"We're just a bunch of Mexicans, trying to make a movie in America."

—Guillermo Arriaga, screenwriter, 21 Grams

In a way, this is my favorite time of year. The holidays are over, the new toys are either broken or well-integrated into the family lifestyle, and things are getting back to normal.

For me and mine, "normal" means a roughly three-month parade of free movies—industry passes at the local Bijou and/or invitations to private screenings which arrive thickly in my mailbox daily.

Basically I see them all, the ones I couldn't bring myself to even consider back in May (say, for example, Seabiscuit) as well as the high-brow and/or popular fare that is always released late in the year to qualify for the Oscars (Cold Mountain, The Last Samurai, Big Fish).

I sit in the best seats in the best theatres with my best buddies and watch the best and the worst that Hollywood has to offer. Sometimes the occasion can be painful: my then-eight-year-old and I saw The Lord of the Rings 13 times, for example. Because we could. And sometimes, like this year, I am reminded of why I got into the movie business in the first place.

Sometimes I see a film that takes my breath away.

Alejandro González Iñárritu's 21 Grams is such a film. I don't remember when a movie that had somehow been below my radar for so long has affected me so strongly.

They're tricky monsters, you know, movies. The best of them don't just sit there on the screen waiting for you to "get" them. The great ones make you work for your deep and lasting appreciation. Sometimes, like much art in my experience, a film can anger you at first view, usually because it's so far outside your own experience, because it's so original in conception and execution that it resembles nothing you've ever seen before.

Citizen Kane is such a film. Apocalypse Now qualifies, as does Andrei Tarkovsky's entire ouvre.

To a large degree, as well, world-class cinema depends—like a good acid trip or a bad marriage—very much on set and setting. Sometimes you've just gotta be in the mood. Like Christopher Nolan's Memento of a few seasons ago, 21 Grams, the story of three strangers whose lives are inextricably intertwined because of a tragic accident, demands that you leave your prejudices, your everyday trials and tribulations, and—most important— your ideas about what constitutes great "art" at the door.

Because art shows you where your shit is.

I was privileged to attend an industry screening of the film I want to call the "best" of the year last week. Present for a discussion following 21 Grams were its screenwriter, Guillermo Arriaga, Robert Salerno, co-producer along with Mr. Iñárritu, and Stephen Mirrione, the film's incredibly gifted editor.

To give you an idea of what transpired during and after the screening, I'll note that as the credits faded away and the house lights came up, there was not a sound in the theater. The audience, comprised of world-weary pros not unlike myself who've watched a lot of celluloid dreams unspool in our time, failed to give the film the giddy and tumultuous ovation that I experienced at similar screenings of In America, Cold Mountain, Big Fish and Lost in Translation.

We were, in a word, stunned. And as the film's creators regaled us with tales of its construction, nobody left the room; not a property man with an early call; not an assistant camerawoman with a brand-new baby. Not a single young director stuffed with the hubris of "hunh, I could have done that" stood up to ask a single stupid question.

Because, you know, none of us could have made that film.

To begin with, Guillermo Arriaga, the writer, is a genius who created the story out of whole cloth, imagining, he told us, what would have happened were he to attend his own birthday party after killing a man in a traffic accident. Or being a man killed in a traffic accident who never got to his party. Or being a witness to a man killed in a traffic accident and thinking about it all the way to the party for which he was late (the truth). You know how writing goes: it's fluid, watery as can be, till the hard climate of the page and then the screen freezes it for all time.

Like Amores Perros before it, 21 Grams is structured in a highly idiosyncratic fashion: we the audience can initially make absolutely no sense of its apparent inconsistencies of time and place, of set and setting. The end seems to be first, the beginning is abrupt, and the middle is hard to find. Who are these people who seem to be so haphazardly presented to us? Why should we even care?

Well, we care, finally, because Jack, Benicio Del Toro's born-again ex-con, Paul, Sean Penn's guilt-ridden heart-sick college professor, and Cristina, Naomi Watts's recovering addict-housewife are, like every character William Shakespeare ever created, complete, whole, living/breathing human beings in conflict. We care because we recognize non-linear bits and pieces of ourselves in them. And we care because 21 Grams proceeds, once you find its range, with the tragic inevitability of Sophocles. It's like a car-crash unfolding right before your eyes, existing in de-saturated slow motion and multi-phonic sound in a world all its own.

