move with ease between the global and the national. …
(Garcia Canclini, Hybrid Cultures, xl)
The example of music is an interesting one, as “world music” has grown enormously as a marketable product. As consumers or audiences are increasingly influenced by tourism and migration, there is a natural desire for entertainment to reflect or speak to these experiences.
Within cinema, presumably similar forces are at work. No doubt the ever-changing global market and what spectators want and respond to, is one part of why their careers have been as successful as they have – as spectators are also increasingly travelers, exiles or émigrés, who identify easily with a broad range of experiences, and whose lives are best reflected with the portrayal of several worlds at once. Again, as Naficy points out, “There is a reciprocal relationship between society and genre creation” (“Phobic Spaces” 205). So as society becomes more globally oriented and influenced, as audiences travel more and are increasingly made up of migrants, films begin to reflect this phenomenon.
… in all [American] urban centers combined, 40 percent of the populations consists of ethnic minorities from Asia and Latin American…There is an “implosion of the third world in the first.” According to Renato Rosaldo “the notion of an authentic culture as an autonomous internally coherent universe is no longer sustainable” in either of these two worlds, “except perhaps as a ‘useful fiction’ or a revealing distortion”
(Garcia Canclini, 232)
To the degree to which these worlds gain access to larger budgets, it would make sense that we see “accented” globe-trotting morality plays that attempt to convey the transnational stories we live and read about in the daily papers.
However, the financial considerations are not negligible. The appeal not only to an increasingly mixed American population, but to a world populations that is always growing, and always shape-shifting, is all important. And it has been observed that,
…global markets are increasingly important to the transnational entertainment conglomerates that dominate the U.S. film industry. International distribution has grown from a source of supplemental income to an economic necessity. Some American producers are even shaping their films with the foreign market in mind…
So we see that the fact that Babel made some $34 million in North America, but did another 101 million in the rest of the world (Wikipedia), is of significant interest to production companies. Both films are subject to these industrial considerations of dollars at the box office, but are able to graft a Mexican perspective onto and into their films. In the Charlie Rose interview Del Toro says of his peers that, “their point of view is inevitably Mexican – there is a deep distrust for institutions and authority”. This would appear to inform the critical politics embedded in the films.
While Babel and Children of Men were not made according to Naficy’s marginal modes of production, still they are noticeably affected by some of his thematic points about exiled cinema. The preoccupation with borders, journeys, migrations, tourism, is remarkable, but portrayed within the larger machinery of cinema, the “accented” writ large. The films are political, but not in the sense of hard precise political analyses of Syriana (a Warner Brothers picture), investigating the evil machinations of oil money, or the critique of U.S. policy in Rendition (New Line Features) – rather they are perspective and context as politics – not politics in the explicit content, but in relationships, embedded in the nature of the film structurally.
Babel and Children of Men are engaged with a way of representing the planet as a larger global community with certain themes that remain universal to human experiences, namely, parenting children. While they are films made by Mexicans, they are also very much films made by parents. Both are caught up in what it means to be a parent to a child in contemporary world, either in the details of the relationship or in what children signify for the future of the planet. If neither film is hopeful in tone, it suggests at least that they are not cynical undertakings. Indeed, they are ambitious, to some extent sacrificing explanations and details, instead focusing more on their larger reaches, favouring the grand sweep over smaller story and character details – they are more thematic than narrative or character driven.
Children of Men
Somehow the world has become childless and Britain is the last functioning nation. These are the facts given, and we hit the ground running. Based on the novel by P.D. James, the declining fertility rates in Western nations becomes in Alfonso Cuaron’s hands, a dystopic study of control of human migration, and an essentially apocalyptic society. The film is a thriller / road movie / chase movie, with a focus on action and the pointed signs of decay, decrepitude, and decline of an infertile humanity.
The changes from the novel are significant – in the book the pregnant woman is British, the character played in the film by Julianne Moore. However in the film this character is killed off early, suddenly, thwarting all romantic possibility, and the pregnancy instead is found in an African “fugee”, conjuring notions of Africa as the source of humanity, Africa as fertility blended in with the miracle child Christian redemption symbol. Fortunately Claire-Hope Ashitey gives the character a rude punk attitude not in the least bit cloying, shaking off the weight of so much heavy symbolism.
