[4 January 2011]
Film critic Alissa Quart coined the term “hyperlink cinema” to describe the Don Roos film Happy Endings but the term applies equally well to the first three films by director Alejandro González Iñárritu: Amores perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006). All three are all characterized by multiple story lines, nonlinear chronology, and unpredictable, gradually revealed connections among characters. Because of the international success of these films (which have been honored by, among other things, two Oscar nominations and several awards including Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival) Iñárritu has become closely identified with this approach to filmmaking.
Amores perros, 21 Grams and Babel are the focus of Alejandro González Iñárritu, the most recent volume in the University of Illinois’ Contemporary Film Directors series. The authors, film scholars Celestino Deleyto and Maria del Mar Azcona, are both affiliated with the University of Zaragoza. Although it may seem odd to devote a monograph to a director with only three feature films at the time of writing (in contrast to others featured in the Illinois series such as Neil Jordan and Roman Polanski) it does make sense in this case because these three films share many common stylistic features. Inclusion of Iñárritu’s 4th feature, Biutiful (2010), would have required not only a delay in publication but would also have complicated the discussion because Biutiful differs in key ways (including its focus on a single protagonist whose story is told in a linear manner) from the first three films.
One further commonality among Amores perros, 21 Grams and Babel is that the screenplays for all three were written or co-written by Guillermo Arriaga. In fact the question of exactly how much of each film should be attributed to Inarritu and how much to Arriaga became so contentious that it led to the two men parting ways. While acknowledging Arriaga’s contribution to Iñárritu’s first three films, Deleyto and Azcona wisely sidestep this controversy by analyzing the films as finished products without trying to disentangle the contributions of various members of the creative team involved with each. The term “team” is not used lightly in this context as Iñárritu enjoys with a stable cast of collaborators including cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, production designer Brigitte Broch, composer Gustavo Santaolalla, sound designer Martin Hernandez, all of whom worked on his first three films.
Deleyto and Azcona organize this volume as one long essay rather than as a book with separate chapters. This form which allows them to discuss the films in terms of large topics, in particular the director’s approach to time and place, rather than treating each film in a self-contained chapter. This approach, coupled with the their writing style, makes Iñárritu more suitable for academics and serious students of film than for more casual fans of the director and his work. In particular, this volume should be regarded as a work of interpretation rather than a reference tool: to get much out of this book you have to commit to reading it in its entirety, probably more than once, and with close attention to detail.
The best aspects of Iñárritu are Deleyto and Azcona’s close readings of individual scenes from the films: they excel at describing how cinematic techniques such as camera movement and choice of lens work to elicit a particular emotional response or emphasize one character’s point of view. They have an admirable facility for linking aspects of Iñárritu’s approach to filmmaking to philosophical ideas outside the world of cinema (for instance Manuel Castell’s notion of “timeless time” and “the network society”) while also integrating ideas from other cinema scholars into their analysis. The result is an illuminating and informative discourse which does require a familiarity with, or a willingness to work through, more than a little contemporary academic-speak (“We will interrogate the validity of the concept of Mexican national cinema and explore the extent to which the texts originate from and illuminate the extremely porous nature…”).
Another strong point is the authors’ demonstration of how different, stylistically, Amores perros, 21 Grams and Babel, really are. I have to admit I have been guilty of lumping them together in my mind as examplars of the “disparate characters linked by coincidence” style of filmmaking which can seem annoying and self-consciously clever. I’ve revised that opinion, however, in the light of Deleyto and Azcona’s analyses which demonstrate convincingly that each film represents a unique approach to storytelling and a distinct treatment of cinematic time.
Iñárritu also includes a 20-page interview with the director (topics covered range from his use of the handheld camera to his dislike of labels such as “New Mexican Cinema”), a detailed credits list for these three films plus 11’09’01—September 11 (to which Iñárritu contributed an 11-minute segment) and a five-page bibliography. For readers interested in Iñárritu’s films and who are able to tolerate a certain amount of film studies jargon, it provides an excellent analysis of the director’s style as exemplified in his first three films.