Today is June 20th, Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez’s birthday. He turns 47. As this article is actually scheduled to be posted on June 21st I suppose I should say Yesterday was Robert Rodriguez’s birthday. What I did post on June 20th was a look at films from the summer of 1995 which concluded with a discussion about Rodriguez’s film Desperado. I would like to continue on that thought and take a look at Robert Rodriguez and what makes his career (and his films, I suppose) so significant.
REBEL WITHOUT A CREW
Or how a 23-year-Old Filmmaker with $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player. It’s the title of a book Robert Rodriguez wrote detailing the experience of making his 1992 feature El Mariachi, which is a landmark piece of independent filmmaking. The legend goes that Rodriguez sold his body to science for medical experimentation in order to raise the needed $7,000 to make this movie. The reality is most likely that Rodriguez raised the majority of needed funds through traditional means and that the stint with a medical testing facility (which is probably not as fantastical as it’s been made to seem) was only a portion of that fund raising. Regardless, this little Spanish language action film had big action, a fun story and a new, unique voice. It captured the attention and minds of audiences and critics and Rodriguez became an integral part to the Hollywood scene.
Back in the 1970s there was a movement referred to as ‘New Hollywood” where studios began to give respect and money to innovative auteurs such as Steven Speilberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, and Michael Cimino. What seemed like little indie risks such as Star Wars or Jaws permanently changed the way movies are made and promoted. This movement died with historic flops such as Ciminio’s Heaven’s Gate and Coppola’s One From the Heart. The mid 1990s created the indie boom, a sort of New New Hollywood, and like before a lot of new and revolutionary ideas and concepts that are commonplace today came from this movement and, like before, it would eventually wear out its welcome. But at the time, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith, Steven Soderbergh and Spike Lee were the ones making a real difference outside of the studio system.
Four Rooms is a clear example of this celebration of independent film-making. Four Rooms was a story about a hotel bellhop (Tim Roth) coping with four different guests at this hotel – each guest being a story from a different independent filmmaker: Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez and Quentein Tarantino. Four Rooms, while not a perfect film by any means, does capture the voice and spirit of the indie boom. If you want to know what 1995 was like – Four Rooms is the movie to tell you.
The financial and cultural successes of Desperado and From Dusk Til Dawn (written by Tarantino) show the power that new, independent voices had over the American movie-going public. These were films that launched the careers of thousands of aspiring filmmakers. From Dusk Till Dawn was an inspiring film, and to learn that it’s director started with the equally exciting El Mariachi with nothing but $7,000 and a dream meant that this was something ANYBODY could do. Robert Rodriguez was and still remains an inspiration to thousands of people and while only a fraction could match the creativity and determination the ones who did have made some significant contributions to cinema. Earlier I called his story about selling his body to science to make El Mariachi a legend because that’s what it is; the details are not important – its the accomplishment, the legend that inspires more people to do the same, like the embellished rags-to-riches stories of men like Henry Ford or J.P. Morgan that inspire people and promote confidence.
A HISPANIC FILM MAKER
I grew up in Southern California which has a very significant Hispanic population – one sees the Mexican flag every day as commonly as the United States flag. As ethnically diverse as the region is, the only way the entirety of Hispanic history and culture was explored in school was through watching the film El Norte, about a pair of teenagers struggling to immigrate to the United States, and some tv-movie about a girl celebrating her quincenera and teaching Lou Diamond Phillips how to read. That was the start and end of our cultural sensitivity. It was an unvoiced assumption that the only Hispanics who ever accomplished anything worthwhile were Jaime Escalante and Cesar Chavez – the rest were a bunch of drug-dealing criminals (Blood In Blood Out and American Me were very popular movies). Or worse, all Mexicans were just stupid potheads like Cheech Marin.
And then along comes Robert Rodriguez.
When Desperado came out people of my generation were eager to see it – this movie looked new, interesting and great (which indeed it was). The generation before us, however, our parents and elders, were not as receptive. For them, this movie was just TOO different and I’m sure at some level that “difference” equated to “it’s Mexican” more than the film’s tone or style. That didn’t dissuade us from loving the movie. It didn’t matter to my generation in the slightest where Robert Rodriguez was from – it was just an awesome movie. What is Desperado after all other than a larger version of any Spaghetti Western? Desperado is essentially Django with bigger action. (Seriously, substitute Django’s coffin with a guitar case and you basically have Desperado). Sure this Hispanic found success in “white” Hollywood, but we didn’t notice that, we just saw that this creative filmmaker was earning hard-earned success. Perhaps Rodriguez’s films wouldn’t have felt so different if we’d experienced more culture beyond just occasionally laughing at a telenovela, but we didn’t. Other Hispanic filmmakers followed and we were fine with this, we were receptive. Robert Rodriguez’s films introduced our palate to this cinematic flavor and it was good – and we never noticed that it was Hispanic.
What makes the race angle here so significant is that Rodriguez has never really explored it cinematically. On the one hand you have someone like Spike Lee who rarely does anything but examine racial issues. Robert Rodriguez makes fun and entertaining movies where the characters happen to be Hispanic. Take Spy Kids for instance (which I liked and my own children recently discovered so I’ve been experiencing these films again). The family in these films is the Cortez family but, really, they could be anyone; I mean, did you even notice that they were Hispanic? If Spy Kids had been made by any other filmmaker we would have been constantly reminded of how Hispanic the Cortez family is and all for some misguided sake of cultural “enlightenment.” From anyone else Spy Kids would have had the Cortez family eating burritos, there would have been a birthday party with a mariachi band and a pinata, there would have been a scene where they have to stop by a taqueria and make sure to let the audience know what a taqueria is, and the characters would have made sure to toss out Mexican phrases as “witty” one-liners. The fact that they don’t do these things is what makes Spy Kids significant. The Cortez family doesn’t eat enchiladas – they eat McDonald’s.
That’s what makes Robert Rodriguez significant as a Hispanic filmmaker. Rodriguez makes American movies, for an American audience with completely American sentiment. The characters are Hispanic in origin but completely American none-the-less. The fact the he never draws attention to their race is a thousand times more enlightening than a movie specifically about the struggle of any minority. Machete is an awesome character, a total badass – the fact that Danny Trejo is Mexican is totally irrelevant; what he does is far more important that what he is. Spy Kids and its sequels have been consistently popular and resonated with children since 2001 and in a culture where immigration and racial issues are constantly debated the fact that nobody cares that the children have embraced Hispanic role models IS important. Race is only an issue when people choose to make it one. If only everyone could approach race as irrelevantly as Robert Rodriguez.