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The future of film: no film

2004.03.22 — Culture | Entertainment | Movies | DVD | by Andrew Cole

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Once Upon a Time in Mexico—Rodriguez & Banderas. [official site]

I just sat down to watch Once Upon a Time in Mexico. It's a fun ride, tho not quite the epic it was meant to be, but with Mexico, writer/director Robert Rodriguez demonstrates the future of film: not having any.

I enjoyed the first two Mariachi films: El Mariachi and Desperado, but none of the three are high cinema (one might say the same of all of Rodriguez's work). They are essentially pulp adventures set in a fantasy Mexico, very stylish and stylized action pictures shot quickly and at minimal expense.

Step aside Roger Corman, Rodriguez is the new master of cheap movie-making. He gained fame with El Mariachi not so much for its rambling story or even its neo-western style but for its impossibly low cost: $7000. He intended the result to go straight to Mexican video and to be a sort of video calling card for his abilities when he went knocking on Hollywood doors. But El Mariachi got enough attention to get him a new soundtrack and a US distribution deal. Hollywood loves cheap. Since then, he's made several more movies, some of them quite popular, all at no more than $35 million, which is the starting figure for most action films.

Step aside Roger Corman, Rodriguez is the new master of cheap movie-making.... Hollywood loves cheap.

But in his commentaries for Mexico, Rodriguez tells how he quickly became tired of traditional Hollywood film-making (even with his stripped-down style). A chance conversation with George Lucas at Skywalker Ranch led him toward the new era: digital motion pictures.

So Mexico became Rodriguez's first high-definition digital movie. If you watch the DVD version, you're getting it in pristine form: digital, from camera to television; at no stage was any of it in film form.

George Lucas himself, of course, did this with Attack of the Clones, but Lucas's sterile, plastic sci-fi environment and gigantic $120 million budget didn't make a good poster child for digital movie-making. Once Upon a Time in Mexico does.

Rodriguez proves (and details how, in his commentaries and featurettes) a major motion picture can be made cheaply in digital video and still look natural and alive. His featurettes are obviously meant as much for other Hollywood directors as for film students and aficionados. He's a bit disingenuous when he talks about how easy it is to make a movie with only a few people, since he does a dozen or so jobs himself: writer, director, producer, camera operator, art director, editor, score composer, and more.

Still, seeing his home movie post-production studio, with its editing and music scoring stations back-to-back, is likely to make any aspiring film-maker salivate with possibilities. Got a friend who plays keyboards? He can turn himself into a symphony while you cut and color-correct your masterpiece of independent guerrilla film-making and prepare to merge it with his score for output to your DVD burner. How long before we see the first all-digital pro-quality El Mariachi or Blair Witch Project?

The photography in the film, like Desperado, is terrific. Mexico looks old and run-down but also noble and historical. Rodriguez talks a lot about using The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly for inspiration as well as The Road Warrior, but his film has more atmosphere and better use of light. The ease of seeing what you're shooting as you're shooting it, which Rodriguez cites again and again as a key advantage of digital, paid off in spades.

Where it's lacking, as in most of Rodriguez's work, is in the story. Mexico is a fairly jumbled mess of good guys and bad guys, largely retracing the steps of the two previous Mariachi films. Salma Hayek appears only in flashback (due to shooting schedule conflicts), and Johnny Depp's character inexplicably changes from passive manipulator to active avenger in the last act. There's also not nearly enough interaction between Banderas and the other key characters. Depp is his go-between, so Depp becomes a de facto protagonist. Actually, Rodriguez loves his characters so much that they're practically all protagonists. Only the anonymous general and Willem Dafoe's drug kingpin are left unredeemed.

Still, it's a roller coaster ride that's at least worth a rental, especially if you liked Desperado. And as a poster child for digital movie-making, you can hardly imagine anything better. Quick, cheap, profitable, stylish... that's pure gold.


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