Film Editor Stephen Mirrione talked about it thus: "The challenge to editing a movie like this is that everyone is going to watch this and initially react in a different way. But they won't have to know or be expecting this or that to happen, because this movie will pull you along. It's going to impact everyone a little differently. You are feeling 21 Grams as it's happening. Then, at the end, when it's over, there will be the same overall emotional impact—it hits you."

When asked how he managed to come up with such a powerful arrangement of images, Mirrione demurred to the screenwriter, who admitted, not without chagrin, that he WROTE the film entirely the way it was presented.

"I have a little secret," Mr. Arriaga confessed. "Since childhood I have ADD. It's the way I think."

This brought a delighted laugh from the audience, but the writer continued: "The traditional three-act structure…I don't know. It isn't the way we tell stories, is it? Not really."

"I mean you say 'oh look, the boy, my son, he fell down off his bike and broke his tooth. You know, his mother, my wife, she has a similar broken tooth. Years ago her mother was not paying attention. Her mother was from Vera Cruz.'"

"And so the story begins. We don't mind that we don't always know where we are in the story because, hopefully, the story is a good one, and anyway, we like the story-teller."

The film's fragmented hallucinatory style is an extremely viable way to tell a story, in my opinion, particularly in this age of visually literate audiences with short attention spans. We find ourselves concentrating with unusual effort on what is unfolding before us. In a way, we are collaborating with the filmmaker as the tale progresses. We bring knowledge OF a character TO a character as he or she is presented to us. This is extremely gratifying. And it mimics, in a way, the manner in which we "discover" friends and enemies in "real" life. It's revolutionary cinema.

"Collaborating with Alejandro means high energy," reported Producer Robert Salerno. "He likes to hear from everybody—his DP, his costume designer, his production designer, whoever—and then puts the pieces together. He is passionate about everything that goes into a script and a film. That energy and passion inspire the crew and the actors."

"A few weeks of rehearsals preceded the start of production, and exhaustive research was the key element in both character construction and pre-production. Background research was required for every profession that appeared in the script, so hundreds of hours were spent interviewing doctors, professors, and ministers. Extras were, whenever possible, what they appeared to be; cardiologists played cardiologists, nurses were nurses. Even restaurant patrons were corralled from regulars at the eatery location. Workout enthusiasts appeared in the swimming pool and community center scenes."

Producer, editor, and writer referred, again and again all evening long, to the genius and commitment of the film's director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, a man I should very much like to buy a beer. The attention to detail that he lavished on the project, which took three years to complete, seems to me to be nothing short of superhuman. He's a young man (this is only his second film), and the mind boggles at what may lie ahead.

Regarding the choice of Memphis, for example, as the film's locale, Iñárritu was very specific in a previous interview: he found it to be "unique, and quite different from all the cities in the United States that I've known and visited. It reminds me a little bit of a Latin American city. Memphis has a strong personality and the people there still have their feet on the ground. It's the heart of America, with a nostalgic sad feeling. You can hear the blues in the air, plus the strength of the Mississippi River."

Screenwriter Arriaga confided that on a rare day off from production, he visited the Oxford, Mississippi home of his favorite author, William Faulkner, to whom the film owes somewhat of a debt, insofar as its fragmented style and sense of Old Testament grace and redemption are concerned.

"Wouldn't you know it?" he remarked. "It was closed. But—no matter. I climb the fence."

For me, this is metaphoric, delineating the process of discovering a unique film reality that has become the collaborative technique of this group of (essentially) Mexican filmmakers.

Many of my acquaintances who do not like the film (I know 20 people who hate it—always a good sign) complain that its style is haphazard, cacophonic, a gimmick. Listen to what Rodrigo Prieto, the film's visionary cinematographer, has to say about that in the December 2003 issue of American Cinematographer:

"We were separating each story with colors that we felt were appropriate. We pictured Paul's story in cool colors; the interior lighting is generally white, and the night exteriors have the cool, greenish look of metal-halide lamps. By contrast, we went for warmer colors for Jack; all of the night exteriors in his story are lit with sodium-vapor lamps, and we gelled lamps indoors with warm colors. The vibration of red-orange light is more intense, which we felt was right for the character. Cristina's story is presented neutrally, as something in between. In general, the lighting is white, but her story mixes so much Paul's that they both have blue-green night exteriors. And when they finally meet Jack, all three color schemes become more red-orange.

