Robert Rodriguez funded his first film, El Mariachi, by enduring a series of medical experiments. You wonder what they tested on him, and if it has all yet to slip out of his system.
Machete is a fandango of preposterousness. It’s so mental that Rodriguez, with every film, further inures himself against pastiche. Every single crazy extrapolation from every insane initial idea is taken as far as it will go. He is beyond lampoon. This, at times, makes for gloriously watchable anarchy. An unwanted doorstepper, for example, is despatched by knife-through-head accompanied by a wonderfully emphatic clunk-twang, Leone/Morricone meets Raimi. Danny Trejo, the beyond-iconic hero (in his first lead role!) who looks like a post-bender tramp (you can smell Trejo from your seat – try it) abseiling out of a smashed hospital window on an unfortunate adversary’s intestines. Such depraved invention can only draw admiration. If only the entire film were a sequence of such slapstick travesties.
The problem with Machete – the main one, anyway, and the reason why so many will love it – is its refusal to take anything remotely seriously. Particularly the audience. In the same way that John Waters or Russ Meyer can turn gleeful subscription into twitchy irritation within half an hour, Rodriguez (like Edgar Wright) can overface you with sheer abundant zest and scattershot madness. You can feel his temple-rubbing insouciance override the needs of the film should a scene get beyond the ten-second mark. He’s not working towards the payoff, everything is the payoff and the sooner, the better.
We first meet Trejo as he, in scruff-Bond style, ramraids his way into a rescue situation. He lops a few heads off in classic samurai-set-piece fashion. He procures naked Playboy-esque captive, hoists her over his shoulder and makes for the exit – only to be shot by same Page 3 model, forced to watch his wife’s beheading and left to burn by Steven Seagal.
Fast-forward: Machete is chumping around with other assorted vagrants in a lizard-friendly border town where brazen revolutionary Michelle Rodriguez implacably sells tacos from a beat-up van and turncoat Mexican US immigration agent Jessica Alba prowls for potential uncarded absconders. Enter peevish Jaff Fahey, who leeringly observes Machete’s punchless wad-scrap before acquiring his services for a ‘hit’ on Bush-esque senator Robert DeNiro (who is now just doing the film thing for a laugh and slumming a paycheck). It’s a set-up, though: Fahey is De Niro’s spin doctor – Machete is shot amidst a carefully planned attempt at scapegoating our rogue Mexican mercenary to score heavy anti-immigrant votes as De Niro looks to further dissuade US interlopers by installing a lethal electric fence across the border.
Carnage thereafter: Machete bags Fahey’s wife and daughter (Lindsey Lohan as drugged, undiscerning trash lolling about in a swimming pool – but don’t worry, she ends up a gun-toting nun) and relocates them in brother Cheech Marin’s church – and so on. Don Johnson is quite good as an unscrupulous sack of Mexican-hating shit.
As a fleshed out version of a Grindhouse trailer clocking in at a scandalous 105mins, this could do with a serious purge. For example: lose a few set-pieces and give twenty minutes to Rodriguez’s renegade. Perhaps, in any case, machete should’ve been a half-hour splatter-happy chopfest rolled out around midnight on FX. And yes, the trailer is better.
George Clooney, it seems, is irked by the memory of donning the Batsuit in much the same way that his knife-edge protagonist in The American is troubled by the backfiring exhaust of a pootering Vespa. How else can you explain the uniform melancholy of most of his recent films? And who would begrudge him the odd rom-com holiday?
Not that any of those inferred films have been remotely bad, nor Clooney in any of them. And The American is no different in that it is an impressive, boldly quiet thriller.
Clooney is an archetype in a film with a ready supply. He’s the stranger arriving in an unfamiliar town – we also have the equally mysterious contact, of indeterminate Euro-origin, responsible, to an uncertain degree, with the itinerary of Clooney’s nomadic gun-for-hire. Then there’s the tart-with-a-heart; the inscrutable fellow assassin; the kindly priest. But it’s to director Anton Corbijn’s credit that you never want to take him up on the simplicity of characterisation. His beguiling, unfussily impressive direction, coupled with a fine, admirably impervious script from Rowan Joffe make for an intriguing and fastidiously elegant addition to the lone hitman oeuvre.
