The lecture was delivered as part of the panel “Babel-on: Cinema and the Poetics of Silence,” at the Midwest Modern Language Association Convention in Cleveland, Ohio on November 11, 2007.
Babel presents itself as a film about communication. This makes it something of a privileged film through which to evaluate the nature of filmic communication.
The Biblical parable of the tower of Babel proposes the confusion of tongues as punishment for the hubris of humans aspiring to godlike power. The people of Babel worked together in perfect communication until god struck down the tower they had built. The story is a castration story: the confusion of tongues follows from castration. Roland Barthes inverts this notion in The Pleasure of the Text when he observes that “The subject gains access to ecstasy by the cohabitation of languages working side by side: the text of pleasure is sanctioned Babel”(4).
What of the cinema of pleasure? Cinema functions as an analogue to Babel before the fall. It presents the unity of heterogeneous discourses – formal, indexical, cultural; an art of fact and fantasy; languages of sight and of sound; images of time and movement. Narrative cinema is thus a hybrid form.
The facts of cinema are first and foremost indexical. Cinema has the power to show what is – old films are often poignant in their ability to show what was – the living breathing past. But films are also fantasies. They can tell new kinds of stories or repeat stories made familiar by other means (novels or plays for example). Cinema is an art for actors, captured in images, clothed in sound.
It is a formal art but one that is always and inescapably grounded in particular cultural contexts. These contexts transcend the medium itself. They are ideological. The institutions of human life – family, religion, nation – remain constant across cultures, though their forms remain heterogeneous. Fathers and daughters can be found all around the world, for example, but the family structures that form and regulate this relationship change from culture to culture. Cinema may seem universal through its evocation of these institutions yet reveal itself as culture bound and unique through the particular facets of the institutions it describes. But how are these features of cinema – its formal, indexical and cultural levels – its universality and its uniqueness – related to one another? How do they interact with, support, or displace one another? As Baudrillard observed: “Languages are so beautiful – all of them without exception – only because they are incomparable, irreducible one to another.”[i] The incommensurability of languages prevents the reduction of the world – and of cinema – to an integral system of communication. What can Babel tell us about these aspects of cinematic language?
With stories set in Morocco, along the US-Mexico border, and in Japan, Babel obviously and ambitiously presents itself as an international film. Each story is set in a discrete and distinctly “international” locale: the Americas, Asia, and North Africa for the Middle East.
The Moroccan story is a story of ugly Americans, tourists in a foreign land. One might be tempted to compare it to a tale by Paul Bowles or Graham Greene, in whose works Americans suffer and die due to their naive encounters with the “foreign”. In this story however, the shooting is an accident and help ultimately does arrive. Medical help was never more than four hours away and the tiny village where the tourists stopped did in fact have a working phone. The friendly and helpful translator never left the Joneses who are not after all bad people.
The Japanese story is the story of an adolescent girl and her widowed father: it could be set in any major urban area anywhere in the world. Very little of the story is distinctly Japanese. One feels that the setting was chosen – as it was in Lost in Translation – as an Orientalist stand-in for “the most foreign” country, the most distant, the one presenting the most profound challenge to communication. As such one feels that the setting for this story bears the distinct stamp of the Western imagination, of the exotic trend within that imagination. It is not surprising that this exotic story is also the most erotic story of the ones presented here. (Another erotic moment in the film occurs when the young Moroccan girl strips for her adoptive brother. Here again the exoticism fuels the eroticism and here again the erotic object is an adolescent girl who does not seem to understand the social meaning or implications of her actions. We will come back to this point.)
