Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Friendship & Human nature in Arriaga's world

The Films:

Like most people, I first heard of Guillermo Arriaga after the film Amores Perros came out in 2001. Even though most of my memories about the film are around the powerful images of the angry dogs, the horrific car crash and the breakdown of the beautiful model, I admired the well written story by Arriaga. Normally, when a film does well the director gets all the credit. But every so often, a film's story and screenplay leave such a resonating mark that the film's writer also ends up getting attention. And that is the case with Arriaga who has shared the limelight with his collaborations with director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Their partnership has become legendary as the two went onto more acclaim with 21 Grams and Babel. Which is why it is unfortunate to hear that the two will not be working together again and Babel was their last collaboration.

After the strong images of Amores Perros, my memories about the duo's next film 21 Grams centered on the story itself. I do remember the intimate motel scenes quite a bit but I remember the characters misery more. Also, the film's title referring to the apparent weight of the human soul was also something that stayed with me. For me, Babel was the weakest film out of the three works. Although there was plenty to enjoy in the film, the film didn't feel as smooth as the previous two works.

But Arriaga also worked on other films besides the three with Iñárritu. 2005's The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada was one such movie where Arriaga's script was directed by Tommy Lee Jones. I only recently saw this movie and absolutely feel in love with the tender story of friendship and dreams. The friendship shown in the movie is about principles and honor while the characters attempt to dream of a better life (especially Melquiades) to help cope with their daily struggles. Tommy Lee Jones has perfectly captured all the sensibilities that Arriaga's story was meant to convey and directs a balanced film. I could not help think about No Country for Old Men while watching The Three Burials... The stories of both films are quite different but the presence of Tommy Lee Jones and the fact that both movies filmed were filmed in Texas with a touch of Mexican elements made me think of No Country... It would be unfair to compare the two movies but if I had to, I much prefer the compassionate poetry of The Three Burials.. over the precise polished coldness of the Coen Brothers work.

The Novel:

In late 2005, while browsing through a bookstore in London, I came across a book by Arriaga: The Sweet Smell of Death. At that point, I had no idea that Arriaga wrote novels. The book's cover confirmed that the novel was indeed by the screenwriter of Amores Perros and 21 Grams. I bought the book immediately because my past experience in traveling through London has shown that plenty of books available in England were not to be found in North America. This was confirmed after I returned home where none of the three books by Arriaga were available in North America yet in late 2005.

Even though The Sweet Smell of Death is a quick read at 160 pages, it is a well written story that stays long after one has finished it. The core of the novel is around a murder that takes place in a small Mexican town. The novel does not attempt to solve the murder but instead shows how this one action polarizes events in the town. Different people deal with death in their own manner. Some are introspective and attempt to understand the meaning of a murder while others thirst for blood. The book shows events regarding the latter and depicts how people's quest for revenge blinds out reason and logic. And given how in this day and age where revenge is the driving force between international politics, the book's simple story struck a powerful chord.

I recently finished reading another of Arriaga's novels -- The Night Buffalo. The book is slightly longer than The Sweet Smell of Death at 228 pages and deals with death in a different manner. While The Sweet Smell.. showed the outward reactions that occurred after a murder took place, The Night Buffalo is more concerned with the inward behaviour of its character. And it is this flawed inward behavior by an individual that triggers the internal breakdown in other people around him, further resulting in a chain of external reactions. While the books deals with suicide and its after effects, it is also concerned with the values of friendship and human relationships. Even though The Night Buffalo is a quick read, it leaves plenty think about. While reading the novel, I could not help think of William Friedkin's powerful film Bug which also took place mostly in a motel like The Night Buffalo and also shares a thread dealing with paranoia. Plus The Night Buffalo invites the reader to understand the main character on their own terms. The novel's narrator Manuel leads us through the story in a matter of fact manner but we can't agree with all his decisions and actions. So while following Manuel commit strange acts, we can't help think that we are being taken for a ride or maybe there is something wrong with Manuel, something that he is not even aware of himself.

If one had to try to examine a common theme in Arriaga's works, friendship would be something that stands out along with his attempts to understand the complex human psyche. His two novels are rich works that are rendered in a simple easy to follow manner that make it accessible to everyone.

The Interview:

I knew of The Night Buffalo before I came across this excellent and insightful interview with Arriaga at the Evening Post. The interview between Michael Guillen and Arriaga is so alive and buzzing with such energy that I was inspired to read my second Arriaga novel. In the end, I am glad I read The Night Buffalo, a work that I have not been able to stop thinking about long after I finished reading it.

Also, Michael's interview does a great job in looking beyond the theme of the novel and is able to capture the essence behind Arriaga's works.

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