The music of chance
'Babel,' like all the films by Alejandro González Iñárritu, is a symphony of interconnected lives
The great passion of director Alejandro González Iñárritu -- many would argue his great gift -- is for building collages, and his new film, "Babel," which opens Friday , is another of his collage works. While the devastating edges of his earlier films, " Amores Perros" and "21 Grams," are tempered with hope, the themes of loss, alienation, and colliding worlds remain. The film starts in Morocco with two young goatherds who have a new Winchester rifle. A few miles away, an American couple, played by a leathered Brad Pitt and grave Cate Blanchett, are on the tail end of an unhappy vacation. Their tour bus rounds a desert curve; the boys, above on a mountain range, wonder how far the bullet will reach; the trigger is pulled and the result becomes an "international incident," as they say. Back in California, the Mexican nanny of the couple's children has her son's wedding to attend, and she ends up taking the children across the border. And in Tokyo, a deaf teenage girl is nearly desperate for sexual attention. How her story, which floats through dance clubs and anonymous high - rises of the city, fits in with the others is a mystery for most of the film. "I like the idea of the Japanese story being like an incense, like a perfume, like a smell floating mysteriously during the whole film, until it's revealed at the end that it's the beginning of everything -- that without that, nothing will exist," says González Iñárritu during a conversation in Boston earlier this month. The concept, he says, was "how this story of chaos, of the butterfly in Tokyo, will spread a storm."
Energetic and articulate in his second language of English, with a shaggy head of black curls and blue jeans, grey crew neck sweater, and worn leather shoes that look like they've been his good friends for awhile, 43-year-old González Iñárritu has the fluid ease of a conversationalist who knows how to talk -- and talk.
"I consider myself a frustrated musician," he says. "I would have loved to have been a musician more than a filmmaker." Instead, he fell, at age 21, into a five-year radio career at the Mexico City rock music station WFM. It was there that he learned the art of one-way conversation and became adept at weaving bits and pieces together.
"I was host and could play every single music that I wanted, talk about everything that I needed, and it was incredible," he says. "I created a lot of characters and provoked the audience. That's where I learned to entertain people. Three hours every day -- we used silence, we used music, we used comments. And we were the number one radio station in a city of 20 million people."
Also at the station was Martin Hernandez, a friend from college, who has gone on to become sound designer on all three of González Iñárritu's features.
"We shared vinyl LPs a lot in college," says Hernandez, by phone from Mexico City. At the radio station, "they gave us a lot of room to move, and we got to explore with cutting sound on tape, doing promos and stories."
By the 1990s, González Iñárritu was bored and moved into making TV advertisements for friends, running the camera and writing concepts for branding campaigns. He learned the palate of visual imagery, wrote a TV pilot that he didn't sell, and, frustrated, made his 2000 debut , "Amores Perros."
It was a street-level look at Mexico City, and it won him the Critics Week Grand Prize and Young Critics Award at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival and an Academy Award nomination for best foreign film. It launched the career of Gael García Bernal, who appears in "Babel" as well.
It also launched a partnership of a crackerjack team that has worked on all three of González Iñárritu's movies: Hernandez, director of photography Rodrigo Prieto (who was nominated for an Oscar for his cinematography on "Brokeback Mountain" and is currently at work on Ang Lee's next movie), composer Gustavo Santaolalla (who won the Academy Award for his haunting "Brokeback" score), production designer Brigitte Broch (another Academy Award winner, for "Moulin Rouge"), and writer Guillermo Arriaga.
(González Iñárritu's relationship with Arriaga flared into the public eye this past week . A few days after our interview, the Los Angeles Times reported that González Iñárritu and Arriaga are on the outs over credit for their work. Last Sunday, The
Given his penchant for weaving stories together, and with, perhaps, the added incentive of closing out a body of work with Arriaga, González Iñárritu is calling "Babel" the last act of a trilogy of films.
" 'Amores Perros' is three stories that interconnect in one point," González Iñárritu says. " '21 Grams' is only one story, but it's told in three different points of view."
"When I conceived of 'Babel,' " he continues, "that's when I thought that it was the perfect ending for an exercise that I started with 'Amores Perros.' And not only because of the structures, but thematically. Even though this one has very big political and social commentary, I think all three films are about the complex relations between parents and children."
Federico Fellini is reported to have said that, "even if I set out to make a film about a fillet of sole, it would be about me." So how's González Iñárritu relationship with his own parents?
"It's very good, but it's very disturbing to watch myself becoming my parents," he says. "And I see my kids becoming myself, with the good things and the bad things, and that's very disturbing, too."
"It's like two mirrors projecting yourself up and down, and it's very complicated," he says, laughing.
He grew up with a brother and three sisters in a middle-class family, "but when my father was my age, a little younger, he lost everything," he says. "It was a very tough, tough childhood. I lived in the streets with my friends, I never traveled. I have a lot of limitations. But now I am grateful for that in retrospect -- all the desires, the frustrations that I had. It's very, very important."
Before he started making "21 Grams," which got strong reviews for the work of its stars , Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benicio Del Toro, González Iñárritu moved with his wife and two children -- now 11 and 9 -- to the United States. It was partly so that he wouldn't have to travel back and forth to Mexico while making the film. It was also, he says, a security decision.
"It's getting really tough" in Mexico, he says. "And being a kind of public figure, after the success of 'Amores Perros,' maybe people would think that I was a millionaire, which I am not. I felt I was a good target."
González Iñárritu won the best director award at this year's Cannes Film Festival for "Babel." His friend Hernandez says the director's profile is high in his old home.
"He's in pretty much every magazine, including social magazines not really related to cinema," says Hernandez. "I think we are really aware of a power he and other Latin directors are having around the world. It's a good opportunity to place some different points of view on certain subjects."
González Iñárritu says he is well aware of what it means to be, as he puts it, "a Third-World-country citizen living in a first-world country." That concept is a large part of what "Babel" is about.
"To be a self-exiled kind of guy in this country now -- it's really provocative," he says. "To make yourself vulnerable -- it's good as an artist."
Leslie Brokaw can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.