Ensemble Film, Postmodernity and Moral Mapping

The marked increase in the popularity of the ensemble film in recent decades can be understood to be a product of the form’s potential to present and reflect upon the social, experiential and moral complexity of the postmodern era. Varying in scope from an ensemble of characters who may meet or “mismeet”[1] in the same city or suburb, as in Paul Haggis’ Crash (2004) and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993), to characters living in disparate parts of the world who are – sometimes unbeknown to them – connected by an event or the effects of each other’s actions, as in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006), ensemble films reveal connections between a number of characters and plots that initially seem unrelated. Contemporary ensemble films often explore issues and themes seen to be representative of postmodern society and experience such as alienation and anomie (Magnolia, 1999; Blessed, 2009), the politics of difference (Crash, 2004; Everyday People, 2004), the possibilities and failures of communication (Short Cuts, 1993; Babel), simulacra and media cultures (Nashville, 1975; Magnolia), and social inequality (Amores perros, 2000). Due to their attempt to connect and afford pattern to the complex landscapes of postmodernity – be they spatial, social or political – such films can also be understood to serve a conceptual and cathartic function in that they can perform for the viewer through narrative and aesthetic means forms of “cognitive mapping” that the individual may not be able to realise in actual life.[2] The critical acclaim and public reception of several ensemble films such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, director Iñárritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga’s trilogy Amores perros, 21 Grams (2003) and Babel, and Haggis’ Crash, suggest that they are perceived to undertake important cultural and ideological work. However, in recent years a number of critics have taken issue with the cultural politics and ideological positions that inform several of these films, and question the extent to which they adequately negotiate the complex social and cultural landscapes they present.

This essay builds upon recent discussions of the ensemble film in a number of ways and with particular reference to films – such as those mentioned above – which present a distinctly postmodern sensibility and worldview. While critics have developed useful terms and categories that account for different sub-sets of the contemporary ensemble film and related forms, such as “hyperlink cinema” and “network narratives,” in this essay I want to point out the uneven relationship that sometimes exists between an ensemble film’s formal preoccupation with interconnection and its broader thematic, social and ethical outlook. A number of critics have adopted Fredric Jameson’s concept of cognitive mapping to describe the kind of conceptual work undertaken in the contemporary ensemble film. Drawing upon Emmanuel Levinas’ poststructuralist ethical philosophy and Zygmunt Bauman’s analysis in Postmodern Ethics of the construction of social space in the modern world, this paper considers the concept of “moral mapping” in the ensemble film. Focusing on Short Cuts and Babel, I consider the different ways in which these films address self-other relations and ethical responsibility – issues that invariably arise in these texts given their structural and thematic preoccupation with fragmentation and interconnection, the individual and society. My rationale for focusing on these two films is that they present opposite extremes in relation to the topic – the form of the ensemble film and moral mapping in the context of postmodernity – and therefore provide a useful comparison and contrast. For example, while Short Cuts presents one of the most sophisticated instances of ensemble style and technique, for all its formal emphasis on interconnection and its political and moral provocations, it somewhat cynically refuses to work through the social and moral issues it presents and portrays a social landscape of moral apathy and disconnection. By contrast, in Babel Iñárritu exploits the ensemble form as a means to assist the viewer to think through the issues relating to postmodernity and ethics that it pursues. Several critics have taken issue with the cultural politics of ensemble films such as Crash, Grand Canyon (USA 1991), Magnolia and Babel, claiming that they privilege whiteness and oversimplify racial and ethnic difference[3] , or promote utopian, depoliticized conceptions of community[4] . This paper offers a defense of Iñárritu’s films against such critiques and argues that Babel in particular encourages valuable reflection on issues of social inequality, justice and ethical responsibility, and provides us with an intimation of the possibilities the ensemble form presents for processes of moral mapping in contemporary times.

 

The Ensemble Film and Critical Frameworks

While ensemble films have been a staple genre of Hollywood and art film since the early decades of cinema[5] , the increasing popularity of the form since the 1990s has prompted a number of critics to develop generic terms that capture what are seen to be some of the distinctive features of this and related forms, and situate them in relation to broader intellectual, cultural and social contexts ranging from chaos theory to new media. In terms of their key features, ensemble films are multi-plotted, focus on multiple rather than one main character, and the stories and experiences of disparate characters are interwoven via connecting devices, usually with a view to creating an overarching sense of unity or synthesis. The major connecting device may be a location (such as the city of Nashville in Nashville), a theme (such as love in Love Actually, 2003) an event (such as a car accident in Amores perros and shooting in Babel), or some other connecting principle (for example, the television program What Do Kids Know? to which all the characters in Magnolia are related in some way). Most instances of the form tend to adopt more than one of these interconnecting devices. Ensemble films also utilise a range of formal features and techniques which further serve to interconnect stories and characters, such as rapid cross-cutting, montage, music, and the use of “visual threads and graphic matches”.[6] For example, in Magnolia and Short Cuts television sets and programs are used to move between different sub-plots and diegetic spaces[7] , while in The Hours (USA 2002) visual threads such as earrings and flowers, and continuity of action and gesture between the three central female characters, serve to interconnect the three storylines which are separated across space and time. In the contemporary ensemble film, an emphasis on social complexity and fragmented but intersecting plots gives rise to common themes such as alienation/individualism versus social connection, cause-effect relations, chance and coincidence.

