Globalization and Its Discontents

The directors of movies Babel and Caché tell complex stories of families caught in ever-expanding worlds

Some 20 years ago, in Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino made a literary observation that applies to all the arts today. It’s a sketch of an aesthetic for the age of globalization. “The modern books that we love most,” he wrote,

are the outcome of a confluence and a clash of a multiplicity of interpretive methods, modes of thought, and styles of expression. Even if the overall design has been minutely planned, what matters is not the enclosure of the work within a harmo­nious figure, but the centrifugal force produced by it—a plurality of languages as a guarantee of a truth that is not merely partial.

Over the past few years, globalization has come to be seen as something magic or sacred: angelic in its promise of economic and cultural collaboration, of democratic unity in diversity (a newly enlightened brotherhood of man); but also demonic in its threat of proliferating Hobbesian conflict, of political and cultural fragmentation that both invites and resists what is perceived as coercive imperial conformity. So it’s not surprising that two of the most accomplished film­makers of the last decade—Alejandro Gon­zález Iñárritu and Michael Haneke—should seize upon this newly sacred subject and respond to it with impressive intensity and originality.

Iñárritu, a Mexican, and Haneke, an Austrian, often portray the violent effect of globalization on family life by juxtaposing many aggressively contrasting narratives, settings, and characters. But their styles and sensibilities are very different. Iñárritu, whose third film, Babel, was nominated this year for Academy Awards in several categories including best picture and best director—his previous films were Amores perros in 2000 and 21 Grams in 2003—tends to be hot and empathetic, a romantic humanist in his optimistic faith in a universal community of human love and pain. Haneke, whose nine films include Code Unknown (2000) and Caché (2005), tends to be cool and analytic, postmodern in his pessimistic cultural politics and moral hostility to consumerism and the mass media (including conventional movies).

Iñárritu’s films are intensely active—everything propels us into immediate emotional identification with the characters, who are always rushing toward some extreme heaven or hell. There are lots of close-ups, lots of sound, light, and color, and Iñárritu usually employs a handheld camera that speeds in and out of the various characters’ points of view with extraordinary control, clarity, and flexibility. He’s a hyperkinetic grandson of neo­realists like the Roberto Rossellini of Open City and the Vittorio De Sica of The Bicycle Thief—he’s even been called a “hyper-realist.”

Haneke’s films demand concentration, patience, and a Brechtian skepticism about their apparent objectivity. To achieve this he favors long-lasting, static, wide-angled shots or slow tracking shots and uses relatively few close-ups. He’s something of a secular grandson of Robert Bres­son, the postwar French director whom Susan Sontag called the master of “reflective art” that stimulates feeling by enlisting the intelligence.

Such contrasts seem clear enough, but neither Iñárritu nor Haneke can be reduced to them—indeed, they subject such conventional binaries to interrogation, and at their best they utterly confound them. Both make films that are often extremely violent, even melodramatic; both are masters of dialogue, narrative, photography, editing, and sound. And both elicit remarkable performances from such virtuoso actors as Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil, and Isabelle Huppert, in Haneke’s case, and Gael García Bernal, Benicio del Toro, Naomi Watts, Cate Blanchett, and Brad Pitt, in Iñárritu’s. As fragmented as their films may at first appear to be, they are profoundly well organized and sumptuous aesthetic objects.

Both directors start with stories of parents and children and connect them to ever-expanding contexts in unexpected ways. Their transitions from the particular to the general, from individual to group, from private to global significance almost never feel imposed but flow from the narrative. They are rarely didactic; although they certainly risk and at times succumb to melodrama and sentimentality, they are not preachy or self-satisfied, and they never resort to facile PC or Hollywood uplift. Not all their films are equally accomplished. Haneke’s most famous movie, The Piano Teacher (2001), is trapped in its characters’ psychopathology, and Iñárritu’s 21 Grams is essentially an elaborately reconfigured conventional movie, a domestic drama of private loss. But it’s noteworthy that their best films—Caché and Babel—are their most recent and that both are about families and globalization, implicitly in Caché, explicitly in Babel.