The true star of the film is a combination of camera and art direction – what would normally be background is foregrounded, as Zizek observes in his commentary on the DVD. As Cuaron puts it, “context is as important as character” (quoted in TimeOut). Visually, the landscape of the film is much like now but more so, delivering the sense articulated by Renato Rosaldo of the implosion of the third world within the first, evoking also the temporal time warp articulated by Ana Lopez. The film gives a vivid visual of what Said describes well –
The greatest single fact of the past three decades has been, I believe, the vast human migration attendant upon war, colonialism and decolonization, economic and political revolution, and such devastating occurrences as famine, ethnic cleansing, and great power machinations… Exiles, émigrés, refuges, and expatriates uprooted from their lands must make do in new surroundings…
Abusive police control of migrating populations is visualized with intensity in the film, while the theme of infertility evokes the environmental crisis that grips the planet. The spirit of the film resides in this “fading sense of hope that humanity has today …you don’t have to go very far to learn that environment and immigration are two main factors” (Cuaron in Garth).
The art direction, the vision of a non-futurist future, seems informed by modes of being particular to growing up in Latin America – the temporal warp of technological advance with fragments of older culture, the pervasive police presence, the poverty. London is made to look “more Mexican” – “the set locations were dressed to make them look even more run-down” Cuaron says he told the crew, “Let’s make it look more Mexican…It was about poverty.”
(quoted in TimeOut) The obsession with police and military control and abuse can be seen in this film as well as Y tu mama tambien – the sense of fascism as with us already, and most specifically in a Latin American context, “…lo que estamos viviendo en Mexico nos puede llevar a situaciones muy parecidas a las de la pelicula.”6 (Cuaron quoted in Caballero) Most spectacularly the refugee camp at the end – Gaza meets the Mexico/U.S. border, with echoes of Abu Ghraib and Aushwitz, and some Afghans, Africans and East Europeans thrown into the mix.
A further Mexican layer can be seen in the pervasive presence of animals – cows sheep, kittens, roosters, goats – maintaining the messy, anarchic element of living things. The unusually long takes maintain a sense of realism inside the heightened reality of this world.
The storytelling strategy both uses and minimizes the emphasis on the traditional white male hero’s character arc. Clive Owen hangs back deliberately, he does not play to take up all the space, but allows the background, the environment of the film take precedence. He serves to carry us through an identification with the powerless, harassed, “fugee” perspective, functioning like a hanger on which an elaborate work is hung – he is unobtrusive to the bigger picture. The Michael Caine character channels the creativity and idealism of 60’s culture – his hippy spirit works as both a tribute to the past and a sense of ineffectual nostalgia.
Finally, at least as significant as Mexican identity is parenting as a motivation for this dystopic vision. Within the fascistic late-capitalist nightmare where humanity has reached its inevitable demise, a miraculous child becomes a precious, sacred gift, the single shining hope for the future.
Children, chickens, goats, dust and desert alongside the shining glass towers and high tech gadgets of Tokyo – the rendering of the coexistence of these worlds into one filmic experience is an unusual texture. The dizzying culture shock is part of any modern traveler’s experience – and to see these co-existing worlds in one film, as texture, is unusual. The title announces the many and sundry issues of communication, translation, misunderstanding, borders, migration and travel – the various separations between people. It is obviously caught up with Naficy’s “border aesthetics”.
Like Amores Perros, an accident and its ramifications tenuously hold together several narrative threads at the point where lives intersect, this time spanning not just a city, but across the planet.
Global interconnectedness or the butterfly effect is one of the principal themes, with a loose investigation or meditation on power relationships in the rippling waves of the butterfly’s wings.
Each of the stories is centered around the raising of children, and the fragility of life with kids – the unpredictable, complicated nature of the world and the many hidden threats it holds. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, a father of three, says of his perspective when planning the film, “Immigrant-consciousness made me feel more awkward and more vulnerable” (quoted in Hundley). This perspective combined with the scope of the film shows the distinctiveness of co-existant cultures and the intransigent power relationships creating tensions between peoples.
