Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Indie Classic Movie Review: El mariachi

Watching El mariachi again makes me wistful for the indie film movement of the early ‘90s, when directors like Robert Rodriguez burst onto the scene by going out and making cheap films and getting noticed by studios. The story of his first feature is the stuff of indie legend: he wrote, directed and edited the film on a budget of $7,000 and then shopped it around until it was picked up for distribution by Columbia Pictures. Rodriguez’s gift is stretching his budget and making it look like double (or more) on screen. Yes, El mariachi looks low-budget, but it looks like a hell of a lot more than 7K.

I was most amazed this time around by how inventive and creative the film is in terms of camera set ups, editing and story. Okay, the story itself is pretty basic, being little more than a mistaken identity-revenge action flick. The main character, El Mariachi (Carlos Gallardo), arrives in town carrying his guitar and looking for work. Coincidentally, Azul (Reinol Martinez), a drug kingpin’s underling, is traipsing around with a guitar case full of guns and a taste for revenge against Mauricio (Peter Marquardt), the kingpin who owes him money. It’s not long before El Mariachi is taking gun fire from henchmen who don’t know who they’re looking for.

The work that Rodriguez did on this film is of a remarkably high standard. It looks rough, no doubt, but the editing is sharp, the camera movements fluid, and the whole thing comes together to create a feature that is more coherent than a great deal of the dreck that passes for big budget entertainment. This is the result of a director who not only had a singleness of vision, but the working knowledge of how to cut together a film. If you watch his “Ten Minute Film School” on the DVD and listen to his feature commentary, you learn that he mostly made his editing decisions on set and shot the film with those decisions in mind. This meant he couldn’t change his mind later, but that doesn’t matter because El mariachi is as cool and slick as indie cinema could be twenty years ago.

At the risk of suggesting that the story is secondary at best or inconsequential at worst, I found myself less moved by the film as a piece of drama than I was by the stylized direction. Rodriguez has fun employing lots of camera tricks like slow motion for added dramatic effect and the occasional Looney Toons-style sped up footage for a bit of comedic spark. But the plot, in which El Mariachi falls for a girl, Domino (Consuelo Gómez), who helps him out by offering refuge, contains little of great interest. It’s a serviceable plot, but that’s hardly what grabbed Columbia’s and indie filmgoers’ attention. On the contrary, it’s the presentation all the way.

This is a film that served as a gateway for Rodriguez to become a successful Hollywood director (he has directed all four of the Spy Kids films). His style has gotten more over-the-top as the years have worn on, but it’s great fun to revisit an old treasure like El mariachi to witness a style in development. It’s not unlike going back to old Cassevetes films although they were more of the cinema verité style while Rodriguez’s film and its two sequels are heavily stylized. They help remind us that not every action movie has to be big and brainless, full of overwrought special effects made on a trumped up budget in the tens of millions.

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