Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, January 10, 2019

Director Report Card: Robert Rodriguez (1992)

A while ago, I talked about the films of Quentin Tarantino. At the time, I considered also reviewing all the movies of Robert Rodriguez. Ultimately, I decided against taking on such a large side project. However, comparing the two filmmakers is interesting. They came up around the same time, have collaborated on multiple occasions, and make similar projects. Yet Tarantino is a respected Oscar winner while Rodriguez is often dismissed as a creator of juvenile camp. This reputation isn't totally unearned but I think there might be more there. Let's dive a little deeper, shall we?

1. El Mariachi

The independent scene as we know it came into being in the early nineties. The film festival rose to levels of prominence not previously seen. The still-growing video market allowed smaller films to be seen by a wider audience. These and other factors would allow filmmaker to pop up out of nowhere and suddenly make a career for themselves. Like, for example, an amazingly resourceful Mexican kid from Texas. “El Mariachi” would establish Robert Rodriguez' career. Yet, possibly due to this being his only film entirely in Spanish or because of the size of his later productions, his debut is a little overlooked in 2018.

An unnamed mariachi travels into a small Mexican border town. He's there looking for work but finds no bars willing to hire a guitar player. He checks into a hotel to get some sleep. Unbeknownst to the mariachi player, somebody else has also arrived in town. A professional killer named Azul has just broken out of prison. He wants revenge on local drug lord Moco. Carrying his weapons in a guitar case, he kills several of Moco's men in a bar the guitar player just left. Soon, the innocent mariachi and the ruthless Azul are confused for each other. Now, the young musician must fight to survive against men who want him dead.

Is the story behind “El Mariachi” more interesting than the film itself? It's well known by now, chronicled in Rodriguez' book, “Rebel Without a Crew.” The director raised a 7000 dollar budget through a variety of means, including volunteering for scientific experimentation. He cut coast wherever he could. Wheelchairs were used instead of dollies. The cast and crew were largely composed of his friends and family. Improvisation and creativity came in handy a lot during filming. Rodriguez edited the film himself, largely using clever techniques to cut around the production's lack of money. There's a degree of legend here. Columbia, after picking up the film, would shell out an additional 200,000 dollars in post-production cost. Yet the story would establish Rodriguez' reputation and inspire would-be filmmakers all over the world.

As fascinating as the origins of “El Mariachi” is, the film certainly has value on its own. Most of Rodriguez' career has been based on making things that are cool. “El Mariachi” is based largely around a central image: A guy carrying a guitar case but it's full of guns, instead of a guitar. That sense of cool informs the entire movie. The director would throw stuff into the movie simply because he liked it, like a roaming turtle or a coconut stand. Slow-motion is frequently utilized to emphasize bad-ass moments. Even if it's just a shot of guys in suits picking up their guns, an early moment obviously inspired by John Woo's films. “El Mariachi's” commitment to coolness is somewhat juvenile and posturing – the same could be said for the director's entire career – but it's undeniably effective.

In order to get to these cool images, Rodriguez employs some classical story ideas. “El Mariachi” is, fundamentally, a story of mistaken identity. The innocent titular character is mixed up with a brutal character, launching him into a world of violence. What follows is a dark hero's journey of sorts. Entering into the film as a naive youth, El Mariachi has to kill to survive. Instead of transforming him into a slick action hero, this ends up destroying the future the guitar player envisioned for himself. While Rodriguez luxuriates in cool movie violence, he's also partially critiquing the effects that violence has on people.

More than its plot, which is pretty thin up to a certain degree, “El Mariachi” is powered mostly by its energetic direction. Rodriguez' camera is rarely still for too long. This sense of almost cartoonish motion is evident in an early moment. Upon entering a bar, the mariachi asks for a job. The bartender then points out a synthesizer player in the back, the camera zooming over to him with goofy sound effects. (That is not the only time some silly sound effects are used either.) When visiting with Domino, his love interest, Rodriguez' camera follows her energetic dog around. The foot chase scenes often follow behind the runners, in a way that's fast but not sloppy or hard to follow. The director strikes me as someone bursting with energy and that's evident in “El Mariachi's” visual design.