A number of classificatory terms have been proposed by critics in recent years to provide a more in-depth critical framework for discussing contemporary ensemble films and related forms. In 2005, Alissa Quart adopted the term “hyperlink cinema” in her review of the film Happy Endings (2005), a term she also applies to Nashville, Short Cuts, Magnolia, Timecode (2000) and Crash.[8] Roger Ebert also adopted the term in 2005 applying it to films including Syriana (2005), Amores perros and Babel.[9] Commenting on the lack of adequate classificatory models to account for the new trend of films preoccupied with concepts of chance, chaos and networks, in her 2005 essay “Fractal Films and the Architecture of Complexity,” Wendy Everett adopts the term “fractal” to describe a broad cross-section of European and American films of the 1990s and 2000s which reflect, in line with the principles of chaos theory, a world that is both “entirely random” yet “structured by complexity, simultaneity, and violent encounters”.[10] Everett cites films including Short Cuts, Magnolia, Amélie (2001), Code Unknown (2000) and Free Radicals (2003) as instances of the “fractal film” in which seemingly unrelated stories intersect and interact in “random, unstable, and unpredictable ways”.[11] In her 2009 article “Not Just Ensemble Films: Six Degrees, Webs, Multiplexity and the Rise of Network Narratives,” Vivien Silvey applies the term “network narrative” to films such as Edge of Heaven (2007), Amores perros, Babel, Crash and Love Actually which seek to formally and narratively reflect the complexity of contemporary network society.[12] These ensemble films, Silvey argues, practice Fredric Jameson’s concept of cognitive mapping whereby the individual seeks to “think” and locate him or herself within the “impossible totality of the contemporary world system”.[13] Emphasising interconnections – however tenuous – between a cross-section of different characters, these films encourage us to view the world as a “web or system” whereby people are related to each other even if they are unaware of such connections.[14] In addition to reflecting the social complexity and new forms of sociality indicative of late-capitalist society, Silvey contends that new information technologies such as the internet, Google Earth and CCTV inform structural, narrative and thematic aspects of these films.[15] While examining the social complexity of postmodern society, Silvey suggests that the political and moral aims of network narratives sometimes fall short as real difference and complexity are simplified via totalizing discourses and utopian ideals of community.

These critical frameworks are very useful, but it strikes me that while films are, quite understandably, grouped together because of formal similarities and thematic parallels, the ways in which particular films exploit the connective possibilities of the ensemble form vary enormously, and the worldviews they present are sometimes diametrically opposed. Everett acknowledges this observing that while several films may share devices representative of the fractal film they may differ markedly in terms of “context, approaches and purposes”.[16] Robert Altman’s use of the ensemble form serves as a case in point. Frequently cited by critics as a pioneer of the contemporary ensemble film, Nashville and Short Cuts are also viewed as representative examples of the network, fractal and hyperlink film. Short Cuts more than most ensemble films, exploits the interconnective possibilities of narrative, editing and mise-en-scène to create an extremely dense web of visual, auditory and thematic parallels and interconnections.[17] Rapid crossing-cutting, visual motifs (such as water and smoke), graphic matches and music (the songs of the jazz singer, Tess) in conjunction with intersecting storylines that bring together an ensemble cast of twenty-two principle characters, all drive home the idea of interconnection in the complex modern world  – even if some of those interconnections are coincidental and ephemeral (as when two sets of characters cross paths and accidentally receive each other’s photographs at a photographic booth). Yet, in contrast to the formal emphasis on connection, the social world that Altman presents us with is atomistic and morally bankrupt. During the film’s opening montage, the viewer struggles to hear what characters are saying due to diegetic and non-diegetic sound, a situation that mirrors characters’ failure to listen to or understand each other throughout the film. Short Cuts presents a social dystopia of tragic accidents, failed or unsatisfying heterosexual relationships, self-interest, and pervasive sexual violence against women (both imagined and realized). Not only are casual or chance encounters fleeting and often negative, most relationships in the film are fragile and fraught with miscommunication, jealousy, deceit or a resignation to the status quo. Furthermore, as I discuss in the following section, unlike most ensemble and network narratives, the effects and moral implications of a character’s actions often remain unaddressed in Short Cuts and the film does not work through the broader ethical and social issues it so self-consciously raises. There is a very deliberate disjunction in Short Cuts between Altman’s emphasis on connection and synthesis at the formal level and the film’s social and moral outlook. As such, it is curious that this film is so frequently mentioned alongside Magnolia in discussions of the ensemble film. While Short Cuts and Magnolia share many thematic correspondences (such as chance, infidelity, loss, the crisis of masculinity, fame and simulacra), are both located in or around Los Angeles, and adopt similar connecting devices, their respective treatment of identity and relationships in postmodern society varies considerably. Whereas Short Cuts refuses meaningful emotional connection between characters or the resolution of inter/personal conflicts, Magnolia works to resolve the personal and interpersonal crises it explores. While characters in Magnolia appear to grow (e.g. Claudia Gator), repent (Earl Partridge) and learn to forgive (Frank T. J. Mackey), in Short Cuts characters are, like the structure of the film itself, episodic, unable to connect or learn from their experiences, and therefore doomed to repetition.   

 

The Ensemble Film and Moral Mapping

In his discussion of “postmodern hyperspace” in Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson observes the difficulty that the subject has in conceptually mapping, and therefore navigating, the unfamiliar forms of postmodern space, such as the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles. This “miniature city” with its spatial mutations, reflective surfaces, lack of reference points, and enigmatic entrances and exits, leaves the individual locked within a space they cannot successfully navigate.[18] The subject’s inability to physically “locate itself” and make sense of postmodern spaces such as these, functions as a “symbol and analogon” of a larger dilemma – namely, our inability to cognitively map “the great global multinational and decentred communicational network” of late-capitalist society.[19] As in eighteenth-century and Romantic theories of the sublime, the individual possesses a cognitive and perceptual apparatus that is incapable of adequately representing the sublime object which, in the case of the “postmodern sublime,” is “the whole world system of … present-day multinational capitalism”.[20] As for Kant and Wordsworth, for Jameson the problem is not just one of representation and comprehension but also autonomy and agency, as the subject struggles to understand how she is situated in relation to the decentred networks of “power and control” that define late-capitalist society.[21] Jameson proposes that the new cultural form that the present spatial, economic and political order will give rise to will be “[a]n aesthetic of cognitive mapping” – cultural forms that seek to map and make sense of this world system.[22] The continued popularity of genres such as the ensemble film, network narrative and hyperlink film suggest that the problem of cognitive mapping identified by Jameson in the early 1980s has continued well into the 1990s and 2000s.

