Robert Rodriguez is cooler than you

We’ve recently finished watching Robert Rodriguez’s “Mexico Trilogy,” and how you feel about these movies depends on how you feel about this:

You're gonna bust a string like that.

Yeah, that’s a shoulder-firing guitar case. You either are totally down with that brand of awesome or you’re not.

It’s really important for me to note here that there’s a lot more going on with Rodriguez than some movies about weaponry designed in the margins of a high-school pre-calc notebook (where, in truth, all the best ideas are spawned). No, I learned something about Rodriguez that transcends the gore and goofiness in this trio of films.

First, the trilogy itself. It didn’t start out so goofy.

Written and directed by Rodriguez, El Mariachi is a dusty, unpolished little film that looks about 20 years older than its 1992 release date. The story is simple enough: An earnest mariachi accidentally swaps guitar cases with a hunted gangster, a real genius who uses his case to hide an arsenal of slick peashooters. Mistaken identity madness ensues, followed by shootouts, then tragedy, then, tra la, our mariachi ends up a hollowed-out mercenary with a chip on his shoulder and nothing left to lose. The movie was a modest hit. (Though with a budget of 7 grand, it should have been.)

Fast forward to 1995, and Desperado. The first frames of this one are a whole world apart. The production values are the first clue that Rodgriguez got a better budget, though it’s clear later that it wasn’t that much bigger. What’s changed the most is the style, showing some real zip and confidence on Rodriguez’s part.

In the opening scene, Steve Buscemi plays a seemingly clueless gringo who stumbles into a dim little Mexican dive practically asking to get his ass beat by the bartender (Cheech Marin) and a bunch of surly patrons.

Bartender: What do you want?
Buscemi: Beer.
Bartender: All I got is piss-warm Chango.
Buscemi: That’s my brand!

Steve Buscemi in "Desperado"

Steve Buscemi in "Desperado"

Buscemi defuses his impending pummeling by spinning a tale of his personal encounter with El Mariachi, who has now become a gunslinger of mythological stature. The dialog here is crisp and funny, and Rodriguez handles the visuals with real pop. This hoot of a scene sets the table nicely for the tale of a gunman who’s part Batman, part Rambo, all Antonio Banderas sass.

Rodriguez follows up this scene with lots more playful movie-making, especially a brilliant bar shootout that ends with two opponents scrambling to find just one gun that has a single bullet left. Even better, that same scene begins with Quentin Tarantino as a motormouth drug customer who gets an uninterrupted three minutes to tell a dirty joke. This is confident, fun stuff.

In fact, there is so much smart dialog and gonzo-Western action that I was honestly disappointed when El Mariachi’s friends show up with the rocket launcher guitar case. Believe me, no one is more surprised than I am that I would pair the words “rocket launcher guitar case” with “disappointed.” But the film had carved itself such a nice nook in the living-legend shoot-em-up category that it didn’t need to go to the silly factory for its finale — that’s really more a Spy Kids thing, don’t you think?

Still, Desperado turned out to be a pretty hit — emphasis on pretty, since it made Salma Hayek a star in the U.S. (Well, its sure as hell wasn’t Frida…) Come 2003, Rodriguez makes the final installment, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, which is even more violent, even more over-the-top, and yes, even more chock-a-block with trick guitar cases. (Remote-control rolling bombs, natch.) For me, Mexico was a little too loaded down with plot, double-crosses, flashbacks, and superfluous characters. But there’s no denying that Johnny Depp’s apeshit CIA agent Agent Sands is a must-see performance, the classic combination of memorable lines given memorable delivery.

Sands: (giving a gun to a small boy) Have you ever seen one of these? Have you ever used one? Don’t ever, because they’re very, very bad. But right now I need you to aim it at the bad guy who’s following us, and shoot him in the head.

If that were all there was to this whole triology, I’d call it “kinda fun,” and tell you there would be worse ways to spend a weekend. You may find Rodriguez’s taste to be hit-or-miss with you, but there’s one undeniable outcome of this trilogy that confirms him as Cooler Than You: On each of these DVDs (and reportedly on all of his movies) Rodriguez includes a special feature called the “Ten-Minute Film School.” In these brief segments, he shares his trade secrets for making movies the Rodgriguez way.

What’s so supremely cool about that? These just aren’t self-congratulatory looks at how he did the effects, or of wacky star bloopers. Rodriguez has a message to get across in these features, and he preaches it like Billy Graham:

“You get freedom when you can consistently deliver movies that are profitable,” he says in the Mexico segment. “Your chances of being profitable are greater if you don’t spend the farm on things you could have done inexpensively by just thinking about it for a few minutes and by versing yourself in technology.”

He’s all Jimmy Fallwell for cheap. Because cheap doesn’t mean crummy, it means smart. Like Penn and Teller explaining how the magic trick was done, Rodriguez pulls back the curtain on all kinds of insane maneuvers for the film-making tightwad: use actors as the film crew; use the film crew as extras; use the actors’ fingers instead of chalk-numbered slates to designate each “take;” skip the storyboard stage entirely by first shooting complex scenes with a handheld digital camera and throwing the footage together on the fly to see if your vision could work.

He uses digital cameras for his final product, too, so he can keep an open mind and an open eye while shooting. He plays fast and loose as he shoots because “before you figure out what it is you want to do, you’ve already done it.” For example, if the sunlight streaming down a particular alley looks perfect, he might, between takes of a totally different scene, send some extras down that alley to get a just-so establishing shot. Bam. Or he might improvise a piece of action that occurs to him because the angles of the room allow for bigger motion. Boom. Want to have a cool explosion or violent effect to liven up a scene? Shoot the gist of the action while your actors are on the set, then add digital flourishes later. Pow.

“These are effects that, a lot of times, are thought up on the spot,” he says. “If you know the basics of special effects, you can come up with these ideas as they hit you, shoot them and move on, so that you’re shooting fast, cheap and always in total, absolute control.”

Control. R. R. is passionate about it. By denying studio executives any reason to come in and micromanage his budget, he gets to make his movies his way every time.

This is an astounding accomplishment and shows such ingenuity and enthusiasm for the process that this guy is my personal El Mariachi of storytelling.

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