As an international film, Babel might be compared to another international film that spoke directly to the problem of cinematic communication: Godard’s Contempt. In Contempt, Godard fashioned a cinematic object that brought together – in a film within the film, a backstage drama – a French screenwriter, a German filmmaker, and an American producer, working together on a film version of Homer’s Odyssey. Godard’s contempt was the contempt of the screenwriter’s wife for her husband; the contempt of the American money man for the screenwriter, his wife, and for the director; the contempt of the film industry for its sources, talents, realities, and potential. By realities I mean the indexical value of the film’s most potent element, its star, Brigit Bardot, whose flesh the producers (as well as the producer in the film) wanted to see. Godard famously showed his own contempt for the producers’ demands by filming Bardot lounging pointlessly in bed at the very beginning of the film. The images stand out from the rest of the film; they do not add to the narrative in any way. (But does Godard’s meta-comment on the exploitation of the female form avoid the problem it illustrates? Not really.)
Godard made a film which illustrated and exemplified contempt. As a tri-lingual work, the film would have to be subtitled – and hence betrayed through reductive translation – in each of its main markets. Godard wasn’t afraid to bite the hand that feeds. Contempt held direct communication in contempt but in that contempt created great cinematic communication.
Babel seems at first to explore similar terrain. Though the international locations challenge communication, communication ultimately occurs. Brad Pitt may effectively be lost in Morocco but he is accompanied by a friendly and helpful translator. The Mexican nanny speaks English and Spanish, as do her young charges, more or less. The nanny is denied speech not by a language barrier but by an institutional and cultural one: the border police. The Japanese girl does not experience the clash of cultures – though there certainly is a clash of cultures between the culture of the deaf and that of the hearing. Her communication problem is blandly literal: she simply cannot speak. Each of the stories is thus pregnant with potential alterity, but this alterity never overwhelms either the film or the characters. Communication does not break down, it is simply frustrated. The film does not break the mold, as Burroughs would say.
This is particularly clear in the film’s gender politics. In Babel, the gender roles fulfill distinctly Western stereotypes.
Though each of the three main stories is centered on a female character, each of these female characters is disrespected and degraded in some manner. Cate Blanchett – coded as a bad mother, who let her child die, and as a shrewish bad wife, who will not forgive her husband for faults that are in fact her own – is shot and effectively speechless throughout the film. The nanny – who left her real son to take care of someone else’s – is denied speech and determined to be a terrible nanny despite her vain best efforts. The Japanese girl is literally speechless and she spends the film baring her most intimate flesh to strangers in a fruitless attempt at communication. At the end, she stands naked in her fathers arms, an utterly abject figure, as the camera pulls back into the infinite distances of the urban milieu that has contributed to her destruction.
None of these women fulfill the function of a tragic heroine. Their characters undergo no tragic reversal of fate: they are never beloved of anyone, established as figures worthy of any respect. They do nothing that endures in any success. Rather they each represent distinct types of failure and abjection. They are the victims of a spectacle of degradation without being its sacrificial victims. To be sacrificial victims they must willfully bear the burden of their fate. But none of these women can even speak. Their lives are determined entirely by others. Cate Blanchett is shot by an unknown assailant and cared for by her husband and doctors. The nanny lives at the whim of her employer, her nephew (Bernal), and the border police. The Japanese girl follows social pressure to offer her body to any stranger who will have her.
The men in the film fair much better. Brad Pitt plays the hero – he took his wife on a trip in a loving attempt to save their marriage. When she is shot, he struggles valiantly – not vainly – to save her. Gael Garcia Bernal’s character neither fails nor succeeds. He plays the clown but he disappears before we can judge him. And he disappears in a moment of action rather than powerlessness. The Japanese father struggles to communicate with his daughter through the film. At the end, the viewer would like to believe they have reached some understanding, though the father did nothing to bring that understanding about. The viewer is nevertheless satisfied that the father has been part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
Even the children in the nanny’s care fall into this pattern. When she must abandon them in the desert, the girl is sleeping – the suggestion is that she is too ill to move – and the young boy must take care of his sister.
These are simple gender stereotypes: the active males, the passive females.
