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Film Critic, Review Thyself

'Amores Perros' has racked up glowing reviews and tons of prizes. But after a screening, this observer felt indifference-or was it something else?

April 22, 2001|KENNETH TURAN | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

"Amores Perros" opened in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago and I should have been delighted. I wasn't. All signs pointed to my reviewing it. I didn't. That wasn't an accident, it was a conscious, in many ways difficult, choice. I'd like to tell you why.

The debut feature for Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, "Amores Perros" has won so many honors at festivals worldwide that they barely fit on the full page allotted to them in the admiring press notes. A Golden Hugo in Chicago, a Golden Frog at Camerimage, the Golden Audience Award at Bogota, prizes at events from Tokyo to Oslo to Cannes, even Mexico's first slot in 26 years as one of the five films competing for the best foreign-language Oscar.

All that was as nothing to the transcendent reviews "Perros" received from some of this country's most important critics and film writers. Blurbed in pre-release ads that ran here and in New York, they were nothing if not impressive. The New York Times' Elvis Mitchell called it "the first classic of the new decade with sequences that will probably make their way into history" (and his Sunday magazine colleague Lynn Hirschberg said it was "the most ambitious and dazzling movie to emerge from Latin America in three decades"). To Time's Richard Schickel, "Inarritu's debut film is as fine as any in movie history," while the Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern saw it as "one of the great films of our time, or any other."

Obviously, if I'd felt this way about "Amores Perros," nothing would have kept me from reviewing it. But I didn't. And, conversely, if I'd loathed the film (it happens), I also would not have hesitated to write about it. Standing against a tide if you are so moved is obviously part of what criticism has to be about. But that didn't happen either. What did take place was a bit more disconcerting. Or so it seemed at first.

Clocking in at more than 21/2 hours and set in today's Mexico City, "Amores Perros" opens with a catastrophic car crash that has equally devastating effects on three sets of characters. Although these people live in the same city, their social spheres couldn't be more different, and although their stories are intercut in the film, they don't otherwise connect.

"Octavio and Susana" is about an impoverished young man who resorts to dog fighting to earn money to run off with his brother's wife. "Daniel and Valeria" is about an influential married man and the gorgeous model he moves in with. And "El Chivo and Maru" deals with a street person with a complicated past who considers the lives of dogs of more consequence than those of people.

When I first heard about "Perros" last year in Cannes, everyone mentioned its dogfights and the violence surrounding the animals, and I thought that would affect me, but it didn't. In fact, what struck me most strongly about the work was how little anything affected me. After enduring a film that stubbornly refused to end, whatever it was I was supposed to be feeling never happened. Aside from irritation at the length, I didn't think I felt anything at all.

On the other hand, it was immediately clear from the film's somber tone and, if nothing else, all those minutes, that not only all those critics but the creators themselves thought they were doing something Significant. Given the disconnect between the strong passions everyone else felt and my own lack of involvement, it didn't seem that I'd made enough of a connection to "Amores Perros" to write about it, and it was in that frame of mind that I passed on reviewing it.

This was worrisome to me because, like a chef who has lost his appetite, a critic without passions for what he's writing about is in a dicey position. I began to think of Tony Curtis' dysfunctional fake millionaire near the end of "Some Like It Hot" who kept saying he felt nothing despite the attentions of French upstairs maids and Marilyn Monroe. Nothing. What a thing to feel.

Then I remembered the most obvious thing, that Curtis' millionaire had said he'd felt nothing for a reason. Even if they weren't strong ones, did I actually have thoughts and opinions about "Amores Perros" that I was reluctant to share, and if so, why?

What I found while looking over my screening notes for the film was a low-level but definite irritation. "Amores Perros"' much-touted grittiness seemed more like a pose than an authentic vision to me, its lauded visual technique felt too insistent, its self-satisfied glimpse of the street contrived for an audience eager for the titillation of the real.

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