Whatever its faults or virtues, Babel seems to me to typify several trends in current cinema.
1) Network Narratives
Variety‘s critics call them criss-crossers, others call them thread structures or interwoven stories. I call them network narratives. In an essay called “Mutual Friends and Chronologies of Chance,” forthcoming in the book Poetics of Cinema, I tried to lay out the conventions of this increasingly common (maybe too common) storytelling strategy.
The central formal principle is that several protagonists are given more or less the same weight as they participate in intertwining plotlines. Usually these lines affect one another to some degree. The characters might be strangers, slight acquaintances, friends, or kinfolk. The film aims to show a larger pattern underlying their individual trajectories.
Several directors have specialized in this structure, from Altman and Claude Lelouch to Iosseliani and Rodrigo Garcia (most recently, Nine Lives). I found over a hundred such films, some going back quite far (e.g., Grand Hotel) but most made since the 1980s. Do they reflect some social Zeitgeist? Are we seeking connections with one another? Nope, I don’t think so. The most proximate and pertinent causes lie elsewhere. (Where? Check out the book!)
Alejandro González Iñárritu has made the network idea a signature element of his films. The first feature, Amores Perros, used a common convention, the traffic accident, to tie together three characters. We follow their story lines leading up to or away from the car crash. 21 Grams had a smaller cast but a more scrambled structure. Now, with Babel, we have something easier to follow than the previous films. But it compensates by filling a broader canvas: action on several continents, themes heavy with significance about what Pico Iyer calls the Global Soul.
We know how to read criss-crossers now, and so directors can push the boundaries on several fronts–more intricate plotting, portentous themes, spatial distance (critics called Babel an “epic”). Yet to keep audiences on track, filmmakers remain committed to the basic conventions as well, such as the notion of chance as hidden fate, or the Chaos idea that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Chile can . . .
Lesson 1: Once a formal tradition gets established, artists compete within that, seeking out ways to innovate…within tested boundaries. Fresh narrative strategies push the filmmaker to balance the novelty with familiarity.
The arthouse cinema has long traded on the appeal of a series of films, more or less loosely joined. Satayajit Ray had his Apu trilogy, which was at least about the same character, but at about the same period there was Antonioni’s tryptich L’Avventura, La Notte, and L’Eclisse. Not to be outdone, Bergman gave us two trilogies, one on the crisis of faith (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence), the other on, perhaps, the failure of human relationships under pressure (Persona, Shame, and Hour of the Wolf). More recently we’ve had Fassbinder’s BRD trilogy and Kiarostami’s threesome centered on the village of Koker.
Labeling a trio of films a trilogy plays an important role in the festival-arthouse market. Art films often lack established stars and don’t belong to clear-cut genres (though most turn out to be melodramas or historical dramas). The big selling point is usually the director, whose body of work promises something of interest. If the body of work falls into neat periods or groupings, then that automatically creates opportunities for long-term funding and “product differentiation” from film to film. This may seem a crass way to talk about what many people regard as personal expressions of artists, but filmmakers who want to keep making films know that funding and festivals rely on marketable components like the stature of the director and her or his broader creative ambitions.
So it’s not surprising that now directors are explicitly conceiving trilogies. Most of the earlier trilogies I mentioned were created ex post facto, by critics recognizing thematic links among works. It’s not clear that Antonioni or Bergman or Kiarostami planned to make trilogies from the start. Often the idea of a trilogy hits the director after the first film (von Trier’s Dogville) or the second. But now directors can launch a trilogy, as Kieslowski did with Blue. Angelopoulos has announced that The Weeping Meadow is the first film in a trilogy that will survey the troubled history of the twentieth century. Lucas Belvaux took the step of simultaneously making three features centered on one batch of characters, calling the overall result, of course, Trilogy.
On the festival circuit filmmakers have to explain themselves to critics, and Iñárritu has understood this well . He tells us that he decided to create a trilogy while making 21 Grams, and he points out how the films are similar (network structure, overlapping time schemes) and different (degrees of linearity, changes in theme). He helps critics and viewers understand his work–at least, in the way he prefers it to be understood.
Lesson 2: Festival cinema discovered the trilogy before Hollywood did (Star Wars, The Godfather, Pirates of the Caribbean), and the three-movie cluster may well be the art movies’ answer to a franchise.
3) Hyperrefined technique
In The Way Hollywood Tells It, I comment on the tendency of contemporary American filmmakers to develop subtle, maybe unnoticeable patterns of technique that run alongside the film’s story. So the three acts of Ron Howard’s The Paper were planned to employ three different sorts of camera movement. The same tendency can be found in independent filmmaking; Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream coordinated its color scheme and seasons to mirror the film’s act structure.
Such refinement is especially tempting in network narratives, in which every line of action can be given its signature look. The obvious example is Soderbergh’s Traffic, which flaunts vivid color and texture differences among the plotlines.
Iñárritu has taken this tactic to a new level of complexity, as revealed in an article in the November American Cinematographer (Rachel K. Bosley, “Forging Connections,” AC 87, 11, 36-49). For this project Iñárritu and his cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto distinguished different story threads through color, grain, film stock, film gauge, lab processing, and even aspect ratio. (They shot the Japanese sequences in anamorphic but then extracted a 1.85:1 frame out of them.) For example we’re supposed to register, albeit unconsciously, a shift when the Morocco story, shot in 16mm shifts to 35mm when the helicopter arrives to rescue the wounded wife.
A harsher critic might claim that the ingenuity expended on these minutiae might better have been spent sharpening and deepening the plotlines themselves. But put evaluation aside. I just want to note that this commitment to “visual arcs” and subliminal tonal shifts echoing the drama shows that Hollywood is as committed to an aesthetic of unity as it ever was–maybe even more committed. This is a level of fanatical detail that supreme fussbudgets like Hitchcock, Sternberg, and (outside Hollywood), Ozu never sought to reach.
I also have to wonder: Does anybody register, let alone notice, such hyperrefinements? In my multiplex, and primed by having read the AC article, I could spot almost none of this finesse on the screen. In the release print I saw, all the stories looked pretty much the same, and most images had the consistency of oatmeal. Prieto says that “the grain was the most important visual element of the story” (p. 42). In this respect, he got his wish; grain was about all I could see.
Lesson 3: Those who think that modern Hollywood has entered a mannerist phase can find confirmation in Babel.
Postscript: 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.
But that’s a whole other blog.