Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
The new film by Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu is opening locally this week at…the Crest? Boy, the arthouse scene has changed around here. It’s called Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, and it prompted me to find an interview I did with Iñárritu in 2003, when he traveled to Seattle to promote 21 Grams; as the interview notes, he had moved to L.A. before shooting the movie, a displacement which forms part of the vibe of Bardo (which I haven’t seen yet). This piece was originally published in The Herald.
21 Grams is the second feature by Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, whose first effort, the Oscar-nominated Amores Perros, garnered international acclaim.
21 Grams was made in Hollywood, a perfectly justifiable leap, given Iñárritu’s talent. It’s a complex film about chance, tragedy, and the way three people’s lives overlap. The director came to the Northwest last month on a publicity tour, and I interviewed him in his hotel room.
Looking younger than his forty years, the dark-haired filmmaker spoke with an accent, but in expressive English. He talked about making a film that, because of its fragmented, time-slipping design, forces the audience to piece the story together.
“All the arts have revolutionized so much in a thousand years,” he mused. “But cinema is really young. Cinema has been basically the same for a hundred years. So I think there has to be a way to make things more interesting. This is a new century. The audience should be treated not as a passive and stupid.” Instead, he believes his method forces the audience to become an active participant in experiencing the movie, not merely receiving it. “To be alive in the film,” as Iñárritu puts it.
I asked whether this would limit the audience for his pictures. “You can never talk to everyone,” Iñárritu said. “Otherwise I would be a politician, and they lie. I always want to talk to the people that like good films.” He compared giving the audience a challenging film to presenting someone with a first computer. “At first they’re hard to get, scary. And then they get it, and they love it.”
The bleached look of 21 Grams is part of its power. “You don’t wash the silver in the lab,” Iñárritu said of the technical process. “It makes skin tone look less red. It brings out more grain,” for a harder look. The camera was hand-held, and the compositions deliberately kept unbalanced. “I wanted it to look like a documentary, but designed in some way.”
Iñárritu said that one of the main reasons he shot 21 Grams in the U.S. rather than Mexico was the chance to work with actors such as Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro, and Naomi Watts. “Sean was one of the main reasons I came here to make films. Such a person. But all the actors were a box of surprises, all of them.”
A native of Mexico City, the director moved to L.A. a year before shooting began, because, he said, “I have a headache with my English.” He said the story is not autobiographical, but that the tragedy at the center of the script came to him in a sudden image: a man coming home to a birthday party after killing someone in a car accident.
“To be trapped in a moral, physical situation,” was what interested him. “You explore the guilt, the way to find hope after that, how your life can be a mess, how the world can tear apart completely. There’s a moment you stop living and start surviving.”
Iñárritu credited his father with being the source of his interest in stories. “My father is a great storyteller. A hundred stories he has, and he tells them different ways each time. The most simple anecdote of his life becomes something special. That is a gift.” It’s a gift the son has inherited from the father.
November 11, 2022
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.