Haneke’s most direct account of globalization is Code Unknown (2000), which is composed of several stories that intersect and then develop from a scuffle on a street in Paris. The characters include an actress; her photojournalist boy­friend and his brother, who has run away from the impoverished family farm; a Romanian grandmother begging on the street; and the son of an immigrant African taxi driver. The film follows these characters and their families around the neighborhoods of Paris and its outskirts and out to rural France, Romania, and Sene­gal, taking in such matters as the war in Kosovo, illegal immigration from Eastern Europe, and the urban survival of African fetish­ism. One of the most affecting sequences portrays an Arab teenager harassing the actress on the Métro, spitting on her, and finally being rebuked by an exhausted, lower-class, middle-aged Arab bystander (who in an extraordinary gesture hands his spectacles over to the actress so they don’t get broken in a fight). The film begins and ends with deaf-mute schoolchildren (pupils of the French African boy from the opening street confrontation) acting out words for their classmates to decode—which they can’t.

In an open letter to his producer, Haneke warns us that to reduce Code Unknown to “its most obvious ideas (the Babylonian confusion of languages, the incapacity to communicate, the coldness of the consumer society, xenophobia, etc.)” results in “a mere string of clichés.” True enough; the distinction of the movie arises not from its ideas but from its characters, who are precisely depicted and extremely moving. The film forces us to connect these people with their larger cultural, political, and socioeconomic contexts (and conflicts) in a way that never permits secure conclusions, slogans, or bromides.

In Haneke’s Caché much of the intensity and psychological conviction are generated by the actors’ performances: Daniel Auteuil as a French television book-show host and Juliette Binoche as his publisher wife, Maurice Bénichou and Walid Afkir as an Algerian immigrant father and son. But the script and visual construction of the film create a powerful hybrid: a Hitch­cockian family-in-distress suspense drama crossbred with a critique of the surveillance/consumer society in the age of globalization.

Throughout the film, we repeatedly discover that what appears to be an omniscient presentation of objective reality is just a problematic and highly malleable image on a videotape. A rich tension arises between the psychological determinism that traces the central character’s repressed memory of a childhood trauma and the disquieting irresolution of the rest of the movie, which centers on threatening surveillance tapes and frightening postcards that have been sent to him.

We never know who has been sending the tapes and postcards, but we do learn that it’s in revenge for a childhood lie by which the central character destroyed an orphaned Alge­rian boy’s chances for adoption by his well-to-do family. When the Algerian is questioned about the tapes, he denies, with stoic moral dignity, that he sent them, and his blazingly intelligent teenage son also denies sending them. There’s even a chance that the media couple’s angry 12-year-old boy (suspicious of his parents and their marriage) played a part in sending the tapes and cards. In the last shot of the film, the revelation that the two boys know each other only turns the screw further.

The movie’s ultimate subject is globalization, but it is delicately addressed; for Haneke focuses our attention on the mechanisms of denial so that we can understand our own complicity and draw the larger implications ourselves. The one overt political reference is to the October 17, 1961, police massacre of FLN demonstrators in Paris, which (Haneke says) left 200 corpses floating in the Seine—including the Algerian’s parents, which orphaned him and set the plot in motion.

The opening shots of Iñárritu’s first film, Amores perros, place us in the front seat in the middle of a car chase through Mexico City—gunshots, yelling, a bloody, dying dog in the back seat—that ends in a crash linking the main characters of the three elaborate narratives the film pursues. The first of these narratives is a lower-class Cain and Abel story set in the world of high-stakes dog fighting. Its style recalls the naturalistic parts of Luis Buñuel’s classic Mexican low-life film Los Olividados—but on speed and in supersaturated color. The second narrative is a tale of doomed adulterous passion among the rich and famous in a style that pays homage to Hollywood and television soap operas. The third narrative is a Verdi opera (by way of Visconti)—a story of a professor’s love for his daughter, his radical political dreams devolving into murder for hire, and his ultimate self-reclamation. These three stories encompass a vivid and detailed social range, and their distinct visual styles convey emotional, political, and moral complexity in original ways.

