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‘21 Grams’ highest form of collaboration

by Philip Martin | June 2, 2023 at 4:01 a.m.
Sean Penn and Naomi watts in “21 Grams”

"I make films not for the most stupid people in the world."

-- Alejandro González Iñárritu to Karen Martin, September 2003

When Karen finds something she likes, she holds onto it.

Around the house she wears a pair of moccasins that will be 30 years old in November; we bought them at a shop near an Indian reservation between Taos and Santa Fe on our honeymoon. She wears holes in the tops of running shoes she likes. She has T-shirts from the '70s. One of the sweatshirts she wears most often is a promotional pullover that was handed out to journalists at the press event for Alejandro González Iñárritu's "21 Grams" at the Toronto International Film Festival when the film screened there in 2003.

I got a sweatshirt promoting the movie too. It was a zip-up. It's been gone for at least 10 years. I wish I still had it, but I'm harder on clothes than she is.

But I remember the movie, even if it seems to have faded from our collective consciousness. While I imagine a few of my critic friends might recall it fondly, the consensus seems now to be that it is a bleak and needlessly convoluted narrative, the moment when Iñárritu's "pretentiousness" (a word a lot of people use as an all-purpose term of obliteration for stuff that they don't like) really began to tell.

While it still holds an 81% "Fresh" rating on the Rotten Tomatoes aggregator site, I don't think many people would argue "21 Grams" is in the same league with other puzzle-box films like Christopher Nolan's "Memento" (2000) or David Lynch's "Muholland Drive" (2001).

But I would. "21 Grams" is an astonishing, powerful and serious movie that respects and challenges its audience. It is realistic and evocative, punctuated with longing and tinged with hope. It is, without equivocation, a great film.

And, like a number of great films, its style may be more important than its content. For if one were to tell the story of "21 Grams" in a linear fashion, it would seem to be no more than sentimental melodrama, the kind of overheated, lurid soap opera that we've come to associate with Hollywood movies of a certain type: movies that directors like Fassbinder, Pedro ­Almodovar and Todd Haynes depend on to provide an established set of conventions they can subvert (or a demarcated field on which they can invent playful new games).

The title derives from an experiment conducted by Dr. Duncan MacDougall of Haverhill, Mass., in 1907. Dr. MacDougall's hypothesis was that the human soul was material -- that it had mass. Therefore, he reasoned, when a person died -- and the soul departed the body -- there must be some drop in weight.

To test this theory, MacDougall installed a special bed in his office "arranged on a light framework built upon very delicately balanced platform beam scales" sensitive to 2/10ths of an ounce. Then he arranged for six terminal patients to die on the bed, while he observed and measured any changes in weight.

"The patient's comfort was looked after in every way, although he was practically moribund when placed upon the bed," MacDougall wrote of one experimental subject. "He lost weight slowly at the rate of one ounce per hour due to evaporation of moisture in respiration and evaporation of sweat ...

"At the end of three hours and 40 minutes he expired, and suddenly coincident with death, the beam end dropped with an audible stroke hitting against the lower limiting bar and remaining there with no rebound. The loss was ascertained to be three-fourths of an ounce."

While MacDougall's experiment is regarded as flawed and unreliable by the scientific community, this "three-fourths of an ounce" (which equals about 21.3 grams -- about the weight of a candy bar), was seized on by some as the weight of the man's soul.

The thorough MacDougall followed up his experiment by repeating it with 15 dogs. When they died, he recorded no loss in weight. Hence, his doctrine insisted, dogs had no souls.


But the evanescent logic of "21 Grams" is neither conventional nor gimmicky in the way complex films are sometimes gimmicky. While "21 Grams" unfolds in an unwonted fashion, it is not deliberately obscure. An attentive moviegoer receives information in much the same way it arrives in real life -- flashes of insight, apprehension of specific details, ordering and re-ordering of events as we come to learn about the people and circumstances we encounter. Somehow we pick up the shattered pieces and fit them into a mosaic upon which we impose if not meaning, at least sense.

Attempting to tell a story this way necessarily involves the collaboration of the audience. And audiences used to being spoon-fed too much information by Hollywood movies (which typically telegraph that a Joke is coming, tell the Joke, explain the Joke, then repeat the Joke at regular intervals) might be momentarily thrown by a movie that expects them to hold up their end.

