Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Montage Loves: Alfonso Cuaron-By Robert Duffin

From the dusty roads of New Mexico to the hallowed halls of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Alfonso Cuaron’s filmmaking career has been defined by variety. Mainstream audiences first bore witness to Cuaron’s talent when he directed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third film in the wand-waving saga. Yet for twenty years prior to this the Mexican filmmaker was crafting a reputation as one of the finest directors of his generation. 2006 was his biggest year yet, writing and directing the critically acclaimed Children of Men, and along with his fellow Mexican director friends Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) and Alejandro Gonzales Innarritu (Babel), not only putting Mexican filmmaking on the map, but becoming one of the ten Mexican Oscar nominees that year.

I was 8 when I saw The Bicycle Thieves, and it was the first black-and-white film I had ever seen. It triggered my curiosity to start seeing European cinema. I knew early on that I was a nerd and that films were my refuge. I saw hundreds of films before I ever picked up a camera. I believe I took something away from each one.” Cuaron received a video camera for his eighth birthday and his strong desire to pursue a career in filmmaking led him to eventually study at the Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematograficos, where he met a key player in his future success, long time friend and frequent cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeski.

In 1991, Cuaron and his brother Carlos wrote Solo Con Tu Pareja, a sex comedy about a womanising businessman which was released in Mexico to wide critical acclaim and garnered Cuaron notice from Hollywood, most notably Sydney Pollack. The legendary filmmaker hired Cuaron to direct an episode of Fallen Angels, a series of neo-noir stories produced for American television, in 1993; Cuaron was now rubbing shoulders with such talents as Steven Soderbergh and Tom Hanks. Cuaron was on the verge of being sucked into the Hollywood machine as he signed the dotted line to direct the Meg Ryan rom-com Addicted to Love. Thankfully he found another screenplay and fell in love with it, and while it is often dismissed as studio fare, forms the basis of Cuaron’s thematic preoccupation throughout his ouvre.

A Little Princess, adapted from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic novel, follows the life of young Sarah Crewe who has been put in a boarding school while her father goes to fight in the First World War. The film focuses on the rites of passage, from the immaturity of adolescense to the awakening of adulthood, a journey that Cuaron returns to time and time again. Cuaron and Lubezski, in their second film collaboration, would also create the look of distilled light and blue hues that defines their collaborations. Cuaron also packs in beautifully subversive imagery for a mainstream Warner Bros. childrens film; note the marvelous moment in which a black balloon emerges from a sea of red balloons and explodes as Sarah is told the fate of her father in the trenches.

Cuaron’s next, somewhat rushed, production was a modernization of Great Expectations, updating the novel and transplanting it from Victorian London to 90s Florida. Reported to be an unhappy time in his career, Great Expectations is Cuaron’s most dissapointing and least personal film despite retaining he and Lubezski’s visual panache. Mauled by the critics and bombing at the box office,it would be pertinent here to note that this was perhaps the best thing for Cuaron in the long term. A retreat from Hollywood and a three year hiatus from cinema screens allowed Cuaron to return to his homeland and, once again with his brother Carlos, write the film that would cement his position in World Cinema: Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001).

In withdrawing from Hollywood, a move Cuaron describes as “going to get his hands dirty”, he made his first masterpiece, a sweaty and swinging ode to sex and death. The road movie follows two teenage best friends Julio and Tenoch as they convince an older woman, Ana, to travel with them in a battered car to the Heaven’s Mouth beach. The Cuaron brother’s screenplay explores fidelity, freedom of expression and the journey of self discovery surrounding friendship and sexuality. "This is a movie about identity," says Cuaron, "about two teenagers trying to seek their identities as grown-ups…and we also wanted to make an observation of a country that is trying to find its identity." Cuaron’s subtle politic subtext, such as the road trippers frequently passing without note through military check points, marks Cuaron’s first interaction with contemporary politics which would later define Children of Men.

