Friday, October 15, 2010

A discussion on the film "Machete"

On Machete (Rodriguez, 2010)

When my best friend asked if I'd seen Machete yet, I didn't really think twice.  She loves gore and action, so a Rodriguez film is right up her ally.  I replied, "no, haven't seen it..why?"  She then proceeded to explain that the film's main character is a day laborer and that they basically fight anti-immigrant people who I gathered were based on the Minute Men.  She also said that Michelle Rodriguez was in it and super hot and revolutionary.  I was floored.  A movie that actually portrayed day laborers?  And not as some joke?  I had to see it.  After watching it once in the theatre with a friend in the immigrant's rights/AB540 movement, and having the best experience in a theatre I had in a while (i.e. sudden urges to yell at the screen, laugh inappropriately loudly, and exchange knowing glances with said friend) I knew I wanted to write a blog about it.  But I hesitated because I wanted to get input from at least one day laborer.  Finally, one night it just perfectly worked out-my brother and his friend, also both  immigrant's rights activists, stopped by to hang out and I asked them if they had seen the film.  They had my same reaction, not knowing the film's premise, thus being disinterested.  Once I told them they had me look up showtimes immediately and we found a screening at the Drive-In Theatre in Montclair.  I suggested we bring Jose and the next thing I knew we were all sharing popcorn on a blanket in front of the big screen.  The experience differed for Jose partially because At times I had to translate dialogue, but generally the film is so exaggerated and action-filled that it was obvious what was happening.  Other than that, watching the three of them watch the film was super enjoyable because the movie depicts some cool shit.  For example:

1. A badass, impossible to kill, quasi-mythical character who is a day laborer
2. Said character is played by Danny Trejo, a former drug addict and convict who became a film and television actor, but usually as the villain and never the lead role
3. The film revolves around corrupt, anti-immigrant politicians (um, hello Joe Arpaio..) and "border vigilantes" (hello minute men) basically waging a civil war against undocumented people
4. The leader of the "revolution" on the side of the immigrants is a woman!  Michelle Rodriguez plays Shé, a female homage to Che Guevara, but in a cool, mythicized, taco truck vending, border crossing assisting kind of way
5. The film portrayed hilarious tropes and stereotypes that only people who live in states which border Mexico could understand.  Pachucas, low riders, hydrolics, paleteros, minute men, day laborers, taco trucks, "homies," and loads of culturally Catholic paraphenalia littered the screen as what felt like inside jokes for those of us that got them
6. Cheech Marin was in the movie!  After Born in East LA (Marin, 1987), Cheech's film that parodied the high occurrences of deportation of Mexican-American US citizens at the time and ended in an all out charge of the border, he has been high on my list of cool media makers.  
7. The existence of a "network" of workers, documented and undocumented, who all communicated and supported one another.

 But the movie was also super exploitative.  It began as a hilarious fake preview between Rodriguez's and Tarantino's Grindhouse (2007) double feature, Planet Terror and Deathproof, respectively.  It was meant to complement the nouveau-"B" movies  and be a spoof of 70's exploitation films.  But because it received such positive feedback (partially because of the preview's mention of Arizona, which was the center of controversy over SB1070 at the time) Rodriguez made it feature length.  Some problematic (And yes, I know that the over-exaggeration is meant to be a joke, but parody still perpetuates what it is parodying) features of the film were:

1. The sexualization and sexual exploitation of ALL the women in the film.  The white women, the nurses, the ICE agent, and Shé were all treated as sexual objects by the camera angles, the characters, and their secondary character statuses to the roles of the men.  And this might seem obvious, but huge breasts, tiny waists, big butts, flawless skin, and long flowing hair describes every female character. 
2. The extreme and graphic violence.  Did you watch it? I'll give you a hint: intestine.
3. "The revolution" ended after the minute men/network battle
4. Lindsay Lohan.  I don't care what role she played, this movie was too badass to let her be a part of it
5. Machete's lack of politicization. Sleeping with an ICE agent? Ew.
6. The cringeworthy scene where Jessica Alba's character  Sartana gives a speech to the day laborers and says "we didn't cross the border, the border crossed us!"  This is messed up for many reasons. a) Ms. Alba has made comments in the past that she doesn't know why everyone refers to her as Latina b) This is the first time she has played a Latina role c) Her character is an ICE agent.  When did she become part of the "us" that the border crossed?  d) She is not cool enough to say that classic immigrants rights tagline 
e) The scene seems out of place-Luz/Shé is the revolutionary,  Sartana is not even close

And something I'm ambivalent about: Steven Seagal as a Mexican drug lord.  Feeling weird about the brownface and Seagal's Spanish, but then liking the dying scene.  So funny.

The conversation I filmed was the second segment as my brother, his friend, Jose, and I had a good talk in the car on the way home and then my friend came and I taped round 2.  There was a lot to say, but I chose 5 minutes of some of my favorite critiques from the over-an-hour worth of footage I captured.  

As a positive addendum to my critique of the body sizes of the female characters, I would like to share some re-imaginings of Shé  and  Sartana by a talented Long Beach artist named Julio Salgado from a series he calls "Chubby Girl Art" in which he makes famous women "chubby." 

Luz/ Shé 

  I hope you like the discussion and please, if you haven't seen Machete, watch it and comment!


  1. Hey!
    I really enjoyed your post, and even though I haven't seen Machete I will go watch it later because I wanted to comment on the response video first. I was struck by the description of the machete as a phallic symbol. Even though I've thought about it before as a Mexican woman, I didn't link the phallocracy to this tool because both women and men use it to work or rebel. I have often thought about guns, nuclear weapons and other such instruments of violence to be phallic, but your friend is right to include the machete in the list. Thanks,
    supersonic d

  2. Great blog post. I love Julio's artwork. It sounds like an awesome series.

    I see a lot of our thought in that analysis, but your style presents it in an interesting, funny way.

    My favorite part is your consideration of the Sartana character. I had always had some pride that Jessica Alba was a local. I had no idea that she had issues about being perceived as Latina. It makes me lose respect for her, but what else can you expect from someone from Upland? (Haha..)

    I think I was as uncomfortable as you with the car-top speech, although I'm surprised you didn't mention the parallel with the scene from Walkout.

    Dennis' partner's blog emphasized the contrast between Sartana ("It's different here. The system works") and Shé ("Your system is broken. So we built our own"). (Which would argue for a deeper understanding of revolution than just a single climactic battle, but I digress.) I love the idea of a secret underground resistance, even if it's just to excite the imagination. Then again, in the post-PATRIOT Act age, it makes me fear the criminalization of political activity, like in Guatemala.

    This film, I found out as I was looking for merchandise on the internet, inspired Alex Jones to accuse Robert Rodriguez of inciting race war in a ten-minute rant. I feel the political energy behind it. I just wish that energy could be harnessed for something positive and liberatory.

    I also noticed that you cited Machete's "sleeping with" Sartana as proof of his depoliticization. While I think it's a good example of your point, I saw his cop identity as having a political dimension, just like Sartana's does. They are both "law-and-order" people (albeit in a lawless world.) Their unity with Shé and the undocumented is based on their common racial ground. Which is another reason why the racist white people were getting crazy, because all the bad guys are white.

    Oh yeah, Dennis' partner also mentioned Lindsey Lohan, be she did so in the context of the film blurring the line between fiction and reality.

    Which leads me to my point: We loved the film despite all of our critiques because it epitomizes some essential aspects of the immigration-related realities we live every day in an artistic and inspiring way.