Aliens did not make the world, but aliens might have made Javier Bardem (ALIENS FROM PLANET HANDSOME!). jose haro

The Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu has made four films. The first two films (Amores Perros and 21 Grams), completed in the first half of the previous decade, deal only with death—death in the Mexican context and death in the American context. The second set of films (Babel and Biutiful) deal with globalization. True, death is present in the second set of films, but only as entry to and exit from the primary concern: life in the postnational world. Babel (2006), the first film in the second set, is not original. It is one among several attempts to express global space as contingent interconnectedness—Dirty Pretty Things (2002), Crash (2004), Noodle (2007), Lorna's Silence (2008), Crossing Over (2009), Welcome (2009), The Escape (2009).

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What I mean by contingent interconnectedness is that these films picture global space as a kind of pool table with balls, each ball representing a different nationality or culture randomly and mindlessly hitting each other. Each hit (or crash) generates a terrific shock. This culture shock is very much related to the future shock of the 1970s (Alvin Toffler wrote: "[Future shock is the] personal perception of too much change in a too short period of time"). The victims of culture shock feel cognitively unprepared for and unconnected to the new world system. This feeling is expressed in almost every frame of Babel.

However, little that's satisfying or meaningful can be extracted from the structure of this feeling. Why? Because globalization is not that shocking or incomprehensible. Aliens did not make the world system (with its financial, scientific, and entertainment flows); humans did all of this work. Indeed, the world we now find ourselves in is more human than all of the previous worlds humans have made. Cell phones are designed for our ears, computer keyboards are designed for our fingers, flat screens are designed for our eyes. Not in the now, but in the past—the Roman moment or the moment of Great Zimbabwe—is where you'll find a serious shortage of human affordances. Those ancient times are far more alien than our times.

The second film in Iñárritu's second set, Biutiful, is the first and only great work of global cinema I have seen. The reasons for this are two in number. One: It does away with the shock and awe of Babel, and other films of its time, and recognizes the present, planetary society as fully human. In Biutiful, which is set in the crowded sections of Barcelona, in sections of the city that are far from the financial core and its towers, there are no shocks, just a mix of humans who are hustling for a living.

This brings us to point two: The global films of the 2000s were always about national subjects, about citizens colliding with other citizens. Biutiful is about a new kind of subject: the inhabitant. Several sequences in the film open with a window's view of the city—apartment buildings, satellite dishes, a sea of rooftops, construction cranes—this is the kingdom of the inhabitants. Now, what is an inhabitant? Unlike a citizen, the subject of the state, the inhabitant is the subject of statelessness, of what the business strategist Kenichi Ohmae once called "a borderless world." The citizen is a worker; the inhabitant is a hustler.

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A hustler is the central character of Biutiful. His name is Uxbal (Javier Bardem); he has two kids and a marriage on the rocks. Because there's no state support, because labor unions are a thing of the pre-neoliberal past, he makes a living from whatever works, whatever he can drum up from the streets. His main beat is connecting and coordinating undocumented labor. Some of the labor is from Africa; some is from China. He and his brother, a supreme hustler, plug this labor into different parts of the urban economy. No one has papers; everyone has a desire to live decently.

Though Uxbal is Spanish, he is as much an inhabitant of Spain as the illegal immigrants he works with. This is made very clear by a section of the movie's plot that involves his father's graveyard. The father, who died back in the 1960s, happens to be buried in a site that developers want to transform into a shopping mall. Developers make the brothers an offer to remove the body, and the hustlers easily accept the offer. This is not about land, country, history, or a sense of place (the citizen); this is about change, opportunity, and mobility (the inhabitant). Those who are familiar with Charles Baudelaire's poem "The Swan," the very poem that inspired critic Arnold Weinstein to make the citizen/inhabitant distinction, will certainly see how well it is echoed by Biutiful. recommended