"21 Grams" is not for children of all ages, or for those who expect the movies to offer a respite from engagement with the world. It is not escapism.

It's not an easy movie, and doesn't cohere into anything sensible until about the 45-minute mark. Then the disparate parts begin to coalesce, and you begin to see how the lives of the various characters intersect.

So relax and take in the raspberry-streaked skies and dun-spackled buildings of cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto -- a singular talent in his own right -- and let the movie unfold as it will. In due course, all will be revealed to you.

"21 Grams" is about regret, revenge and redemption, pitched at a frequency that requires the actors to perform naturalistically rather than in the coded modes of movie genres. This is a more difficult species of acting than affecting an accent or flinging oneself recklessly over the top is open to debate, but the cast is uniformly up to the task.

Sean Penn, as mathematician Paul Rivers, is a real heel who can't decide whether his cribbed and fleeting life is worth the heart transplant it will take to save it. (Penn's presence in a film is reason enough for some people to avoid it, but he's really good here -- it's one of his best performances.)

Paul's desperate wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) wants to freeze some of her husband's sperm in order that she might be artificially inseminated if he doesn't pull through.

A heart becomes available. Paul lives and finds himself obsessed with finding out about the donor (Clint Eastwood's character was afflicted by the same morbid fetish in 2002's "Blood Work"). He hires a private detective to help him find out whose heart he was given.

Meanwhile, Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro) is an ex-con who has thrown himself into religion in an effort to bring structure and stability into his disordered life. He has become a devoted father and husband (Melissa Leo is remarkable in the relatively small role of Jack's wife, Marianne) but finds he's still paying for his youthful indiscretions, like the indecorous neck tattoo that costs him his job as a caddy at a country club.

Things turn bad when Jack is involved in an accident where, in a rage, he runs over a man and his daughters and loses his religion.

Concurrently, Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts) is struggling to keep herself together after losing her purchase in a bourgeois lifestyle; she's slipping back into addictions she thought she'd conquered. She has an excuse -- she just lost her husband and daughters.

Armed with just this information, the inquiring moviegoer might be able to fit these stories together. But the real pull of "21 Grams" is not found in its plot, or even in the ingenious and seemingly intuitive way director Iñárritu, screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga and cinematographer Prieto conspire to tell it, but the utter reality of the moments they've collected.

The effect is accretive -- there are scenes where you might cry or might laugh or might feel caught between poles of emotion. "21 Grams" is not a movie that will let you out once it pulls you in.


"I wanted to write a movie about love and hope," Arriaga, a notable novelist as well as a screenwriter, told me in 2003. "I think that we are living in a very bad moment, right now, in the world ... I want to make a statement of hope. I wanted to do a story where the characters look into the abyss. This is a movie where the three characters are in hell. And they think they have overcome hell ... when they think they have arrived to a safe haven, circumstances take them to a deeper hell. But in that hell they can find hope."

Arriaga was almost killed in a car wreck when he was a teenager.

"We were on a trip to the mountains of Mexico," he said. "We were seven in the car, three kids and four adults."

Arriaga says he was sleeping in the back seat when he "woke up rolling, to the breaking of the metal and the shattering of glass, the shouting" as the car tumbled down the side of a mountain.

"I said to myself, 'I cannot die. I have to survive this one.'" Arriaga said. "Maybe that is why my films have accidents in them."


So what if the title conceit is corny? Movies are not philosophical treatises; no one would go to see them if they were. But a good movie can enthrall and involve you. What the best movies do is change the way you look at the unbounded world beyond the frame. Arriaga insisted his movie was "realistic," but credited his dreams with providing the plot.

"I think the subconscious works much faster and in much deeper ways than the conscious process," he said. "It's a process of discovering.

"Dreaming doesn't mean it has to be surrealistic. I want my work to portray honesty and authenticity.

"This is not a Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks kind of film, but it is a love story in the sense that someone for the sake of love makes a sacrifice. And I think that it is a film that wants to say life has much more power than death. And that life has a way to heal, and to make things worth it, where you can find again the beauty and the essence of it. I think that's realistic."


Some people can watch "21 Grams" and be unmoved, and though I'm sure this indicates no failing on their part, I can't understand it.

The film is one of those rare pure examples of the highest form of collaborative art -- surely it is somehow compromised, but I cannot say how. It is as sweet and hurtful as life itself.

I don't have the sweatshirt anymore, but the movie has stuck with me.


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