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Commentaries

Robert Rodriguez's Bad Ass Song

An addendum to Episode 305.

Timing in art isn’t everything but it is a lot. Release a film too early, like Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing in 1989, and it is considered cynical and hyperbolic. Release a film too late, like 2010’s Green Zone, and it just confirms what everyone already understands or assumes. But if the right film comes out at the right moment, that film has the ability to dramatize the debates occurring around water coolers, on talking-head television shows, and in political stump speeches and play out those ideas and arguments to a conclusion.

Last weekend I went into the local movie theater and witnessed such a film. Not only was it one of the most entertaining films of the year, but its political insight was so sharp, its satire so biting, and its cultural relevance so immediate that in years to come it may be considered a time capsule of this era. And no, I’m not talking about The American, the very skillfully made but disappointingly vacant film starring George Clooney. 

I’m talking about Machete.

Yes, that Machete: the film that began as a joke in the form of a three-minute mock trailer that opened the 2007 Robert Rodriguez-Quentin Tarantino double feature Grindhouse. Rodriguez’s little joke was arguably more popular than the two-and-a-half hour extravaganza it was attached to, and a feature length version of Machete has now opened in theaters. And it is the bloody and chaotic rollercoaster ride that the original trailer promised.

But underneath the trashy exterior there is some serious satire at work. Machete tells the story of a Mexican day laborer (Danny Trejo) who is contracted to assassinate a Senatorial candidate (Robert De Niro) campaigning on a hard line anti-immigration platform. Double crossed by the people who hired him, Machete goes on a quest of bloody revenge and discovers a web of corruption linking his intended political target with anti-immigrant border patrols and Mexican drug cartels.

Had Machete been released a year ago, many elements of the film might seem implausibly exaggerated. But with Machete coming out in the context of drug-related violence at the Mexico border and Arizona’s “Show Me Your Papers” law, to say nothing of the underlying racism that has poisoned the discourse on everything from immigration to the controversy over the proposed New York mosque, Machete’s political satire is frighteningly on target. (See this article at The Daily Beast by Bryan Curtis for a detailed description of Machete’s political relevance.)

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the film to most accurately portray the immigration debate would be a relatively low budget action picture. Mainstream Hollywood dramas are often a few paces behind the issues of the day, in part because of the time it takes to produce and release a film, but also because Hollywood incessantly waits and looks both ways before crossing the street, and even then market researches and test screens films into inoffensive sludge.

Machete follows in a tradition of genre pictures that fulfill the expectations of their audience while also managing to tap into the cultural zeitgeist. In much the same way that George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead skewered mindless consumerism or Planet of the Apes represented race and class conflict of the 1960s, Machete has its grip firmly around the immigration issue. And just as The Dark Knight and Minority Report addressed the War on Terror and its related topics in more interesting ways than “issue” pictures like Rendition or Syriana, Machete makes a more interesting statement about racism and immigration than Crash or Babel.

That’s not to say Machete is a perfect film. Far from it. Machete suffers from too many characters, constantly weaving between various storylines that are mostly underdeveloped. Steven Seagal, who plays the lead heavy of the film, is not given enough screen time and the ending is simultaneously bloated and abrupt, bringing all the characters together for a loud, machine-gun-firing and saber-wielding finale, but it doesn’t quite give the characters a meaningful conclusion.

But at some level the chaos of Machete’s ending is in its favor. In a symbolic way, the anarchic quality of the conclusion is indicative of the very messiness of the immigration issue. And because it does not pretend to be Babel or Syriana or Crash or any other piece of pretentious Oscar bait, Machete’s flaws are more forgivable and its scope, satire, and ambition are easier to appreciate.

Exploitation movies, as their name implies, generally aren’t taken seriously. Even films that now enjoy significant critical adoration like Foxy Brown or Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song were largely dismissed at the time of their release. But the independent market, when it isn’t hijacked by mainstream studios pursuing Oscar gold, continues to be a vibrant source for American movies. This corner of our cinema—including the part of it dismissively labeled as “exploitation”—continues to provide audiences with authentic and audacious films that have much more to say about our times than two hundred million dollar movies about giant killer robots or ostentatious political dramas intended to highlight celebrity activism.

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