Perhaps the largest oversight and misunderstanding about culture and about the nature, potential and limits of cinema, occurs when the Japanese girl goes dancing. She has had some alcohol and taken some drugs. She is in a euphoric daze. When she enters the dance club, the film is silent, showing us the world as she would experience it, as a world of pure darkness and light. The sound returns in fits and starts, carrying the viewer between the worlds of sight and sound, while she continues dancing. Thereafter the technique – which stands out as such, as a technical gimmick – never returns. The scene is striking in its falsehood.
The world of the hearing impaired is not a world entirely deprived of sensation as this technique would have us believe. Sounds penetrate the hearing impaired body as sensations. This would be most acutely true in a dance club, where the throbbing beat of the music almost literally beats the dancers across the floor. Such a sensation cannot be represented in cinema, it can only be replicated. The abstract and ideological nature of her disability – as the ultimate challenge to communication – in the filmmaker’s imagination stands revealed. The Japanese girl is not a body, she is an idea about communication.
This is of course deeply ironic in her case. Her story is the story of communication reduced to its most schematic, abstract and yet most literal terms. In her character, desire for communication has become desire for sex. This is a socially constructed and imposed desire – we see her friends mock her for her adolescent virginity – but her story explores no alternative to it.
In a bar, she removes her panties and flashes a group of boys that she does not know. The display recalls Sharon Stone’s Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct, but here the boys laugh at her vagina dentata rather than desiring or fearing it. Her inability to communicate has taken the teeth out of her sexuality.
As in pornography, explicit sexuality is psychologically permissible only when it is utterly devoid of meaning, deprived of communication. In this case, the young girl’s inability to communicate is the abstraction that defines her character. Here the naked female body is not a body at all: it is a symbol of emotional nudity, of psychological bareness. In passing we might observe that these categories are distinctly Western. Does Japanese culture contain a repository of images and ideas about the relationship between nudity and intimate communication? I do not believe that it does.
Later, the girl strips herself completely before another total stranger, a police officer who is looking for her father. She lies to him about her mother’s death and he feels sorry for her. He is gentle and seems understanding: he does not have sex with her. The moment they share is tender but it is based on a falsehood she told in pursuit of his affection. Based on lies, this is not a moment of communication nor is it an evocation of alterity.
At end of the film, she again stands naked, now in her father’s arms on a balcony overlooking the city. Her nakedness is a symbol of her emotional vulnerability and of her openness to communication. The camera pulls away from the couple, rendering them, and her in particular, smaller, even more vulnerable. Viewing the couple through the lens of desire we see an incestuous couple. But this does not seem to be the filmmaker’s intent. The camera does not linger over her flesh. It takes it for granted. It has transformed her flesh into a symbol.
Yet her flesh nevertheless persists as flesh. This is the power of the index. And the filmmakers present her flesh as a fetish for our gaze. Are we here being permitted to gaze upon young female flesh without fear of social retribution, fear of castration? This is Babel after all. Again, I don’t think so, or at least I don’t want to think so. I would rather see her flesh as a symbol than cast a desiring gaze on an exotic adolescent.
In the end, I think we would like to believe that the girl will now be able to communicate with her father though we have no reason to hold this belief. Nothing encourages it other than the extent of her degradation, her bareness, and availability.
Godard’s use of the female body in Contempt was a betrayal of that body, but it was a betrayal effected ironically, critically, in an attempt to reveal the contempt of the film industry for the female body and as a means of revealing Godard’s own contempt for the film industry.
In Babel the body is again a female body and it is again the focus of filmic communication. But in Babel, the naked female body is not a body at all: it is a (Western) symbol of emotional nudity, of psychological bareness, of the absolute need for communication. Transformed into a symbol, denuded of its flesh, the body as index has been denied, the heterogeneity of the film mitigated. The bare flesh in short communicates as a symbol rather than as flesh and as such fails to communicate the heterogeneity of cinematic language. Babel ultimately isn’t cinematic.
[i] Jean Baudrillard, The Perfect Crime trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 1996) pg. 90.