In his analysis of the shift from heavy (industrial) to liquid (technological) forms of modernity, Zygmunt Bauman examines how the unmappable spaces, decentred systems and lack of meaningful “patterns” and “codes” in the contemporary world order have extended from the institutional and economic to the social and lived.[23] “The liquidizing powers” of modernity “have moved from the ‘system’ to ‘society’, from ‘politics’ to ‘life-policies’ – or have descended from the ‘macro’ to the ‘micro’ level of social cohabitation”.[24] Bauman sees the era of liquid modernity as one within which the individual lacks convincing or stable “patterns or configurations” that in the past not only located them meaningfully in the world, but guided their relations and interactions with others:

Ours is, as a result, an individualized, privatized version of modernity, with the burden of pattern-weaving and the responsibility for failure falling primarily on the individual’s shoulders. It is the patterns of dependency and interaction whose turn to be liquefied has now come … The remoteness and unreachability of systemic structure, coupled with the unstructured, fluid state of the immediate setting of life-politics, change that condition in a radical way and call for a rethinking of old concepts that used to frame its narratives.[25]

In his 1993 study, Postmodern Ethics, Bauman examines the challenges that liquid or postmodernity poses to the ethical life. He sees the ethical crisis of postmodernity to arise from a situation in which we lack “commonly agreed ethical rules” at a time when they are most needed. These are the kinds of rules that would help us to determine how to “guide our conduct to each other” so that people can co-operate effectively, peacefully and without suspicion or fear (16). The theoretical and practical challenges that Bauman identifies as underpinning this crisis can be understood in relation to problems of what I will term “moral mapping”. One of the practical dimensions that Bauman identifies is the uneven relationship between “the sheer magnitude of our powers” and our inability to trace the consequences of our actions, a disjunction that has become particularly profound in the age of global-capitalism and international politics: “Between the deeds and their outcomes there is a huge distance – both in time and in space – which we cannot fathom using our innate, ordinary power of perception – we can hardly measure the quality of our actions by a full inventory of their effects” (17). Our actions may have “unanticipated” negative consequences which outweigh good intentions, our actions may “affect people” whether remote or in the future who we may never “look in the face,” and we may harm others “inadvertently, by ignorance rather than design, without anyone in particular wishing ill, acting with malice and be otherwise morally blameworthy” (18). Many people are conscious of these kinds of issues and seek ways to map the moral effects of their actions and choices (e.g. how to reduce our carbon footprint, sourcing ethically produced goods etc.). The tension between actions and outcomes in the face of distance of various kinds features prominently in ensemble films and network narratives which attempt to pattern and map the moral landscapes of postmodernity. For example, in Babel, the gift of a rifle from Yasujiro Wataya (a wealthy Japanese business man) to Hassan (a herder who was his guide on a hunting trip in Morocco some years ago) proves to have unanticipated and devastating consequences on the lives of four families living in four different countries.

Another practical problem that Bauman identifies for postmodern ethics is the often unclear relationship between agents and deeds given the “exacting division of labour, expertise and functions for which our times are notorious” (18). With many people involved in tasks and processes the authorship of outcomes becomes difficult to pinpoint, while at other times actions which may seem morally dubious are attributed to assigned roles not the individual assigned to perform them. In both cases responsibility is “floated” (Bauman, 18–19). This issue of “floating” responsibility has been explored in films such as Syriana and documentaries examining the ethical conundrums of globalization (for example, Food Inc., [2008], Capitalism: A Love Story [2009]). Similarly, in Babel the border security official who ignores Amelia’s pleas and deports her back to Mexico cannot really be held morally accountable for his apparent lack of sympathy in the situation because he is ‘simply doing his job’ – responsibility is floated from the individual back to the State.

Thus, according to Bauman, postmodernity gives rise to a kind of moral sublime, whereby the individual cannot imagine or properly locate themselves or their actions within a sufficiently comprehensive matrix of cause and effect; “The scale of consequences our actions may have dwarfs such moral imagination as we may possess” (18). Furthermore, as Bauman observes, it “renders impotent the few, but tested and trustworthy ethical rules we have inherited from the past and are taught to obey” (18). Thus we find ourselves in an environment of ethical “pluralism” (competing but incompatible sets of rules) and “strongly felt moral ambiguity” in which the subject struggles to cope with their newfound responsibility and freedom (Bauman, 20–2). Through their interest in patterns of cause and effect within a local or global context, and an awareness of the complex and ambiguous moral environment of postmodernity, many ensemble films explore a range of ethical issues such as our responsibility for the other and the effects of one person’s actions or attitudes on the lives of others. However, the effectiveness with which these films negotiate the issue of moral mapping in the period of liquid modernity varies considerably.

