[Ron and Roger—Thanks for setting this up. It’s a wonderful site. The Tacoma Film Club website can be very exciting and should be made useful for members to engage in written or graphic communications. We need to advertise the site and its potential for connecting to all friends and members. Just as we love to discuss the films chosen for our monthly discussion event at King’s Books, so we can now write our views as commentaries or interactive conversations when we’re not snapping one another’s noses off to make an point. How do we encourage members and friends to easily engage in these activities?]
More on Babel: Babylon and on.
In pin-pointing one or two motifs as significant for the interpretation of Alejandro Iňárritu’s Golden Globe winning film Babel, I think we commentators all miss emphasizing the overall scheme the writer and director played out for its modern audiences. As interpretive film rather than escapist entertainment, its message for me was one of warning of the dangers of our time: fragmentation of families, irresponsibility of parental life, the intrusive admixture of global cultures, the punitive nature of policing, and the miscommunication of language and media technologies. The discussion so far on Babel has not really attended to the most generalized theme of the film’s title: the confounding of tongues from the building of the ziggurat tower in Genesis’ Tower of Babel illustration (Gen. 11. 1-9). This theme is most clearly detailed in the stories and characters.
Etymologically the word babel is drawn from Mesopotamian lore. From antiquity Babylon was the city with a “Gate of God”: bab-ilim in the Akkadian language. Archaeologists have preserved, or have reconstructed, much of the Babylonian Gate of Ishtar in the beautiful architectural installation of the 6th c. BCE relic in the Berlin Museum. In the “history” of the Hebrew Bible, the storytellers contaminated the Babel’s meaning for their own purposes, identifying Babel as a symbol of the “confused city,” the city that God confounded by making the workers of the tower speak different tongues. The Hebrew storytellers take Akkadian babil and see in it Hebrew balal, meaning “God confused.” This interpretation gave rise to the famous Genesis myth (yes, myth, a decent term for stories ancient folk believed in) of God’s anger at the arrogant temple builders, His spoiling the completion of the tower project by making communication of the workers impossible and scattering them homeward to disperse the world’s different languages. There’s both a damnation and a benefit in the story, making its meaning rather ambivalent. Taking the film Babel in this strict traditional sense of a Babylon-like world, inhabited by people confused and mixed-up, people unable to get on with life’s project, people–even within their own family–living mutually exclusive existences, then we commentators have no trouble agreeing on a major theme of Iňárritu’s film. In consequence of the curse, God was also making the builders impotent, fearing their power would soon rival His own. These days, the confused babble of languages and media, the official stories and blog-commentaries, Wickipedia or Britannica data, are troubling people, making them doubtful of the true account and the meaning of the message. It leaves one a feeling helpless at times. Which myth is the accepted version of the truth?
How we interpret all the images and narratives of the film and draw our inferences together to support that theme or other sub-themes makes for interesting explanations and illustrations. Since I saw the film twice, the second time being as fascinated all over again as before, and since I have discussed it with my wife at great length and with other film-savvy friends, I realize there are many ways to enjoy the experience of Babel and lots of subtle ideas to glean from others’ insights. If the incest motif is included as subtly signaled by the characters’ behaviors in the Japanese father-and-daughter relationship, then this would fit nicely as a minor characteristic example of the “crazy, mixed-up Babylon” humans have constructed for themselves. Incest is an ancient taboo and, when broken, a crime, a gross irresponsibility of a parent to sexually abuse one’s offspring. Frankly, I do not see this motif as anything other than a minor point, nor the incident of the Moroccan boy peeping in at his sister and later masturbating on the image. In both situations, the impotence of the females in both cultures is more interesting to me, but in the scope of this film just one of many motifs.
As Babel depicts the world, in the Japanese scenery of the megalopolis of Tokyo, the imagery of the skyscraper towers reaching to the heavens can be taken as human arrogance in thinking such structures are meant to stand. We have seen twin towers built as World Trade Towers, Western monuments of human extravagance and daring. Like the aristocrat’s top hat, which cries out to the street urchin to knock it off, New York’s lofty edifices of cultural superiority became the targets of terrorists. As with the towers of antiquity, those abominations of human endeavor to reach the gods’ domain as they were viewed through jealous eyes of neighboring tribes, the material wealth of a powerful nation can be brought down and shown ineffective and vane. Babel teaches that humans cannot act like gods in their lofty condominiums. The wealthy and the poor suffer great miseries when they act irresponsibly. Though we don’t know the motive for the Japanese mother’s suicide, something went terribly wrong in human relationships. Either in despair from her husband’s passive nature and his desire for big-game hunting in Africa, the mother committed suicide feeling dishonored. Or, possibly, in desperate anxiety from having born a deaf child, a stigmatic imperfection in Japanese society, who was showing signs of radical withdrawal of obedience to authorities, the mother relieved herself of further suffering. She may have committed suicide out of the complications of these pains and suffering. At any rate, she may have felt disrespected and impotent as a female in the Tokyo Babel, just as her daughter was reacting irrationally out of her own impotence, whether being docked on the volleyball court or marginalized in social rituals because of alienation of her deafness.
Second, it does not matter whether one lives isolated in the rural desert of Morocco, there is need of diligence, serious decision-making, virtuous responsible behavior. Why did the Moroccan father think he could trust his boys with the high-powered rifle to shoot jackals? Did he instruct them that the weapon should never be trained on human beings? Parents have to be as wary in sparsely populated regions as in crowded metropolises. Next, when decisions are made, as in the Mexican nanny’s dilemma of how to take care of the Californians’ young children, the fail-safe responsibility, not going to Mexico to the wedding, required a great personal sacrifice. There was no compromise there, for it became a monstrous disaster to take the kids across the U.S.-Mexico border, that limbo realm of checkpoints in an age of zero-tolerance.
The human problem that shows up in all three countries of Babel’s narratives is serious lack of responsibility. What kind of irrationality provoked the parents, Pitt and Blanchett, to go on a Moroccan vacation to sort out their marital problems? Whatever had gone wrong in the death of their child, they could not reconcile their behaviors: he for running off in traumatic flight at the sudden death; she for not forgiving him his failing and irrational reaction. Again, they were two traumatized, impotent people suffering in an isolated, alienating environment. When his wife is shot and wounded, Pitt wants the whole bus of tourists to remain until she has been rescued or to be transported on the bus. The fear of terrorist motives in the shooting, of being isolated in a foreign place, so panicked the bus tourists that their altruism did not show through as much as their needs for seeking safety. The altruistic heart rose in the character of the Moslem father of a primitive village to which he directed the bus. There, powerless though he was to help with the severe wound of the American woman, the Arab man did everything he could to bring the shelter and resources of his native customs to the foreigners’ aid. Samaritan concern and compassion were at work in a very bleak world.
One final note about the compassionate nature of people in a hostile, alienated world: it is interesting that the Japanese detective who is lured by Chieko to their lofty condominium is the representative of compassion and caring. An old-fashioned ethic of Buddhist detachment seems to be at work in that culture. If one considers the behavior of police in the Moroccan and American/Mexican sections, the authorities are heartless and unforgiving. I would go so far as to claim Iňárritu’s contrast between the types of policing shows his despite for the punitive, torturous, and cruel nature that emerges when one puts power into the hands of impotent functionaries who conform to the mean policies of a world frightened by insecurity and loss of control. This is one of the problems we must deal with: how to empower people, to give people confidence to act, to encourage altruism over selfish conformity, to restore balance to a world the Hopi call insane.*
*Koyaanisqatsi, the Hopi word of the film of the same name (dir. Godfrey Reggio, 1982), describes a world “mixed up, confused, out of balance.”