Iñárritu’s more recent Babel is by far his largest, most complex, and most accomplished film, and the effect of globalization on particular parents and children not only provides its subject but determines its form. Once again Iñárritu narrates three interconnected stories, but they are much more widely dispersed than before: the first is set in southern Morocco; the second in San Diego, in a village across the border in Tijuana, and in the Sonoran Desert; and the third in Tokyo. But as Iñárritu says in the book Babel: A Film, he didn’t want to end up

making a National Geographic pseudodrama. . . . I had to make conflicting and even contradictory decisions: On the one hand I needed to separate and delineate the stories and at another level to unify them. . . . I tried in every scene to concentrate on obsessively filming the aspect of the intimacy and the microdetails of the inner and external world of the characters. It may sound obvious, but I was thinking locally in order to function universally.

So while the stories all center on parents and children in extremis and are interconnected by the plausible details of their plots (not just by their themes or recurrent gestures), the countries’ and the characters’ differences are established by visual means, by

different styles, textures, and formats . . . a gamut of reds: burgundy for Morocco, bright-red for Mexico, and violet for Japan. Morocco was shot in 16 mm with faded colors, Mexico in 35 mm with vivid colors, and . . . Japan in Panavision with anamorphic lenses, which isolate the character spectacularly and appropriately for the story’s themes.

In Morocco a goatherd buys a hunting rifle from a neighbor (who had gotten it as a gift from a Japanese tourist) to protect his flock from jackals. His two rivalrous young sons heedlessly take a shot at a tourist bus, hitting an American passenger traveling with her husband. The rest of the story follows both the destruction of the boys’ family by the resulting police investigation and the renewal of the wounded tourist’s marriage in the midst of an international crisis precipitated by American government fears of terrorism.

The U.S./Mexican story follows that same couple’s Mexican nanny and their two children, whom she takes on an overnight trip to her son’s wedding south of Tijuana. She’s driven there by her nephew, but on the way back they’re stopped at the border. The nephew explodes in rage, crashes the barrier, and drives into the desert where he leaves the nanny and two children. The next morning, she goes off alone to find help, but she’s arrested by the border patrol and the children can’t be found. We learn later that they survive, but she’s deported as an illegal.

The Tokyo story portrays a teenage girl and her wealthy father (who had given the rifle to the Moroccan neighbor). Both of them are trying to recover from the suicide of her mother. The girl is edgy, rebellious, needy, immersed in Japanese adolescent culture at its most raucous, raunchy, and stroboscopic. But she is also a deaf-mute, which isolates her, despite the attentive and patient love of her father. In the course of an afternoon and evening, she throws herself at several boys and men, all of whom rebuff her. In the final moments of the film, her father comes home that night to discover her standing naked out on the pent­house terrace balcony and, with exceptional tact and sympathy, enfolds her in a mournful and comforting paternal embrace. The last shot of the film pulls away from the father and daughter, isolated at the top of a 30-story superluxury high rise surrounded by the towers and blinking red lights of downtown Tokyo. A tower of Babel indeed.

In the course of the film, the characters communicate in Arabic, Berber, English, French, Spanish, Japanese, and sign language. They also use almost every modern form of communications technology to aid them. We see that they are both connected and isolated from each other as people never have been before, that the most local, private, and personal circumstances are affected by the at once beneficent and destructive inter­dependence that globalization both offers and imposes.

Iñárritu and Haneke are making what used to be called art films, but they use international movie stars and the gargantuan resources of international film production and distribution (Iñárritu had a crew of 120 in Morocco). Lillian Hellman once said, “The con­victions of Hollywood and television are made of boiled money.” I’m sure that’s still true today, but the careers of Iñárritu and Haneke suggest that it may now be possible for a filmmaker to avoid the fate of an Orson Welles. In Caché and even more impressively in Babel, Michael Haneke and Alejandro Gon­zález Iñárritu generate the centrifugal force that Italo Cal­vino loved—and they thereby achieve global significance.

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Richard Locke is professor of writing and director of nonfiction at the Columbia University School of the Arts. He is working on a book on the literary use of children from Dickens to the present.


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