For example, despite a formal emphasis on interconnection, Short Cuts foregrounds social disconnection and moral anomie. Many of the characters in the film are self-absorbed and/or lack empathetic or sympathetic feeling. In one storyline, three middle-aged men on a fishing trip continue to fish and drink whisky for several days despite discovering the body of a naked young woman in the river next to them (who we later discover was raped and murdered). In another plotline, Harold’s estranged father returns when he discovers his grandson has been hit by a car and is in a coma in hospital, but is more concerned to offload onto Harold confessions about his personal failings and infidelities rather than support his son in a time of obvious distress. While there are moments in Short Cuts whereby characters exhibit a sense of care or compassion for others, such moments are generally deflected and their moral potential undermined. For example, the diner waitress, Doreen, does run to the aid of the boy she hits with her car (Harold’s son) who claims he is alright and runs home, only to die in hospital soon after from a hemorrhage. When she returns home from the scene of the accident she is clearly upset by the fact she “could have killed him,” but her reflections on the incident are soon displaced by an argument with her partner Earl and the event leaves her mind and their storyline for the rest of the film. When the young boy dies, the gravity of the parents’ grief is deflected via the comic and slightly absurd figure of Harold’s self-obsessed father who leaves the hospital without saying goodbye or offering any gesture of consolation or support. The scene in which Andy, the baker, offers bread and cakes to the grieving parents as a gesture of consolation and to apologise for his earlier behaviour is, as Martin Scofield observes, “rushed” and “sacrificed to the film’s need for a common denouement” – the earthquake – which Altman deploys to narratively ‘unite’ the characters and storylines at the end of the film.[26] While themes, images and storylines are interwoven throughout Short Cuts, ethical relations between characters are invariably dropped, as if such relationships cannot be sustained in Altman’s vision of contemporary suburban Los Angeles.[27]

In the short stories upon which the film Short Cuts is based, Raymond Carver explores the complexities of human behaviour and motivation and presents many of his characters sympathetically in spite of their flaws and failings. By contrast, Altman’s film adopts a “detached, ironic stance”[28] and affords little “interior life to his characters”.[29] In the film, characters are never held accountable for their actions or moral failings at the personal or public level. The “patterns of dependency”, “interaction” and moral responsibility remain thoroughly “liquefied” in Short Cuts and the film presents “an individualized, privatized version of modernity” in which moral anomie prevails.[30] For example, in the film sexual violence against women is insistently presented but not commented upon. When Jerry stones to death a young woman he has just met in a park due to a sense of sexual frustration and failure, the event is deflected by the ‘unifying’ earthquake (which is assumed to be the cause of the woman’s death). He is never held accountable for his violent crime and the film moves on to another storyline leaving the woman’s death uncommented upon. While confronting the viewer with particular social and moral issues, “Altman never presses his clever and thought-provoking juxtapositions” such as between real nudity and artistic nudity, actual violence and simulated violence, “to the point of moral analysis and definition”.[31] As Scofield contends, “Nothing [in Short Cuts] is dwelt on; none of the human predicaments in the film is given full respect and consideration,” and this is one notable difference between Altman’s film and Carver’s stories.[32] In addition to evading the ethical issues it raises, as viewers we are not invited to sympathise with many, if any, of the characters and are positioned to be as indifferent and morally disconnected as they are – a viewing structure replicated in Nashville and Pret-a-Porter. Witty and darkly comic, Short Cuts nevertheless presents a very cynical portrait of a cross-section of white, middle-class, suburban America. While the film confronts the viewer with a range of moral scenarios, it evades or undermines their full significance and refuses to morally map a social landscape it insists on interconnecting at the formal and thematic level.

 

Babel and Moral Mapping

In contrast to Short Cuts, the ensemble style adopted in Iñárritu’s and Arriaga’s trilogy Amores perros, 21 Grams and Babel facilitates the exploration of complex personal, social and moral situations. While technically third person, these films are perspectival in nature, as they invite us to share in the experiences and viewpoints of their ensemble casts. Like the novels of Virginia Woolf or the Cubist paintings of Picasso, they enable us to view the one object, or event and its consequences, from multiple positions.[33] Rather than privileging late-capitalist societies, these films are set in countries at various stages of modernity: for example, the four storylines in Babel are set in North America, Japan, Morocco and Mexico. In each film, disparate storylines and characters are interconnected via a single event – a car accident in Amores perros and 21 Grams, an accidental shooting in Babel. Narratively, these events lead to processes of moral mapping whereby the actions of individual characters and their effects on both intimates and strangers are examined. Due to the films’ perspectival nature the complexity and ambiguity of moral situations is foregrounded. While varying in setting, story and scope, all three films centre on common themes; particularly love, loss, the consequences of choices and actions, and the politics of difference. On several occasions Iñárritu has stated that his films are concerned with the “borders” and borderlines that connect and separate people and the “common ground” that we share as human beings.[34] While he tends to foreground his interest in the internal borders – emotional and psychic – which shape personal relationships (particularly those between lovers, and between parents and children) his films are clearly concerned with the ideological, social, political and national borders that structure societies and shape our relations with others. The attempt to map, and assist the viewer to imagine, the complexity of the contemporary world order becomes more ambitious in scope as we proceed through the trilogy: from the socio-economic inequalities of Mexico City in Amores perros, to the complex web of relations – personal, economic, technological, circumstantial and legal – that interconnect the diverse ensemble of characters and settings featured in Babel.

