Wednesday, September 30, 2009

FotM: New Mexican Cinema - Alejandro González Iñárritu

Thus far, Alejandro González Iñárritu has only made 3 films. This makes him a rather unique subject for our blog. Traditionally, we tend to write about filmmakers who’ve become well-established and have a body of work that’s been proven out over time. What sets Iñárritu apart from many other filmmakers is that, only 3 films in, he’s a major international director and has built up an impressive resume, often working with some of the biggest and best actors in the film industry today.

Ironically, before getting into the movie business, Iñárritu was a famous DJ on WFM in Mexico. Later, he began writing and directing television commercials. It was during this part of his career that he met Guillermo Arriaga.

To discuss the work of Alejandro González Iñárritu to date, one must also discuss Guillermo Arriaga. There is no separating the two. The creation of each of Iñárritu’s films is only made possible through their collaboration. Arriaga was teaching classes in Media Studies at Ibero-American University in Mexico City when he met Iñárritu. The two originally set out to make a series of 11 short films about all aspects of life in the Mexican capital, but after 3 years and a total of 36 drafts, the two decided to focus their efforts on 3 of their ideas, and expand them into what would become Amores Perros, their debut feature. The two followed up the international success of that film with 21 Grams, and, most recently, Babel, his most ambitious film.

These three films have become known as the Death Trilogy. In an interview about 21 Grams, Iñárritu said that the subject of death and eternity was one that fascinated him. While I don’t doubt this, I don’t really think that these three films are preoccupied with death so much as they are preoccupied with the transformational power present within a single moment in time. Within each film, there’s an incident that is the pivotal point around which the narrative revolves, which is commonly known among screenwriters as the “inciting incident.” What sets these three films apart, however, is the fact that Iñárritu and Arriaga’s stories revolve around these moments in a way that continually brings them back to the viewer’s mind. In each film, each of these incidents is the single event that the narrative works its way back and forth up to time and again, showing its ramifications in the lives of a diverse group of people. In Amores Perros, it’s a car crash. In 21 Grams, it’s an accident in which an ex-con runs over a man and his two daughters. In Babel, it’s a childish game gone awry in which two Moroccan boys inadvertently shoot at a passing bus and hit an American tourist.

The interplay between time and space that exists within these films puts them under the umbrella of what’s known as “hyperlink” cinema. In this style of filmmaking, the concern is not necessarily one of traditional linear storytelling. Instead, a hyperlink film takes a collection of seemingly unrelated material and shows how the pieces connect. This is most evident in 21 Grams, which I would argue is Iñárritu’s best film. All points in the narrative are almost simultaneously accessible to the viewer in a clearly non-linear fashion. For example, the first shot of the film takes place somewhere near the midpoint of the story, then it moves to the beginning, and, from there, all around the narrative timeline. This makes the experience somewhat fascinating, because the viewer has a tremendous amount of information, but no framework with which to organize it. For example, the car crash doesn’t “happen” at the film’s onset, although its influence is felt almost immediately. Similarly, it’s apparent that the 3 main characters will find themselves in a confrontation in a motel room, but the viewer has no idea how or why this will happen. As the film progresses, the framework emerges, and the viewer “discovers” it, which I think is an approach that is pivotal to the film’s success. Were the story told in a more straightforward fashion, it would play as a conventional melodrama and, while I believe that it would still be effective as such, it is the use of the hyperlink format that really brings out the best in the story.

Iñárritu uses other tools to help the viewer stay oriented. Even though his work often involves non-linear storytelling, he often cuts from one storyline to another by cutting between things that have either visual or thematic similarity. For example, a sequence in Babel that ends with cries of grief is followed by another that, although set in a completely different time and place, ends with a similar outpouring of emotion. In other instances, he cuts between different locations that parallel each other visually. In 21 Grams, a character asks another for help with some glasses, and the next thing that is seen involves, you guessed it, glasses. He’s very subtle in the way that he does this and I didn’t really notice it until I watched these films again.

There are also other themes that are explored time and again in Iñárritu’s work. For one, he’s fascinated by the relationship between parents/caregivers and children. This is particularly evident in Babel. In the film, Amelia, a Mexican woman working in San Diego as a nanny, takes Mark and Debbie to her son’s wedding across the border. Watching the reactions of these two children to all that transpires is a revelation. They are the two most innocent characters in the film, and they respond most instinctively to each new situation. They’ve never been to Mexico, much less to a Mexican wedding, but soon they’re running around trying to catch chickens, beaming with happiness as the bride and groom dance, and cutting quite a rug themselves on the dance floor. The joy on their faces is genuine as they immerse themselves completely in their new environment. Later, when they encounter problems re-entering the United States with Amelia and her nephew, their terror is palpable and their tears real. Iñárritu also often has a character that is almost like a medieval flagellant, consistently seeking punishment and hoping that it will develop into a kind of redemption.

I feel as though I have much more to write, but I think it will be best served by waiting for another day and another article to go further into depth on one of his films. Currently, Iñárritu is hard at work on his latest film, Biutiful. Unfortunately, it’s a film that he’s working on without Guillermo Arriaga, due to the deterioration of their collaborative relationship. I can only hope that they will eventually look past their personal differences and come back together to write another chapter in their extraordinary partnership.

Much has been made about the difficulties of breaking into the film industry and much has been said about the challenges inherent to making people listen to a new voice. So far, Alejandro González Iñárritu has been nominated for two Academy Awards, both for Babel, and won the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival, also for Babel. Just think, all of this has happened to a man who’s only made 3 films. The future is bright, my friends, to those who look toward the horizon with hope.

Starting Point: 21 Grams.


Chris W said...

I've only seen BABEL and I know I really should give this guy's other movies a chance but I was so bored to tears by BABEL and disliked it so much that I've had a hard time bringing myself to do so. The guy is great with actors and seems to be fine with visuals but BABEL is one of those movies that everyone else raved about but I couldn't for the life of me figure out why. I think about 15 minutes in I started getting antsy and because it felt like it was dragging. I also had a HUGE issue with the "illegal immigrant" storyline. I had no sympathy for her character what-so-ever because in my mind she did a dispicable thing AND she was an ILLEGAL immigrant. I honestly didn't care if she died out in the desert. Perhaps that may be why I felt so detatched from the film. I really do want to at least give AMOROS PERROS a shot because I've heard great things. I just need to work up the nerve.

Adam said...

Well, I quite like Babel, but that's just me. I guess I'm a bit more willing to suspend disbelief in this particular case. As far as it dragging early on, one thing that I noticed upon re-visiting the film is that Babel doesn't build so much as it ebbs and flows.

Personally, I thought Amores Perros was just ok. It's got some good moments, but, unfortunately, I didn't think that the totality of the storylines added up to that much.

If you really want to see another Inarritu film, I'd recommend 21 Grams in a heartbeat. . . but you probably already knew I was going to say that.

Chris W said...

I definitely intend on seeing his other films, like I said I just haven't gotten around to it. I will admit that the illegal immigrant storyline was a HUGE issue for me with BABEL and I'm sure that had a lot to do with my distaste for the whole thing. I have some very strong and passionate opinions on that particurlar social issue and the way the movie handled it flat out enraged me. That was the director's choice and everyone is entitled to tell whatever story they want it just meant it made me into a very unreceptive audience.

Anonymous said...

I was also bored with Babel and that's the only one of his films I've seen. I thought the direction was good but the story just moved too slowly for me.