To channel Kent Jones, America doesn’t have so many great directors to spare that it can afford to let Robert Rodriguez fall through the cracks. As of recently those cracks have been shored up by a new wave of film criticism that has been called “vulgar auteurism”. After reading the latest contribution to this shared polemic by Calum Marsh in The Village Voice, in defense of Justin Lin and Fast & Furious 6, I was prompted to throw my hat into the ring in an effort of further balancing the canonical scales.
In the mad rush to laud Lin, Bay, Hyams, and other directors of ill repute (I can live with Mann and McTiernan, maybe even Scott), we have forgotten all about Rodriguez. Truth be told he has more claim to the title of “auteur” than most. How many of your favorite multi-hyphenates also shoot, edit, score, serve as production designer and also visual effects supervisor on their movies? We have not seen this level of virtuosity since Hitchcock, perhaps even Chaplin. Rodriguez is from the old school. He came up the hard way, honing his craft by getting his hands dirty and developing his multiple talents over time. Continuing to follow the critical thought process of Jones, though he comes from a later generation Rodriguez fits the mold of a Carpenter (who he adores and makes reference to on numerous occasions), with nary a trace of Europeanism in his work. Rodriguez is a true blue collar American genre filmmaker.
Like many “vulgar auteurs”, the man gets little to no respect. First of all, how many Mexican-American directors of consequence (and influence) do we have? Rodriguez burst onto the scene in the early 1990s as part of the Sundance Generation (with Tarantino et al.) with his film El Mariachi (1992), which was promptly remade and reinvigorated as Desperado (1995). The latter film created a bombshell out of Salma Hayek and also turned Antonio Banderas into an international superstar. Desperado is an efficient and expressive action film that proved a master of the craft was being born. Tarantino made a cameo appearance in Desperado and the two teamed up again for From Dusk till Dawn (1996) — which is as entertaining a modern vampire film as has been made and also features my favorite seduction scene in the history of cinema (see my article “Snake Dancing”).
Sin City (2005) faithfully animates the iconic comic book series and is a near flawless act of adaptation (helped in no small part by the co-directing of series creator Frank Miller). This is as good an example as one can find of what all-digital cinema does right, of what its possibilities are. Teaming up with his colleague Tarantino again the two made Grindhouse in 2007. Rodriguez’ segment Planet Terror is the better half, with more lawless energy and authentic “B-film” sensibilities. Tarantino, being the artist that he is, can’t help but aestheticize the low-budget genre film, whereas Rodriguez (again like Carpenter) remains true to its essential nature and does not endeavor to transcend its limits.
With regards to some of his recent work, is Machete (2010) a good film? Perhaps not but, following the line of thought that says all films by an auteur — vulgar or not — must by default be of interest, we should take a closer look (in this instance less at its form and more at the way it attempts to employ an overt social critique). If we want to argue that Fast & Furious 6 matters and is worth interrogating let’s do the same with a straight face for Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World (2011), or the various sequels to El Mariachi, From Dusk till Dawn, Machete, Sin City, and then see what we have to gain. The smart money is on the man in the black hat.