As the title of the film suggests, Babel is concerned with the failures and possibilities of communication as they occur between intimates (such as the married couple, Richard and Susan), strangers (for example, the Japanese girl, Chieko, and the police detective, Kenji Mamiya), and nations (the United States and Morocco). Silvey contends that the film’s “thematic polemic” champions “the need for the resolution of disparity” and cultural misunderstanding “through means of communication,” an approach she finds threatens to oversimplify the film’s treatment of cultural difference: “If only, the film pleads, if only everyone in the world were able to understand each other then we would find solutions to these problems and heal the rifts that prolong pain and prejudice”.[35] The “problems” that Silvey identifies are indeed central to the film: “misconceptions about terrorism, illegal border-crossing, personal suffering and racial prejudice”.[36] However, while the film does foreground the importance of communication and mutual understanding, it is not so naïve as to suggest that effective communication alone will solve the world’s ills. As Babel makes manifestly clear, in a political and social sense, in the contemporary world some voices (and even lives) are deemed more important than others, and this is shown to be a consequence of divergent ideologies, inequality and uneven modernities rather than “miscommunications”.[37] Hence, Amelia’s pleas to the U.S. border police and authorities have little effect: as an illegal Mexican immigrant she is powerless and her story of little value from a legal perspective. Similarly, the two Moroccan families linked to the shooting of the American tourist, Susan, are defenseless against the interrogations and threats of the Moroccan police irrespective of what they might say. Lies and truth are met with the same outcome: suspicion and violence. Babel, like Amores perros and 21 Grams, is not simply concerned with communication, but the underlying power differentials that create and perpetuate inequality. However, in this context of institutionalized inequality and fear of otherness, Babel confirms the capacity of the individual to respond to what Emmanuel Levinas terms the “call” of the Other. Indeed for Levinas, it is through our encounter with the “face” of the Other in his radical alterity that we recognize and take responsibility for the other’s humanity and right to be, and in so doing, enter into the realm of the ethical.[38]

Self-other relations and the politics of difference are central to the thematic and ethical concerns of Amores perros, 21 Grams and Babel. Various forms of difference and their treatment within the dominant social order are explored in these films, such as class and ethnicity (the Mexican characters in all three films), race and culture (Western xenophobia in Babel), and physical illness and disability (in Amores perros the model Valeria has to have her leg amputated following injuries sustained in a car accident, Paul Rivers has heart disease in 21 Grams, and Cheiko in Babel is deaf and mute). However, several commentators have criticised Babel for its deployment of cultural stereotypes, a practice they argue threatens to undermine the progressive cultural politics the film otherwise promotes. For example, Silvey observes that Babel draws upon tropes of the racist Western tourist, the hapless yet devoted Mexican nanny (Amelia) and her “hot blooded reckless son” (Santiago), the Islamic other as the “ignorant, tragically fated” savage, and the emotionally alienated Japanese school girl (Chieko).[39] Similarly, Paul Kerr observes that as an instance of what he terms “globalized art cinema” which uses actors and locations from four different countries, Babel recycles distinctive cinematic tropes and types from each, such as the “Mexico/America border, American art house marital anomie … Moroccan desert poverty,” and social/cultural types such as “bereaved Western tourists” (Susan and Richard), “the hopeless hapless Mexican” (Santiago) and the “sexually fetishized Japanese schoolgirl”.[40] However, I would suggest that Iñárritu draws upon cultural norms and types to illustrate their continuing ideological power and presence, to demonstrate their negative effects and, ultimately, to dismantle them. Stereotypes are central to the logic of Western philosophy as Levinas understands it: “Western philosophy has most often been an ontology: a reduction of the other to the same … that ensures the comprehension of being”.[41] It is this process of the reduction of the other to the terms of the self, and its implications, that Babel and the trilogy more broadly examines and interrogates.

For example, in 21 Grams the Mexican ex-con and born-again Christian, Jack Jordan, is marginalised because of his ethnicity and criminal past. He is sacked from his job as a golf caddy in an exclusive golf club because of his tattoos and his criminal record seriously compromises his capacity to obtain work. Despite attempts to change his life course, Jack’s efforts are repeatedly thwarted by social and racial discrimination and bad luck (he accidentally runs over a man and his two young daughters). By contrast, Cristina Peck, whose family Jack accidentally kills, also shares a ‘criminal’ past of drug abuse, but her ability to change her life course is much easier given her status as a white, middle-class woman. Reflecting Iñárritu’s celebration of parenthood in his films, children redeem Cristina at two stages in her life. By contrast, Paul’s wife, Mary, who had an abortion sometime in the past is, according to the logic of the story, punished for this act as she is now unable to conceive, a situation which contributes to the breakdown of her marriage.[42] The morality and ‘criminality’ surrounding various acts which result in the taking or giving of life (manslaughter, organ donation, revenge, drug addiction, abortion) are investigated through their juxtaposition and, as social stereotypes are deployed only to be interrogated in 21 Grams, so too are concepts of crime, guilt and virtue.[43] In Babel, the group of British, American and French tourists are representative of the ambivalence of colonial discourse and the colonial gaze. While in the small Moroccan village of Tazarin in which Richard seeks treatment for his injured wife, the tourists exhibit racist attitudes and anti-Islamic sentiment which, while perhaps clichéd, is reflective of the international political mood of the time (the film was released in 2006). The accidental shooting of the American tourist, Susan, by a Moroccan boy, Yuseff, who is testing the range of a recently acquired rifle obtained to protect the family’s goat herds from predators, is misinterpreted as an act of terrorism which incurs the wrath of the American authorities and Moroccan police, and results in the tragic death of Yuseff’s older brother, Ahmed. Iñárritu’s films are populated with characters that are flawed yet sympathetic and human. However, his films clearly show how the cost of an individual’s mistake can vary dramatically depending on their place in the socio-political order.

Iñárritu’s deployment of stereotype is also evident in the ending of Babel which sees the American couple, Susan and Richard, obtain, Hollywood style, their “happy ending”. This outcome is announced diegetically via a news report screening on a television in a bar in which Detective Mamiya, who is involved in the case, is drinking alone. While in-part an ironic nod to Hollywood cinema, this ‘ending’ again reflects the reality of the global order. As white, middle-class Americans, the authorities respond to their need – the couple is eventually evacuated from Tazarin by helicopter and the world follows their story via news bulletins. By contrast, the outcome for Yuseff and his family, and Amelia, remain open-ended and unresolved within the storyline of the film. As viewers we are invited to mourn their respective losses and the tragedy of their situation, but these are the personal stories that do not make CNN news or Hollywood endings. Babel must be read as an indictment, not a reiteration of, the dominant narrative of who wins and who loses in the kinds of border-crossing conflicts the film explores.

