'Children of Men', 'Babel', 'Pan's Labyrinth', and the Mapping of the (Post)modern Global World

by Manuel Betancourt

2 June 2015

Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Alfonso Cuarón -- the "Three Amigos" of Mexican cinema -- use their 2006 masterpieces to examine the global through the lens of the local.
Pan's Labyrinth's Tenome 

“They all traffic in poetic reality,” said Cate Blanchett at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival when talking about Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Alfonso Cuarón, and their respective films: Pan’s Labyrinth, Babel, and Children of Men. Blanchett’s assessment of the trio of filmmakers is ripe with meaning, and also a perfect introduction to the ways in which this trio of films speak of and about globalization from a peripheral yet simultaneously central perspective. Her choice to use the word “traffic” gets at the way in which these three films/filmmakers put emphasis on circulation, transportation, and distribution, while also highlighting the legal and politically-mined aspect of borders, dealings, and prohibitions. If del Toro, González Iñárritu, and Cuarón are indeed traffickers in poetic reality, it’s not only because they are keenly aware of the commodity (and export) value of that reality, but because the demand for such poetic reality lies underground, in the clandestine world of in-betweens, outsides, and not-heres. 

This is nowhere more evident than in the three films that garnered the “Three Amigos” (and later co-owners of Cha Cha Cha productions) the best reviews of their careers at the time. Before Cuarón went to outer space (Gravity), before Iñárritu soared alongside his Birdman, and before Del Toro got to stage a kaiju/jaeger fight over the pacific (Pacific Rim), they released a fascinating and unwitting triptych on the perils of globalization and the modern world wrapped in, respectively, a sci-fi allegory, an interwoven melodrama, and an adult fairy tale. This unofficial trilogy perhaps best exemplifies the film production model these three Mexican filmmakers have championed in their work. Iñárritu has fought back the arguments that hold he and his two amigos have lost their way working in Hollywood; as he told the New York Times in 2009, “Yes, I am a Mexican, and I have a past and a culture. But what matters is the film itself, not where it was financed or cast. Cinema is universal, beyond flags and borders and passports.” However, he need not go further and present his own work as exemplary of cinema that thinks and succeeds at a global scale, even as it is wholly focused on the local.

Children of Men (2006, dir. Alfonso Cuarón)

Children of Men (2006, dir. Alfonso Cuarón)

All three films are staunchly grounded in a conversation about how we map the local in an increasingly globalized world. Cuarón’s Children of Men is not only mapping London in a very literal sense with its long shots that showcase the grubby streets and the high-rise buildings, but also in a metaphorical sense, mapping a future time-space possibility. González Iñárritu’s Babel seeks to map out a world of networks. Here, the fragmentation of the postmodernism that cultural theorist Frederic Jameson isolates is used not to destroy any sense of cohesion or totality, but instead to create a fractal map of the world in terms of geographical connections: a gunshot in Morocco, a wedding in Mexico, and a club in Japan are implicated in one seamless narrative. Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth re-maps the Spanish Civil War countryside in terms of fairy tale geographies (the house as an isolated castle marooned and surrounded in a green world) where the narrative and physical labyrinthian space becomes the guiding force of the film. These various cinematic maps are particularly effective for the ways they ground us while forcing us to rethink the platitudes that greet our contemporary modern world with metaphors of “global villages”, “flat worlds”, and “borderless” communities. 

 

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Children of Men

Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Cast: Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine

2006

Cuarón’s Children of Men begins with a continuous long-shot that is only broken once. The film opens with a blank screen as we hear of the media giving us news of Muslim groups, American sieges, and British border and immigration laws before we get the leading story of Baby Diego: “The world was stunned today by the death of Diego Ricardo, the youngest person on the planet.” At this point, the film gives us its first image, a desolate scene of an indistinct crowd watching television at a local coffee shop. The shot is still while we watch as Theo (Clive Owen) approaches the counter. He asks for “Coffee, black”, unimpressed and uninterested in the screen that keeps the crowd enraptured. The news broadcast offers us several images of young Diego before his baby picture (captioned 2009-2027) takes over the entire screen. As the news anchor repeats that Baby Diego was 18 years, two days, 16 hours and eight minutes old, the camera follows Theo out of the coffee shop, through the crowd and into the streets. A helpful caption locates us: “London, 16th November 2027”.

The camera surveys in one long take the futuristic (although oddly familiar) world of London, where buildings and vehicles are covered with screens, where double-decker buses blend in with velotaxis, where garbage bags and policemen litter the sidewalk. The shot doesn’t even stop when, after circling around Theo pouring alcohol into his coffee, we witness the aforementioned coffee shop blow up. Instead of sticking with Theo and showing us his reaction to the bombing, the camera wanders over to the scene, not before encountering a woman coming out of the rubble holding her own severed arm at which point the screen gives us the film’s title card in white letters against a black backdrop: Children of Men. The explosion still rings in our ears.

