The Ties That Do Not Bind: The Theme of Disconnect in the Interwoven Plot of “Babel”

Paper by Christina Hicks.

The film Babel (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2006) is a drama filmed from May 2, 2005 to December 1, 2005 in numerous locations around the world including Tochigi and Tokyo, Japan, Sonora, Tecate, and Tijuana, Mexico, Ouarzazate and Casablanca, Morocco, and San Diego, California, USA. (IMDb). Given that it’s action takes place all over the world, it is following the current trend in US Film History in that it is trying to appeal to more foreign audiences. It involved collaboration with international film studios and used foreign actors.
Some will see the casting of Cate Blanchett as the wounded tourist and Brad Pitt as her husband as evidence that it aspires to be a major motion picture. Others will note the anonymity of the other players and see it as a lengthy, overambitious art-house entry (Schickel).

I would argue that Babel is a successful mixture of influences. Influence of “New American Cinema” can be seen in its non-traditional, non-linear narrative organization and the use of big name stars as well as non-professional actors from all over the world. It delves into complex societal and cultural issues. Further it challenges the notion that “bad guys do bad things” (Barsam and Monahan, 474). In fact, the action of the film is set off by young boys that made a mistake and did not mean to do any harm. I would also argue that it is influenced by Italian Neorealism which used local actors and actual locations to depict a realistic view of ordinary people. (Barsam and Monahan, 455) Overall, the film was very successful at the box office grossing over 34 million dollars. (IMDb) It was nominated for 7 Academy Awards, winning one for Best Score. The director was nominated for an Academy Award for this film and holds two Best Director Academy Awards for other films. He tends to follow a non-linear, multiple story-line format and Babel is no exception.

“That is why it was called Babel —because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth (New International Version, Gen. 11.9). The movie Babel demonstrates that in a globally interconnected world, one gunshot has a butterfly effect felt across continents. However, like the definition from the “Book of Genesis” in The Bible, there remains disconnect with one’s direct environment; an inability to connect and communicate. In fact, in an interview, in regard to Babel, the director stated, “Despite the political and social commentary, at its core, Babel is a film about parents and children, about four families and their inability to communicate” ( Eilemberg, 37). While each of the four plots in the film deal directly with the theme, the scene in which Chieko goes to a club with her friends effectively demonstrates the theme. Though not a turning point, it highlights the theme of disconnect in both visual and auditory ways. Through an analysis of film style in relation to the narrative and form of the story, I will demonstrate in detail how the scene demonstrates the theme. This analysis is important to attain a deeper understanding of the story.

The scene opens after Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) and two of her girlfriends have run into some young men in a parking lot. They quickly connect after sharing Ecstasy and alcohol. They travel around town together until they arrive at a dance club. The friends enter the dance club as loud music is playing in the background. Chieko, who is deaf and constantly struggles to feel like she fits in, is initially hesitant and out-of-place, but is eventually able to let her guard down and dance with the people around her. Her connection is only temporary. When she sees her friend kissing the boy that she was interested in, she is thrown out of the moment, once again disconnected from her environment and her friends. She waves goodbye to her friends and walks out of the club alone.

The dance club scene can be broken into three parts. The first part, shots 1-20, involve Chieko’s hesitance and difficulty connecting with this sensory overloaded environment. Part two, shots 21-29, involve Chieko feeling connected with her environment and the people in it. The third part, shots 30-60, involve Chieko suddenly being thrust back to feeling like an outsider. Such distinct differences within the short 4-minute scene help to highlight the theme of disconnect as do the more technical aspects of the film.

First, the mise-en-scene functions to create a realistic setting. The dance club looks and sounds real. The props including dance floor, club lights, DJ booth, and disco ball work together. Specifically, the lighting mimics that in a club. There are strobe lights and colored lights that create atmosphere. The strobe lights also function to highlight Chieko’s changing facial expressions as her mood varies with the action of the scene. Her emotions are further highlighted by the colors and intensity of the lighting. The saturated colors when Chieko is happy and dancing help to demonstrate her euphoria at being connected. At the end when she changes from happy to sad, the strobe emphasizes her facial changes and the green light on her face as she walks out of the club emphasizes her sad mood. Specific motifs of the mise-en-scene include the large disco ball (shots 27 and 28), whose close-ups mark a transition of one emotional state to another and the club lights that create a picture of clouds on the ceiling (shot 29). Their image help to demonstrate that her connection is ending. Wardrobe and makeup further help to create a realistic setting. All the people in the scene are young, approximately Chieko’s age. They are all dressed in similar clothing with a lot of bare skin showing. No one stands out as out-of-place except Chieko due to her initial discomfort with her environment and the sweater she wears that hides her skin and creates a more modest look than the people around her. When she is able to connect with her environment, the brighter light gives focus to the red streak in her hair adding a congruence with the appearance of others around her.

