Since it became cheap and ubiquitous, the Internet has revolutionized how we communicate; the first total shift since the telephone, and the second since the printing press. The narrative around how has shrunk almost exponentially, as well, as physical contact is no longer a necessity, the human voice is supplicant to the typed word. People have friends they’ve never met, do business with robots, and can sometimes tell the difference between real and not real. The Internet is the simulacra Baudrillard didn’t know he worried about; he was (somewhat) ambivalent about its takeaway meaning. He couldn’t know, but he could induce where culture was going (which, to be fair, is a simulacra of meaning), and he could wax obscenity about it.
We should take care to communicate outside meme culture, however. A clickity-clack of links spreads almost like a virus across the globe. I can watch television in the United States, while downloading images from Morocco, learning recipes from Mexico, and meeting my partner in Japan. I can do all of these things simultaneously, and then I can blog about them. If I craft a narrative about it, I can make a movie via these links; if I do it quickly enough, I can make a hyperlink film.
Babel is representative. It corrals four realistically, yet improbably, simultaneous stories from four corners of the world and tells them in a sort of jumble, linking the stories, possibly, albeit improbably. These stories are really about fate and the impact of small actions. Babel unravels rather than unfolds. It is meant to be representative of fragility, randomness, luck, chance, …probably. Films like Babel: 2004’s winner, Crash, 2000’s nominee, Traffic, 2012’s Cloud Atlas, and so forth, always mean to be world-shattering with meaning, dripping with reflections on the human experience. These movies get self-aware and they always leave some sort of sour taste after the awe of connectedness wears off. These movies feel like pyrite.
As the Internet has matured, the types of media representing it have also changed: hyperlink cinema has slowed down since the early 2000s and movies like Babel are replaced with movies like 2018’s Searching, whose focal point is from the inside of the screen itself. The Best films are supposed to represent the turbulence of the times, sure, but films like Babel overwhelm criticism with false-flag honesty. Films like Searching will come to represent more and more people. Today’s generation grew up on the Internet’s kinks, quirks, buffering and streaming. The future’s generations will include people who have seemingly harnessed the Internet for good and bad. Babel will live right in the middle – not enough (poor, remote) people had Internet – for this story to make logical sense. (Think about all the plots in Seinfeld whose humor would be totally dissolved by a quick mobile call). If we place it in its era, like we must, it stands shallow, but that it stands at all is a testament to director Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Iñárritu would refine his craft to Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), which plays almost completely opposite to Babel. It focuses on a single narrative, a single character, and (incredibly) a single shot. This movie is meant to be somewhat defeatist – it teeters on our understanding of anti-hero and that to lose, often is to be human. Birdman is not a triumphant movie, nor does it aim to paint a “representative” picture of a cross-cultural moment. And yet its impact as a hyperreal, neo-vérité movie does Babel‘s job without the cloying “meaning.” When directors mean to mean they mean nothing. Babel‘s craft is clever, but it is not meaningful. Or, the philosophical implication of each vignette shows tremendous emotive dexterity, but the movie, like so many of its structural cousins, cannot command the heaving nuance it wants.
Babel‘s tile is a reference to the Biblical Tower of Babel, from whence all language was once contained. The People sought to build a heavenly structure to reach God. God, seeing humanity’s blasphemous purpose, scatters people across the globe with different tongues, so they can no longer communicate and challenge His will. This story, like all Biblical narratives, is meant to codify two things: first, fortune favors fear. Those in power should look to strangle those without. And second, we’re stronger together than divided. How to square this circle, especially in an age of tremendous, hyperlinked dissent, will continue to be our biggest issue as a species. Film (in general) can’t do this, but films like Babel definitely can’t, no matter how many narratives they link.
Babel, and three other films (Letters from Iwo Jima, Little Miss Sunshine, and The Queen) all lost to The Departed, which seems like an obvious choice. Director Martin Scorsese finally wins a Best Director and Best Picture (technically awarded to the film’s producers) award after 36 years and five separate tries. The Departed is Martin Scorsese at his most active, but not necessarily his best (that would be Raging Bull or maybe Goodfellas or maybe Gangs of New York, but pick ’em, honestly), so the award sort of seems like a lifetime capstone award. But, and importantly, The Departed is a heavy and deft Boston film (maybe the most Boston film) and should stand tall against its underrated opponents, with Babel the only one that seems too big for its britches.