The James Clayton Column: Machete: supreme source of movie wisdom

Is Robert Rodriguez’s ultra-violent Machete a more insightful, culturally significant movie than most critics would credit? James certainly thinks so, and here are his reasons why…

When Robert Rodriguez was casting his casting nets for Machete, he approached Chris Cooper with the role of Senator John McLaughlin.

The American Beauty and Jarhead actor read the script and allegedly dismissed it as “the most absurd thing I’ve ever read”. Instead, Robert De Niro ended up playing the hardline Texas politician, which is actually a better outcome.

The odd ‘fun Bobby’ moment (I’m thinking his Meet The Parents stuff and the whole stoner smoking a bong with Bridget Fonda in Jackie Brown affair) is refreshing if you aren’t in the mood for Taxi Driver or Raging Bull.

Nevertheless, the issue here isn’t De Niro’s evaluation of potential jobs, but Cooper’s. “The most absurd thing I’ve ever read”? Really? Has he never scanned a copy of Take A Break magazine? (This week’s cover story: “Mum Knows Best: My Baby’s Not Dead!”)

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By not leaping on board Rodriguez’s Troublemaker pickup truck and digging his Machete designs, Cooper missed out big time. I get the impression that he not only failed to see the point (Machete is meant to be absurd!) but also narrow-mindedly rejected a significant piece of pop culture because it seemed a bit silly and schlocky.

On the blood-splattered surface, Machete simply looks like a cheap ‘n’ sleazy Tex Mex take on Blaxploitation movies. It’s Robert Rodriguez expanding a tribute trailer produced for Grindhouse into a feature length action orgy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important.

This picture has a point (in fact, it has several very sharp points and Danny Trejo wields them all so skilfully). I put it to the world that Machete is a highly relevant film that should be appreciated, pondered upon and regarded as a crucial artefact as we move into a bold future of movie entertainment.

Even if it isn’t the monolith that will project us through a cosmic evolutionary experience, in my view, Machete is a vital cinematic touchstone of progressive power and sentient character.

To get figurative and drag this geological imagery out, it’s only one tiny clod of sweat-soaked rock on a wide cinematic landscape. Nevertheless, I’d argue that it’s crucial, as we stand on the beach of blockbuster dreams with our eyes on the stormy seas of an uncertain future, to pause and pick up that earthy touchstone and have a meditative ‘see the Universal truth in a single pebble’ moment. Indeed, the essence of motion picture entertainment lies within this little lump.

Philosophically, I see solutions and possibilities for Hollywood salvation in the thing. If they don’t want dirty stones and bad translations of Far Eastern spirituality in their fancy offices, then the movie moguls can just put up one of the very cool Machete marketing posters on their wall.

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Like Guy Pearce in Memento using tattoos to remember his purpose, the gurus need to stay grounded, and keeping Rodriguez’s kickarse riot of a flick in mind can help them do that.

With his ‘Mariachi-style’ the moviemaker teaches us much about filmmaking and the fundamental principles of motion picture entertainment. Machete is possibly the strongest expression of his methods and core ideals, so observe and absorb the following slithers of wisdom offered up…

Inspiration and empowerment is essential

Machete is 66-year-old Danny Trejo’s first gig as an action movie lead after years as a cult supporting player. It’s sweet to see the grizzly-faced, hardass icon’s career trajectory finally take him to a starring title role, but also to see an authentic, inspirational ‘gutter to the stars’ story reach a milestone.

Over time, Trejo has gone from being a heroin-addicted petty criminal to an in demand, successful actor and respected role model. Machete is empowering, not just for providing that career zenith, but also because it shows minority groups and society’s underdogs rising up. Machete is a reminder, like the Blaxploitation flicks and loose waves like ‘Queer Cinema’, that marginalised groups can rally and realise some power through film (or, in fact, any form of pop culture).

Movies should be uplifting and inspire people and well told underdog tales help them access hope and determined resolve. Audiences deserve motion pictures that empower them and shouldn’t be insulted by patronising products that put them down.

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If Hollywood isn’t providing that galvanisation and fair representation, it’s up to the marginalised to create their own media to build momentum.

Budgets needn’t be big

Cash is crass and can kill the spirit of invention. Looking back to his debut movie, El Mariachi, Rodriguez managed to produce an enjoyable and intriguing hitman flick on the most meagre of budgets (half of which he raised from participating in clinical drug trials).

Machete may have been made with far more than $7,000, but it’s still a pretty inexpensive venture if you consider other material cranked out by big studios and Rodriguez’s economical approach makes sense in the ‘current harsh climate’.

Gareth Edwards’ superb sci-fi road movie, Monsters, is another example of how something truly great can be realised on constrained resources (an estimated budget of $200,000 and a location shooting cast and crew of seven).

You don’t need to splash the cash to make spectacular movies.

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It’s okay to have obscene amounts of fun

Machete is stupidly and outrageously over the top and wears that proudly on its sleeve. It’s a wild rampage of sex, guts and mariachi-tinged rock ‘n’ roll, with riotous action and so much delicious violence I spent the entire thing laughing with an ear to ear smile on my face.

Rodriguez’s work isn’t to everyone’s taste, but if you’re up for the trip you’ll have a blast.

You can tell that everyone involved enjoyed making this movie and the sense of enthusiastic energy seeps from the frames. I’d rather feel that kind of a vibe at the cinema than get the sense I’m watching something that has been pumped out in workmanlike conditions as ‘just another job’.

Altogether, making art shouldn’t be a loveless ordeal and it’s OK to enjoy a movie just for the sake of having fun.

Politics needn’t be po-faced

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The immigration issues and subtexts about American society are central to Machete and it does nice work in mirroring the real world back upon the audience. It’s a movie with a message but not a ‘message movie’ in that it doesn’t batter you with heavy-handed preachiness.

It goes to show, you can actively communicate and communicate progressive ideology with humour and you don’t have to drop the entertainment for grave grandstanding.

Here endeth the lesson. Marvel at Machete and venerate it as a sage, sharp-edged mentor.

James’ previous column can be found here.

James sketched a series of movie spoof comics and they can be found here.

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