Erik Jaccard‘s broken laptop forces him to rethink his own narrative structure while re-viewing the decidedly non-linear Iñárritu film, 21 Grams.
Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu/Screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga
Starring: Benicio del Toro; Naomi Watts; Sean Penn; Charlotte Gainsbourg; Melissa Leo; Danny Huston
Hello again. I come to you this evening from the tip of a pen, which has, in my moderately dire state of technological misfortune, become my default, my last ditch weapon of choice, the only way this re-view will otherwise come to light (even if it is inevitably to be re-written digitally). Why am I writing by hand? Well, suffice it to say that I am currently a long way from home (in Edinburgh, Scotland, to be precise), and currently without my laptop, which earlier this week succumbed to some foul magic and is currently undergoing some dark process of silicone alchemy which will hopefully restore it to its erstwhile state of functionality. So, with no other options on a cold Friday night in Scotland, I strangely find myself lying stomach-down on my little flower-patterned bed, in my chilly little single room, with my feet up in the air behind me (the bed is regular size; I am not), having myself an honest to gosh Dear Diary moment and wondering whether I have what it takes to write something of considerable length, by hand, in what amounts to a university-style blue book. In any case, I’m going to do my best given the circumstances. If you’re feeling like adding a little imaginative ambience to your reading experience, picture me scribbling furiously, hunched over a parchment, while water drips through the stones of the abandoned kirk in which I have holed up, candlelight flickering across the page…maybe some bats. Feel free to go to town on the fantasy. While you’re working at that, I’m going to write to keep warm and so I can eventually finish and go drink in the pub, which is what you do when you’re cold and it’s Friday and your computer’s broken and the words are flowing.
Given my constraints, this will likely be a shorter iteration of what is usually a much longer and more involved process for me. But in some ways that actually feels freeing. I tend to get very much in my head when writing these things, and I think it will do me a great deal of good to be forced to boil this down as much as possible.
So, 21 Grams. Ten years ago I watched the film as a matinee, alone, at a cinema near Sydney, Australia’s Circular Quay, a bustling waterfront locale stuffed with street performers, trinket and food peddlers, ferry-goers, and, as I recall, Aboriginal dudes selling CDs of their didgeridoo band. (My friend bought one, and he said it was kind of weird, if ultimately positive. Something like a didgeridoo jam with spooky ancestral spirit voiceovers saying things like ‘Don’t do druuuuugs.’) Now, Sydney in December (their summer) is a mighty fine place to be. There are tons to do, the weather is pristine, and there are all manner of folk out and about and carrying on. (I once walked right past Geoffrey Rush on my way to work, which was too cool for words.) At the same time, for those of us from the milder climes, it can be a bit on the sweltering side (a mixed blessing, I know, and one I oughtn’t to complain about given Seattle’s steadfastly non-sweltering character) and at that point, when I had yet to find gainful employment, I sometimes sought out tolerable temperatures in the caverns of the cinema. Such was the case on this particular afternoon.
So, very, very, excited at the prospect of a new film from the directing/writing team of Iñárritu and Arriaga (whose Academy-Award-nominated Amores Perros (2000) I had very much enjoyed), I plunked myself down in the mustycool darkness of the theatre and experienced what I can only describe as something of a 120-minute nonstop headfuck. There were two components to this. 1) As those who have seen it, or any of Iñárritu’s work, the film is nonlinear in its narrative form, fusing together the lives of three central protagonists around the gravitational center of one particularly tragic event. But unlike, say, Memento, which at least features a kind of recognizably patterned non-linearity (back to front/front to back), 21 Grams didn’t seem remotely organized on that first viewing. The first scene took place late in the plot, the tragedy something like a third of the way through, and many of the major dramatic confrontations and key moments at seemingly arbitrary times that made it difficult to link things together in a causal chain of events. The all-important life choices of the characters made less and less sense, divorced as they were from their own effects. Turning and turning in its alienating little gyre, the film seemed like a kaleidoscope view of tragedy and grief: It’s a movie in which things really do fall apart at the seams, assuming there is even a center to which they were attached in the first place. And I wasn’t sure there was.
