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Oscar Watch: Iñárritu, del Toro, Prieto Talk Biutiful, Dying Art Films

Oscar Watch: Iñárritu, del Toro, Prieto Talk Biutiful, Dying Art Films

‘Tis the season for Q & As, show-and-tells, and various craftspeople and talent giving Academy and Guild members a chance to see their stuff. TOH’s Cameron Carlson attended a recent screening at the Academy’s Linwood G. Dunn Theater of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s fest circuit hit Biutiful, starring Javier Bardem as a Spanish street peddler and petty criminal named Uxbal. Inarritu, producer Guillermo del Toro, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, editor Stephen Mirrione, and composer Gustavo Santaolalla (who won back-to-back Oscars for Brokeback Mountain and Inarritu’s Babel) talked afterward, not only about the difficulties making and releasing this foreign-language art film but the woeful state of global cinema. Concluded del Toro of today’s discerning smart moviegoers: “You want to buy your free-range fucking organic chicken. Well guess what, you are about to run out of fucking organic free-range film.”

Here’s what Carlson learned:

Bardem delivers a staggering performance as a conflicted and desperate father navigating Barcelona’s seedy underworld, his bipolar wife’s cruel derangements, and a slow, disturbing fight against terminal cancer.  Light stuff, the movie is not, although Iñárritu was quick to say that the film celebrates life over death. For those accustomed to his bleak psychological landscapes and untroubled by rooms filled with dead bodies, I would have to agree. The film was oddly hopeful, although many people audibly sniffled throughout the screening.

[TOH del Toro and Inarritu interviews and Biutiful trailer are below.]

1. Biutiful is beautiful. 
This is Iñárritu’s most aesthetically gorgeous work, if not his most visually arresting.  The film assaults the senses.  At times it threatens to collapse under its own visceral hulk, but when it seems most precarious, Iñárritu manages to lithely balance Bardem’s stoic anguish with silent backdrops that demand the viewer’s attention. Granular snow-scapes, and red Barcelona sunsets shadowed by wheeling clouds of birds reveal the nuanced touch of DP Prieto. After the film, Prieto discussed the increasingly problematic challenges facing those who want to use celluloid film. He searched through old film stock, testing them for their granular and chromatic characteristics, not unlike a sommelier selecting vintage.  A few weeks before principal photography Prieto discovered his favored film stock was insufficient in quantity. He quickly acquired a new option with similar characteristics. Such are the dangers facing filmmakers uninterested in digital solutions. Prieto tried to use framing and aspect ratio to enhance the emotional sensibility of Bardem’s Uxbal. After a catastrophic moment in the film (involving many deaths) that strips Uxbal of self-control, the aspect ratio permanently widens, visually reminding the viewer that Iñárritu’s worlds cannot be ignored, not even by their inhabitants.

2. Bombastic scores aren’t always better.
Biutiful is loud. Not the music: the score comprises mostly shifting, delicate ambient themes that precede tragedy like a Pavlovian trigger.  One of the most distinctive of these noises, reminiscent of a grain mill (if the mill was steel and the oats glass), was the product of a broken music box filled with rust, a neglected toy Iñárritu found in his house.  This kind of willful improvisation aids the film’s eerie atmosphere. When there are clear melodies in Biutiful, they amplify the visual unease. Often stable songs accompany bizarre images, such as a nightclub sequence set to Underworld’s “shutter/king of snake,” where strippers wear synthetic breasts as masks and Uxbal, a man dying of cancer, indulges to the point of delusion. It gets weird, needless to say. Biutiful’s composer, Gustavo Santaolalla, argued that, “…music and sound design are one,” and that all of his sonic enterprises were a search to find the right “texture” to compliment Prieto’s photography.  Just like a good concert, when volume is used effectively to modulate nuance, Biutiful’s sound conveys a sense of dread, and eventually forms a coherent theme precisely when Uxball accepts his fate.  Image and sound run at even pace alongside Bardem’s tragic journey.

3. Biutiful is about Life.
Possibly the most contentious assertion during the panel: Biutiful is about life. This comes from a director preoccupied with depictions of classical tragedy resulting in death. Again, many people were crying throughout the screening. Although the film may be groping for a “truthful” depiction of life, the central character is death. Del Toro offered this evaluation of his friend and colleague: “Alejandro is like an old testament prophet.  At the end of the movie you want to just ask for forgiveness, go home, and hug your children.” 

That’s not to say avoidance of death, mortality, and violence is always healthy for a society. Iñárritu is determined to confront these ideas: he wanted this film to be as “normal” as possible, reflecting the real lives of Chinese and African immigrants in Spain, and the destitute local hustlers that capitalize on their weaknesses. Iñárritu assured us that according to his prodigious research, the film was Disneyland compared to the harsh conditions of immigrant communities in Barcelona. He cast non-actors as non-Spanish characters. He repeated his intention not to preach, but to show people as equal. Iñárritu contended that contemporary cinema has become too easy, and routinely fails to challenge the emotions of viewers. Del Toro agreed.

