Warning: spoilers below
What I think of as the ensemble film of globalization is evolving into a genre all its own, and the results so far are pretty good. Traffic, Crash, & Syriana were all serious, well-crafted films involving large casts of actors following multiple story lines that intersect in particular ways. Their ostensible topics may differ – the trio above focused on drugs, racism & oil – but underneath is a core belief that people really are more interconnected, interdependent really, than we imagine. In a sense, each is committed to the idea of the butterfly effect, the thought that how a butterfly flaps its wings in Mongolia will impact the weather in Florida. Except that, at least for the first and last of these three films, the butterfly effect is articulated in the cruder, more violent formula by which most of the rest of the world knows it: Dick Cheney sneezes and the Third World gets pneumonia.
I’ve always thought that the origin of this genre lay in the work of the late Robert Altman, whose Nashville in particular anticipates much the genre would offer: ensemble acting, multiple storylines, people caught up in politics they don’t really understand. In a sense, it’s closer to Crash in that it takes place in one city. I don’t think Altman thought he was doing a film about globalization, but I think he did show a younger generation of filmmakers and screenwriters how to go about it. Both Traffic & Syriana were written by Stephen Gaghan, who also wrote the screenplay for Rules of Engagement, based on a story by Virginia’s new senator, James Webb, and The Alamo, which attempted to de-mythologize what was once known as “Polk’s War.”
The Academy Awards in particular have been good to this genre, awarding Crash the Best Picture prize over the highly favored Brokeback Mountain. In addition to Best Picture, Crash won Oscars for editing and writing, and got a supporting actor nomination for Matt Dillon. Both Traffic and Nashville – both of which are better pictures than Crash – made the shortlist for Best Picture, while George Clooney won for Best Supporting Actor in Syriana, for which Gaghan was nominated for best screenplay adaptation, an award he won previously for Traffic. Magnolia, another film that is formally close to this genre (tho in its case more an instance of Altman-worship), got a supporting actor nomination for Tom Cruise & likewise a nomination for writing for its writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. Lone Star, one of a couple of John Sayles’ pictures to follow this general model, likewise got a writing nomination.
This year’s candidate from the globalization ensemble category is Babel, and it comes will all the requisite elements: three story lines involving four sets of characters, set variously in Morocco, Tokyo, Mexico & Southern California. Even more than Traffic, which based one of its story lines around a major U.S. politician & another around a highly romanticized feminist drug lord, the narrative threads in Babel focus on its non-Anglo characters – the only real exception are the two tourists in Morocco played by Brad Pitt (the role of his lifetime, which he manages not to screw up, letting the bags under his eyes do much of the heavy emotional lifting that’s required) & Cate Blanchett, who increasingly looks like the best actor alive. Even in the Mexican section of the tale, the two children brought across the border by their nanny, stuck with watching the kids on her own son’s wedding day, are little more than a narrative appendage. When, after problems that I won’t recount here, they find themselves stranded – ages 6 and 4 perhaps – in the middle of the desert, the film functionally ignores them, focusing instead on Adriana Barraza’s role as the nanny. Similarly, the film spends at least as much time with the two Moroccan goatherds – themselves children – who are playing with the rifle their father bought to ward off jackals when the younger one shoots into a passing tourist bus on a desolate road. The man who sold them the gun was given it as a gift from a big game hunter from Japan for whom he had served as a guide, and it’s the story of that hunter and especially his deaf teenage daughter, fabulously played by Rinko Kikuchi, that makes up the fourth tale of Babel. In her case, she’s an object of constant rejection & deeply depressed at least partly as a result of her mother’s suicide the year before. Her rage is directed pretty much at everyone around her, tho it gets perilously transformed when she decides to “solve” her problems by losing her virginity, which she proceeds to attempt in the most inappropriate & inept ways. Given that her narrative is to some degree the “comic relief” that contrasts with the Mexican & Moroccan tales, the most powerful scene in the entire movie comes when she gets smashed on pills & whiskey & finds herself in a crowded disco where she alone can’t hear the music. Her isolation is clearly intended to serve as an objective correlative for everyone else’s situation in this film and, as clumsy as that imagery may sound, the director, Alejandro González Iñárittu, makes it the most successful drug & disco scene in a motion picture since David Hemmings ran into The Yardbirds in Blow-Up forty years ago.
Babel is by no means a perfect film – it’s really no stronger than Syriana & a far cry from either Crash or Traffic. Still, by comparison with some pictures that have won the Best Picture Oscar – Chicago, Rocky, Out of Africa, even the bon-bon Shakespeare in Love – Babel is The Godfather and Children of Paradise rolled into one. The relationship between the Japanese family & the events in Morocco is so contrived as to make you want to laugh when you see the connection. Yet like all ensemble pictures, Babel offers a wonderful setting for great acting, even on the part of “amateurs” in Morocco. Barraza & Kikuchi have both been nominated for supporting actress Oscars – a tough category in a year in which Jennifer Hudson single-handedly stole Dreamgirls with her Aretha-meets-Janis song-as-tantrum – and it’s worth noting that without this film genre, neither Barraza or Kikuchi would ever get the kind of multi-million dollar PR boosts to their careers that both are about to receive. Barraza is a great character actor, but great character actors go for decades without recognition. Kikuchi is just starting her career and her credits were heavily weighted with TV commercials and video game roles right up to this last year.
One aspect of Babel, the film, that I found disturbing was its soft landing for all of the Anglo characters – the wife survives, the kids are found (a detail that is not even shown on screen) – while the Moroccan family lies in ruins, the nanny finds herself deported & the teenage girl is left naked & still a virgin when her father finally comes home to the penthouse they share. There are very different ways one could look at this disparity – Iñárittu is chicken & wants to give the audience at least part of a happy ending; Iñárittu wants to show that it is always the others who get hurt most, even when it is the Anglos who appear to be most at risk throughout much of the movie. Either of these results is plausible and, afterwards, the folks I was with and I could not decide which line of reasoning guided the director. In part, I think that the Tokyo story – in which the heroine is clearly a rich kid, living in a penthouse with a father who can go globetrotting to hunt exotic animals – deliberately messes with the race = class equation that would otherwise jump out at you (as it does, say, in Crash). So maybe it’s a step toward a more sophisticated argument that causes Iñárittu to forestall this blow. But there is no question that this robs Babel of a good deal of its potential dramatic effect.