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April 13, 2009

The Mosaic Film: Nomadic Style and Politics in Transnational Media Culture

Filed under: film,new media politics (k3),patricia pisters — ABRAXAS @ 11:02 am

Patricia Pisters (University of Amsterdam)

In contemporary media culture the formal, narrative, and stylistic structures that are most pervasive can be described as an aesthetics of the mosaic. Multiple main characters, multiple interwoven story lines, multiple or fragmented spaces, different time zones or paces seem to be specifically apt for engaging with the migratory nature and politics of our times. In this essay, I will look at Babel (USA: Inarritu, 2006), WWW. What a Wonderful World (Morocco/Germany/France: Bensaidi, 2006) and Kicks (Netherlands: Ter Heerdt, 2007) and discuss the ways in which in these films an aesthetics of the mosaic is related to migratory movements and contemporary globalized media culture. This aesthetics, I will argue, is closely related to transnationalism, which can assume different forms. I will argue that by means of a nomadic style and nomadic politics these films assert a Deleuzian “becoming-minoritarian” as “an affaire of everyone.”

(New) Mosaic Aesthetics in Cinema

The mosaic film is not a new phenomenon. Although it has never explicitly been classified as a genre, from early on in the history of film there have been films with multiple stories. In Intolerance (USA, 1916), D.W. Griffith cross cuts between four stories that are set in four different periods and places (a modern story set in America in 1914, a Judean story set in Christ’s Nazareth in A.D. 27 , a story that relates the circumstances of the St Bartolomew’s massacre of 1572, and story set in Babylonia in 539 B.C.). Although each story is shot in a different tint (amber, blue, sepia, grey-green) that makes them recognizable, it is already a complex, nonlinear approach to epic storytelling, bound together by the themes of human intolerance, hypocrisy, injustice, and discrimination. Nevertheless, this type of narrative structure never became the primary form of classical Hollywood films, nor of other film schools or movements. In classical Hollywood films, two plot-lines (action-plot and romance-plot) usually unite perfectly to tell the story of a goal-oriented protagonist (Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson 1985). Epic stories that tell larger stories of a period or of a nation are usually structured in a linear fashion.

Other examples of mosaic films are Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (USA, 1941) and Akira Kurasawa’s Rashomon (Japan, 1950). Citizen Kane begins with the death of the newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane and the last word he pronounces before dying, “Rosebud.” A journalist then sets out to investigate the meaning of this word, interviewing many people who knew Kane, who tell their stories of Kane in a mosaic-like flashback structure that together creates a colorful picture of Kane. In Rashomon, the central point around which the film revolves is the murder of a samurai that is described from four different points of view. These examples of well-known mosaic films are less epic than Griffith’s, describing, rather, multiple versions of the life of a single person or a single event. In these films, there is a central point that ties together the different pieces of the puzzle and in that sense presents a different type of mosaic structure than the multiple epic narratives of Intolerance. What all of the early mosaic films have in common is the fact that they relate to the past, either to collective history or to personal memories that are presented as different moments or different versions of past events.

In contemporary media culture, it seems that the mosaic film has evolved, gaining importance to the point that we could even speak of a new genre. The film that is often described as the starting point of the contemporary mosaic film is Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (USA, 1993). Most strikingly, the mosaic structure of this film does not refer to either a history, a person, or an event presented in recollection, but relates to a shared time and place in the present. The film presents a cross section of Los Angeles at the beginning of the 1990s. Twenty-two characters are presented in ten interwoven stories (based on short stories by Raymond Carver). None of the stories, or rather “occurrences” as Altman himself calls them in the documentary Luck, Trust and Ketchup (USA, John Dorr and Mike Kaplan, 1993), really ends or is fundamentally connected to the others, except through the common event of a small earthquake at the end of the film and by the news broadcasts that are televised in every household. The characters sometimes meet in significant ways, at others, much more superficially. Compared with the earlier mosaic films, the frames of individual stories are opened up and intertwined in much more complex, subtle, and sometimes even random ways in the contemporary mosaic film. Television and other media seem to play an important role in these random connections between otherwise often unrelated people.

