t's About Time

All successful stories, they say, must have three things: a beginning, a middle and an end. What's increasingly unclear in this wacky, post-postmodern world of ours, as some wise old film geek once observed, is exactly in what order those three parts should come.

Case in point: Amores Perros and Memento, both of which open locally this week. These are two of the most original and absolutely best films you'll see this year, and both of them play fast and loose with time, messing with the so-called laws of conventional narrative and with the very essence of cause and effect. The temporal teasing that both films trade in makes us work a little to crack their respective cinematic DNA codes, but not to worry: The considerable pleasures we wind up extracting are worth every bit of effort, and more.

Memento actually tells its story in reverse, beginning with a bloody murder and then working its way backwards through the events that begat the events that begat the shocking event that assaults us in the unforgettable first scene.

Unforgettable, as it happens, is an accurate but also thoroughly ironic choice of words to describe Memento, a deeply haunting film about a man who can't trust his own memory. Our hero, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), has a unique and bizarre condition that makes it impossible for him to remember anything more recent than the night of his wife's brutal murder. Simply put, he can't make new memories. Consequently, he travels from place to place searching for her killer, tattooing upon his own body the clues that he uncovers, clues that he would instantly forget if not for the fact that they were indelibly imprinted on his skin.

Memento is, in several significant ways, a crime thriller in the classic film noir vein — all brooding atmosphere, paranoia and treachery (the most treacherous character being the protagonist's own double-crossing memory). Writer-director Christopher Nolan scrambles and then deconstructs those basic noir building blocks in such a way as to transform Memento into a hip but oddly poetic, existential musing on the correlation between memory and identity — on what it is to be human, and what makes us who we are. Nolan doesn't beat us over the head with these philosophical leanings, but they're there just the same, as unmistakably as the reflective underpinning of Blade Runner or Dark City. Memento's Leonard Shelby is a zombified everyman sleepwalking through his own life, defining himself by the notes he leaves on his own body, and finding himself reborn every day — or even every time he opens his eyes — as he gropes toward some sort of incomplete recognition of the facts that govern his existence.

Time is once again the principle player in Amores Perros (Love is a Bitch), an astonishing Mexican film that offers up three dovetailing stories in which characters appear and reappear, and time occasionally doubles back upon itself in order to present its prism-like narrative from what frequently appears to be all angles at once.

With its extreme violence, its fascination with society's underbelly and, most of all, its time-bending, multi-segmented, Pulp Fiction-like structure, there's every temptation to describe Amores Perros as Tarantino-esque. By the end of this extraordinarily rich film, though, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu throws us for a final loop by revealing a deeply human, even spiritual dimension to his movie that recalls the sublime moments in a Kieslowski film more so than Reservoir Dogs.

The film begins like gangbusters, inside a speeding car, with two low-lifes in the front seat screaming at one another and a bloody body in the back. Pure Tarantino, or so it seems, until we notice that the bloody body is also covered with fur. The injured dog (and the canine species in general) is just one of the strange links that will tie together the seemingly disparate stories that follow: the story of a young man who gets into the seedy world of dogfighting in order to make enough money to run off with his sister-in-law; the story of a semi-homeless hit man trying to reconnect with his family; the story of an upper-class couple whose lives teeter on the edge of collapse after a tragic accident.

Amores Perros is striking to look at, rough and gritty but beautifully shot and edited in such a way as to maximize its energy and intrigue. The film fogs us for a while at first, but it never loses us: We continue to watch, fascinated at how these seemingly disconnected bits and pieces will come together. The middle section, which focuses on the upper-class couple, isn't as immediately engaging as the other segments and seems just a bit out of place initially, but it gradually gets under our skin in just as sure a manner as the film's other episodes.

And while we're on the subject of time, it should be noted that anyone interested in these two remarkable movies shouldn't be deterred if opening day rolls around and one or the other of them turns out to be a no-show. Much as we love these sorts of movies and the good folks who show them, we're duty-bound to remind you that, for a whole world of reasons too lengthy to get into here, the art film biz is notoriously fluid.

Last minute changes are always a possibility at venues like Tampa Theatre, Beach Theatre and Channelside (which is exactly where you'll find these films), and when those changes occur, they're sometimes so last-minute we don't even time to amend our reviews.

Local Notes

FILM maniFESTival, the most cleverly named local cine-event in ages, will screen more than a dozen features and shorts from 1 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturday, April 28th. The festival features a smattering of just about everything, from student projects to Italian mood pieces to science fiction send-ups, with a heavy concentration on politically savvy documentaries such as The Battle of St. Petersburg, an examination of the 1996 protests in St. Petersburg over the shooting death of Tyron Lewis.

FILM maniFESTival kicks off at 1:30 with Incident at Oglala, the acclaimed doc on the plight of Native American Leonard Peltier, and winds up (or down, depending on your perspective) with a selection of short narrative and experimental works by local filmmakers, including Phillip Harris and Kelly Kombat. The fest takes place at Vitale Brothers Artworx, 6330 46th St. N, Unit 103, Pinellas Park. A $5 to $10 donation is suggested. For more information call 727-895-8095.

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