One Writer’s Salty Frustrations Over Hollywood’s Loudest Director

Oh God, it’s happening again. Alejandro González Iñárritu, a filmmaker who has consistently trafficked in films that give the appearance of greatness – but in fact, offer very little to show in that regard – has convinced everyone he is a legitimately deep, thoughtful artist by making a film so empty and devoid of meaning that viewers are forced to think there must be something beneath the surface. Like Iñárritu’s previous film, Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – I’m not pulling your leg here, that’s seriously the full title of the movie – The Revenant is a film that can look quite stunning, but one that lacks any sort of emotional through line beyond “I am Iñárritu and my work is Important-with-a-capital-I.” The artifice of importance, however, does not give an artist’s voice weight, it’s the quality of their work that does.

Alejandro González Iñárritu is a director that I have been both fascinated and frustrated with, in his rise to super-stardom. He is a Mexican-born filmmaker who has helped to bring attention to talent coming out of that nation – a country that has shallow representation in Hollywood. I have to respect him for that. He has a grasp of story that rivals the likes of Quentin Tarantino – both filmmakers interweave simultaneous narratives into one – and their cohesive whole can be extraordinary. His partnership with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki has produced some of the most gorgeous imagery on film in the past few years, and (if nothing else) his works are challenging and unconventional in the Hollywood mainstream.

But in recent years, he has self-fashioned himself into a symbol of the renegade artist. That’s the kind of director who is fed up with the system’s reliance on big, bloated blockbusters, and who aims to shift the paradigm by making loud, attention grabbing films that reflect his point of view. Iñárritu considers himself an auteur, pulling one over on The Man by working within the system to produce personal films that seek truth more than box office returns.

As it turns out, that perspective does not go any deeper for Iñárritu than how great and brave of an artist he is for making those films – an attitude that isn’t just insufferable, it’s also disingenuous and ignorant. Despite what Iñárritu boasts, he is not the only director (or, even the most prominent) working within the Hollywood mainstream to create artistically satisfying films. His fellow countryman, Alfonso Cuarón, is not only a considerably more prized talent than Iñárritu, but has also been working toward this same goal for decades. He’s just done it more humbly and with greater success.

As we approach the crescendo of another year in which Iñárritu will be praised wrongly for work that is undeserving, I must do my small part to counter the giant ego the director has developed. My anti- Iñárritu-ism mostly revolves around his most recent work — Birdman and The Revenant — and the unwarranted success both enjoyed at the box office and with awards voters. Birdman, a film that implies depth as satire by casting Michael Keaton, a former Batman, in the role of a washed up blockbuster star from the fictional superhero franchise “Birdman” (there’s subversive casting and then there’s HEY- LOOK-AT-THE-POINT-I’M-MAKING casting). That film did huge numbers at the box office, raking in nearly 5x its production budget and, astonishingly, winning four of the top Academy awards (Best Director, Cinematography, Original Screenplay and Picture) over films that were much more laudable.

Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures

The central conceit of Birdman, that the Hollywood blockbuster is pounding a purer form of cinema into obscurity, is completely false. Never mind the fact that just one year before making his grandiose statement on the industry’s descent into popcorn fluff, Hollywood recognized Cuarón as Best Director for his innovative and emotionally satisfying work on Gravity. Beyond that, independent cinema is flourishing in ways it never could have in the past. Between on-demand video platforms, an explosion in regional and specialty film festivals, as well as a continued drop in the cost to actually make a movie, thanks to evolving technology (Tangerine, one of the year’s standout independent hits, was shot entirely using iPhone 6’s), audiences now have more opportunity to see a wider range of films than ever before.

The idea that Marvel movies, or blockbuster culture in general, are preventing small films from finding an audience is increasingly an outdated notion. Iñárritu is just out of step with the times; he doesn’t understand that filmmakers have been making their films through less traditional channels for years and viewers have been finding movies with new, emerging technologies for as long. Birdman argues a point that can easily be disproven by browsing the new release section on iTunes or Amazon Video — they’re both filled with indies, quietly breaking the mold Iñárritu wants credit for shattering.

Above all else, Iñárritu craves to be recognized as an audacious artist, wrestling truth out of himself and his subordinates through back-to-basics productions that focus on subject matter Hollywood is too afraid to touch. With Birdman, he was the guy fighting Hollywood’s malaise by thumbing his nose at their appetite for summer blockbusters, right in their faces, with a story that attempts zero subtlety in it’s completely on-the-nose satire. With The Revenant, he’s the director who braved the frontier, nearly freezing to death in the process, to bring us back his “Great Work,” like Francis Ford Coppola going mad in the jungle during Apocalypse Now. He wants to be that director, but he’s not.

Ah yes, The Revenant. In case you hadn’t heard, the movie was very, very hard to make. The cast and crew endured remote shoots across the Pacific Northwest (in America and Canada) and in Argentina, where they faced frigid temperatures and long, dreary days in the snow. Combined with the fearless director’s commitment to shooting only with natural light a decision as impractical as it is obnoxious there were certain days, according to some reports, in which the crew could only shoot for a total of 90 minutes at a time. Those are production restrictions that sound a lot like a bit in 30 Rock. Many crew members, unsurprisingly, quit during filming.

Leonardo DiCaprio – for his part in the self-inflicted agony – slept in animal carcasses when the script called for it, and really ate a steaming, raw bison liver when his character was called on to do so. All of this brave martyrdom, Iñárritu insists, amount to a better film and something more real. Seeing DiCaprio actually vomit his own vomit allows Iñárritu’s film to reach a somehow higher truth.

Image: From Kimberly French - 20th Century Fox

Image: From Kimberly French – 20th Century Fox

However, it’s all artifice. It doesn’t matter how much of an endeavor filming a movie is if the final product is emotionally empty and overwrought horseshit. The way Iñárritu talks about The Revenant, you’d think he summited Mount Sinai, spoke with God, and brought back the Ten Commandments on celluloid. Or even, to reuse the example from above, that he lost himself in the maddening shoot the way Coppola did for Apocalypse Now.  Or that he suffered through sand storms and 100 plus degree heat in Tunisia the way George Lucas when he shot the original Star Wars. Iñárritu is not the first director to endure averse conditions when making a film, but he is certainly among the few who constantly boast about how awesome that makes him.

If the film Iñárritu came back with reflected even an ounce of the emotional honesty he claims, all the talk about The Revenant’s harrowing shoot might mean something. But that honesty is not there. In its place is the veneer of honesty, an attempt at connecting with the audience through a thin layer of implied emotional context from a protagonist that exists as a sparse sketch of a man. A sketch that falls down a lot, proceeds to crawl around, screaming in agony (some of the agony, really real, you’ll remember) and crying those sweet, sweet Oscar-bait tears for two hours. You know, an “Academy Award Winning” performance.

I’m clearly in the minority here. Iñárritu has a strong following and the box office receipts (although, as of this writing, the numbers on The Revenant have yet to be collected) to back up his popularity. But man – and this makes me sound like a real douchey movie snob – I can’t help but think that it’s because audiences are falling for his trap. They see the striking imagery created by Emmanuel Lubezki, they see performances that imply emotional resonance more, and it’s all wrapped in a package – from the marketing to the director’s pontificating on his commitment to “Art” that screams “IMPORTANT FILM”. It’s easy to be deceived by Iñárritu’s façade, but he is not the Great Filmmaker he claims to be.

Come February 28th when Iñárritu and The Revenant receive an inordinate amount of love on Oscar night, I’ll be muttering bitter expletives to myself, tweeting to a deaf audience. It’s just like last year all over again. But, at least this time, I’ll have this salty post to link to.