BABEL and Film Authorship

Curator's Note

As a way of directing attention to often-overlooked craftspeople who work in mainstream movies, we are offering several readings of this sequence from the 2007 film Babel. These analyses (posted below) examine the way in which the film’s screenwriter, cinematographer, production designers, sound designers, performers, and editors contribute to the scene’s overall effect. Such a project raises a number of questions. Is the film’s director Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu best viewed as a separate presence whose role is decisive in the creation of aesthetic meaning, as the orchestrator of many diverse inputs, or as just another member of the group? If he is best understood as a presence apart from the rest of the group, what is the nature of his input? Does he consciously or unconsciously impose a distinctive style or structure on the finished product? If he is to be viewed as an orchestrator, how is his role best conceptualized? And if we accept the idea that the scene is the product of some form of group activity, is it best seen as the result of the efforts of a gathering of collaborators, each of whom makes a defined contribution to the finished product or is it more properly appreciated as a collective effort in which all contributions melt together into a seamless whole? Further, how might we best theorize the aesthetic effect created by a group rather than an individual artist? If one agrees that Babel is superior to many other Hollywood movies, what is the source of its aesthetic power if it is not to be found in the unique sensibility of a single creative mind? To put the problem another way, if Babel is to be approached as a pastiche of diverse voices or as a melding of several sensibilities, wherein lies its unity? If the filmis not unified, how best can one conceptualize the source of its aesthetic power? Finally, how, if at all, can the actual work done by people in the real world be acknowledged within a poststructuralist conceptual framework in which the idea of authorship itself is reduced to a happenstantial confluence of cultural flotsam? We welcome comments on these or other related issues.


Iñárritu’s film Babel dramatizes the difficulties of cross-cultural communication via cinematographic choices that render each of the three main narrative strains in differing film stocks, depths-of-field, and color saturation.  This strategy results in a strikingly different look and feel for each of the narratives (taking place in Morocco, Mexico, and Tokyo respectively), heightening the “experience of feeling like you are in different places geographically and emotionally,” according to cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto.

 The scene in which Amelia, Santiago, Debbie, and Mike first arrive in Mexico exemplifies cinematography's role in aesthetic, diegetic, and thematic construction. Here, cinematography primarily helps establish Debbie and Mike’s childlike wonder and confusion.  These scenes are focused midrange, resulting in a sharp emphasis on human action. A particularly vibrant color palette contrasts this scene with both the flat browns from its preceding segment in Morocco and the subdued domestic hues of the children’s San Diego home.  Saturated warm colors and bright sunlight amplify the bustling activity of the border city Tijuana, and further mark the space as a threshold for the two children, looking out the window from the dim back seat, who are entering Tijuana for the first time. Like the two children, we are shocked by the bustle and liveliness of the Mexican city and unable to form a clear, comprehensive image of our new diegetic surroundings.

 The scenes in Mexico were shot on 35mm three-perf film, lending a grainy texture to the images that highlights the location’s desert terrain and underscores the difficulties it will eventually pose for the characters. Like the color palette, the grain enhances the opposition between the dusty and well-worn appearance of the Mexican city and the pristine upper-middle class surroundings to which the children are accustomed. Such choices further fracture the film's three milieus--already separated by the chasms of language, culture, and access to resources--into aesthetically incommensurable spaces.

 [by maureen ryan and stephen babish]

Though the sound in Babel may seem largely representational of what is being presented on the screen, the mixing of recorded noises, supervised in the film by Martín Hernández, allows for resonances between different narratives. In looking at film sound, the music is usually attributed to the “genius” of the score’s composer, Gustavo Santaolalla, yet the selection of pre-recorded music, as done by Anibal Kerpel and Lynn Fainchtein, can play a strong authorial role in marking a film, or in this case a landscape. In this scene the soundtrack bridges the silent room of Yussef and Ahmed in Morocco to the U.S.-Mexico border that Santiago, Amelia, Debbie, and Mike are crossing. We hear the non-diagetic “Cumbia Sobre El Rio,” by Blanquito Man, Control Machete, Celso Piña, and Su Ronda Bogota. We hear the dialogue, as the music’s volume is brought slightly down, but then is quickly brought back up, as it is what aurally introduces us to Mexico. Though there are faint noises of the car driving and a jackhammer, it is the main thing we hear over shots of a record shop, meat market, and a man guiding a zebra down the street. The song is not only loud but sonically layered as it features different musical styles, such as the hip-hop sound of Control Machete, from Monterrey, and cumbia, a musical style which originated in Colombia and was popularized in Mexico by such artists as Celso Piña. As we near Amelia’s old house, the music fades out so that we now hear the sounds of the car on the dirt road, farm animals, arriving guests, instruments tuning, and speaker feedback. These stage noises have no visible source as of yet. Though this is a special reunion for Amelia, rather than the intimate sounds of embraces and kisses, we hear these bodily interactions in equal fidelity with the ambient sounds. When she goes inside the house, a more intimate soundscape is constructed, as her and her daughters’ voices are like sighs. This moment of reunion is then quickly contrasted by louder sounds, as we finally see the band warming up, the chickens, and the children running after them. Santiago breaks off a chicken’s head. The sounds of the spurting blood and the headless chicken’s wings still fluttering are emphasized, further underlining Debbie and Mike’s shock at seeing it killed in front of them. These sounds’ volume level and frenzied nature, though they do not sonically carry over, match the next shot where we resume the narrative of Susan after she just got shot.

