By Arturo R. García and Thea Lim
Arturo: I’ll be the first to admit it: it’s easier to talk about Machete than it is to review it. On one level, this is a “critic-proof” movie, because it was ostensibly made by Robert Rodríguez as a no-brainer successor to Planet Terror, with Danny Trejo taking his archetypal (and stereotypical?) Tough Guy character into leading-man status. And, as a guy who whooped it up along with everybody else when the original faux trailer screened after Planet Terror in theatres, I really wanted to like this flick.
But I didn’t, and was having a hard time talking about it. Enter my illustrious colleague Thea.
Thea: I was all ready to waltz around the digital Racialicious office singing the praises of Machete, when it was brought to my attention that Arturo gave the film two really big thumbs down. So I suggested we have a pop culture critics’ FACEOFF!!! Or rather, ahem, a friendly chat.
Thea: So, I thought Machete was a lot of fun.
Arturo: I thought it was a dull rehash of Planet Terror and Once Upon A Time In Mexico.
Thea: I have seen a bunch of Robert Rodriguez’s movies, but I don’t think I’m as learned in his oeuvre as you.
Arturo: R. Rodriguez seemingly couldn’t decide whether he wanted to go full-on over-the-top or craft an “epic.”
Thea: How do you think that your disappointment with the overall quality of the film connects to the race/gender stuff in the film? I was interested in the question that you posed — let me just directly quote you: “If you put a progressive message in an “intentionally bad” film, do you reduce it to a punchline?”
Arturo: Well, let’s start with this thought I had: if you set out to make an “intentionally bad” movie, you’re basically setting yourself up as an unreliable narrator, no? So, though the film was pushing a progressive message, putting it in awful dialogue all around just undercuts it.
Jessica Alba did an interview saying she hoped the film would start a conversation, and I get that. But nobody I saw the flick with came out talking about, say, Arizona’s immigration problems. Instead they were raving about Trejo doing the Intestinal Swing (which, to be fair, was one of the film’s best moments.)
Thea: Hm, I guess I don’t agree that making an intentionally bad movie sets you up as an unreliable narrator – though I think that’s an interesting question. I think that a film/book can have an unreliable narrator, but in order for that to be so, you have to have a very reliable or competent filmmaker. To cite Dolly Parton, “it takes a lot of work tolook this cheap.”
My thoughts on Machete in a nutshell - I was really happy to see someone plonking a progressive message in the middle of an absolutely redonculous movie. Because in doing so, Rodriguez bring his message to people who will just go and see the film to have a good time – so that sort of breaks down a lot of the ideological ghettoization that happens when it’s only documentaries that are made about immigration, if you know what I mean. For me, I feel like I go to see so many movies that are fun, but I have to close my eyes and ears to the politics of the film, in order to enjoy them.
So I was delighted to a stupid film that had politics that I didn’t have to totally blank out for the sake of my enjoyment.
The people I saw it with didn’t talk about the nitty-gritty of SB 1070 on our way out of the theatre either. But that actually felt like a bonus: I don’t think that the film exists to try and actually change or speak to the law, it is more like it exits to entertain and cheer up people who are affected by SB 1070 or sickened by it … sort of a cinematic vacation for us. So my friends and I didn’t talk about Arizona on the way out, we talked about Steven Seagal – which was nice, for a change.
In that way Machete made me think of say, D.E.B.S, another intentionally bad action film, that just happens to be about lesbians. It’s a terrible film but it’s fun, and it feels like a gift that the main love affair just happens to be between two women – so for once viewers don’t have to close their eyes in anticipation of a grossly heteronormative love scene.
Arturo: Is D.E.B.S intentionally bad, though?
Thea: I think so. It may be worse than it intended to be … but it’s definitely campy and seems self aware about that.
Arturo: Ok, campy I get. I felt that Machete’s vacillating between camp and straight-up action took away from that “vacation” feeling you talked about for me. Because, hell, man, at least give me a villain who can deliver a decent speech.
Thea: What was your issue with the senator’s speech?
Arturo: It was just bad. Like, not “MWAHAHA” bad. There was no style to it.
Thea: Did it feel too over the top to you to be seen as a threat, sort of declawing what is a real threat to people’s lives in America, in a way that misrepresents the danger people are facing? Or you just didn’t like it aesthetically?
Arturo: Both. It was like bad madlibs of my Twitter feed.
Thea: Haha. Like if they made an OKCupid graph of “Americans who think undocumented workers should be rounded up and deported”?
Arturo: Right. All they needed was, “I’m a simple guy.”
Thea: Hey! I’m a simple guy! I just want to listen to some Van Halen and deport some people!