Besides shared time and space in the present, another dimension of the contemporary world that is addressed in the new mosaic films (though not yet present in Altman’s film) is that comprising the transnational connections is made possible not only by the media but also by the increasing migratory nature of today’s populations. In these films, the shared space potentially extends over the entire globe, which has consequences for the experience of time and temporality which becomes more “out-of-synch” or “heterochronic.” Different time zones, different cultural significance and experience of time, and different conceptualizations of time are now sensible through the narratives and in the images of the films. I will return to temporal aspects in respect to transnational migration in the new mosaic later in this essay. First I would like to look more generally at types of transnationalism.

Types of Contemporary Mosaic Transnationalism

The transnational dimension in contemporary mosaic film can manifest itself in different ways. Of course, by defining different categories of transnationalism in the mosaic film, I do not wish to make absolute distinctions. The distinctions are fluid and the categories are open. Nevertheless, the films that I am focusing on here, Babel, What a Wonderful World, and Kicks take different positions with respect to contemporary transnational migration and its implications, which is why I think it useful to make a rough categorization on this basis.

I will first address a group of recent mosaic films that literally move between countries and continents. Traffic (Steven Soderbergh, USA, 2000), for instance, gives a multilayered picture of the drug war between Mexico and the U.S. through three alternating stories that finally coincide. Syriana (Stephen Gaghan, USA, 2005) also moves between continents to tell four intertwined stories related to the oil industry. In its own particular way, Babel also belongs to this cross-continental type of mosaic film. Babel tells four stories, divided over three continents, and includes five different languages. The film starts in a small Berber village in the bare mountains of Northern Morocco, where a shepherd sells a gun to a neighbor who wants to use it to chase jackals that attack his herd of goats. His two young sons, Said and Yussef, are in charge of using the gun to protect the goats. We then move to San Diego where a Mexican nanny, Amelia, takes care of blonde Debbie and Mike. Back in Morocco, Australian Susan and American Richard, who are on a bus tour, clearly have an argument to settle during their vacation. Then the film takes us to Japan, where we witness a volley ball game played by deaf and dumb girls, among whom is Cheiko, who is watched by her father from the tribunes. The stories will be connected by an accidental bullet, fired by Yussef while playing with his brother that hits a touring car filled with American tourists. It is Susan who is hit by the bullet. While Susan and Richard have to stay longer in Morocco than planned, Amelia takes their children, Debbie and Mike, to her son’s wedding in Tijuana. In Tokyo, the police investigate whether the gun that was used to shoot the American touring car formerly belonged to Cheiko’s father.
In The Making of Babel on the DVD of the film, Inarritu states that he has always been fascinated by the air that we all breathe and travel through, that invisible entity that we all share. With this film, he wants to show that although we are in different spaces and different time zones there is a literal cross-continental connection. Not only that the same air that we breathe connects us, but also that a Japanese gun, given as a present to a Berber shepherd in Morocco, can have enormous consequences for people in Morocco, Mexico, and the U.S. On a less literal level, the film expresses another transnational aspect that we share: a common way of expressing through the body when words fail.