Clooney wanders through and lives alone in un-named Italian town, recently relocated following a dismally ineffective attempt on his life at a snowbound hideaway. There he was dishevelled, bearded (bearded is cinematic shorthand for ‘all at sea’) and of seemingly bothered aspect. Now he is clean-shaven, trim and more presentably tortured.
He wends his fraught way through cobbled, empty streets a la Jarmusch or Antonioni, ill-at-ease and hand on gun, pursued by any number of unseen antagonists who may well imminently emerge from a shadow-shrouded hideout. We are never fed any backstory as to the nature of his status as quarry-to-many, and we don’t need one: it’s enough to suggest as much as he wrestles with his fate and restlessly carries out his new job – fashioning a super-quiet-yet-long-range gun from whatever materials he can find (they’re all placed within easy reach in a local mechanic’s – the bastard son of the priest, ye who may judge a merciless killer – garage) for a fellow rubber-out of random rogues.
He’s lonely and, as suggested by his ‘boss’, is ‘losing his edge’ – he’s slipping the mask and nudging inexorably towards normal life, manifest in both his easy engagement with an elderly, aphorism-happy priest and his nascent entwining with a beautiful, red-light nightly consort. He struggles to distance himself from both his own sense of mistrust and his encroaching love-sickness, and whilst the consequences are fairly predictable, they are handled with a poignant eloquence not unworthy of the aforementioned Antonioni.
Clooney is reliably excellent (but then, he should be by now: he loves these nerve-jangled, self-defeating, adrift-loner types) and Corbijn predictably provides a beautifully rendered landscape, both panoramic and claustrophobic, in which to entangle his players. The sense of isolation is exacerbated by this quieted idyll and the film is starkly and expertly lit in unequivocally bleak hues. Corbijn may unavoidably continue to make similarly assured but unhappy films and this, whilst limiting, is no serious critique. He does it well.
One person I know, who is not averse to ‘challenging cinema’, avows to never again watch a Tarkovsky film, even though I have suggested, somewhat facetiously, that Solaris is somewhat more accessible. The reason for that being the ‘impenetrable’ (their words, and, I’d argue, this couldn’t be further from the truth) nature of Stalker, Tarkovsky’s infamous, troubled work.
Troubled: because three of the crew (Tarkovsky, his wife Larissa and the lead actor Anatoly Solonitsyn) died relatively soon afterwards of bronchial cancer, the finger for such devastation pointed very feasibly at the chemical plant spewing poison into the river just upstream the two (one apparently half-functioning, the other abandoned) hydro-power plants where the film was shot on location in Estonia. Because of exceedingly strained relations between Tarkovsky and the first cinematographer, Georgy Rerberg. Because the original footage (which cost considerably more than the final version) was useless and had to be abandoned, forcing Tarkovsky to begin again. (Even this fact is rife with contradictory speculation. Did he hate the original footage and scrap it or was it unusable for other (damaged film stock) reasons? Happily, once the second set of reels were finalised, Tarkovsky was delighted and considered the result a vast improvement.) Because the script went through endless, fractious collaborative rewrites (the film was based on the novella Roadside Picnic – which is about post-alien visitation and the bizarrely dangerous residual conditions of the six ‘Visitation zones’ and was co-written with authors Boris and Arkady Strugatsky). You get the idea: this was a disastrous experience and a process heavy on the nightmares.
The resultant film, though, is a totally fascinating vindication (post-production tragedies respectfully omitted from such commentary) of such turmoil. Stalker slowly reveals a powerful magic as black as the stray dog that ominously wanders into the fray, by which point the film can mean anything you want it to, though you’ll probably err on the side of post-apocalyptic intellectualisation of life and death.
(I have not been exhaustive with the ‘plot’ of the film here, as this would bore anyone reading this to death, and as you really need to watch the film and slowly calibrate yourself to the deadened, dreamlike effect to understand it in any way, here is a hopefully useful encapsulation (that misses crucial matters, as everything here is crucial, but you get my drift).)