The young actors in the club all seem to function as a whole. They move as a unit with the music. They all appear to be having a good time and appear relaxed and comfortable in their environment. Chieko’s friends do as well. This makes Chieko’s initial discomfort all the more obvious. Her body language belies her feelings of initial disconnect. She stands behind the young man she is interested in as they walk through the club. She looks around with wide eyes at the clubbers around her and appears startled by a girl smoking a cigarette on the stairs (shot 10). During the second part of the scene where she is relaxed and connected, she appears to be in the moment. She puts her arms up like the people around her and moves to the beat of the music with the rest of the club. She smiles widely and puts her head back and even closes her eyes. She also puts her arms around her friends and dances with them. When she sees her friend kissing her love interest, her body language changes. To demonstrate how uncomfortable she has become, Chieko’s body slouches and her eyes look down, she is no longer smiling.

The sound is a very important part of the scene. All the sound is diegetic and comes from the DJ booth that is not initially visible. All the music that plays is upbeat. Each song marks a change in the action and is different with each of the three parts of the scene. When the friends first walk into the club, electronic music is playing. There are shots from Chieko’s POV where there is no sound. It helps demonstrate her auditory disconnect from her surroundings. “These audio contrasts measure the depths of her isolation, as Chieko’s immediate environment denies her access to its primary register of engagement” (Anker, 970). The second song is louder. It is Earth Wind and Fire’s song, September. The lyrics “Not a cloud in the sky” reflect Chieko’s now happy and connected state. There are no breaks in the sound during this time. The close-up of the disco ball and the cloud lights signify the end of that state, as if the clouds are moving in literally and figuratively. The third song is very fast-paced techno music. It is loud and disorienting. The change in beat, disorients Chieko in particular, because she cannot hear the beat and must rely on her surroundings for cues that the environment has changed. Moments of Chieko’s POV silence recur during this section as Chieko is now uncomfortable and aware of her disconnect.

The cinematography works with the aforementioned items to create a technically effective scene. The entire scene is filmed with a moving, handheld camera. It is slightly unsteady and allows the audience to feel like they are a part of the experience. It helps to establish a chaotic, crowded club atmosphere and also allows the state of Chieko’s psyche to become apparent. The motion of the camera adds to the state of connection and euphoria in the second part of the scene. The increased speed of motion as the third song is starting, demonstrate Chieko’s world being thrown back into chaos. The motion is disorienting just as a change in beat would be to Chieko since she cannot hear it. This disorientation happens just before her friend and love interest kiss. The fact that camera motion stops at the end of the scene helps impart a finality to Chieko’s connect. Again, the POV shots coupled with lack of sound during the first and third parts of the scene are particularly effective in demonstrating Chieko’s disconnect from her environment. The repetition of close-up shots of Chieko help the audience to understand her mental state and how it changes. Close-ups and extreme close-ups demonstrate how Chieko is responding to her surroundings and events. Repetition of these shots allow viewer to appreciate changes.

The editing for the most part is Classical Hollywood Invisible Style. In general, each shot is short and edited together seamlessly. The quick shots help establish the rhythm and mood of the scene. When Chieko is initially hesitant, the shots are slightly longer and they shorten as she relaxes and dances. The longer shots add emphasis and the shortened duration increase the speed and emotion of the scene.

In all of the other stories, the characters are experiencing conflict because they cannot relate to the environment around them. In the Jones’ story there are multiple areas of disconnect. Firstly, they cannot relate to each other. We learn through dialogue that after the death of their third child to SIDs, Richard Jones (Brad Pitt) left his family and an affair is implied though not explicitly revealed. These things have left he and his wife Susan (Cate Blanchett) uncomfortable around one another. Secondly, the Jones’ are not able to connect to their environment. Susan is not comfortable in the foreign environment of Morocco and once she is shot, they are disconnected further from their surroundings as the culture and society prevent them from getting the type of help they need and expect.

In the narrative of Yuseff (Boubker Ait El Caid) and Ahmed (Said Tarchani), they are adolescent boys that fight and compete and have difficulty connecting to one another. It is their competition that leads them to shoot the rifle in the direction of the bus. On a much grander scale, they believe that the woman they shot has died and a political scandal involving their own government and the US government has arisen. They realize that they are inconsequential and believe that their only hope is to run. Unfortunately, running and shooting at the police only further disconnects them from any chance of freedom from their circumstances.