A second type of transnationality can be found in mosaic films, set in third world countries, that address different iterations of migration. In this type of mosaic film, the stories are always infused with a longing-for-elsewhere. In André Téchiné’s Loin for instance, Serge, who is French, Sarah, who is Jewish, and Said, who is Arab, meet in Tangiers, where the fate of those from the West who travel to Morocco intersects with illegal immigrants who want to leave North Africa to find a better living in Europe. This category of transnationalism would also pertain to WWW. What a Wonderful World, which is set in Morocco, mainly Casablanca and Rabat, cities that are rendered as hyper-modern urban spaces. Here too, multiple characters interconnect: the contract killer, Kamel; the police officer, Kenza; the cleaning lady and occasional prostitute, Souad; the hacker, Hicham; and his father and several other characters together create a picture of contemporary Morocco. Here, it is neither cross-continental settings nor a transnational cast that set up the transnational dimension, but, rather, an emphasis on contradictions related to globalization and postcolonial conditions in many former colonies. One such contradiction is embodied in the dilemma of the hacker, Hicham, who accesses the digital murder assignments of Kamel. Although he can communicate with the whole world (“Club Internet l’Univers” is the name of the internet café he frequents), his dream of actually travelling to Europe is an impossible one. This aspect of transnational culture, called “fake-globalization” by filmmaker Bensaidi (Bensaidi 2007, 1), is clearly addressed in the film. Morocco’s history as a French colony is also alluded to when Kamel and Kenza speak in French instead of Arabic. I will elaborate on other aspects of this film further on in this essay.

First, I want to touch on a third type of mosaic film related to transnationalism and the migratory mobility of people: the multicultural meeting point-film, usually set in a western city, where people of all colors and origins share a contemporary urban space. Here, the crux is not so much a longing for an elsewhere as it is the difficulties associated with a newly diverse population living together in close juxtaposition. Ignorance of cultural differences, misunderstandings, racism and (fear of) terrorism are central elements of these stories. Crash (USA, Paul Higgis, 2004) is an example of this type of mosaic film. Comparable to Short Cuts, the film presents a cross section of Los Angeles at the beginning of the second millennium. In Crash, a transnational dimension is added because of the racial tensions that pervade the film, though never in a one-dimensional way. Perhaps the most touching scene in this film is when a racist white cop (who takes care of his old father) saves a black woman from a car accident, even though we just saw him humiliate this woman a few moments before.

In a different way, Kicks, set in the Netherlands in the new millennium, presents a similar type of multicultural mosaic society. Dutch-Moroccans and indigenous Dutch from different classes who live more or less segregated lives in the same city (Amsterdam) are portrayed in several plot lines. The film deals with contemporary society in several ways. A kick boxer, Said, has a Dutch girlfriend, Danielle, (“a cheese head chick” as she is unappreciatively referred to by other Dutch-Moroccans) and works with youngsters to keep them of the streets; his younger brother, Redouan, is more of a rebel and loves rapping political texts with his friend Karim; Kim is a well to do Dutch woman who, after she decides one day that she should get to know some of her Moroccan fellow countrymen, enters a Moroccan snack bar to talk to “real Turks”, as she says when she orders a drink, indicating that she cannot tell the difference between Moroccan or Turkish immigrants. Here, she meets Nordin, a funny, conservative Dutch-Moroccan who applies double standards to all of his behavior; her husband, Wouter, is a frustrated filmmaker looking for a good story; a trainee police officer, Aaliya, and Marouan, who works for the Dutch army, are about to marry; and Lisette runs a shelter, has a husband and son but longs for a different (more glamorous) life. Here again the connections between the characters are made possible through an accident: the killing of Redouan by a Dutch police officer, Frank, when he is caught in what seems to be a burglary attempt (in fact, he has been inspired to write more rap texts and has called Karim to join him at the clubhouse). Here again, the effects of migratory movements in the Western world in the form of racism, as well as ignorance and misunderstanding, feed the underlying tensions of the film. As with the two other films that are the central focus of this essay, I will elaborate at greater length on Kicks below.

The multiple storylines and multiple characters that these films share reflect the ongoing shifts in the loci of focus and importance between the center and the periphery in a transnational world. In the three films that I discuss in this essay, Morocco is a central location or point of reference, displacing the traditional centrality of the West. In addition, the conventional relationship between center and periphery with respect to the cast (Hollywood stars vs. amateur actors) is also disturbed: the multiplicity of characters evens out the status distinctions between the characters. Even Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, who play Richard and Susan in Babel, are just a part of the larger cast in which a number of nonprofessional actors take part.

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