[The Cult Club is where Flixist’s writers expound the virtues of their favourite underground classics, spanning all nations and genres. It is a monthly series of articles looking at what made those films stand out from the pack, as well as their enduring legacy.]
Back when I started watching movies for serious, and not just for funsies, I wanted to be a filmmaker. I wanted to write a screenplay, gather what little money my friends and I had, and film a movie with our little “Movie Not Included” production company. It was a fleeting dream. One that could never truly get off the ground thanks to years of family illness, borderline poverty, and losing ties with that tight group of friends. But El Mariachi changed all of that.
Robert Rodriguez is my favorite director for two reasons: he helped to promote Mexican values and pride (without taking himself too seriously) in the mainstream, and he’s one of the best directors on an a budget. El Mariachi is a testament to Mexican ingenuity and badassness that still holds up despite its fade into obscurity.
When I recently revisited El Mariachi for this month’s Cult Club segment, I was afraid that my nostalgia rimmed glasses caused the film to be more enjoyable than it actually was. I mean, it had to have disappeared for a reason right? Turns out my initial positive impressions were reaffirmed, El Mariachi is intimate due to its obscure nature, over the top, and damn legendary.
Now I’m now the most aware “cult movie” guy, so I’m not really sure what qualifies a film as a “cult” film. As far as I’ve known, a film achieves cult status when it turns out to be really good, but is widely ignored for some reason or another. Whether or not that definition holds true, it’s what I’m going to reference with Mariachi. Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi is a Western film through and through. It just happens to have a few Mexican herbs and spices. It starts off with a man with no name, simply referred to as “Mariachi” (Carlos Gallardo, who has sadly become a member of “I’m here too you guys!” club) who wanders into the small town of Acuña, Mexico and quickly finds himself caught inbetween a rivalry between a drug lord, Moco (which hilariously translates to “Booger” in English), and Azul, the hitman with a guitar case full of weapons. With that synopsis, the film should sound familiar. Guitar case full of weapons? Where else has that happened?
If you’re unaware of El Mariachi, you might at least know its spiritual successors Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Those two feature the same Mariachi character, but greatly differ from the original film. For one, the Mariachi is played by Antonio Banderas (probably because money), and the tones for the two films greatly emphasized absurdity over Mariachi‘s mysterious, subdued characterization. And it’s important to note that before Rodriguez became obsessed with fantastical levels of gore and camp (leading to lines like, “Are you a Mexi-can or a Mexi-can’t?”), he wanted to tell a great story with as much heart as possible. It’s like Mariachi’s low budget forced it to get the greatest return from as little investment as possible.
El Mariachi is deceptively simple, with its simplicity ultimately becoming its greatest asset. To once again get back to the “Western” thing, no one in the story has a last name or “true” name. Each character, from Mariachi to his love interest Domino, has a nickname that’s meant to give them the tabula rasa characterization. This works most of the time (someone like “Domino” could have both a light and dark side), but ultimately serves a greater purpose. To be a truly great legend and form a mythic hero, a story that bypasses concrete definitions in any media, you have to be able to retell it. It’s much more interesting to say “some Mariachi came in and shot some dudes” than “Fred shot some dudes.” Now which one of the two sounds like a better story? The one with the mariachi (and if you answered with “Fred’s” I hate you).
Beyond the names, the film evokes a Western image. Nameless man with a single characteristic (the Mariachi/the Cowboy/the Fastest Gun in the West) wanders into a town run by a single corrupt White man (which is odd in a Mexican inspired film, but says a lot when the White man’s abuse of the Spanish language is far more noticeable than it should be), is mistaken for another due to his visual characteristics (there is a mix-up when “a man in black” is all the bad guys define him by), and then leaves the town at the end of the film as both the town and the hero change in its wake. And most of all, the Mariachi himself is a genuine badass.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, El Mariachi helped re-inspire me. It’s ultimately what set me on my academic path. El Mariachi is a traditional hero’s journey though and through. But the difference is that it’s not an average man who becomes a hero, it’s the hero who becomes a myth. Even though the Mariachi equates himself to a turtle in the beginning of the story, he possesses certain skills. Despite fighting for his life in a haphazard fashion, he manages to kill four of Moco’s men. He demonstrates a hero’s skill, and since we know so little about him (and because of the initial confusion that likened him to the hitman Azul), there’s no true way to define him one way or the other. When he finally drives off into the sunset, with nothing but a bulldog, the memory of his love, and his guitar to keep him company, he becomes a legend.
El Mariachi‘s hero’s journey, and it’s deceptively simple mythic quality, motivated my once dead dream. I wanted to tell a story just like this. I wanted a character that could inspire others, I wanted to use a low budget to my advantage, I wanted to make a film that isn’t an embarrassment to Mexican culture, and I wanted my own El Mariachi.
It’s a shame that no one else did.
Next Month… Are you a marijuano? Do you like to partake in the occasional herb brownie every now and then? Alec Kubas-Meyer tells you why that’s a bad idea with Reefer Madness (1936).
PREVIOUSLY SHOWING AT THE CULT CLUB
January: Six-String Samurai (1998)
December: The Warriors (1979)
November: Funky Forest: First Contact (2005)
October: Casino Royale (1967)
September: The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)