So we have (and before we open, another quick comment: the pacing of the film is slooooooow for a very good reason. As Tarkovsky has touched on, he wants to create a deliberately compromised ‘state’, whereby each image becomes a kind of ceremonial juxtaposed stage rather than a linear join. Every frame counts, basically) a slow zoom (sepia tones) into a penumbrously-lit room and bed within it, the room itself seeming to be in a seriously dilapidated, time-worn, ruinous state, and in which we find three people, father, mother and daughter. The father creeps out of the room (which looks post-flood uninhabitable and mold-cold), brushes his teeth in another distinctly insalubrious looking chamber of the abode, and, after a tense exchange with the following mother (‘You’ll go back to prison and I will be dead in the meantime’ – ‘You will have no zone!’) exits. To the juddering-clatter brought on by a passing train(?) the woman writhes on the putrid wooden floorboards. You forget that in 2010 the immediate easy conclusion to any cinematic ‘weirdness’ is often the lazily automatic ‘Are they all dead, then?’ Despite this, I confess that I could not elude the thought, ‘Are they all dead, then?’ But I did manage to discard the idea, for a short while.
We then revisit, with our ‘Stalker’, the age-filthied, carved rock walls of the bar seen during the strangely ominous opening credits (many parts of the film are loaded with a sense of dislocated dread that it’s hard to fathom as either being created as thus and manifestly so due to the environs/intentions or for entirely personal reasons). This being the preclusion of the voyage into the ‘Zone’ journeyed by ‘Stalker’, ‘Writer’ and ‘Professor’(physicist). Why those three? Well, how about renaming them ‘Doer’, ‘Speculator’ and ‘Sceptic’. Or perhaps ‘Believer’, ‘Open-minded investigator’ and ‘Fusty old curmudgeon that demands proof, dammit!’ Though it would be unfair to tag any as smirking naysayer: all are deeply troubled by the ‘Zone’ and all are compelled to go there. They are all in pursuit of the forbidden, as it were, regardless of ideological standpoints.
We overhear an empirical versus creative (the first of several) conversation among them centring on triangles. There is also the following comment from the writer. ‘If no-one in a hundred years will read me, why write?’ (An answer of sorts will arrive later.) All are nervous, none more so than the ‘Stalker’, whose presence the others need to negotiate a way into this mysterious location. They speak of the ‘Zone’ and are due to head towards it, this much is clear. We are never privy to why. Yes, we get talk of having ‘wishes come true’, but there never seems to be a sense of striving towards any quantifiable target. The journey itself, with its concomitant uncertainty, impels them.
Every move beyond the bar and towards their destination is an advancement into peril and, soon enough, they are evading a motorcyclist and timing their pursuit of a train which we can only assume is rattling towards the ‘Zone’. In the wake of the train they arrive at the floodlit glare of a checkpoint and are soon targeted by rifled sentries: they veer off in a rain of bullets, the reports hanging in the fogged air. ‘Can they catch us?’ ‘They fear it like the plague.’ ‘Fear what?’ (No response to this.)
But they are seemingly beyond a certain demarcation point that the antagonists fear: no-one follows them. Stray, distant gunfire punctuates any sense of safety and they find a four-wheeled cart on the tracks and head on through a bleak, disquieted landscape into an uninhabited industrial wasteland that soundlessly contains tyres, timber logs, plastic, travel-blurred indiscernible items. The emergent soundtrack at this point is ambient and mournful and there is a potent sense of exhilarating abandon: a point of no return and a hinterland of respite fringed one way by imminent death and, in the approaching distance, the allure of the ‘Zone’.
The ’Zone’ itself has retained a chemically-fecund sense of colour: there is ‘life’ here and a sense of pastoral reclamation (or lack of loss signified by the bled, iodine-hued world outside) and peculiar vitality. It is our world slightly askew and yet feels utterly alien. There is a sense of emptied calm, like a peacetime battleground a week after a particularly savage denouement, and yet: it feels imminently violent somehow, as though the residual ambience of a strange undertaking still thrums in the twisted tree limbs and occupies the abandoned car wreck sat beside strewn wood in too-green fields.