In negotiating the tension between an affirmation of difference and the deployment of cultural norms and types, I suggest that Babel presents for the viewer a filmic landscape that proceeds from forms of what Bauman calls “cognitive spacing” to one of “moral spacing”. For Bauman, the construction of social space proceeds along three different axes – cognitive, aesthetic and moral – which interact and intersect (145).[44] Cognitive space is constructed intellectually via the acquisition and distribution of knowledge, whereby our knowledge of the other exists along an axis of proximity and distance, intimacy and anonymity. Between these two poles are those who we may live near (within social space) but who remain distant – the strangers who populate our social spaces in the modern world. Knowledge within cognitive space is organized in accordance with social classes, types and categories. For Bauman, as the intellectual organization of social space, cognitive spacing suppresses sentiment and seeks to keep the stranger at a distance, without a “face” (154–5). Here Bauman echoes Levinas’ contention that the ethical has its base in the self’s encounter with the “face” of the other, which for Levinas expresses the other’s infinity (through difference), vulnerability, mortality and right to be:

The proximity of the other is the signifying of the face … Before any particular expression – and beneath all particular expression that, already pose and countenance given to itself, covers and protects it – there is the nakedness and baring of expression as such; i.e., extreme exposure, no defense, vulnerability itself.[45]

Interestingly, in his commentary on Babel, Iñárritu discusses the importance of faces to the film: “I realized I had to start finding faces, instead of actors; faces that represented my characters emotionally”.[46] While he foregrounds here the face as a register of emotion, below I discuss the ways in which the face in Babel also takes on the quality of “extreme exposure” and “nakedness” which Levinas describes above, wherein the face transcends or breaks through the order of representation and conceptualization (the domain of ego and sameness) and enters, or rather brings us into, the realm of the ethical (as responsiveness and responsibility for the other who faces me and makes a demand on me).[47]

For Bauman, while the “objects of cognitive spacing are those we live with,” the “objects of moral spacing are the others we live for (165). In moral spacing, the other resists all typification, is specific, and does not enter moral space on the basis of particular kinds of membership (165). In contrast to cognitive spacing, moral spacing is non-rational (“wayward and erratic”), instinctive, and grounded on a recognition of responsibility for the other which for Bauman, like Levinas, is “the sole resource founding the moral space” (Bauman, 166). If Babel examines, on a global scale, the misunderstandings and injustices that stem from practices of cognitive spacing (via processes such as cultural or racial stereotyping), it also presents several powerful scenes of moral spacing which reflect this sense of ethics as grounded upon the individual’s acceptance of responsibility for the other. While Babel presents governments and officials in positions of legal authority to act in ways that are prejudicial and unjust (if legally sanctioned), it reaffirms the capacity of the individual to act in ethically meaningful ways.

While through the course of the film the character of Chieko moves to progressively more extreme forms of self-exposure in an attempt to be noticed by and connect with others, her nakedness shifts from a sexual form to an expression of profound vulnerability and need. This “extreme exposure”[48] invites not only the sympathy of other characters (namely the police detective and Chieko’s father) but also the viewer. While the scene in which Chieko presents herself naked to Detective Mamiya is typically read as an erotic encounter, I suggest that it is more productively read as an ethical encounter: indeed, Detective Mamiya resists her sexual advances recognizing she is “just a child”. He, and we, look beyond Chieko’s awkward body language and uncertain sexual gestures – the “pose and countenance” that “covers and protects” – to see not desire but another expression: the face of the Other – vulnerable, exposed, in need and challenging our own “right to be”.[49] Detective Mamiya responds to the call of the Other with a gesture of care, holding Chieko tenderly as she breaks down moaning in grief. This emotionally raw and highly affecting scene revises the characterisation of Chieko as the hyper-sexualised Japanese schoolgirl, as her nakedness is coded in alternative ways which better reflect her psychological and emotional situation (i.e. mourning the recent suicide of her mother). The film then cuts to the Moroccan storyline via a graphic match, from Detective Mamiya holding Chieko in a protective embrace to Abdullah Adboum who embraces his son Yuseff in a similar way to protect him from police gunfire. When Yussef’s brother, Ahmed, is shot, Yussef surrenders himself to the police. Walking down to the group of policemen with his hands raised, crying, confessing his responsibility for the shooting, claiming his brother’s innocence and pleading that they spare Ahmed, Yussef presents another image of extreme exposure and vulnerability: in quite literal terms his life is in question as he walks toward a group of trigger-happy police officers. The senior police officer (who tells his men to hold their fire) is confronted with the face not of a terrorist but a terrified young boy. The officer removes his sunglasses for the first time in the film, a gesture which reveals a look of disbelief and sympathy and serves to humanise a character previously coded as the mean cop. Thus this sequence, which features many close-up shots of the faces of the officer and Yussef, can be read as another “face-to-face” encounter which serves to revise cognitive spaces with the possibility of alternative, moral ones.

In contrast to the Western tourists who are motivated by a fear of otherness and self-interest, the Tazarin locals help Susan and Richard out of a sense of altruism. The women offer the tourists refreshments (which they refuse), the tour guide offers up his house to Susan and Richard and does all he can to obtain ambulances and doctors, while an old woman gives Susan hookah to relieve her pain. Richard, locked within the logic of the Western money economy, tries to repay a moral gift (of altruism and care) with a material one (a handful of U.S. money) which is declined. In addition to the acts of care and altruism shown by the Tazarin villagers to Richard and Susan, this is also the context within which their personal relationship is restored through intimacy and renewed proximity. Again eschewing the erotic in favour of emotional intimacy, it is through helping his wife in the usually private act of peeing (into a pan), and Susan’s acceptance of this gesture of help, that the emotional barriers between the couple break and they are able to share in each other’s grief (of losing a child to S.I.D.S). This scene also serves to revise Susan’s characterization as the cold, uptight American tourist.