If you're familiar with “El Mariachi's” production backstory, you know that Rodriguez and his crew used mostly real guns loaded with blanks. These bullets would cause the regular guns to jam after being fired once. So the director thought up an inventive solution, cutting quickly after a single shot or two. That same sense of fast cutting is used throughout all of the movie's action scenes. Firing guns crash into bloody bullet holes blown in human bodies. Characters leap and run through town. One of my favorite action beats involves the mariachi sliding down a rope onto a moving bus. The director would turn his lack of time and money into an advantage, creating a movie that moves along fast as it can.

At least, it does in the first half. “El Mariachi's” story of mistaken identity only has so many avenues it can explore before it gets repetitive. The mariachi gets confused for the gangster. He runs from them, gets into gun fights, and finds a safe haven at Domino's bar. Not long afterwards, he's back in town, being mistaken for Azul again, on the run once more. In order to fill out the run time before the confrontation between heroes and villains at the end, Rodriguez pads things out. The guitar player has nightmares about decapitated heads and abandoned buildings. There's impromptu musical numbers and phone calls. Ultimately, a story this simple only has some many things it can do before things get a little tedious.

But back to that ending for one second. El doesn't get the girl. She winds up dead, shot down by Moco. His dreams of becoming a mariachi are destroyed when the drug lord blows a hole through his hand. He guns down the bad guy, staining Moco's trademark white suit with blood, but there's no sense of victory in this action. It's a fruitless act of lashing out, a reactionary burst of violence with no catharsis. It's a surprisingly downbeat conclusion to what had been a fairly light-hearted shoot-em-up before. I can't tell if this was a good decision or not, as it ends the film on a somewhat sour note, but it's certainly bold.

As “El Mariachi” was mostly cast with the director's friends, the acting varies wildly. Carlos Gallardo is decent in the lead. He does best when playing up the character's naivety. Later, when the grimmer elements raise their head, he doesn't seem as confident. Consuelo Gomez shows a strong quality as Domino, a hardened woman that doesn't take much nonsense. Reinol Martinez doesn't emote much as Azul but his stoic toughness works perfectly for the part. Yet some of the acting is definitely questionable. Peter Marquardt plays Moco and, apparently, he did not speak Spanish fluently. This is pretty apparent in the broad performance the actor gives.

In general, you can spy the amateur roots of “El Mariachi” in a number of moments. The entire film seems like it was shot mostly around the same block. Even after the post-production work Columbia did on the movie, “El Mariachi” still looks pretty cheap at times. The interior shots can be overly dark. Not all the props look very realistic. The soundtrack is solid at times but can also be somewhat tinny at other times. Rodriguez' technique was strong but it's clear that he didn't have lot of money to go around.

There is an advantage to “El Mariachi's” tiny budget. The film captures quite a lot of local color. Being filmed in a real small Mexican town brings production values that even bigger movies might not have been able to grab. The bit players – the bartenders, kids, random thugs and guys – look like real people. There's a visceral feeling to the locations, an appealing sweatiness. You can feel the heat in the Mexican air, the grain on the street. While “El Mariachi” is partially an exaggerated and unrealistic story, its setting definitely goes a long way towards making it feel like a gritty crime movie.

Rodriguez shot “El Mariachi” with the intention of it being released by a Mexican video company, as the country's direct-to-video market was growing at the time. Native companies rejected the film, forcing the director to take it to American distributors. This, of course, worked out extremely well for Rodriguez. It's unlikely his career would have taken off the way it did if his movies never left Mexico. While the film would lead to two sequels and a television adaptation, its greatest legacy is bringing the filmmaker's particular style to the masses.  [Grade: B+]

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