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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Frenzy on the Wall: Robert Rodriguez – Exactly What We Thought He Was

It seems that with every new Robert Rodriguez film folks talk about how he wasted all the promise that was evident in El Mariachi.  To which I say, “huh?”  The film shows a lot of ingenuity – in the sense that he made it for so little money – but not a whole lot of originality.  The fact that he basically re-made that film two times says a lot about the kind of filmmaker that he is, too.

It’s not like we were expecting Rodriguez to become the next Orson Welles, so I’m not shocked that he’s become a filmmaker more interested in churning out familiar product than shepherding something groundbreaking.  His filmography is littered with re-makes, sequels and re-imaginings of grindhouse films (not just Grindhouse).  He goes back to the same well and his films follow a rhythm that both he and his audience are comfortable with.  This doesn’t make him a bad filmmaker (or bad person) it just makes him profoundly uninteresting.  It’s great that he really likes actions films that he saw in a cheap movie theater when he was twelve, but I’d rather see him express that affection in an essay or a book rather than merely re-purposing it.  But hey, it’s not like I find his films boring or trying to sit through.

Robert Rodriguez has always been the filmmaker that he is now.  If someone were to have asked me years ago where I thought Rodriguez would be at this stage of his career, I’d probably have guessed that he’d be exactly where he is, making exactly the kinds of films he’s making.  I might not have guessed that he’d make Machete, but I would have guessed something in that same vein (and, basically, it is another remake of El Mariachi) and that Danny Trejo would still be involved.

The reason folks tend to think that Rodriguez is some kind of innovator is based on two films: From Dusk Til Dawn and Sin City.  The former was blessed by an interesting narrative formulated by Quentin Tarantino, while the latter brought to life the world of Frank Miller.  The success of those two films has a lot more to do with the writing than anything Rodriguez brought to the table.  Hell, From Dusk Til Dawn is not even a well-directed film, it gets by on the charm of its cast, kooky dialogue, and the narrative split that occurs halfway through.  And, considering the second half of the film is supposed to be a horror film, it’s not only not scary but it often goes campy (a Rodriguez specialty).  Can you imagine Tarantino behind the reins of that flick?  Look what he did in the barroom scene in Inglourious Basterds, how he milked every last bit of tension out of it and then picture what he could have done with a strip club in Mexico full of vampires. 

As for Sin City, Rodriguez “co-directed” the film with Frank Miller so I don’t know how much Miller or Rodriguez actually did in terms of bringing the books to life.  If I give Rodriguez the benefit of the doubt and say that he probably did most of the direction of the film, then yes, he certainly deserves credit because it’s a doozy of a film.  It’s fun and strange and wild and it looks gorgeous.  How Rodriguez was able to bring a comic book to life was unlike anything we had ever seen in film before.  But considering Miller used the same exact style when he directed (solo) The Spirit…I don’t know.  Either way, Sin City is the lone film on Rodigruez’ resume as director  that I would dare to call “very good” to “great.” 

And it appears to have been a blip.  I’m especially angered by this idea of making films that are supposed to be bad, which is where Rodriguez has been buttering his bread for the last half-decade.  Films like Grindhouse and Machete are intentionally kitschy and kitsch isn’t all that exciting if it’s intentional.  There is no sincerity or subtlety in a Rodriguez film – it’s all cynical recycling of very obvious references with easy jokes that are laid on super thick.  There is no way he’s going to pace anything deliberately. And  I’m stunned that they seem to be impervious to criticism.  If you say that Planet Terror is a “bad” film, I imagine the filmmaker would chuckle and think, “that’s what it’s supposed to be, so I’ve done my job!”  That is extremely aggravating.  I don’t want filmmakers to go out of their way to make a film that is unoriginal and uninspired, with frames missing or with characters and situations that are more than ridiculous.  There are enough bad film out there without people actively trying to make them. 

All of this is a prelude to the real point of this column: I saw Machete and I’m not going to review it in any depth.  What’s the point?  You’ve seen this movie before.  Whatever idea of Machete that you have in your head, that’s what it is. Congratulations.  There is no element of surprise, no moment of awe or wonder, not even a chuckle at the ridiculousness of the vision.  Even the over-the-top moments are so pre-ordained by the constraints of the genre that Rodriguez likes to work in.

And don’t even talk to me about the supposed “political” message of this film – there is no message because the messenger is not credible.  I don’t understand how anyone could watch this movie and be moved in any particular way.  That isn’t to say there weren’t moments that I found enjoyable – it wasn’t a slog to sit through – but, as with most of Rodriguez’s films, I have zero desire to re-watch it and I forgot almost every element of it by the time I got home. 

Look, Robert Rodriguez is not the worst filmmaker out there right now, but I do know that he is an unsurprising one.  His name doesn’t inspire confidence that I’ll be seeing something worthwhile.  His forays into kids’ movies – whether it’s the Spy Kids films or the awful Shorts – don’t appeal to me now and I can’t imagine they would have been when I was the target age either.  And  the “adult” films that Rodriguez makes are made with the same effusive energy …  and lack of wit or originality. 

When anyone asks me whether I’m disappointed in the filmmaker Rodriguez has become, I shrug and say no.  I never had high hopes for him to begin with.

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7 Responses to “Frenzy on the Wall: Robert Rodriguez – Exactly What We Thought He Was”

  1. Senh says:

    I think you’re discounting two (or three) of his best films. The Spirit was awful without Robert Rodriquez. He only give Frank Miller co-directing credit on Sin City because he was being nice.

    The first two Spy Kids films are two of the best kids films I’ve seen. The first one was how I would imagine a kids action movie if a kid with a director’s ability had done it. The second one was imaginative and filled with wonder.