While Iñárritu has stated that Babel is not a political film but instead focuses on personal relationships, particularly the powerful and complex relationships between children and parents (the film being dedicated to his own children), I suggest that Babel can be read in other ways. It clearly engages with the politics of difference and self-other relations. While drawing upon some familiar tropes and cultural stereotypes, the film ultimately critiques them and their effects: in Babel alterity affords rather than diminishes the humanity of the other. For Silvey, the film overcomes cultural stereotypes and avoids totalizing discourses via its “multivocality”.[50] I suggest the concept of alterity is also presented in less explicit but more radical philosophical and ethical terms. Babel explores issues of moral responsibility and moral mapping in the era of postmodernity and how the individual strives to make sense of, and act meaningfully within, the “impossible complexity of the contemporary world system”.[51] While exploring family and intimate relations and their central role in our personal and moral lives, Babel focuses in equal measure on our capacity to accept responsibility for the stranger, the ethical demand that for Levinas comes via our encounter with the face of the Other in his “extreme exposure”, vulnerability and need.[52] Through its use of the ensemble form, Babel reminds us that a recognition of our responsibility for, and connection to, others is particularly important in the era of postmodernity as our lives become increasingly intertwined with the lives of more and more strangers who – while often geographically or socially distant – are, through the forces of globalization, ever more proximate in ethical terms.


[1] Zygmunt Bauman, Postmodern Ethics (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1993), 154. Subsequent references to this text will appear as page numbers in brackets. For Bauman, the art of “mismeeting” is an integral aspect of social experience and practice in the modern era: “To live with strangers, one needs to master the art of mismeeting. The application of such art is necessary if the strangers, for their sheer number if not for any other reason, cannot be domesticated into neighbours. On the other hand, it is the application of this art that constitutes the other as a stranger and reaffirms him in this capacity. The art of mismeeting, if mastered, would relegate the other into the background; the other would be no more than a blot on the backcloth against which the action is set” (p. 154).

[2] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, USA: Duke University Press, 2005), 54.

[3] For a detailed critique of the racial and cultural politics of Crash see Hsuan L. Hsu, “Racial Privacy, the L.A. Ensemble Film, and Paul Haggis’ Crash,Film Criticism 31, no. 1-2 (2006): 132–56.

[4] See Vivien Silvey, “Not Just Ensemble Films: Six Degrees, Webs, Multiplexity and the Rise of Network Narratives,”
Forum: The University of Edinburgh Postgraduate Journal of Culture and the Arts 8 (2009): n.p.
http://forum.llc.ed.ac.uk/archive/08/silvey.php (10 November 2010).

[5] Linda Cowgill, “Ensemble Films: The Gang’s All Here,” Plot’s Inc. Productions, 2003,
http://www.plotsinc.com/sitenew/column_art_10.html (15 November 2010).

[6] Hsu, 135. As Hsu notes, Short Cuts, Magnolia and Crash all feature “musical montages that attempt to interconnect disparate characters’ experiences through the mood of melancholic songs” (150–51), a device also used to great effect in The Hours (USA 2002) which features a haunting musical score by Philip Glass. Hsu observes that Anderson takes the musical montage to a “self-conscious extreme” in Magnolia when each character – two of whom are unconscious – sings Aimee Man’s “Wise Up” (151).

[7] In Magnolia the film often cuts from the live studio recording of What Do Kids Know? to its simulation on a character’s television screen. Howard’s editorials serve a similar function in Short Cuts, as do televised fashion reports in his later film Pret-a-Porter (USA 1994).

[8] Alissa Quart, “Networked: ‘Don Roos and Happy Endings’,” 1 August 2005, http://www.alissaquart.com/articles/2005/08/networked_don_roos_and_happy_e.html (15 October 2010).

[9] Roger Ebert, review of Babel, rogerebert.com, 22 September 2007,
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070922/REVIEWS08/70922001/1023 (15 October 2010).

[10] Wendy Everett, “Fractal Films and the Architecture of Complexity,” Studies in European Cinema 2, no. 3 (2005): 159.

[11] Everett, 163; 160.

[12] Silvey, n.p. The network narrative is also discussed in detail by David Bordwell in his chapter “Mutual Friends and Chronologies of Chance” in Poetics of Cinema (London, UK: Routledge, 2008), 189–252. He also sees the form to have become particularly popular since 1990 and contends that between 1990 and 2008, one hundred and fifty films used the network principle (191). An extensive list of examples is provided at the end of his chapter.

[13] Jameson, 38.

[14] Silvey, n.p.

[15] Drawing on the work of Deborah Chambers in New Social Ties: Contemporary Connections in a Fragmented Society (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2006), Silvey discusses friendship as an example of the new forms of sociality that have come to replace more traditional social ties (such as kinship and neighbourhood) in late-capitalist society. Following Chambers, Silvey sees friendship to be a particularly significant form of personal relationship in postmodern societies, one that gives rise to new forms of community which are facilitated by new communication technologies such as the internet.

[16] Everett, 163.

[17] The film Short Cuts is based upon a collection of short stories by Raymond Carver. The collection itself (titled Short Cuts) was actually compiled by Robert Altman in 1993 in collaboration with Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher (Carver died in 1988). While critical discussions of Altman’s adaptation identify a number of ways in which the film departs and diverges from Carver’s stories, one of the most significant formal divergences is Altman’s decision to interconnect the stories which are in their original form discrete. For a discussion of the genesis of the collection and the film see Altman’s introduction to the collection; Raymond Carver, Short Cuts, intro. Robert Altman (London, UK: Harvill Press, 1993), 7–8.

[18] Jameson, 40–44.

[19] Jameson, 44.