In discussing authorship in cinema, the areas designated under “production design” may be overlooked due to the diffuse nature of the responsibilities involved.  Production design encompasses multiple visual elements of a work and may appear to be more of an intermediary position among other, more discrete elements - if it is considered at all.  In the case of Babel, production designer Brigitte Broch has worked with director Iñarritu and screenwriter Arriaga on all three of their features.  I do not know the extent of her involvement or her powers on the set; but presumably these three are amenable enough to each other’s visions that they maintain a collaboration. 

Attempting to sort out production design elements in this brief clip reveals the difficulty of attribution.  This scene announces the arrival of the Mexican nanny Amelia, her nephew, and the American children into Mexico - Tijuana, initially, and then a more rural ranch.  The early rapid fire montage of locations and people is one of the more visually stimulating sequences of the film, but singling out specific design elements is a challenge.  Here, the line between what was specifically staged and designed for the film and what was captured more incidentally during location shooting is unclear.

The film appears to retain the impression of realism—that is, effaced “design”- at the wedding sequence, though we may reasonably hypothesize that it is the more constructed setting.  In this sequence, decorations impart festivity; color remains important - like the blue house paint (set off by the white columns, or the flowers everywhere), or the bright red of Amelia’s dress.  We see tchotchkes, old pictures.  The sense of contiguous space is not so important: we do not need to know how the ranch is laid out.  The sense of place, however, is more crucial - the production design prompts us to feel that this ranch is warm, comforting, rustic. It highlights a place for kith and kin to gather. 

In the efficiently sketched warmth of color and prop, the film is suggesting a rare instance of a resolutionto its numerously thematized problems of intercultural miscommunication and disconnection: that of cosmopolitanism, where the exoticizing gaze of the tourist is quickly taken up and then translated into an experience of a foreign context as home.

(Zach Campbell and Dave Sagehorn)

In the first half of the “Crossing the Border” scene from the 2006 film Babel, film editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione piece together a subjective view of Mexican border life as experienced by the film’s two young protagonists, Mike and Debbie. Of the 114 shots in the sequence, the editors devote 66 to the drive, which is only approximately one-third of the total scene. The segment thus bombards the spectator with many images of the exotic yet dangerous Mexican locale. Intercutting these shots with shots of Mike’s and Debbie’s stunned faces, as well as with shots detailing their points-of-view and shots of the backs of their heads, situates the spectator to be a third child seated between Mike and Debbie, sharing their subjectivities.

The first five shots are static, presenting tableaux of warning on the dangers of border crossing. But with the rapid jump cut into the fifth shot – from a medium shot to a close-up of a ghostly white sweatshirt pinned to a wall – the empty hood tacked up against a painting of sunshine rays transforms into the very symbol of the hustling lifestyle awaiting visitors on the other side of the border. Crise and Mirrione follow this image with five shots involving pans, tilts, and dollies, in which the presence of motion and social interaction merely hints at the buzz of life to follow in this scene. Mike and Debbie take a childish delight in the circus of Tijuana. We spectators likewise occupy a removed position, shielded from the menace suggested by the rapid tempo and photographic juxtapositions of the editing. As the “third child,” spectators partially experience Mike’s and Debbie’s enchantment with Mexico along with them. Yet the editing does not allow us complete identification with them; crane shots and false point-of-view shots suggest the sordidness only adult spectators can see hovering at the edges.

While the overall effect in the “Crossing the Border” scene relies on prominent elements of music and cinematography to convey the overwhelming sensory atmosphere of these characters’ brief journey, the editors’ intermingling of danger and pleasure scenarios manifested on the streets of bordertown Mexico and their direction of the scene’s quick pace suggest that patterns of editing play a significant role in how we understand a film text to be influenced by the film’s lead editors.