Arturo: But back to the speech and the Senator character…
Thea: Right. This is an interesting point you raise … I think that you approached this film with discerning eyes, whereas my eyes were more yippee-guts-i-can’t-wait-to-see-jessica-alba’s-worker-rally-will-she-quote-cesar-chavez.
I think for me it really comes down to audience. I feel like the guts and campiness part of the film were for your regular Robert Rodriguez fans.
The political message was probably for Chican@s, undocumented workers, their allies and their families who just need a break from the bad news.
Arturo: But that’s the thing: I am a regular Rodriguez fan. I can tell you Rodriguez can deliver that message better, if he chooses to.
Thea: Well that is an interesting point.
Arturo: And the “turn your brain off” approach didn’t work for me here.
Thea: Right, well, it’s confusing if you are turning off the movie critic part of your brain, but leaving the revolutionary part on. What I meant to say though, by talking about target audience, is that I don’t think that Rodriguez was trying to win anyone over who hasn’t already been won over either by his films, or by the movements against SB 1070.
Arturo: Which is his right.
Thea: I can see, though, for someone who is both a Rodriguez fan and against SB 1070, you’re in a different spot.
Arturo: I don’t disagree with anything that was said. I just thought he’s championed a particular version of Mexico more skillfully in the past. Hell, Planet Terror had a Latino male as the co-protagonist.
Thea: So if you could pick say, three things you’d liked to have seen different in Machete, what would they be, in terms of the version of Mexico or Mexicans?
Arturo: 1) I’d like Rodriguez to acknowledge that Mexico has indoor plumbing and paved streets.
Thea: Fair enough.
Arturo: 2) Quit giving us at least one character who I want to see die but does not (Enrique Iglesias in Once Upon A Time and the Spy Kid redheaded cholo in Machete)
Thea: Ha! I liked the redheaded cholo! Big ups to the mixed cultural kids!
Arturo: That kid was just bugging the hell out of me. Anyway, #3: It’s not even that much about portrayals of Mexicans here, but I was just disappointed we didn’t get full-on camp or a fully-realized action thriller.
Thea: And I have to wonder how the politics of the film intersect with that.
Arturo: It just wasn’t a very clever film.
Thea: To go back to the senator, I was wondering how much CYAing was going on. I wonder if anxiety about getting into trouble for expressing pro-immigrant, anti-racist ideas made Rodriguez hold back in all departments for this film. And that’s CYA-ing that goes beyond fears of alienating your fan base, who may or may not give two poops about undocumented workers from Mexico and other countries to the south, but also CYAing in terms of not wanting to get hauled into court for inciting the shooting of a senator.
Arturo: Hmm. I see.
Thea: For example, why is the film set in Texas, and not Arizona? And why not use an actual speech from Senator Brewer, for eg, rather than making up this Texas stereotype?
Arturo: I suspect part of that is, it’s RR’s home-court: he’s based in Austin.
Thea: Yes, and that’s why I think it’s funny the way that Texas is represented. In parts of Texas – and definitely in Houston and Austin – there are large immigrant communities of colour and areas of “progressive” politics. But the Texas in Machete is your regular old Texas – run by maniacs in cowboy hats with shotguns whose granddaddies fought in the Alamo and who are foaming at the mouth with xenophobic racism. So that’s not exactly a nuanced or insider view of Texas.
Arturo: And somehow the Univision equivalent has a crazy-big viewership.
Thea: Right, ha. But I mean, I don’t think necessarily that Rodriguez was really like “oh boy, I’m going to go to treason jail for this.” But I have to wonder how much, in a sense, coming out as a politicized Chican@ in this film, affected the quality of his film. Do any of his other films have overt Chican@ politics?
Arturo: I think Once Upon A Time comes closest. But that’s decidedly tilted toward the Mexican side of things, of course.
Thea: Right. But I think (and I could be wrong) that there is a sort of “coming out as a Chican@ or as someone with a policial consciousness” aspect to this film, considering that Rodriguez has not been, up to this point, considered a Chican@ filmmaker…he’s just considered a filmmaker.
And that’s also why I LOVED that Jessica Alba was cast in the film, especially as an ICE officer who eventually turns her back on the dominant culture.
Because Alba has also rarely been cast as Chican@ … she has even gone out of her way to get away from that. So to cast the “self-hating” Mexican-American actor who has gone so far as to bleach her hair and wear blue contacts in some of her films, as the Chican@ ICE officer who eventually sees the light: just brilliant. Even if her character and her performance were subpar.
