- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2003

NEW YORK CITY - To understand “Amores Perros” and “21 Grams,” a pair of movies from two of the Mexican new wave’s brightest lights, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, you have to know this story.

The setting is a highway pass through a Mexican mountain range. Mr. Arriaga: “We were seven in the car, three kids and four adults. I was sitting in the back seat. The guy who was driving my own truck began playing, ‘Yeah! Yeah! Woo!’ … and suddenly” — he gives a long whistle, signaling a drop over a precipice.

He continues: “I was sleeping. Suddenly, I woke up, rolling, with the breaking metal and the shattering of the glass and the shouting and the kwaaaghhhh. I said, ‘I cannot die.’

“I lost my nose, crushed against a rock. I was, like, impressed by the accident,” says a matter-of-fact Mr. Arriaga.

So that’s where The Accident comes from.

Those who’ve seen 2000’s “Amores Perros” will eventually recognize the trope in “21 Grams,” which opened yesterday in area theaters: The horrific road tragedy, the interconnecting thread inexorably pulling three people who don’t know each other into its world-upending drama.

Rebecca Miller pilfered the idea for her “Personal Velocity” last year, and there’s likely one more trilogy-concluding movie on the way from Mr. Arriaga and Mr. Inarritu, who were here in Manhattan recently to promote “21 Grams,” an Oscar-buzzy movie starring Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro and Naomi Watts.

“I wanted to write a movie of love and hope,” says Mr. Arriaga, tall, bald, strongly built but soft-spoken. “This is a movie where three characters are in hell, and they think they have overcome hell.”

Mr. Penn’s character thinks he’s beaten terminal illness; Miss Watts, drug and alcohol abuse; Mr. Del Toro, a life of criminality and prison. They’re all wrong.

“When they think they have arrived at a safe haven, circumstances take them down to the deepest hell,” Mr. Arriaga says.

That’s exactly where Mr. Arriaga, a novelist before he took to screenwriting, likes his characters: in the abyss, where even the best of humanity is capable of cruelty; where he says life is lived “in the extreme.”

An atheist, Mr. Arriaga has zero use for religion, a fact that’s made scornfully clear through Mr. Del Toro’s character, a broken man who embraces charismatic Christianity at a church of working-class people.

The character was inspired less from cultural disdain, however, than from personal pique.

Mr. Arriaga explains: “One of my best friends who was an atheist got married to one these reborn Christians, and he stopped being my friend. And he ended his relationship with his father because his wife said, ‘Everyone outside of our community belongs to the devil.’ So, I was part of the devil, and he stopped talking to me.”

Beyond his friend’s withdrawal is the business of afterlife, or the lack thereof, which lies at the root of Mr. Arriaga’s fascination with accidents that randomly snuff out life.

“I think this is the only life we have,” he says. “I want to make clear that life is very fragile, that life is not granted and you could lose someone you love” — he snaps his fingers —”right away.”

Hence, his fascination with the myth of the 21 grams.

“It’s a fact I haven’t corroborated myself,” he says. “But they say that some doctors have weighed dying people on scales, and at the exact moment of death they lose 21 grams.

“I think that we must value life everyday,” he says, “and we must be committed to life. ‘21 Grams’ is a metaphor for that commitment.”

To heighten the sense of life’s randomness, Mr. Arriaga carpentered the “21 Grams” narrative as a fragmented, dreamlike pastiche that gradually unfolds its chronology.

The movie was not, as some might assume, written as a conventional linear narrative and then rewritten like a reshuffled deck of cards.

Just thinking about the string of aha! moments, when the movie solves all its ambiguities, gives Mr. Arriaga goose bumps, if he does say so himself.

“The structure you watch is the structure I used. I wrote it that way,” he says. “Some screenwriting teachers say you must know everything about your character. I never know anything.

“I begin writing, and I say, ‘In this scene he’s dead.’ But I don’t know how it happened. I know the ending of the story but I don’t know the end of the script,” he says.

Audiences tend to judge things immediately, but “this structure obligates you to think, to make another judgment,” Mr. Inarritu says.

In this post-music video age of filmmaking moviegoers are well prepared for a movie such as “21 Grams,” Mr. Arriaga believes.

“I think that contemporary audiences are much more sophisticated,” he says. “I wanted the fragmentation to become an emotional experience; you can establish a much deeper dialogue with the audience. They can begin to feel the gaps [in] the information and feel much more involved in the film.”

“It makes the audience more proactive,” says Mr. Inarritu. “It’s a risky thing, but I trust the audience.”

After two movies together, Mr. Arriaga and Mr. Inarritu work together like, depending on who tells it, quarterback and receiver or husband and wife.

Mr. Arriaga likens it to “The Catch” in 1981’s National Football Conference Championship game: “Joe Montana to Dwight Clark. You remember? Joe Montana knew that Dwight Clark was going to be there. I know that he’s going to be there.”

Mr. Inarritu is more pragmatic: “He writes things, then I meet with him and I express my fears, my concerns, my ideas. We share that. We argue and we fight, like any relationship; it’s a marriage.”

On the question of what they get out of filmmaking, the same divide between idealism and pragmatism reappears.

“Everybody will get different things from this film,” says the director. “If there is some emotional movement, then I achieve what I want.” A modest hope.

The stakes are higher for Mr. Arriaga. For him, writing novels and movies is to tilt at the windmill of life, to find meaning in an empty universe.

“Art is the way we fight against death,” he says.


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