Significantly, the first foot is put forward with the story is that of the Moroccan goatherds – the Neo-Realist faces and dusty landscapes appear to be a vision out of Pasolini’s Gospel According to St. Mathew. The performances are slightly wooden, but there are nice complications to the story around sibling rivalry, burgeoning sexuality. Mexico is introduced through the eyes of the American kids as dangerous and anarchic, musical and colourful – a place where people will dance the night away and murder chickens with their bare hands. In this bittersweet scenario, Garcia Bernal plays a Mexican demon – funny, vital, irresponsible. This dusty world is then juxtaposed with slick Tokyo streets and a silent, technologically-enhanced existence.
A substantial bulk of the story involves Americans – American tourists, American border officials, American parents. American tourists play their expected part as fleshy, suspicious, selfish, as the highly visible people of power and privilege – Brad Pitt curses at the officials and insulting their country because there is no ambulance available, the American border guards dismissing the Mexican nanny’s responsibility and capability with a wave of his hand. The facility with which privilege and dominance are asserted when the chips are down is clearly one of the driving themes of the film.
The use of stars, non-actors and anti-star tactics is interesting – though we are seeing Brad Pitt, he is one of many characters, some known, others not.
“…you see this guy, whom everyone knows as this huge star, and little by little he’s stripped of that identity and becomes a man trying to save his wife. Just a man. That’s what this film is about – that we are all the same, no matter how rich or poor, no matter what religion, no matter if you’re Japanese or Mexican or American.”
(Gonzalez Iñarritu in Hundley)
He is “just a man”, almost lost in the ensemble, in the rough and dusty confusion and chaos. He is a less distinctive, less defined character than the females, Rinko Kikuchi and Adriana Barraza, both nominated for Academy Awards.
En sus rodajes, Gonzalez Iñarritu traslada esta voz de izquierda para ‘encontrar’ un punto en comun entre Brad Pitt y un niño marroqui que nadie conoce, un equivalente entre Adriana Barraza y Cate Blanchett… “Ahora que la vida de un estadounidense vale mas que la de otro ser humano. Yo no creo en eso. En ese sentido la pelicula es democrata”.7
Democratic treatment of characters is one of the goals the film sets forth. By looking at some of the criticisms made of Babel a closer examination can be made of the ambitions, successes and weaknesses of the film. A Toronto Star article by Murray Whyte on the pernicious forces of international co-productions, laments the characterizations as clichés of their nationalities – Moroccans as goatherds, a Japanese female as unable to express herself, Americans as self-centered boors. Is the film this simplistic? Perhaps on some levels, however the critique of the Mexican / American border story as a cliché is a little swift, given the massive reality it is, like a wound in the consciousness of many Mexicans. Also, this thread is not only about lives lived on the border, but also about the nanny’s relationship with the American kids she cares for – her inescapable responsibility for them, her genuine affection for them, and yet she herself remains, ultimately, disposable.
One of the more damning critiques by Andrew Tracy addresses precisely the liberal premises on which the film tries to find its moral high ground, “The very act of placing these four stories together implies some form of equivalency between them, already a delicate proposition when cutting between rich Westerners and impoverished third worlders…Babel’s aesthetics create a hierarchy even as it vaunts some hazy notion of universal equality…”. Unfortunately, he does not fully explain how he has arrived at this conclusion, as it is clear that one element of the various narratives is about which characters have recourse in their situations, and which ones are powerless. While the nanny is deported, a helicopter arrives for Blanchett’s character. While the two American children are said to be safe and sound by the end, one of the Moroccan boys is gravely wounded, the other stands in front of police with his hands in the air.
This criticism may be somewhat in the eye of the beholder – strangely enough, it is the first world reviewer who is dismissive of this juxtaposition, or a notion of universality, not the third world filmmaker, who exhibits a sensitivity in the handling of each story. There is no sense of the Japanese girl’s more internal pain being any less significant than the powerlessness and panic in the lives of the Moroccan goatherds.
The choice to put the first foot forward with the Moroccan goatherds forces the viewer into an identification with non-American characters for a good length of time before any familiar star faces appear – this is unusual. However, the truth of the matter is, the unequal degrees of cause and effect between the different stories ultimately creates an imbalance in the narrative threads. As the Tokyo story is so loosely linked to the others, its connection to the other threads so tenuous, it begins to fall out of the unwieldy structure. It is also true that while the various predicaments of parents and children and their points of vulnerability are laid out, they are not necessarily brought home on a deep emotional level – the narrative weave may place big moments side by side, seeking their similarity, but this tends to flatten them in the process.