    El Mariachi, Desperado, Planet Terror, and Machete are more of the genre entertainment that we expect from Rodriquez, but Sin City and Spy Kids shows that he can definitely go in a different direction.

    Personally, I like his a majority of his films. He’s one of few directors who can deliver big action movies without a huge budget. His action films have a certain energy and are technically well-crafted. I don’t think theirs anything to be disappointed about. I don’t think he’ll make Schindler’s List anytime soon, and I hope he doesn’t (maybe when’s 60, sure). There’s nothing wrong with making entertaining genre films.

  2. Brian Sanders says:

    I think people read way to much in his films. Robert makes action films that get the job done at half the price that those big budgeted action films that is all noise that Hollywood put out. I think people are so used to those big loud movies from untalented director(I’m looking at you Michael Bay), some movies are just for entertainment just be good at it and his movies does that. A lot of them like Transformers, Killers, Day and Knight, Bad Boys 1 & 2 are just flash at least Robert but heart into them which is what missing from them. You go back to old low budget films from the 70’s tha all about over top fun that it. So people need cut him some slack.

  3. Jcar says:

    I just saw “Machete” and had the same feeling. The original trailer was good–I’d even say that it upstaged “Planet Terror” in “Grindhouse.” Unfortunately, if you’ve seen the trailer you’ve basically already seen the feature length version. The feature is basically just all the best bits from the trailer padded out to an interminable 2 hours with a bunch of boring and unnecessary sub-plots and characters. Apart from a rousing intro (and a kind of hilarious credit for Don Johnson in the credit sequence as “And introducing Don Johnson”), Rodriguez didn’t bother adding anything interesting to the feature that wasn’t already in the original trailer. Given this, it maybe could have made for a lean and mean 75 minute film, but 2 hours is really pushing it.

    As to Rodriguez’s filmography in general, I think there are basically just two films worth watching: “Sin City” and “Once Upon a Time in Mexico”–everything else is pretty disposable.

    I think “Once Upon A Time in Mexico,” if not great, at least benefits from being the 3rd incarnation of the series he began with “El Mariachi” (so he had lots of trial runs to perfect what is essentially the same story). If Rodriguez merely makes fun mish-mashes of exploitation genres, this is probably his best incarnation of this (with lots of nifty action sequences, and references to films like Zatoichi, etc). The performance by Johnny Depp doesn’t hurt either.

    “Sin City” itself is good, I would even say “great” (just because it really did capture the comics perfectly, and introduced a whole new style of film in process–even if this “new” style has lost some of its original impact by repeated usage in films like “300” and “Watchmen”), but I’m beginning to think that this owes more to the source material than to Rodriguez himself. If you have read the comics, the films are exact carbon copies. Rodriguez basically just used them as the story boards, so there was really no directing required on his part–other than figuring out how to recreate the aesthetic of the comics exactly for the screen from a technical standpoint. The only point where the film itself comes alive in its own way (as opposed to merely recreating the comics themselves), is in the segment with Clive Owen and the talking corpse–which Tarantino directed.

    Anyhow, “The Spirit” also sucked, so while I would credit Miller’s original comic for making “Sin City” such a success, Miller’s output in the comic world has declined pretty steeply in quality since “Sin City.” In that respect, he seems to be a bit like the Rodriguez of the comics world–starting out with some brilliant output, then being unable to move beyond that in his later years. “The Spirit” was basically a filmic version of everything that has become awful about his output in the realm of comics–i.e. basically just a rehash of all of his usual tropes with absolutely nothing new to it.

  4. Jcar says:

    PS: I forgot about “From Dusk till Dawn” –which is definitely worth seeing, if only for the dialogue and set-up between the characters in the first half (which, once again, can probably be credited to Tarantino). But once the Vampires show up, the movie starts to suck (pardon the pun) and devolves into your usual forgettable, if fun, horror film. Not that there’s anything wrong with being merely “fun,” but if you compare something like “Machete” or anything from Rodriguez’s usual output with “Kill Bill”–or even “Death Proof”–there’s really not much of a contest.

  5. EthanG says:

    I agree with you mostly (95%). Rodriguez was the only reason the vastly troubled but tremendously talented (for someone of her stature/looks) Rose McGowan resurfaced in film. Crappy films or not, she always commanded the screen in a way Alba, Biel, Scarlett, Fox, et al would do well to emulate.

    Also there is evidence that Salma Hayek would have never been cast as Frida with RR’s help…but that casting is STILL a dispute…

  6. EthanG says:

    Also worth mentioning…you & I are not children. Rodriguez is the first filmaker since….who….to launch a 4-film+ live action kiddie franchise????

    not saying that changes your (or my) op. of him…

  7. FarrellB says:

    I’m glad that somebody got it right about RR. He can’t keep falling back on this “it’s supposed to be bad” bullshit. He dragged Quentin down that road with him on Grindhouse, but Quentin redeemed himself with Inglorious Basterds. I don’t think he’ll make that mistake again.

    Let’s face it. Rodriguez technically knows how to write, direct, edit, score, and mix a film. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s any good at making films though. Even when he directs someone else’s script (THE FACULTY) the end result sucks.

    Remember that his book stresses that you learn all these disciplines. “Be technical, Be scary.” That was his motto. He’s definitely technical, and I’ll give him credit for making some characters and situations that I love: The Mariachi, Agent Sands, Bucho – I love those characters. But I’ve never seen a truly good Robert Rodriguez film.

    It’s for all of the above reasons that I don’t get excited about a new RR film. I get excited about a new RR DVD because I know that thing will be packed with so much good technical information about filmmaking that I’m bound to learn something new.

    So for that reason alone I hope that he keeps making movies. But it’d be nice to get a new RR book.

Frenzy On Column

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon