Spotlight On: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Posted on October 14, 2014
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest film, Birdman, is released in the US this Friday. It’s a comedy, which might come as a surprise to those familiar with his ‘death trilogy’ (more on that later). What’s more it sounds like Birdman is a comedy Hollywood might like. It follows an out of work actor, famed for his superhero roles, as he tries to rescue his career by staging a Broadway play. It’s an interesting role for former Batman actor Michael Keaton who stars alongside Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis and Naomi Watts.
There are already some stellar reviews emerging. Vulture says it’s ‘the very definition of a tour de force‘ while the Hollywood Reporter says it ‘will surely strike a strong chord with audiences looking for something fresh that will take them somewhere they haven’t been before‘.
In celebration of Birdman (and in an effort to curb my own excitement awaiting the film’s UK release date in January 2015), I’ll be spending the next few weeks looking back at Iñárritu’s four feature films: Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful.
If you haven’t seen Iñárritu’s films before, they’re not for the faint hearted. His four feature films prior to Birdman deal unflinchingly with some of the most disturbing aspects of humanity. From Mexico’s dog-fighting rings to the underground world of trafficked immigrants, Iñárritu’s characters are some of the most deprived. Often battling terminal illness, they experience the full violence of love and death. What’s perhaps most interesting about Iñárritu’s work is that each one of these films elicits a very personal response on behalf of the viewer.
The ‘death trilogy’
It’s hard work hooking audiences on a trilogy about death. But that’s exactly what Iñárritu did with his first three films Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel. All three feature harrowing plot lines and characters struggling with guilt, loss and regret. Yet the term ‘death trilogy’ should be taken as a loose one, incorporating the death of ideals, hopes and dreams as well as physical, corporeal death and its impact on those left behind. These three films are as much about love and living – from family ties to passionate affairs – as they are about the finality of death. Iñárritu himself has questioned the accuracy of the term ‘death trilogy’ and I’ll be posting another feature later in the month that explores this definition of his films.
Unique storytelling with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga
For me, the success of Iñárritu’s trilogy lies in the creativity of the storytelling – both in terms of writing and visuals. All three films saw Iñárritu collaborate with writer Guillermo Arriaga whose screenplays delicately interlock different stories or perspectives through a single tragic event. The films have a beginning, middle and an end but they are jumbled, the connections between the stories revealing themselves gradually.
The premiere of Babel at the Cannes Film Festival saw the beautiful synchronicity of these two filmmakers arrive at an abrupt end. Disagreeing over who was the ‘real’ auter behind the trilogy, particularly 21 Grams, Iñárritu reportedly banned Arriaga from the screening. Arriaga has since been a strong advocate for screenwriters and collaborative filmmaking (you can read an excellent article on the relationship between Iñárritu and Arriaga in the New York Times here).
Iñárritu’s fourth film Biutiful saw the director separate from Arriaga, writing his own screenplay with Nicolás Giacobone and Armando Bo, both of whom would go on to co-write Birdman. Biutiful currently sits outside accepted definitions of the ‘death’ series despite its focus on end of life themes in respect of fatherhood and immigration. It is, arguably, his darkest and most harrowing film to date.
Despite Iñárritu’s association with dark subject matter he has been involved with some of the world’s most celebrated adverts. In 2010, he directed Nike’s three minute commercial Write The Future ahead of the World Cup. It takes a lighthearted look at the impact of football on everything from the economy to the movies and even features Gael García Bernal, who was first introduced by Iñárritu in Amores Perros. The advert went on to win Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions advertising festival.
Iñárritu’s advertising work reaped further awards in 2012 when his direction of the Proctor and Gamble ad Best Job won Best Primetime Commercial at the Creative Arts Emmys. The advert honoured mums around the world with the slogan ‘the hardest job in the world is the best job in the world’.
In addition to his advertising work, Iñárritu has been involved with a wide variety of short film projects including 11’9″01, a series of shorts highlighting the impact of September 11 in different countries around the world. Iñárritu makes a brave choice presenting a simple black screen with audible reactions to the event as it happened including news recordings and answer-phone messages. Using only a few frames of people falling from the towers, it’s followed by a white screen and the words ‘Does God’s light guide us or blind us?’
Following 11’09″01 Iñárritu directed the short, ANNA, as part of a collection entitled To Each His Own Cinema. It’s a beautiful four minute short that captures a woman’s emotional reaction to a film before coming out of the cinema to face real life.
On the horizon
Iñárritu is set to follow Birdman with The Revenant. It’s billed as an 1820s revenge saga about Hugh Glass, the frontiersman left for dead after being mauled by a bear. The Revenant is scheduled for release late in 2015 and has a star studded cast including Tom Hardy, Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Poulter and Domhnall Gleeson.
Back To Birdman
I’ll continue my Iñárritu series in the next few days by exploring some of the recurring images the director uses in his debut feature Amores Perros. For now, check out the trailer for Birdman below.
Birdman is released in the US on Friday 17 October 2014 and in the UK on 2 January 2015.
What do you think of Iñárritu’s work? Are you looking forward to Birdman? Drop me a line in the comments below and stay tuned for more posts about Iñárritu’s work over the next few weeks.