[20] Jameson, 37.

[21] Jameson, 38. For Wordsworth the problem of autonomy relates to the threatened integrity of the mind in the face of the sublime object, which is restored through the constitutive power of the Imagination; see William Wordsworth, Prelude (1850), book six, lines 592–9 in The Prelude 1799, 1805, 1850, eds Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams and Stephen Gill (London, UK: Norton, 1979), 217.

[22] Jameson, 54.

[23] Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2000), 7.

[24] Bauman, Liquid, 7.

[25] Bauman, Liquid, 7–8. The “old concepts” that Bauman examines in this study are what he designates to be “[f]ive of the basic concepts around which the orthodox narratives of the human condition tend to be wrapped … emancipation, individuality, time/space, work, and community,” Liquid, 8.

[26] Martin Scofield, “Closer to Home: Carver versus Altman,” Studies in Short Fiction 33 (1996): 395.

[27] While one might argue that these scenarios and themes are a product of the Carver stories upon which the film is based, Altman claiming they share a worldview that is similarly “dark” (Carver, 8), the manner and depth with which Carver and Altman examine the social and moral issues they raise differs considerably. For example, Carver’s story “So Much Water So Close to Home” is told from the perspective of Claire, the wife of one of the fishermen (Stuart) who discovers the body of the murdered woman. Claire imaginatively identifies with the dead woman thereby affording her a voice and subjectivity, and offers a subtle exploration of the fishermen’s culpability, Stuart’s anger and guilt, and the process by which she eventually forgives him for his lack of respect or care for the dead woman. This interior, feminine perspective on the event is absent in the film and the moral significance of the situation is deflected onto another storyline which focuses on the conflict between another couple, Marian and Ralph. Indeed, in the film Claire appears to forget rather than work through her feelings of disgust, anger and disappointment at Stuart during an evening of drinking with Ralph and Marian.

[28] Scofield, 392.

[29] Kasia Boddy, “Short Cuts and Long Shots: Raymond Carver’s Stories and Robert Altman’s Film,” Journal of American Studies 34, no. 1 (2000): 18.

[30] Bauman, Liquid, 7–8.

[31] Scofield, 390.

[32] Scofield, 392. In her discussion of Altman’s film in relation to Carver’s stories, Kasia Boddy takes issue with the way in which the film version ignores the politics of class through transposing the stories from the working-class context of ‘Carver Country’ (regional North-Western America) to middle-class suburban L.A., as well as his treatment of sexual violence.

[33] It is, perhaps, the attempt to frame postmodern complexity via modernist forms and aesthetics that accounts for a degree of critical ambivalence towards the cultural politics of some contemporary ensemble films.

[34] Alejandro González Iñárritu. “Common Ground: Under Construction Notes”. Babel. 2-disc Collector’s Edition. Paramount Vantage, 2006. DVD. For a discussion of the theme of border-crossing in the trilogy see Robert Philbin, “Globalism and the Films of Alejandro González Iñárritu,” nthposition, 2007, http://www.nthposition.com/globalismandthefilms.php (10 June 2010).   

[35] Silvey, n.p.

[36] Silvey, n.p.

[37] Silvey, n.p.

[38] Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, trans. Alphonso Lingis (London, UK: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991), 43; 194–201. For Levinas our encounter with the alterity of the Other is the basis for ethics as it calls into question my own right to be (to exist) and instigates a recognition of my responsibility for the Other’s right to be: “A calling into question of the same – which cannot occur within the egoist spontaneity of the same – is brought about by the Other. We name this calling into question of my spontaneity by the presence of the Other ethics. The strangeness of the Other, his irreducibility to the I, to my thoughts and my possessions, is precisely accomplished as a calling into question of my spontaneity, as ethics,” Totality and Infinity, 43.

[39] Silvey, n.p.

[40] Paul Kerr, “Babel’s Network Narrative: Packaging a Globalized Art Cinema,” Transnational Cinemas 1, no. 1 (2010): 47.

[41] Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 43.

[42] Paul is a mathematician who is dying of heart disease and receives the heart of Cristina’s deceased husband. Paul leaves Mary and proceeds to develop a relationship with Cristina and assist her in her desire to avenge the death of her family by killing Jack – an act Paul is unable to carry out.

[43] For example, by the end of the film it is quite clear that Jack Jordon is no less a ‘good’ person than Cristina: both are equally flawed yet capable of acting in the interest of others. For Jack, this depends on renouncing his fatalistic Evangelicalism (“It’s God’s will”) and accepting responsibility for his own actions and life.

[44] Bauman aligns aesthetic spacing with curiosity and intensity of experience, and practices in the urban sphere such as flânerie and the pleasures of looking; see Postmodern Ethics, 168–74. This construction of social space via aesthetic spacing is not a focus of the films I discuss here.

[45] Emmanuel Levinas, Alterity and Transcendence, trans. Michael B. Smith (New York, USA: Columbia University Press, 1999), 23–4.

[46] Iñárritu, “Common Ground”.

[47] Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 194−199.

[48] Levinas, Alterity and Transcendence, 24.

[49] Levinas, Alterity and Transcendence, 24; 23.

[50] Silvey, n.p.

[51] Jameson, 38.

[52] Levinas, Alterity and Transcendence, 23; 22–26.

About the Author


Lorraine Sim

Lorraine Sim is Lecturer in Modern English Literature at the University Of Western Sydney. She previously taught literature and film at the University of Ballarat. Her research interests include modernism and modernity, theories of the everyday, postmodernism, and Continental and feminist ethics. Her recent publications include Virginia Woolf: the Patterns of Ordinary Experience (Ashgate, 2010) and an article on Lee Miller’s war photography (Modernist Cultures, 2009). She is a founding member and current steering committee member of the Australian Modernist Studies Network (www.amsn.org.au).