(Paula Jean Loeffler and Kate Newbold)

The elliptical and temporally fragmented structure of Babel is a trademark of Arriaga’s work both in novels and screenplays. As Babel’s diegetic time splits into three streams that run out of joint – an echo of the film’s titular theme – character interrelations and action causalities are revealed piecemeal to the viewer. This is one of the film’s most unique and remarked-upon features, and it is also Arriaga’s major contribution to the work as a whole. In an interview with the Writers Guild Foundation, Arriaga laments at how often film editors are credited with story ruptures that he himself crafts into the screenplays [1]. He has worked with fragmentary narratives – a form that he likens to the structure of human recollection – in a number of his books and in each of his films, both with and without former collaborator Alejandro Iñárritu. In this scene from Babel, for example, the interweaving structure of the stories, already present in the script, reveals Arriaga’s penchant for parallel irony. The children’s entry into the foreign cultural landscape of Mexico parallels their parents’ own naïve and ultimately dangerous excursion into Morocco.

Arriaga’s second authorial contribution to this scene stems from his interest in Mexican-US relations, especially the ways in which America’s economic power over Mexico is often accompanied by cultural ignorance and insensitivity. After entering Tijuana, the eyes of the gawking children (Debbie and Mike) reveal what the more mature viewer will recognize as a city that has been shaped by the country’s Catholic past and a present economic debt to American tourism. Later in the scene, Debbie and Mike’s shock at the slaughter of a chicken also sets up a division between the Mexican children’s familiarity with food production labor, versus the American children’s removal from the material realities that underlie their daily consumption.

In Arriaga’s writings the cultural and economic clashes between the two nations most often coalesce around the border, which becomes a site of uneven power relations and potential revelatory experiences. The Americans’ entrance into Mexico is fairly simple and uneventful – a privilege of easy crossing that will not be extended to them when the trip is made in reverse. In the dialogue for this scene, shot verbatim from the script, young Mike expresses apprehension at being in this new country, especially in light of earlier warnings heard from his mother. “My mom told us Mexico is really dangerous,” he says to Santiago. “Yes, it’s full of Mexicans” mockingly replies Santiago in Spanish – both in the script and on the screen [2]. The languages begin to intermix, and so do the two cultures that reside around the border, each one influencing the other.

This theme of US border relations extends beyond Babel and recurs throughout Arriaga’s work. Many of his narratives feature border-crossing, especially two films he wrote outside of his partnership with Inarritu: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005, dir. Tommy Lee Jones) and The Burning Plain (2009, directed by Arriaga himself). While neither film achieved the recognition of Babel, their award-winning screenplays show Arriaga’s development of the border as an important political and social site.

[1]See at

[2] See Babel screenplay, April 9, 2005 version, available online at

 The 2006 film Babel appears as an interesting intersection, bringing into dialogue American, Mexican, Japanese, and Moroccan cultures while exploring cinema’s ability to transmit the pro-filmic. Babel places the actors in the film within a network of verisimilitude that I argue demonstrates Inarritu et al. wanting to eliminate the need to distinguish between actor and “true” person. This distinction, by extension, suggests that there is no need to establish borders and form firm, personal, and nationalistic identities.   

Focusing on the scene where Santiago (Bernal) and company cross the border from the United States into Mexico amidst a myriad of stars and extras I ask, “Who is an actor, who is real?” Then I realize it is me that places a threshold between life and theatrical performance and not the movie, metaphorically relating itself to the schism between citizen and foreigner. Babel highlights the distinction between performed life and its lived counterpart that I read as suggesting that cinema can extend beyond its plasticity to encounter figments of reality that manifest in its image, drawing attention to the fluidity of identity as the characters move between nations, and the actors shift into and out of pro-filmic “reality.”

Bernal/Santiago’s performance relies on the audience’s ability to read Bernal’s celebrity, and Santiago as a narrative figure. By consequence the surrounding characters in the film (the border patrol), whether acting or not, leave the viewer unable to discern “real” performance. In terms of nation states, it makes one question the act of performing citizenship; actors must stabilize both reality and non-reality so as to demarcate their presence in each, thus establishing a mutually inclusive teleology. In performing their roles as non-actors, they lead to a blurring of reality’s border that points to citizenship’s need to situate itself through acts of nationalism and othering. What must come under question, then, is the celebrity image as signifier whose meaning audiences bring a priori to the film, and how that shapes their reception –as well as the definitions of the real (and by extension the citizen) that they undoubtedly contain.


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