Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film Amores Perros (2000) is a prime example of what Alissa Quart coined “Hyperlink Cinema” (Quart 1). Essentially, a term that refers to films driven by non-linear and loose narrative structures; separate plotlines only vaguely intersect (Booker 15). Moreover, films woven together by concepts and metaphor, where the narrative “action is connected or influenced in invisible ways” (Ebert 55). This kind of episodic storytelling, though in varying degrees, is also apparent in Iñárritu’s Babel (2006) and 21 Grams (2003). However, in Perros, all of the storylines are presented to us in a non-linear order. This lack of linearity or forward movement places the spectator in a form of temporal stasis because although we move forward in the story, we paradoxically end where we began: with two cars colliding in the street (Beckman 137). This obstruction of linear movement is further reinforced by combining “the basic elements of sound (speech, noise, and music) into an intricate mix so as to rearticulate cinematic space and time” (Smith 63). These visual and aural elements are easily accessed in the first sequence leading up to the episodic/automobile collision. Furthermore, these components function not only in manipulating the linear flow of the film but serve as a device for elliptical transition.
The film begins with a fade in from black accompanied by sounds of men panting and cars quickly passing a fixed point in space (not from inside a moving car). We fade into a tilted wide-angle shot of black pavement as white divider lines fly horizontally across the frame; this functions in creating vectors and simulating forward movement (Beckman 143). However, the movement only confuses us because the soundscape is still telling us that we are standing still, but we are also being passed speedily by multiple cars. The blackness and close proximity of the moving asphalt also manipulates our sense of space by creating a feeling of claustrophobia and danger; this prepares us for the jump cut into the bloody and confined space of Octavio’s (Gael García Bernal) car. Moreover, the noise of traffic is slowly crossfaded with the sound of an idling engine to further prepare us for ‘real’ diegetic space. We then cut quickly to a point of view shot (POV) from the car’s left window. Here we see a graphic match of the divider stripes via metal skirting that lines a highway (important to note we are not on a city street). We then cut as the camera tilts jarringly upward towards a city skyline as a plethora of traffic sounds swell in volume, which further confuses the space we are already trying to process.
Time and space are further hindered as we cut to a high frame rate POV of Jorge (Humberto Busto) looking out of the back window of Octavio’s car. Not only have we jumped through space and time from a highway to city streets, but our vision is now obscured by rapid cutting and handheld ‘shaky cam’ or the constant rocking of the camera. Interestingly, a rapid cutting rate, “the bipolar extremes of lens lengths, a reliance on tight singles, and the free-ranging camera are salient marks of intensified continuity” editing (Bordwell, The Way 137). However, this film avoids this contemporary style and uses almost completely wide-angle lenses instead of alternating focal lengths. Moreover, the tight but wide singles form the intensified system’s antithesis through deep staging that allows us to track movement outside the car and therefore experience conflicting states of movement. If intensified continuity’s goal is that “each shot yield a single point, a bit of information” as film theorist David Bordwell posits, then Iñárritu is doing the opposite to overwhelm us with information (Bordwell). Furthermore, the aforementioned frame rate makes the entire car chase look like objects are leaping through space. This is due to the frame rate being accelerated in post-production and then down sampled back to a lower rate. The change in frame rate creates the illusion that it is dropping more frames than it actually is.
The sporadic motion in the chase due to the frame rate places the film somewhere between the static image of the past and the flux of the future (just like the imminent and repeating car crash). Calling on Roland Barthes’ idea that because a photo cannot emulate motion, it therefore “suggests that it is already dead” or exists only in the past (Barthes 79, 89). This is unlike moving images that instead possess the quality of continued motion and therefore emulate forward movement (Ma 100). Essentially, the stunted frame rate has further obstructed our ability to move in a linear fashion: neither narratively nor through the space of the scene. The stasis and further obstruction of movement lasts until progress is finally achieved via a fade to black at the end of the sequence. The static like or slow motion quality of the images during the car chase does well in elucidating the film’s concentration on the photographic past. Moreover, we see in El Chivo (Emilio Echevarría), a man who “is persistently aligned with the medium of photography, not film” (Beckman 183). Furthermore, Chivo is more than aligned with photography in the film. He is obsessed with photos and the past they represent; we see this especially with his need to insert his still image into his daughter’s photo album. Iñárritu is likely further playing on the themes of the past in the film through these aural and visual elements. Furthermore, this hybrid of distorted motion and time effectively compliments the idea of a photographic past while at the same time allowing for movement towards the ‘future past’ of the car accident. Like El Chivo’s story in the film “the possibility of change, indeed of futurity itself, seems to exist in a fantasized space between stasis and motion” (Beckman 183).
