El Mariachi ★★★★

Watched as part of the August 2017 Letterboxd Scavenger Hunt
My list | Christian Alec's master list
#9: Watch a film with Chicano characters

2017 movie viewings, #115. It's been an interesting month as far as the intersection of my reading habits and my movie-watching habits; first was Mark Harris' Pictures at a Revolution, which inspired me to watch the 1967 Best Picture nominees Doctor Dolittle, In the Heat of the Night, Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate, and now I've just finished Robert Rodriguez's Rebel Without a Crew, which I only read (and in fact was only inspired to read in the first place) after watching his debut feature, 1992's El Mariachi. That movie was infamous literally before it even came out, for having been made for a grand total of $7,000 (in an age before digital filmmaking -- Rodriguez has stated that $6,400 of that budget was solely for film and processing alone); then when it went on to capture the national Gen-X Tarantino-esque zeitgeist of the early '90s and ended up grossing over two million, the movie really became infamous, which along with Kevin Smith's Clerks and Tarantino's own Reservoir Dogs is what really kicked off the '90s DIY filmmaking movement that eventually led to the age of the "studio-quality indie" we're now in. And after finally watching the film myself for the very first time, and seeing how excellent it actually is, I got fascinated with knowing how Rodriguez pulled it off; so I ended up picking up his memoir on the subject at my local library, by now a seminal book that countless filmmakers have used over the years to pull off their own no-budget productions.

The secret? Well, there's lots of clever little things he did to pull off a $7,000 full-length movie, but by far the biggest one was that he was literally a one-man crew, doing everything from handling the camera to recording the sound to setting up the lights; in fact, he even turned down a couple of buddies who wanted to go to Mexico with him for free, just for the fun of making a movie, because even though he wouldn't have to pay them, he'd still be responsible for finding a way to feed and house them while they were there, and he was so meticulous about every penny being spent that he didn't even want to go to the trouble of buying the groceries needed to make stew for multiple people every night. But that's what happens when you raise the money for your feature by literally being a medical test subject at a hospital for a month, another infamous part of the lore surrounding this movie's production; as he so entertainingly talks about in the book, the literal blood, sweat and tears that he went through to secure his movie's funds meant that he was obsessively careful about how it got spent, doing incredibly smart things like only including props and locations that he already had free access to, recording the sound of each scene immediately after each one was shot (so that the actors would remember how to exactly mimic the rhythms of their original dialogue, eliminating the need for expensive ADR sessions months later), and eschewing professional lights altogether for instead the most powerful consumer lightbulbs one can buy in the home hardware-store market, then eliminating all indoor wide shots so he could instead shove those lightbulbs right up in the faces of his non-professional actors.

Ironically, I don't actually have a lot to say about the movie itself; originally made by Rodriguez with the goal of selling it to the notoriously cheap and sleazy '90s Mexican direct-to-television market (for a comparison, think of the hundreds of terrible softcore erotic films made in the '90s in the US, designed expressly to be shown nowhere else but on premium cable channels at two in the morning), El Mariachi is exactly what you would expect from a production designed with this mindset, a hyper-kinetic shoot-em-up full of crazy angles, wickedly silly dialogue, and a cartoonishly violent tongue thoroughly in cheek the entire time. So Rodriguez was as surprised as everyone else when this turned out to be exactly what the young global audience of the early '90s wanted in their cinema experiences; and after ironically being turned down by all the LA-based Mexican direct-to-TV distribution companies, on a lark Rodriguez met up with a Hollywood agent at the powerful ICM as long as he was there (which happened literally because the agent was supposed to have delivered a guest lecture at Rodriguez's Texas film school a year previous, and when it got canceled he told Rodriguez's professor to invite his students to "come look him up if they were ever in town"), starting a chain of events that eventually led to a bidding war among the major studios, hugely hyped opening-night slots at Sundance and Toronto, and a resulting career that's included such massive mega-hits as the Sin City and Spy Kids movies.

So yeah, definitely watch the movie; but absolutely for sure read the book as well, because the story behind the film being made and sold is way more interesting than the film itself. Yes, I know, you squinty-eyed nerd, you hate reading books, which is why you became a film geek in the first place; but I promise, in this case it's well worth your time.

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