Arturo: I read up on that a bit. What she said most recently is, she wanted to do was to get away from playing the stereotypical Latina roles – the hired help and whatnot. Which makes some sense.
Thea: I think that Zoe Saldana has said the same, but in a way that criticises the typecasting and stereotyping of Dominican Americans, rather than reinforcing it; not so with Jessica Alba.
Arturo: And yet she said she took this particular part specifically because of Rodriguez.
Thea: That makes sense – it almost feels as if they both were like “Fuck it. We’re Chican@. Deal with it.” Of course that could just be my projection…
Arturo: I’m more inclined to get that vibe from RR, based on prior history.
Thea: Not from Alba in this film?
Arturo: Well, here’s another case where the material undercuts her. I mean, here she’s somewhat of an accessory (figuratively and legally) to the Machete character.
Thea: So you mean her coming out as a Chican@ is undercut by the patheticness of the character?
Arturo: I don’t know if this is Alba really reclaiming that part of her heritage – going by prior statements, she never “gave it up,” but didn’t want to play the Hollywood Shuffle with it, either. But for Sartana to give the rally ’round the taco truck speech instead of Luz bugged me.
Thea: If I can’t agree with you that this movie felt half-assed in terms of quality, I can definitely agree that its gender politics were half-assed. The teeter-toter of feminism: it almost, almost has good gender politics…and then oh no wait. No it doesn’t.
I felt like Luz got the shaft. I was disappointed that that character didn’t get a proper sendoff – there is no closure for her. It seemed unfortunate (and not quite a coincidence) that the only major character who doesn’t get a proper point on their story, is the strong woman of colour.
But I just felt like jumping up and down and clapping when Alba screams WE DIDN’T CROSS THE BORDER THE BORDER CROSSED US. It was like seeing all the people of colour I know who tell me that racism doesn’t exist suddenly lead a civil rights march on the parliament buildings or something (included in this group is my dad, and my younger self). I was just thrilled by that moment – it wouldn’t have been the same if Luz did it. Though I still think Luz shoulda gotten some speech in there somewhere. Or at least a goodbye.
Arturo: Or at least another eyeball.
Thea: Haha! A few friends were miffed that Machete chooses Sartana and not Luz. But I was like, c’mon, do you think Machete would even dare suggest that Luz “ride with him”?
Arturo: Ok, can I just say this right now? Alba and M. Rodriguez had 10 times the chemistry that Trejo had with either of them.
Arturo: And I’m not even saying that in the “ooh girls kissing” way.
Thea: Haha. Point taken.
Arturo: That scene at the truck was a total Meet-Cute.
Thea: What is a meet-cute? I’m going to have to Urban Dictionary this.
Arturo: Here you go.
Thea: Aha! I learn so much from you, Art. Urgh … but I kinda felt like the chemistry there was an invention of Rodriguez, to create a kind of “girls kissing” scene for his hetero male viewers. Sorry to say. And that if they had gotten together, that’s what it would’ve been: very male gaze-y.
Arturo: Maybe, but in this case I credit the two actors for making it believable even beyond that level. I honestly thought those two people were vibing.
Thea: I’ll give you that.
Arturo: I would’ve been happy without the kiss, even. Just seeing Sartana teach Luz how to load all of her files into a spreadsheet would’ve been good.
Thea: YES! That would’ve been a way better ending than Machete and Sartana riding off together in straddle pose. As much as I liked the total ridiculousness of that final scene.
Arturo: Don’t forget her Sexy Cop outfit. Talk about Male Gaze.
Thea: Mmhm. Let’s not even bother discussing Steven Seagal’s Asian fetish…talk about unnecessary. But as for Alba’s outfit, well, baby steps. We can’t expect that much of her all at once…
Arturo: See, that’s not on her, though. Besides, two more steps in those heels and she would’ve snapped an ankle.
Thea: I do have to say, as a Racializen, I was disappointed that other immigrant communities of colour didn’t get to join in on that final run on the Minutemen compound. I also would’ve liked to have seen more of the crowd of workers … the camera doesn’t really show them in all their glory. You sort of just get a flash of feather dusters being waved and that’s it.
I would’ve loved it if somehow Sri Lankan kitchen workers got invited to the raid, and then some of the Filipino nannies, and maybe even some business folk of colour keeping their heads down and pretend not to know anything about immigration…until they snap and start throwing calculators and filing cabinets at the Minutemen. I would’ve liked that very much indeed.
Arturo: Any closing remarks?
Thea: No, I’m happy to end with the image of Chinese American businesswomen throwing filing cabinets.
Arturo: I accept your concession.
Thea: Ha! It was a pleasure agreeing to disagree with you.