"We also played with different film stocks to keep the grain structures in different contrasts as the stories developed," Prieto continues. "When things were looking up for the characters, we'd use a finer-grained stock." For Paul's story, that meant Kodak Vision 250D 5246 stock for the scenes following his transplant, and for most of his scenes with Cristina. (Night interiors involving these characters were shot with Kodak Vision 500T 5279.) "Then, as things get more complex, we go to a heavier grain, Kodak Vision 800T 5289. The first third of Jack's story was 5279, and then we moved into 5289." In fact, the transition occurs in the midst of a sequence in which friends are gathered for Jack's birthday party, and the guest of honor is absent.

"Scenes that show the party happening without him were filmed on 5279, and the moment he arrives, we changed to 5289," says Prieto. "It's so subtle that it's likely no one will consciously notice it." When the characters converge in New Mexico for the film's climax, the scenes are rendered entirely with the heavy-grained 5289, made harsher by the bleach-bypass process.

"Prior to shooting, we did many, many tests involving wardrobe, palettes of background colors, film stocks and lighting colors," the cinematographer recalls. "We didn't initially approach those choices in a way that actually gave them intellectual meaning; we just went with what we felt. We kept making tests, and we arrived at the final scheme through discovery, not design."

Testing also helped determine what effect Deluxe Lab's CCE silver-retention process would have on the images. "I was almost fighting the process in the way I was lighting," Prieto reveals. "We didn't want the look to be extremely contrasty, but we did want it to have an extra edge, a vibration. Lighting by eye, I had to fight my instincts and be very aware of the actors' eyes, which normally would have been perfectly exposed. The nervousness caused by that approach gave the shoot a special energy for me. We couldn't take anything for granted - we were surprised by the test results every time! A color that we thought would read gray would turn out to be completely black. That's why we tested every piece of wardrobe and every single set color."

Inarritu and Prieto also shot-listed the movie in prep, but only for general guidance. They wanted to achieve a style of camerawork that would feel spontaneous, but wouldn't call attention to itself. "The objective was to make the film as unobtrusive as possible visually," says Prieto. "The images support the power, drama and emotions of the story, but we hope they don't make you think about the way the film was shot. Our goal was a kind of minimalism, in the sense that we didn't use any cranes or dollies. We were working handheld all the time, even on static shots, because we wanted to create the feeling that the camera was present with the actors, moving, reacting and breathing with them."

Indeed, this may be more detail regarding the "look" of the film than the average audience member needs to know, but the thoroughness of the artists' approach marks them as filmmakers with whom to be reckoned.

And incidentally, the film was not shot in 16mm (as dannye wonders aloud in the accompanying write up), but rather in traditional 35 mm utilizing an Arriflex Moviecam SL, a lightweight camera with Zeiss Ultra Prime lenses. "We wanted to see every blemish and nuance of the actors' faces," notes Prieto.

So there you have it: a film that is, perhaps, at bottom, about blemishes, the idiosyncrasies that make us human, and, at the other end of the spectrum, at the top of the fence that we all must someday climb, the aspirations that, ultimately, bring us closer to the divine.

21 Grams is my favorite film of this, and probably MANY a year.

Prepare to be amazed.

On Hollywood and filmmaking:

Below the Line

sex drugs and divorce

a little life, interrupted
  1. Hecho en Mejico
  2. Entrances
  3. Sam's Song
  4. Hemingway and Fortuna
  5. Hummingbird on the Left
  6. The Long and Drunken Afternoon
  7. Safe in the Lap of the Gods
  8. Quetzal Birds in Love
  9. Angela in Paradise
  10. And the machine ran backwards

a secondhand coffin
how to act
Right. Me and Herman Melville
Scylla and Charybdis Approximately
snowflakes and nylon

I could've kissed Orson Welles
the broken dreams of Orson Welles
the last time I saw Orson Welles
The Other Side of the Wind

Below the Line
completion bond
Film Editing
Film Editor
Final Cut Pro
forced development
HD Video
king of the queens
Kubrick polishes a turd
movies from space
Persistence of Vision
Sven Nykvist
Wilford Brimley

21 Grams
Andrei Rublyov
Apocalypse Now Redux
Hearts and Minds
Ivan's Childhood
The Jazz Singer
The Sacrifice
We Were Soldiers
Wild Strawberries