Which leads me to 2) I remember going into that film on something of a personal and emotional high note and leaving it feeling numb and drained, like I’d just been exposed to a massive, undifferentiated emotional morass (hell, maybe, if I’d believed in it). As I mentioned in my last re-view of Lost in Translation, I was a little bit of a bad place at the end of that year. Nonetheless, it was often difficult to feel like crap in Sydney, where there were new people to meet, new beaches to lie on, new sports to watch, new books to read, new beers to drink, new music to listen to, new, new, new, new. But man, watching 21 Grams was a sledgehammer to my fragile self-confidence and tenuous emotional stability. I guess I never like to admit things like this, but I came out of 21 Grams bleary, blinking in what at that point seemed like harsh and unforgiving sunlight (not unlike the lighting/editing in the film itself), and about ready to cry. But despite hovering at the brink of that particular mini-meltdown, I spent some time sitting on a bench, watching the ferries push their way out across Sydney harbour to Manly, Taranga, Darling Harbour, and Parramatta. I listened to the birds and the people and tried to remember where I was and why everything was not, actually, suddenly lost and without all connection. Eventually I regained my equilibrium and walked home. But the film stayed with me for weeks. Later, when I was offered an opportunity to watch it again, in a small movie house in Melbourne’s St. Kilda district, I did, as some unexplainable attempt at forced attrition for a crime I wasn’t even sure I had committed.
As you may have gathered, 21 Grams is a heavy film, and more than that, it’s confusingly heavy. You can feel the lost center of inertia around which its disconnected narrative flits and flirts and falls, but you can never quite touch it or fully comprehend what it is that’s sneaking into your head. It’s more than simple tragedy or grief or lost faith or shattered dreams, though there is plenty of all that to go around. No, the themes are not the bothersome part at all. We’ve seen those themes done before, and done well. What seems most bothersome at first, at least if you know what it is that you’re paying attention to, is the uncenterdness of everything, the way the films seems to forcibly shut down every possible safety net or order. There is no society in the film in which you can place your faith and there is certainly no God in any traditional sense of that word (I think that perhaps there is one in an untraditional sense, even if it is only the viewer and their perspective(s)). Family, love, even the certainties of living are in doubt, as are all the choices you make, which are bound to be bad, even if good, or else the likely product of random chance. When Sean Penn’s Paul lies dying in a hospital bed and asks ‘who will be the first one to lose his life?’, the question itself seems absurd in a world in which the more relevant question is rather who will be the first to regain it, to find one whole, distinct human being once the scraps are swept off the floor and reassembled with ancient crumbling scotch tape, hung from the ceiling like a mobile, and dared to move.
21 Grams is, then, a form of aggressive art. It gets in your face, bluntly, forcedly. It dares you to forge connections with its characters and their world, to make their world your world and to potentially suffer the consequences. There are consequences because doing so means trying to connect with something devoid of connection to anything beyond tragedy, grief, revenge, and the visual representation of a story only loosely connected, if not actually coming apart before your eyes, along with the people whose story it tells.
In 2003 this was all so overwhelming for me that I honestly didn’t know what to do with it. So I let it go, telling myself that I really did quite like the film, but that I might be hard pressed to explain exactly why beyond offering a mute gesture at its absent center. I might have shrugged and said how do we make choices that matter in an absurd world? How do we make connections with others, here or elsewhere? If you wanted to, you could say that these are some of the primary questions you take away from 21 Grams and, as much as I might have liked to say these words or consider the questions glumly, I’m not sure I would have believed them. I might simply have chalked it up to the power of ‘art’ and left it at that, uncertain of how to go any further, or maybe simply afraid to.
Stepping back from my experience and reading for a second by way of speaking in more practical terms, it’s difficult to say that it was not a success in 2003. Situated in the middle of Iñárritu’s so-called ‘death trilogy’ (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel), it’s probably the strongest and most coherent of the three. (At least, it delivers on all the promise of Amores Perros but doesn’t quite fall to some of the overwrought depths of Babel.) Whatever we might think of the narrative form and its effects, you have to admit that the conceit is pulled off remarkably, with understated flair and minimal distraction, and that we must give credit where credit is due, to Iñárritu, to Arriaga’s script, and also to the cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto (I would compare Iñárritu’s work with Prieto to that of Alfonso Cuarón with Emmanuel Lubezki). Moreover, 21 Grams showcases a handful of actors either at the very top of their game or on the brink of coming into their own. Benicio Del Toro and Naomi Watts, each of whom were nominated for an Academy Award, and whose characters are drawn with the most elastic potential for dramatic development and redemption, manage to take characters who could very, very easily become simple grotesques in the film’s menagerie of tragedy and play them with shifting nuances and humanities (yes, plural) to which other actors may not have been able to grant us access. Both Charlotte Gainsbourg (Lars von Trier’s current muse) and Melissa Leo are here revealing that will find greater expression later, with larger roles in less confined dramatic circumstances. Late 2003 gave us a wallop of Sean Penn, but I ultimately think that his turn as grieving, vengeful Jimmy Markam in Mystic River far outdoes his turn here as Paul, a somewhat smug and self-satisfied participant in the larger tripartite drama involving Del Toro’s Jack and Watts’s Cristina. Paul is for me the hardest of the three protagonists to empathize with. His choices seem the most random and difficult to account for and, at least this time around, I didn’t care for his faux-pontificating on the wonder that is mathematics, or his ability to quote Venezuelan poetry or early 19th century pseudo-science (see Free Floating Thoughts below for a bit more on the ’21 grams theory’). At the end of the day, he’s a manipulative bastard when you think about it, and hard to understand. Penn’s trademark oscillation between calm reassurance, confident swagger, and crazy-eyed lunacy also bothered me more here and he was never, ever as convincing in his brief madnesses as either of his costars.
For your average film-goer accustomed to the presentation of time in one-dimension (like a stream, flowing from a source to a mouth), films like 21 Grams are always going to be either frustrating or exhilarating, precisely because the narrative experience involves so much work. For those who just want to watch a story being told, it would undoubtedly be irksome to feel as though the teller were challenging you to not only understand the story, its themes, and its various points of reference, but also the meaning in the act of telling itself. For others, deciphering the supplemental meaning that emerges in the act of telling is a thrilling hermeneutic game in and of itself, and if significances arise in the act of interpretation, all the better. I have to admit to having both of these reactions this time around. Always thrilled by an intellectual puzzle, the side of my brain which enjoys the promise of a confusion that may lead to transcendence later on was always on alert, always ready to note patterns and equivalences (and discontinuities) which might and eventually help me unroll the riddle. On the other hand, I don’t know if it’s because I’m older now or simply more experienced in interpretation and less likely to take seemingly ‘deep’ or intellectual narrative experiments as inherently valuable, but I also couldn’t get around just how dark the form of the movie seems to make what might otherwise be a story at least inching toward redemption. While I don’t need to believe that human beings are either inherently good or bad, my experience of them doesn’t bear out the conclusion that actions and choices resist interpretation or reduction to a line—some line—of order or structure. And in 21 Grams it’s difficult to deny that even the moments which seem moving towards a resolution, or that might hint at redemption are constantly undercut as they shift and evolve, changing meaning as the out-of-order sequences pile up, each changing the meaning of the one that came before it.
It’s possible that what we’re meant to see in the form is not this conclusion, not the notion that a lack of order is the same as undermining all order, or all meaning. There’s too much of the human in this film to ultimately suggest that. But sometimes I felt that the human was fighting, fighting, fighting to make something of itself, to erect at least a semblance of shape and color and life and that the narrative was constantly saying ‘no, in order to have that you must have a story, and sorry, but your story is broken. I want to believe that there’s a slight ray of hope at the end of 21 Grams, that Jack coming home and Cristina finally opening the door to her daughters’ room signifies something other than random chance. It may be that the human does win out, after all. But I’m not sure, and perhaps neither is 21 Grams.
Right, that’s me at my limit. Plus, I just heard the church next door chime beer o’clock, which is my cue. So I bid you farewell for 2013. I’ve got a big year ahead and lots to do, which means you’ll likely see considerably less of me, though I will no doubt be here in spirit. But I will be back in March to be exact to talk about one of my favourite films of the last decade,Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Until then, friends, keep on keeping on and happy holidays.
Free Floating Thoughts
l I didn’t notice (or care) the first couple times I watched the film, but the score is really uneven in places. At first it seems right on point—spare guitar work, lonely sound drifting through empty space, but then, later, during what is probably the most fraught portion of the film, it switches to this strange Balkan-sounding death waltz, with accordions and some kind of wavering vibrato. It seems incommensurate with the geist of the film, even if we are meant to be feeling anti-geist.
l I’m sorry, she’s a beautiful woman for sure, but Naomi Watts is always going to look like she has small chipmunk cheeks. Am I an asshole for saying that? Probably. If I ever meet her she can slap me or, perhaps, tell in me in retribution that I have an alien-shaped head. Also true.
l I’ve always been interested in the brief cinematographic interludes (is it in an ‘interlude’ because we associate the cinematic with the passing of time, whereas the photographic is static?) that offset or punctuate the rest of the narrative segments. They’re generally just pretty shots of sunset/rise sky with dark objects floating (leaves) or flapping (birds) across the foreground, like so:
Or else they’re shots of locations tangential to, but once referenced in dramatic action, like this, the film’s final shot:
Both of these shots echo earlier iterations of visual symbols relevant to the film or its characters. If nothing else, the birds which we see here we also see later on, flying in a different direction. This empty pool, shown once before soaked in a glaze of midday sun, clearly mirrors the actual swimming pool used by Cristina both before and after the film’s central tragedy. I suppose there is something of a consistency to the symbols, as though we are meant to see visual and material markers connecting the characters and their lives in ways which mirror their own connections (and broken connections). The symbols are always the same but different, recalling the earlier meaning we have formed but altering it subtly, just as the disjunctive narrative flow of the film itself does to the story it tells.
Another idea: they’re really beautiful and alive in various ways with something difficult to pinpoint. In any case, they’re not simply scenery. They are either devoid of or imbued with some kind of energy, moving or still, either some presence or absence. Last night I took a train from Edinburgh to Glasgow to meet a friend for dinner. As I stared out the window of a moving train at dark shapes silhouetted against the last fading indigo shades of the sunset, I couldn’t help but recalling those birds and thinking of my own perspective, linked to the larger mapped perspective of Iñárritu’s film, whatever that ultimately may be, and I felt good in a mysterious and slightly unsettling way. I didn’t understand what I was feeling fully, but what I what I was able to dredge out of my own muddled emotions was the idea that the interludes in the film no longer felt ‘random.’ I was, in the act of groping for connections and links, at least trying to make them, something 21 Grams suggests we must do, even if we ultimately find them elusive.
l I’ve been chewing over whether 21 Grams deserves the label ‘experimental’ and I’m not sure that it does. For one, there’s nothing here that we haven’t already seen before, not the non-linear narration, or the themes it raises, or the questions of choice and fate and it raises. The film may be unusual as a mass-marketed, full-distribution product, maybe, but if someone wanted to tack on the label ‘experimental,’ I would want an explanation of/argument for why it should be seen as such. If 21 Grams is ‘experimental,’ it is ‘experimental’ in the same sense that ‘X band’ is ‘indie.’ Which is to say it’s as much a marketing category within the larger ‘indie’ film universe as it is a massively inventive take on filmmaking (are there any massively new filmic interventions to be had?)
l I don’t know why, but I feel like Charlotte Gainsbourg plays a version of the same character in every film.
l Is it me, or are Benicio del Toro’s most dramatically delivered lines here delivered in a way not far removed from that of Dr. Gonzo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? I’m thinking particularly of the ‘the guilt will suck you to the bone’ line in the beginning and then, later, the iconic, “Hell? This is hell. Right here!”
l For any who care, the film’s titular scientific reference, that we all lose 21 grams of weight at the exact moment of our death, has never been proven (probably not a surprise). But you can read more about it here.
l I am not an actor. I’ve had no training and I’ve never been taught how to properly ‘appreciate’ acting for any of its technical qualities. Like most, I respond to acting in terms of its supposed verisimilitude, and its effect, either in terms of the story it’s helping to tell or the raw emotional effect it seems to produce (which must surely be a kind of visual translation of Wimsatt and Beardsley’s ‘affective fallacy’). That said, I’m fairly certain that Naomi Watts does an exemplary job with her major dramatic scenes in this film. The first, when we watch her learn that her husband and daughters are dead, feels like watching a human being crumpling from the inside, like a piece of notebook paper similarly compressed in a hand and then disposed of in a bin. No matter how many times I watch the film, it always affects me. The second, which I found more impressive this time around, occurs when Paul tells Cristina that he has her husband’s heart. The speed in which she goes from desperate grief and pathetic sexual attraction to pure rage is astonishing in its authenticity. To me. I guess. And then there’s the scene which actually affected me less this time around, I think because I was ready for it, when she admits that her emotional state is akin to paralysis or amputation. It’s possible that what was seeing this time around was not simply the grief in the scene, but the manipulation, the goading disguised as rage and despair. You can judge for yourself, but all three still impress the hell out of me. For your reference, the last two are here and here. I wasn’t able to locate the first.