4. Javier Bardem is talented.
After losing at an unspecified awards ceremony at the start of their respective careers, Inarritu met Bardem met at the “loser’s party” and they got drunk together.  He said both were “very happy loser guys.” The budding director was taken with Bardem’s intelligence, and wanted to write a movie specifically for the Spanish actor. When Inarritu finished Biutiful, Bardem was first in his mind.  He wanted to write a “suite in his measure.” Bardem didn’t return Iñárritu’s casting request for several days.  When he finally did call, Bardem unequivocally agreed to play the role. Iñárritu asked why he had hesitated. Bardem said that when he finished the script he knew he had to take the part, but he was scared of the emotional and psychological demands of Uxbal. Iñárritu said Bardem was hesitant to “jump in the void,” but the film “was not a choice.” 

Editor Stephen Mirrione said Bardem was the soul of the movie.  It was the first time both he and Iñárritu were unaware of their manipulations of the material, so powerful was Bardem’s performance. Bardem turned down Nine for Uxbal, and at a certain point in Biutiful, when he is taking a cold shower with an adult diaper, dying of terminal illness, Iñárritu couldn’t help but marvel at an actor that “rejected the project with eight beautiful girls.” When Iñárritu described his philosophy of making films with special affects, not effects, del Toro replied, “Bardem is the biggest effect one can have.”

5. Foreign Cinema is struggling/dying in America.
Iñárritu emphatically believes Biutifulis the last film of its kind he will make in his lifetime, at the very least, the last of his works shot on film.  He leveraged his own significant resources to acquire old film stock, but as del Toro pointed out, “the last chapter of film began to be written two years ago.”  He said that studios are not only reluctant to pick up foreign projects, they simply will not do it. Iñárritu was visibly frustrated with Biutiful’s current limbo, a status he probably feels is undeserving of quality work, regardless of its national origin. Del Toro agreed, elaborating that to not use English in a film is “an absolute death sentence…If a film [came along that’s good], the U.S. is the last to buy, and only after seeing how it does abroad,” a business operation exactly the opposite of several years ago.

6. Good cinema is struggling/dying in America.
If the two friends’ views on foreign cinema were dire, their views regarding the quality of general cinema were terrifying.  Del Toro insisted that from his interior vantage point, the effect of the recent financial crisis has been “apocalyptic.” He said the studios have retreated to a place of unprecedented conservatism, risking the entire future of ambitious, good projects. Near the end of the panel, del Toro offered a quick, eloquent lambast of Hollywood, peppered with expletives. Not to ignore his own place in the business, he said: “For those who say, ‘I can never sell out,’ wait and see what they offer.”  And moreover, “it’s easy to say sell-out when nobody’s buying.” This, in a way, reveals del Toro and Iñárritu’s brilliance as provocateurs and rebels.  They play the game just as much as they need to, and get away with as much as they can. 

7. It’s easy to say sell-out when nobody’s buying.
Somebody pointed out that del Toro was himself undeniably part of Hollywood.  He laughed and said, “I live in the valley, fuck that shit.”  Del Toro and Iñárritu were, and are, generally concerned about the future of film.  The screening was intended to promote Biutiful, but it also provided the departure point for two gifted directors to voice their considerable anxiety regarding the future of cinema.  And it wasn’t a typical, pseudo-film school/elitist, “all movies are bad now” argument.  Del Toro seemed generally afraid of a quality control free-fall, of the conservative economic triggers governing current studio systems.  And this is man who should know, what with his recent trouble at MGM and upcoming Haunted Mansion E-ride franchise for Disney.  Del Toro was charismatic, congenial, and laughing throughout. But he repeated this statement three times for effect: “They co-op every fucking thing that makes money.  Every. Fucking. Thing… and they fuck it to they ground.  Fucked them all to the ground.”  He appealed to the audience to vote with their money, to support good film by going to see it and letting the studios know that there is a desire for intelligent film, a desire that the studios are willfully ignoring.

To conclude his argument, laughing, Del Toro described Los Angeles’ current fascination with healthy supermarket chains: “You want to buy your, I don’t know, your free-range fucking organic chicken.  Well guess what, you are about to run out of fucking organic free-range film.”

TOH flip-cammed two of the three amigos, del Toro and Inarritu, in Toronto. First, Inarritu:

Inarritu one:

Inarritu two:

Biutiful Trailer:

Del Toro one:

Del Toro two:

Del Toro three:

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