This first scene, with its characteristic continuous long shot (also prominent in the car chase sequence, the birth scene, and the refugee camp rescue mission take) exemplifies what Slavoj Žižek isolates as the main thesis of the film: “the film gives the best diagnosis of ideological despair of late capitalism. Of a society without history. This, I think this is the true despair of the film. The true infertility is the very lack of meaningful historical experiences.” The true heart of the film lies not in its premise, but in the world that it helps to depict.

Babel (2006, dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)

Babel (2006, dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)

To that “despair of late capitalism” that Žižek isolates, I would add the understated concept of globalization. Children of Men thematizes and enacts the sort of “aesthetic cognitive mapping – a pedagogical political culture which seeks to endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of its place in the global system” that Frederic Jameson appeals to in Postmodernism. The beginning of the film is our introduction to the world that requires and indeed produces that global system. It is significant, for example, that the film’s opening scenes are punctuated with media news: not just when Theo is at the coffee shop, but also when his co-workers browse the web to find out more about Baby Diego, on Theo’s personal television at his home, and even the screens on the buses. Here is the global village, the flattened world, the world of globalization where we are constructed as subjects not just through collective grief over an Argentinean stranger (and super-star), but also by the constant construction of a British identity through its oppositional nature to the rest of the world.

This global village narrative is starkly presented in an advertisement from the British government that shows devastating images from the capitals of the world (Paris, Moscow, Washington, Kuala Lumpur, etc.) as they are listed off in a constantly sped up rate, only to end with the ominous and fascist motto: “The world has collapsed. Only Britain soldiers on.” Children of Men portrays Britain as an isolationist state preoccupied with its own borders, replicating this paranoia both visually and thematically. With respects to the former, Cuarón’s cinemaphotographer, two-time Oscar winning Emmanuel Lubezki, scatters many gated shots throughout the film. In the case of the latter, the plot is born out of the need to cross borders in order to get the pregnant woman, Kee, to the aptly named boat Tomorrow, a border-crossing that exceeds simple geography but also maps itself as a temporal border-crossing. 

 

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Babel

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael García Bernal

2006

In stark contrast to Cuarón’s film, González Iñárritu’s Babel privileges not the long-shot but the quick-cut editing process, as a way to stitch together the interweaving stories of a Japanese deaf-mute schoolgirl, an American couple on holiday, a Mexican nanny in San Diego, and a family in Morocco. If Cuarón is mapping the dystopian world of late capitalism and globalization gone awry, Iñárritu’s film asks us to map a fractured present by shooting the three main spaces of the film as cinematically different.

Along with his art directors and cinematographer, Iñárritu shot Mexico in red tones with a 35mm lens, Japan with purple tones with an anamorphic lens, and Morocco in orange tones with a 60mm lens. The different looks of the three places are echoed by the iconic images Iñárritu gives us for each one. The red tones of Mexico are epitomized in Amelia’s red dress placed in stark contrast to the plainness of the desert; Japan’s purple tones are found in Chieko’s night-out outfit; and Morocco’s orange and grey tones are visibly present in Richard’s clothes. Yet, both thematically and cinematically, the film suggests that the differences are surface-only: all the storylines deal with the parent-child relationships, and are visually introduced in very much the same way, through a window of a moving vehicle: Santiago’s car introduces us to Mexico, the tour bus gives us entry into Morocco, and Yasujiro’s car opens up Tokyo for us. If Children of Men situates us visually and ideologically in a dystopian world, Babel seeks to appeal to the very idea that what at once separates is what brings us together: language. 

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Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno)

Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Ivana Baquero, Doug Jones, Sergi López

2006

Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth opens with a distortion in time and space: while the film begins with a historical contextualizing narrative explaining the Spanish Civil War, the first image we see is that of Ofelia sprawled on the floor, her nose bleeding. But before we can start wondering about her, we realize the blood is inching back into her nose, and then the narrator, later identified as the faun Pan, locates us elsewhere as the camera zooms into Ofelia’s eyes and we are sucked into her fantasy world. If the continuous long shot in Children of Men is used to orient and map out the global and dystopian world of London in 2027, the long continuous shot used here in the beginning of this adult fairy tale is used to disorient us and map out a world that glides between the fantastical and the real.

In Pan’s Labyrinth, we get the story of a princess who escaped her native land, and once she reached the surface, was blinded by the sunlight and forgot who she was. “She wandered the earth—suffering cold and sickness… and pain. As the years went by, she grew weaker and weaker and finally she died,” we are told. Throughout this story, we’ve moved from what we will later learn is the labyrinth (where Ofelia lies bleeding), to the princess’s world, up to where the sun blinded her. Del Toro gives us the first establishing shot of where we are, which are ruins: a place lived in, but now dead; memory embodied in space, frozen in time. 

Pan's Labyrinth (2006, dir. Guillermo del Toro)

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, dir. Guillermo del Toro)


Just as Iñárritu is bridging differences of culture and language by appealing to the Babel parable and to an archetypal construction of parenthood through different figures, del Toro creates in this first scene a fluidity that characterizes the entire film, one that denies a clear distinction of boundaries, limits, and borders. This first long take uses a seamless choreographic move from the present, transporting Ofelia from the “long long time ago” underground world of the princess to the immemorial time and space of the ruins, and to the past (but also very present) moment of the cars approaching El Capitán’s house.