As the scene continues the flighty visual quality is further reinforced by vertical thrusts with the camera and the quick alternation between wide shots, both inside and outside of the car. The horizontal quality of the wide-angle lens and the upward vertical movements keep the spectator from settling into any of the film’s diegetic spaces. Moreover, our attention is spilt four ways during the chase: Jorge’s POV, Octavio’s profile, Cofi (the dog) as he keeps sliding vertically to the floor, and the outside of the car. Karen Beckman explains that the tension from the horizontal and vertical camera positions “pulls our attention schizophrenically between the car’s horizontal flight through Mexico City and the slow gravitational slide down of the dog Cofi” (Beckman 144). Moreover, the tension created from the “high-speed, technological horizontality and the slow, animal, downward fall works, like the tension between cinema and photography, to establish two competing temporalities and vectors within the frame and to preconfigure the accident” (Beckman 144). This visual barrage not only prepares us for the lack of linearity as we leave the sequence and move through time, but also reinforces the aforementioned stasis we feel as a spectator. Although, Beckman glosses over sound almost entirely, her observations on the tension created from directional movement elucidate some of the ways both narrative flow and time are disrupted.
The obstruction of time and space continues as the scene approaches its climax: the interior of Octavio’s car is saturated in sound: cars honking, traffic, a gun shot, and cars being passed and passing. However, when we see shots of Octavio or the pursuer’s truck from the outside we hear the more mundane sounds of traffic and engines idling. Furthermore, the timbre of Octavio and Jorge’s voices sound flat or muffled. The sound becomes overpowering as it approaches the final crescendo: the car crash. This difference in sound, the jittery frame rate, and the aforementioned distracting horizontal movement create a feeling of detachment or ‘weightlessness’ in regard to time and space. That is to say, we are never given a moment to settle into a filmic space and instead are left in a kind of locational limbo. Even when Octavio slams on his brakes to avoid smashing into a school bus the camera keeps moving. Moreover, at the end of the sequence when Octavio’s vehicle finally comes to a stop, smashing into Valeria’s (Goya Toledo) car, we jump forward in time to a man standing at her bloodied window. Throughout the sequence space and time are in conflict and therefore by the end of the sequence we have grown somewhat accustomed to it. Our familiarity with this non-linear flow then paves the way for a final augment of time: the dramatic cut to black.
Barthes, Roland. Camera lucida: reflections on photography. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.
Beckman, Karen and Jean Ma. Still moving: between cinema and photography. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.
Booker, M. Keith. Postmodern Hollywood: what’s new in film and why it makes us feel so strange. Westport: Praeger, 2007.
Bordwell, David. David Bordwell’s Website On Cinema. Observations on film art: Unsteadicam chronicles. 15 de November de 2010. 12 de November de 2012 <http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/?p=1175>.
—. The Way Hollywood Tells It: story and style in modern movies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
Ebert, Roger. Roger Ebert’s four-star reviews, 1967-2007. . Kansas City, Mo: Andrews McMeel, 2007.
Ma, Jean. Melancholy drift marking time in Chinese cinema. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010.
Quart, Alissa. Alissaquart.com. 1 de August de 2005. 12 de November de 2012 <http://www.alissaquart.com/articles/2005/08/networked_don_roos_and_happy_e.html>.
Smith, Paul Julian. Amores perros. London: Brittish Film Institute, 2003.
21 Grams. Dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Int. Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Toro Sean Penn. 2004.
Amores Perros. Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu. Int. Gael García Bernal, Goya Toledo Emilio Echevarría. 2008.
Babel. Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu. Int. Cate Blanchett, Gael García Bernal Brad Pitt. 2006.
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