Amelia’s (Adriana Barraza) story is also one of disconnect. She has disconnected from her biological family in Mexico to work for the Jones family in America. However, when it comes time to see her own son get married, she is told she cannot go. Not wanting to miss such an important moment, she takes the children with her Mexico. Trying to get back into America however, proves challenging for this woman who does not seem to fully belong in either country. After her nephew drives through the border crossing and leaves Amelia and the children in the desert, she must try to survive in the desert and keep the children alive. Ultimately, she is able to get help, but is treated as just another “border crosser” and her years of service in the United States and the connections and possessions that she has there are meaningless. She is dropped back in Mexico with only a small plastic bag of belongings.

Just as in the middle of the dance club scene, moments of connection also function to juxtapose against the disconnect. There is a feeling of euphoria that the characters experience when they do have moments of connection and those moments stand in contrast to the disconnect that runs thematically through the film. As noted above, for Chieko, the connection is euphoric. For Susan and Richard it occurs when she must urinate into a bowl while he helps her. Close-ups in this instance are also employed. They focus on both faces in the same shot. Close-ups of her exposed leg and his hand on her thigh reinforce the physical and emotional connection and her moan can be inferred to be one of pleasure. It is in Yuseff’s flash-back that we get to experience the brotherly connection that he had with Ahmed. They stand next to each other at the end of cliff with their arms out, smiles on their faces while a heavy wind blows forcefully against them. That in combination with non-diegenic fast-paced Arabic music playing in the background and a 180 degree moving shot makes the connection feel powerful.

Similarly, technical aspects of the film help to highlight the theme of disconnect throughout the movie. The club is not the only place that POV shots coupled with a lack of any sound are used to demonstrate Chieko’s auditory disconnect. There is also silence when Chieko walks into the “J-Pop” restaurant and again when she is in the dentist office waiting room. It happens a final time after she leaves the club and is walking down a street in Tokyo on her way home, tears streaming down her face.

Viewing the movie as a whole, the editing, sound, and cinematography are powerful tools that function to control the relationship of the characters with others and their environment similar to the way in which they do in the scene analyzed. These tools also control the relationship between the different locations in the film and serve to demonstrate just how contrasting they are. It “stages the vast distances – geographical, economic, and legal-political – that divide its characters” (Anker, 958). Each location is edited differently and that establishes disconnect between each story. In Morocco, long panning shots of desert that are devoid of living things including plants and people help to remind the audience of how remote and inhospitable the environment is, particularly for anyone that is not accustomed to it. It emphasizes the physical and cultural isolation that the Jones’ experience when they are in desperate need of medical care. Slow, instrumental non-diegetic Arabic music adds to the pace of the scenes. The pace seems to imply that time moves slower which is in contrast to the Jones’ urgent and immediate need for help. While Yussef and Ahmed are not outsiders culturally in Morocco, the long slow pans highlight their struggle in a slightly different way. It demonstrates their poverty and powerlessness. In Japan, the shots are often quicker. Fast paced music or diegetic sounds of the city accompany the shots. Chieko, who is deaf, has to try to function in such an environment of overwhelming sensory stimulation. Shots in Mexico also tend to be quicker and have more people and movement in them. Traditional music, both non-diegetic or diegetic matches the pace of shots.
Repetitive patterns also function to create disconnect between the stories. The phone call that Richard makes home is shown twice. It is shown as it appeared America. There is silence on the line as Mike tells Richard about his day. The second time it is shown, it is from the hospital where Richard makes the call. We see that the reason for the break in the conversation was because Richard was crying. Here repetition not only helps the audience put the whole picture together, but also shows the disconnect that exists between the two family members. Another repetition is seen in the form of a picture of Chieko’s father Yosujiro (Kōji Hashimoto) and Hassan (Abdelkader Bara) standing together in Morocco with the rifle. Hassan has one copy and uses it to show the police who he acquired the rifle from and another copy is seen in Yosujiro’s home. Detective Kenji Mamiya (Satoshi Nikaido) sees it and knows that the father is in fact that one that gave Hassan the rifle. Unfortunately, the photo does not tell the whole story. It identifies Yosujiro as the person who illegally gave a weapon that was used to kill an American and ties the stories together. It serves as miscommunication here however because it does not reveal the true intention of the rifle transfer. Its true intention was a gesture of thanks.

The shot pattern in each setting is an establishing long shot followed by closer consecutive shots moving to medium shots to medium close-ups to close-ups. It allows the audience to not only take in the environment, but see intimately how the character is responding to it. Interesting to note that the final scene of the film reverses that pattern. It starts with a close-up of Chieko’s and her father’s joined hands, then middle shot of Chieko and her father embracing and then moves out slowly to an extreme wide shot where numerous city buildings are in view and the characters are no longer visible. The background music is non-diegetic orchestral music with a solemn melody. The reversal of the shot pattern helps to close the film and begs questions about the stories and connectivity with the “expansive world around us” (Kenny, 48).

The cinematography functions to tie the theme throughout the rest of the movie as well. As noted previously, close-ups help the audience to see how Chieko and other characters are responding to the world around them. In Morocco, a close-up of Susan’s hand grabbing the soda to dump it on the ground, her hands fussing with the silverware on the table, and her hands using hand-sanitizer function to highlight her uneasiness with the culture there as well as her anger with her husband. Her cultural uneasiness is exponentially elevated when she is lying on the floor of a simple home in a remote Moroccan village and a veterinarian prepares to suture her. A close-up of the unsanitized needle and the dirty hands of the veterinarian demonstrate just how far Susan is from the comforts that she is accustomed to. Close-ups are used to convey disconnect for the Jones children in Mexico. The camera focuses on their faces, their blonde hair and blue eyes, that set them apart physically from the people around them. One close-up of Mike’s (Nathan Gamble) shocked face as he watches the head of chicken being pulled off, the blood spurting from its severed neck, reinforces how far they are from home. Close-ups of Amelia in the desert trying to save the children reinforce how alone and isolated she is. The camera focuses on her dirty face and dry lips. There are also close-up of her lower legs and feet walking along the rocky desert. Her footing is unsteady in her dress shoes and her stockings are torn. These images reinforce how isolated she is and the danger she is in. Even when she gets help, she is treated as if she is a “border crosser” and not the caregiver that risked her life to save the children she loves. Close-ups of her hands behind her neck, hands frisking her body, and handcuffs being placed all function to mark her permanent disconnect from America.

The mise-en-scene functions to create realistic environments as well as to create a juxtaposition between locations. The film was shot on location and in local villages adding realism to the scenes. The traditional dress and language of each environment does so as well.

As mentioned in the introduction, this movie is not a Classical Hollywood Narrative. It is a nontraditional narrative. It is made up of multiple stories told in a non-linear fashion. This type of narrative in and of itself reinforces the theme of disconnect. While each story is connected in some way to the rifle that was used to shoot Susan, they are all ultimately separate and disconnected from each other in various ways. Each character has a goal and is presented with conflicts, but the cause and effect progression does not always lead logically to the next. Further, only the Jones’ story has the classical Hollywood happy ending.

The stories in Babel span the globe and each of the story’s events can all be traced back in some way to a rifle that Chieko’s father gave to Hassan. However, their connection seems to end there. The club scene with Chieko illustrates her struggles with feeling like an outsider in the world in which she lives just as all the other characters find themselves with a similar struggle. The disconnect creates conflict that helps to move the stories forward. One can even argue that it became a matter of life and death. It proved dangerous as Susan’s life depended on immediate medical intervention. Also in danger were Amelia and the children lost and dying in the desert. Chieko’s difficulty connecting lead one to question whether or not she intended to commit suicide. In Ahmed’s case, it proved deadly when he is shot by police. In the end, for some, connections were built and situations improved. For others, the disconnect proved permanent.

Works Cited

Anker, Elizabeth S. “In the Shadowlands of Sovereignty: The Politics of Enclosure in Alejandro
González Iñárritu’s Babel.” University of Toronto Quarterly. Vol. 82, Issue 4, Fall 2013, pp950- 973.

Babel. Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu. Paramount Home Entertainment, 2007.
“Babel (2006).” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 31 Mar. 2017.

Barsam, Richard Meran., Dave Monahan, and Spencer Richardson-Jones. Looking at Movies: An Introduction to Film. New York: W.W. Norton, 2016. Print.

Eilemberg, Daniel. “Connecting Dots.” Hispanic, Nov2006, Vol. 19, Issue 11

Holy Bible, New International Version. Biblica, 2011. BibleGateway.com,
https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+11

Kenny, Glenn. “This Can’t End Well.” Film Comment. Nov/Dec2010, Vol. 46 Issue 6, Nov/Dec 2010, pp46-49.

Schickel, Richard. “The Power of Babel.” Time. Vol. 168, Issue 18, Dec. 2013.

Share

About this entry