Del Toro’s camera work here situates us in movement at both a temporal and a spatial level, which mirrors Ofelia’s own magical power. This can be seen again later in the movie, where it is Ofelia’s own narrative power that guides the camera from her mother’s womb (where we see her brother, as yet unborn) to a thorny mountain where a single blue rose stands, only to be taken back to Ofelia’s room while following one of the faun’s fairies. These shots, which transgress any sort of clear divide between the magical and the real or the present and the past, emphasize the role of borders and limits, refusing to make any of them particularly concrete. 

In Children of Men, Babel, and Pan’s Labyrinth, mapping space and time becomes the political end goal for each filmmaker. If indeed to “be modern is to be part of a universe in which, as Marx said, ‘all that is solid melts into air,’” as Marshall Berman points out in his meditation on the experience of modernity, then these filmmakers are trying to map out their place in this ethereal world of the modern maelstrom (All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, 1982, 15). Following (or at least echoing) Jameson’s appeal for a new “aesthetic of cognitive mapping”, Cuarón, Iñárritu, and del Toro have carved out an exploration of what it means to be (post)modern in a globalizing world by staging stories about children, and about futurity. Whatever skepticism these films may harbor about our ability to ground ourselves in a modern world, the figure of the child emerges, if ever so tentatively, as a potential anchor. 

In Children of Men, Kee’s baby is seen as the long-lost hope for humankind. However, the film does not divorce this ideal from very crucial politics, which costs the activist Julian (Julianne Moore) her life, for example. Kee’s baby crying at the refugee camp does in fact stop the shooting and killing at one point in the film, but instead of constructing this scene as metonymically reverberating in the rest of the world, Cuarón stages the war scene to keep going as soon as the child is out of the way.

But maybe the most important way in which Kee’s baby is embedded in the global/local politics of the film is in its naming: at the end of the film, when Kee and Theo are stranded at sea, she turns to him and tells him she will name her child Dylan, after Theo and Julian’s deceased little boy. At this point, emphasized by the fact that they are expecting a very spatial but also very metaphorically temporal boat called Tomorrow, Kee’s baby makes the story double on to itself. Dylan is at once the past but also the future, all the while being the present in Tomorrow—that rootless and borderless (albeit mobile and free-changing) space of the boat.

In Babel, the figure of the child is constantly theorized alongside the figure of the parent: the misguided Moroccan boys, the abandoned American kids, and the isolated Japanese girl are paired with the Moroccan farmer, the American couple, and the Japanese businessman, respectively. It comes as no surprise, then, that just like Children of Men, Babel’s ending collapses the loss of a child in the past (Richard and Susan’s son’s death, which prompts their trip to Morocco) and the loss a child in the present (Ahmed’s death at the hands of the Moroccan police).

Mirroring the ambivalence of the other two films in imbuing the figure of the child with futurity as well as with present-ness in time and space, del Toro’s un-fairy tale ending problematizes any clear-cut way to read the film. Ophelia dies, and while the narration suggests she returns to her homeland after proving herself worthy (valuing the figure of a child, her baby brother), the image of Mercedes as she looks on Ophelia’s dead body and how she reacts to El Capitan’s pleas for his baby boy still linger. Is this an allegory where imagination triumphs over fascism, or a fairy tale that cannot escape the fascist reign of violence that envelops it? That del Toro never quite helps us answer that question is precisely what makes his film all the more extraordinary. 

Rather than set borders and limits, Cuarón, Iñárritu, and del Toro’s films reframe and remap the (post)modern and global world. All three are concerned with tracing the boundaries themselves, guiding the camera down the British underground sewers, inside a Moroccan household, and inside a girl’s imagination. In their attempts at trafficking in poetic reality, these three filmmakers have created globalizing and (post)modern films that leave us at once grounded in an imagined world but also questioning and wondering where it is that our present stands. This is precisely what their newer efforts continue to think about, from the technology-pushing Gravity to the introspective black comedy Birdman and the upcoming Victorian horror house Crimson Peak. While allegory continues to be their main narrative mode, it’s clear the focus of these three Mexican filmmakers continues to be the idiosyncrasies of the local as necessary conduits to think about (and appeal to) the global.

Together, these three filmmakers have grossed over $3 billion worldwide and have earned 14 Oscars. This is global filmmaking at its core, not mere pandering to foreign markets for financing or box office pull. As David Linde, the head of Cha Cha Cha films, begrudgingly remarks these three filmmakers “have a global perspective, much as I hate that phrase. It fascinates them to tell stories in Mexico, Spain, the U.K. and the United States because what drives them, quite simply, is an interest in what it means to be human.” Thankfully, that humanistic impulse doesn’t ignore, but rather depends on, thinking about political and geographical borders within a fraught, global, and modernized world.

Manuel Betancourt is a recently minted literature and film PhD student who is fascinated with popular culture’s ability to reflect and refract our current global world. You can find his academically-tinged thoughts over at his personal website. Feel free to follow his bite-sized musings on Twitter.

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