Monday, December 22, 2008

Movie Monday 03: El Mariachi

Well folks, I only have two episodes left to go on that Beast King Go Lion box set I got as an early Christmas gift, so I decided to head to Borders and see if any more of them existed. What I got instead was Robert Rodriguez's first flick, El Mariachi, on sale for $7.99. Was it worth it? Read on...
"All I wanted was to be a mariachi, like my ancestors. But the city I thought would bring me luck brought only a curse."
--Carlos Gallardo as The Mariachi, El Mariachi

The very first independent film I ever saw was Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi. It was on a stuffy August night about three years ago when I was still living with my parents. I lived in an apartment attached to their house, and I was restless--no job, barely any money, and really no friends to speak of. I needed some serious cheering up.

I went down to my local Lackluster (oh, I’m sorry, did I say that? I meant Blockbuster) store and went scouring through the action DVDs, looking for something to take my mind off my current life situation. What I found was El Mariachi, which I had heard about online and read some reviews of. Everyone was praising it as "a triumph" and "a movie miracle," which probably meant that I was going to hate it.

Boy, was I ever wrong. El Mariachi is one hell of a movie, and don’t you let anyone tell you any different.

The setup is simple: a nameless mariachi, or musician in Spanish, comes to a town near the Mexican border, hoping to find work playing the guitar. He wants to be a mariachi, like his father, his grandfather, and his great-grandfather before him; it’s the only desire he’s ever known. Simultaneously, a gangster named Azul has just been busted out of prison on the edge of town after his old boss, Moco, tried to rub him out.

What do Azul and the Mariachi have in common? They both carry guitar cases, only Azul’s is full of weapons. Azul goes around town, killing Moco’s boys. Meanwhile, the Mariachi is two steps behind him, trying to get a job. It’s on one of these junkets that he meets Domino, a sexy bar owner who finds him odd and doesn’t know what to make of his desire to be nothing more than a guitar player.
When the Mariachi tries to get a hotel room, the hotel clerk makes the connection between the guitar case and assumes that the Mariachi is Azul. He calls Moco’s men, and luckily, the Mariachi escapes with his guitar intact...but he has to kill four men to do it.

The Mariachi returns to Domino’s bar and confesses to her what has just happened, and after convincing her not to call the police, they seem to reach an understanding--the Mariachi will play in her bar for room and board, and she has some new nighttime entertainment. Meanwhile, Azul and Moco keep going back and forth over some owed money, and Moco’s men keep trying to track down Azul...but they keep mistaking the Mariachi for the hitman, mostly because they both carry guitar cases.

Have I mentioned yet that this movie is not even in English? It’s in Spanish, available subtitled in English. And if this sounds absolutely stupid to you and something that deserves to be in the bargain bin, then shame on you, because you’re missing out on a simple yet very entertaining movie.

Because there are no major stars in this film, and director Rodriguez was the only real crew on hand, the performances are very natural, very real, almost like we’re spying on these peoples’ lives. Carlos Gallardo, Rodriguez’s best friend since high school who had aspirations of being an actor, clocks in as The Mariachi, and he probably gives the best performance out of all the actors. You can tell that he’s comfortable and in control throughout the entire film, and even though it’s in a foreign language, a lot can be told from the expression on someone’s face, and Carlos’s speaks volumes.

Consuelo Gomez, who played Domino, was the only one who had any kind of acting experience, according to Rodriguez. She’s also the only actor on this gig who got paid any kind of money during filming. Consuelo had a great challenge here--she had to act like she wasn’t interested in The Mariachi, and really sell it, so that when she says that she’s staying on his side near the end of the film, the moment has real meaning and cements their relationship. It’s very subtle, but she pulls it off. As an added note, her off-base humor during the bathtub scene was very entertaining.

Peter Marquardt, who Rodriguez met in a medical testing facility while trying to raise money to shoot El Mariachi, plays Moco, the main bandido gangster in this film. Dressed perpetually in white and always wearing his sunglasses, Peter didn’t know any Spanish at all--he was fed his lines phonetically off a cue card by Carlos, The Mariachi. The result is nothing short of an iron clad, mean-as-all-hell villain, and when he finally gets his, it really does make you want to cheer.

The film itself is really something to marvel at. The editing and pacing are matched so well to the acting that you wonder how Rodriguez pulled it off. Well, here’s the clincher: he had made about 40 short films with his friends on video and film cameras before he made El Mariachi, so it was truly a case where the guy just knew what he was doing. The plot may leave something to be desired for the more high-class crowd of "indie" film viewers, but Rodriguez certainly didn’t skimp when it came to fun and entertainment.

You might notice some slight mistakes in here as well. One guitar case had a wooden top; you’ll catch it sometimes when the cuts aren’t as quick. In one instance, Domino is looking off-axis (she’s looking to her right, and The Mariachi is looking to his right). A Playboy sign on the wall in Azul’s bachelor pad suddenly disappears a few scenes later. And of course, the biggest mistake (which was not really a mistake at all) was having the actors dress in the same clothes throughout the entire shoot. By the end of the movie, The Mariachi should have bought a new shirt, not a new guitar.

Rodriguez explains in his book Rebel Without A Crew: The Making of El Mariachi that he used a borrowed 16mm camera to do a two-week shoot and ended up with an 81-minute film. He edited the film on videotape using a dual-deck VCR. He shot without sound, or what they call MOS in the film business, and recorded all the sound effects and dialogue afterwards and edited it back in from his single-track tape recorder. He then submitted it to the Sundance film festival, where it won the audience award and was picked up by Columbia Pictures for theatrical distribution.

El Mariachi went on to make $2,000,000 domestically.

It was made for only $6,000.

A movie miracle indeed.


Mindy said...

Now THAT'S getting your money back on something!!

Didn't Rodriguez go on to film Desperado? And then the sequel, too?

Adding this to my "must see movies" list.

Swartzie said...

Yes, Mindy, he did. The third in the trilogy is called "Once Upon A Time In Mexico." I'm not a big fan of those, since I personally think Rodriguez sold out to Hollywood once he signed that deal with Columbia, and we would have had such a talented "indie" artist in the industry without all the glitz, glamour, and stardom. *sigh*