Same Difference: Humanity as Allegory in the Multi-Narrative Film
From D.W. Griffith’s transhistorical tale of ‘humanity’s failings’ in Intolerance (1916) through the humanism of Roberto Rossellini’s Paisá (1946) to Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993), interlinked, sprawling and multiple parallel storylines have pervaded world cinema history in an effort to cast a macroscopic eye on humanity as such. Undeniably, however, films in which manifold characters are loosely, accidentally and/or only-thematically related have become especially pronounced over the last two decades – a phenomenon that, at least in part, seems to respond to and reflect an increasingly globalized and interconnected world.
Thus in films as disparate as Babel (Alejandro González Iñarritu, 2006), The Edge of Heaven (Faith Akin, 2007) and 360º (Fernando Meirelles, 2011), the world appears as as a place where physical distances dissolve and cross-cultural (mis)encounters proliferate. Less totalising in their geographical scope, but equally ambitious in their allegorical reach, other recent films have put together mosaic narratives of intersected human suffering on national and regional levels, examples being Inãrritu’s own Amores Perros (2000), Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999), and, more recently, A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, 2013), to cite but a few.
By drawing on the thinking of Alain Badiou, this paper will explore the ways in which the multi-stranded narrative structure of this trio of films allows them to stage philosophical debates between individualist and universalist ethics. Stemming from entirely different places and cinematic traditions, they nonetheless arrive at similar aesthetic and narrative strategies in their universalising impetus to express humanity beyond identity politics and to find, in Badiou’s words, ‘a generic [human] identity, identity of no-identity; the identity which is beyond all identities’.