However, if there is no definitive, conclusive meaning to be gleaned from the interlocking of these stories from 1st and 3rd worlds, they function as more contemplative of thematic juxtaposition of the stories, rather than a probing, geopolitical analysis of the connections.
It may be that the project of comparing universal expressions, even in the comparisons of cross-cultural experiences like raising children, is an inherently problematic undertaking. Baudrillard may offer us a key to some of the reasons why Babel may falter for some viewers –
Every culture worthy of the name comes to grief in the universal. Every culture which universalizes itself loses its singularity and dies away. This is how it is with those we have destroyed by their enforced assimilation, but it is also how it is with ours in its pretension to universality.
The quest to convey universality may hang emptier than the quest to convey the specific, which in precise rendering, can yield universal insights. It may be that in there are inevitable weaknesses in the rendering of universal experiences, and what is most revealing is in the distinctive details, not the commonalities.
Globalization and universality do not go together. Indeed they might be said to be mutually exclusive. Globalization is the globalization of technologies, the market, tourism and information. Universality is the universality of values, human rights, freedoms, culture and democracy.
The distinction between these two concepts is one of the themes we have seen addressed in Babel and Children of Men – these filmmakers have attempted to convey the conflict and contradictions of this reality, to whatever degree of success. As non-American voices seeking that which is relevant to our contemporary global world, that which is ‘universal’, there is a natural critique of current hegemonies, of the fascistic tinge in security since 9/11 and its cost the powerless, in the control of diverse and migrating population. The politicized sensibility that informed the early works was sustained into larger budget, “accented”, globally engaged films that may be part of a new wave that is eventually identified as more transnational than anything we have seen yet. Whether or not they are able to achieve an alternate universality, or an ability to do progressive large scale films with some kind of new vision of the world, the optimism of their efforts is compelling, and the questions they raise worth contemplating. They would seem to exist as optimists flying in the face of pessimist views that the Big Money System of late capitalism is ultimately able to absorb and digest anything and everything to its own ends…
Jean Baudrillard, for instance, consistently argues against the ‘sense’ or logic of production, interiority and depth in the postmodern age. Central to Baudrillard’s writings is the immateriality of resistance against the media, whose power reside in the way they permeate every aspect of life, including resistance itself….
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1 It is better to be contemporary than to be Mexican. It is better to be up to date than surround yourself with anachronism. An essential part of national life has been “Americanized” without recourse. Nationalism becomes a defenseless hope, at the mercy of the fluctuations of social mobility.
2 …white trash, preppy, beers, money, marijuana, ladies man, drunk, let’s go, damn, idiot, asshole, motherfucker, whore, don’t kid me man, go fuck yourself…
3 I have a little trouble with this concept of Mexican Cinema, because I have trouble with this thing about queer films and women’s films. The qualifiers in cinema don’t work for me…I think the definitions of what Mexican Cinema could be are already a little 2oth century, when everything had to be delineated in borders and states…
4 …when the interviewer says, “there is always a little of this identity or weight of where you were born”, he replies, “it’s not a little, it’s everything.” Or as he says elsewhere, “I can travel around the whole world, but I continue to think in Chilango”.
5 Cuaron, an educated and cultured guy who has been able to live with the Hollywood industry without losing his identity, believes it is within his rights to do whatever film he wants… “This thing about how Mexican Cinema, and Latin American film in general, has to be one of political denouncing, seems to me an old-fashioned concept from 70’s leftism, and it’s a burden for any contemporary leftist thinking. It’s like people who say they are against globalization, which is like being against the laws of gravity. You can be against whatever you want, but those laws will continue to exist. I think its confusing the issue, because you have to be aware that it exists and focus on democratizing globalization, not rejecting it. In fact, even Subcomandante Marcos has used globalization in his revolutionary war. Interestingly, Marcos is not against globalization either, rather he is a partisan in its democratization.”
7 In his rounds, Gonzalez Iñarritu uses this leftist voice to ‘find’ a point in common between Brad Pitt and an Moroccan boy no one has ever heard of, an equivalence between Adriana Barraza and Cate Blanchett… “Now that an American life is worth more than that of another human being. I don’t believe in that. In this sense the films is democratic”.