They move, carefully and uncertainly, along in a pre-conceived direction the ‘Stalker’ has clearly slavishly adhered to prior to this visit: indeed, deviations are proscribed by the ‘Stalker’ with dire warnings as to consequences. We move amidst and about battered, gutted buildings that contain unseen menace and an uncertain, unquestioned history. Water pools glisten in gouged pockets of mud and human detritus – jewellery, guns, coins – languish underwater, sit robbed of meaning atop wet mud. Odd conversations occur about ‘Porcupine’, who was ‘called teacher’ and ‘spoke to the people in the Zone – nobody could stop him’ but ‘something broke in him’ and he was ‘punished’. The writer at one point says ‘Give up your empiricism, professor. Miracles are outside empiricism.’ There is also reference to someone who ‘left the Zone and became fabulously rich’ but who ‘hung himself later’.
There is a then a key (for me, anyway) piece of dialogue that I chose to retain as emblematic of what Tarkovsky may have been striving for. Namely: ‘Man exists to create art – the only unselfish act.’
They venture further; through a tunnel they fear to approach and incrementally onwards into increasingly potent proximity to their hopefully exultant, intangible aim. I will draw a veil over the plot at this point: here we have a piece of cinema art that, beyond the rudimentary descriptions, demands your immersion. Amidst the discarded syringes, pulsating embers, living, roiling earth, strange fixations, spectral dogs, turbulent undercurrents, psychokinesis and Chernobyl parallels this will hopefully set the scene, provide a backdrop with which to approach Stalker.
(As further testimony as to the otherworldly nature of Stalker, I could’ve sworn there were three examples of adress-to-camera demolition-of-the-fourth wall. Wikipedia and two other viewers of the film beg to differ and maintain there is just the one. Odd.)
But what would I gesture as to what Stalker may mean? Well. It’s about creation; the difficulty of making enough elbow room to create; the nagging futility that creation brings – the reflexive, self-critical nature of art against utilitarian or empirical solidity – and the incessant, restless interrogation of the self and the external that is exhausting, and to what end? It’s about stories, the nature of storytelling and the hardwired need for them. Is the zone a merely mythical and fabricated playground, or is it analogous with the journey every artist must make in order to create, jettisoning family, ideas about normality, fraught with danger and potentially devastating permutations? It’s about the imprisonment of ideas and the limits and potential of the mind. It’s about the need for and the impossibility of answers. It’s about existence and, well, most things under the highly unlikely sun. (The film prompts sentences like that. Honestly.)
Dr. Valentine Pillman, a character in Roadside Picnic, suggests that the title of the source novella refers to the following. “A picnic. Picture a forest, a country road, a meadow. Cars drive off the country road into the meadow, a group of young people get out carrying bottles, baskets of food, transistor radios, and cameras. They light fires, pitch tents, turn on the music. In the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that watched in horror through the long night creep out from their hiding places. And what do they see? Old spark plugs and old filters strewn around… Rags, burnt-out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind… And of course, the usual mess—apple cores, candy wrappers, charred remains of the campfire, cans, bottles, somebody’s handkerchief, somebody’s penknife, torn newspapers, coins, faded flowers picked in another meadow.”
In other words: other people, places and things have the capacity to be endlessly mysterious. Underlying motivations for occurrences, behaviour and incidents are elusive, often most so to those carrying them out.
Tarkovsky seems to hint at the idea that the evolving mindset that creates the atomic bomb – the creative mindset – is as inevitable and inexorably confounding as the mindset that fashions a sonnet. (Is this what he’s driving at with the ‘we are here to create art’ part? That we are boundlessly creative and should therefore channel such restlessness into cultural artefacts as opposed to deadening ‘advancements’?) Things have been set in motion and all ends will nascently be found. Whoever enters the zone does so for very different reasons, with very different motivations, and that being careful what we wish for is not in our nature. We are inherently swayed more by curiosity than self-preservation.
Tarkovsky himself says: “In Stalker I make some sort of complete statement: namely that human love alone is – miraculously – proof against the blunt assertion that there is no hope for the world.” Whatever you make of this grandly enigmatic, at times stubbornly demanding film (or whatever it makes of you), it asks deeply uncomfortable, upsetting questions and forces you to provide tentative answers. Watching it is akin to making a pilgrimage to a mysterious locale and, once there, you find yourself faced with mirrors wherever you go. Though you know what’s behind. I suggest it’s more than worth having a look.