Time away from Hollywood also loosened the restrictions on Cuaron’s craft. His restless camera roves through his now trademark continuous long shots and, once again along with Lubezki, captures perfectly the jagged and parched Mexican countryside. He also cribs from the best in utilising a third person omniscient narrator, evoking the likes of Jean-Luc Godard in Masculin Feminin and Alain Resnais in Mon Oncle d'Amerique. Cuaron uses it to reveal background information about the characters and offer further political commentary, revealing at one point an anecdote about a labourer hit by a bus because there is nowhere to cross the highway for many miles. The expertly constructed marriage of sex and death adds greater poignancy to his darkest exploration of the process of human maturation, so naturally he was next asked to helm the biggest kid friendly Hollywood franchise of all time.

“Everything came down to the theme of it...the story of one kid trying to seek his identity as a teenager. And together with that is a journey of discovery; that there's an energy that he knows and identifies with and this is his father's. And he gets to learn that that same energy resides in him.” Despite some outraged Potter Maniacs, Cuaron’s second round in Hollywood saw the system bending to his will. Gone was the British tea-time drama, his Hogwarts was a dark and mist filled environment in which Harry Potter’s first adolescent twinges would occur. Despite the franchise baggage, Harry is another of Cuaron’s troubled teens seeking out his true self and it in this arc we see why Cuaron was the perfect choice for the film. Instead of a bland hero, Cuaron implemented the transition of the character into an angst ridden reluctant hero; hopelessly trying to cope with the insurmountable loss in his life. Cuaron also injected this entry in the series with a unique visual flare, from the inky blue cinematography to the iris fades that hark back to era of German Expressionism in the 1920s and directors like Robert Wiene.

With critical acclaim and a box office boost to his career, Cuaron triumphantly returned in 2006 with Children of Men, almost a companion piece to Y Tu Mama Tambien. Once again Cuaron takes us on a road trip, but this time things aren’t quite so relaxed as the fate of humanity is in the hands of lead character Theo Faron, who is trusted to protect the first pregnant woman in 18 years. The dystopian future is notably different to usual stab at Orwellian paranoia present in cinema; Cuaron presents a worst-case scenario development of our present situation.

“I really wanted to make a film that would speak to the 21st century because, I think, there's a certain nostalgia for the 20th century that I don't know is healthy,” notes Cuaron. Instead of a Big Brother style dictatorship being put in place, what we have is the twisted vision of contemporary democracy taken to the extreme, as Cuaron says, “We wanted to make this world, this universe, a democracy. But…being a democracy doesn't mean people are choosing the right things or what is just.” The Department of Homeland Security have allowed the armed forces to isolate and remove immigrants by force, terrorists are blowing up Starbucks on busy London streets, pollution is at an all time high and the media are feeding the British people a steady dosage of stiff upper lip determinism. The fascist state can’t keep you safe from the revolution, nor can revolution keep you safe from the fascist state.

The film is also Cuaron’s most daring visually, adopting his long takes in many scenes with very few cuts and two extended action sequences beautifully constructed in one continuous take. His cinema verite stylings come to the fore, as a camera lens sprayed with blood trails after Theo through the wastelands of Bexhill to save his charge from a terrorist group. Amongst the anarchy of gunfire and explosions that eventually unleashes, the sight and sound of a crying baby juxtaposed with images of war and destruction is profound moment of both hope and defeat.

Theo also marks a maturation of Cuaron’s adolescent characters. Despite pushing 40 he remains teen-like; shirking his work and family, hanging around with stoner friends and refusing to move on from the death of his child ten years before. Yet Children of Men allows Cuaron to take his character into the new territory of adulthood and parenthood by proxy, where responsibilities must be faced up to and selfishness cannot be tolerated. The film marks the coming of age of his characters and of Cuaron himself. Children of Men is a primal, poignant and cerebral piece of cinema, and what’s more exciting is Cuaron seems like he is just getting started.

No comments: