Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Director Alejandro González Iñárritu and The Screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga

Naomi Watts in 21 Grams.

Like a lot of people, the first thing I do every morning is check out the New York Times, particularly on Fridays, when they review the new movies. Today A.O. Scott offered a fascinatingly, enticingly mixed review of Babel, which unfortunately isn't opening this week in Columbia.

The review did, however, alert me to the work of the interesting pair behind it, director Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, whose longtiome association has apparently suffered somewhat over Arriaga's statement that on their films he is as much the author of the film as the director.

This has raised fresh questions about that old critical tarbaby, the auteur theory, from Terrence Rafferty in the Sunday Times and today by Doree Shafrir in

Shafrir gives a fairly good background on the theory, fathered in France by Francois Truffaut and reared in this country by Andrew Sarris. The auteur theory says a film (particularly ones made with a "personal style," which naturally includes the films of all great directors) the work of the director, which means that no matter how long the writer slaved over story, character, scene, coherence, etc., that the authorship of a film really goes to the director. It's his, or her, film.

This has been hashed over many times through the decades, and I've personally gone back and forth on it myself, because there are so many excellent examples either way as to who the true film author is.

On the one hand, when you compare it to theater, it looks ridiculous. No matter how brilliantly Josh Logan might have staged Eugene O'Neill's plays, for example, none of us would accept a Playbill that said "Long Day's Journey into Night -- A Josh Logan Play." But take the work of a fantastic screenwriter like Charlie Kaufman, whose screenplays are at least as personally reflective and autobiographical as O'Neill's, and it's a different story. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, no matter how imaginatively conceived and scripted, is still "A Michael Gondry Film."

Pauline Kael, siding very much with the writer, took the auteur theory to task many times, most notoriously, perhaps, in her famous essay on Citizen Kane. The essay had some credibility problems, namely for her bold assertion that eventhough the script was credited to both Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz, Welles didn't write a word of it. No one has ever really settled who wrote what -- although it seems inconceivable to me that Welles didn't have a hand in at least shaping it, given the fact that he had written a script titled "Five Kings," an attempt to harness Shakespeare's Bolingbroke cycle of history plays into one single story that employed the same multiple point of view that Kane later did -- but even if Welles wrote nothing, if the film belongs to any one person, it would have to be Welles. When you watch a great film like Kane, perhaps more than any other, you become made aware all over again of just what people mean when they call film a visual medium. Yes, yes, yes, the dialogue is terrific and witty and smart -- it's one of the most quotable movies in history -- but what you see is so very much Welles' vision, his craft, his -- and cinematographer Gregg Toland's -- angles, composition, mise-en-scene, etc. His editing, too, since he had control over editing.

But here's another thought about that film that I have every time I watch it -- if the script stayed intact and the worst hack in Hollywood had directed it, it would still be a pretty good film. On balance, I think it's true what Akira Kurosawa once said, that a third-rate director can't hurt a great script and that a first-rate director can't save a bad one.

In hopes of backing my way into the issue that started this discussion, I rented an earlier González Iñárritu - Arriaga joint, the American film 21 Grams, which I'd never seen before.

First of all, it's an excellent film, and maybe a great one all around: brilliantly written and directed, and the acting by Sean Penn, Benicio del Toro and especially Naomi Watts is just through the roof. But it also, just by its very nature, raises questions about which of the two men behind the scenes did what, and which one is principally responsible for making the film work as well as it did. If I was a betting man, I'd say the director. It's one of those movies that starts out very, very complex and becomes increasingly clear -- that's what makes it so watchable, because you spend so much time just trying to get your bearings straight and figure out what's going on. All you know going in is that's about three people -- a college professor played by Penn, a mom played by Watts, and a Bible-quoting ex-con played by del Toro -- who are connected in ways you can't immediately figure. We see them at different stages and we don't know what's past and what's present. We see Penn extremely sick, and we see him well; we see Watts as a buoyant suburban mom, and as a coked-out junkie; we see del Toro in prison and out, with his family and without. So you're watching it with all these chicken-or-egg questions racing through your head, and very slowly they all snap together. These are three people whose destiny is that their paths will cross in such a way as to radically re-alter their lives, and we see them before and after that transformation.

A.O. Scott wrote this in his Friday review:

The splintered, jigsaw-puzzle structure of “Babel” will be familiar to viewers who have seen “Amores Perros” or “21 Grams,” the other two features Mr. Arriaga and Mr. González Iñárritu have made together. Indeed, this movie belongs to an increasingly common, as yet unnamed genre — “Crash” is perhaps the most prominent recent example — in which drama is created by the juxtaposition of distinct stories, rather than by the progress of a single narrative arc.

I think it has been named, actually -- Altmanesque -- but in the case of 21 Grams the splintering, the ratcheting up of the tension, the constant jutting back and forth, is so frantic that it's hard for me to imagine it being precisely scripted that way beforehand. Not only that, the level of intensity it creates, both by way of editing and the use of hand-held camera and manipulation of sound, seem to me purely directorial choices. Whether those powerhouse performances were coaxed into life by the director or the genius intuition of the actors, well, I can't say.

But, to get back to the Kurosawa model above, it's also a really first-rate script; a script whose power seems to me to have been expertly enhanced by its, um, auteur, or if you prefer, one of its two auteurs. Either way, this is a truly remarkable team. I look forward to Amores Perros, and I can't wait to see Babel.

In the meantime, I have four Fassbinders I hope to be getting to shortly: Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?, Whity, Beware of a Holy Whore, and The Niklashausen Journey.

And, glutton for punishment that I am, I'm plunging further into Dostoevsky, but I've go to quit reading him in coffee houses. Yesterday I was stuck between two people talking to each other about two different things, Noam Chomsky in one ear and peppermint birth control in the other as I sit there trying to follow Ivan Karamazov's argument about atheism and Ultramontanism. I must have read the same page ten times. Thought I'd have a an Empire State Building-sized migraine.

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