You Just Tarried with the Wrong Mexican: Machete and the Aesthetic Politics of Negation
- Johanna Isaacson
During the period of decolonization the colonized are called upon to be reasonable. They are offered rock solid values, they are told in great detail that decolonization should not mean regression, and that they must rely on values which have proved to be reliable and worthwhile. Now it happens that when the colonized hear a speech on western culture they draw their machetes or at least check to see they are close at hand.
“On Violence,” Frantz Fanon
The Gleaming Blade
The machete in Fanon’s discussion of violence above is a weapon against one of the most debilitating aspects of colonialism, the colonization of subjectivity. Arguably the mid 20th century global machete swing of decolonization and 60s-era civil rights, anti-war, feminist, and gay struggles cut a new figure of radical subjectivity. Films were late to register this shift, and when 70s-era films became attuned to new modes of expression it was already, in a sense, too late; transformation and recuperation of radicalism occurred simultaneously. This was what Fredric Jameson refers to as the sixties phenomena of “universal abandon,” an inflationary bubble of freedom, an imaginative release from the gold standard of reality, promising total transformation, but necessarily succumbing to the re-entrenched forces of capitalist ratiocination, intensified financialization, and spectacular culture. Cinema, a metonym for and central disseminator of this spectacular culture, is a key medium to gauge the dialectics of this experience of simultaneous opening and closure.
In this extraordinary period (the end of the sixties), militant cinema gained mass appeal, high art film and low genre became thematically linked and mutually influential, and soon even middlebrow bourgeois film registered these changes. (The 80s diluted this militant cinematographic sensibility.) Jaws and the emergence of the blockbuster eclipsed the experimental character of seventies film. Political cinema retreated into the form of the toothless “issue film” that addresses highly constricted, specialized spheres of political life. The Brechtian aesthetic that characterized seventies genre films gave way to these liberal forms of realism, and even well-intentioned artful movies lacked the language to confront bourgeois structures of thought. Example: Lonestar, John Sayles’ murder mystery drama that tells the story of a border town in Texas and the buried histories of its residents. The film is known for its psychological richness and the depth of its characters where “nobody… has the two-dimensional nature of a symbolic figure”(Maslin). While the focus on the psychological dimensions of border culture is interesting and productive (the film succeeds in its own limited aims), this formal aesthetic is blinded and constricted by its dependence on received wisdom that the desires and flaws of individuals cause historical injustice and violence. Though it is limited, Lonestar is still a wide-ranging exploration of the fraught history of la frontera and its effects on everyday lives. The majority of contemporary political cinema is much further constricted, limiting its scope to governmental politics--Oliver Stone’s interpretation of Bush’s presidency as an individualized, oedipal drama in W. and the bureaucratic celebration of Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson in Fair Game both come to mind. We are living in the era of the TINA (the right-wing slogan regarding capitalism—There Is No Alternative) film, where cinema represents all the political range of a New York Times editorial or the spectrum of possibilities advanced by a chastened Lou Dobbs.
Cartoonish and action-packed, Machete belongs to a different world than the contemporary political film. It contains no rich psychology, no subtlety, no complex logic, historical detail or rational explanation of realpolitik. Rather, it points to an earlier moment when it was taken for granted that genre film was political to the bone, reflecting the subjectivity, anger and tastes of a radicalized proletarian sensibility.
If the dominant form of political cinema is a kind of realism via realpolitik, Machete can be seen in light of Bertolt Brecht’s concept of epic theater, the theater of estrangement, one which eschews imitation in favor of an aesthetic of de-realization, destroying and exposing rather than constructing technical, narrative and ideological devices. Here, dialogue and action consist of large, stagy, gestural forms—entertaining spectacle and pedagogical exposure of the ubiquity and contingency of what Lukacs referred to as “bourgeoise knowledge.” In the face of this ubiquitous and invisible antagonist, only a negative aesthetic can expose the cracks and fissures in the TINA.
This form of representation eludes precise interpretation and pat conclusion, its form of negation akin to Barthes’s semiotic analysis of wrestling in Mythologies. The negative aesthetic is thus not so much a concrete form of representation, but a texture, an interrogation and disruption of smoothness and continuity in “common sense” narratives. The negative aesthetic is etched, like the scars and pockmarks in Machete actor Danny Trejo’s battered, dignified face. Trejo, having served a long prison sentence at San Quentin, occupies a definite place in the lineage of “the theater of the oppressed.” The semiotics of his appearance as well as his personal history point to inexpressible structural inequalities that subtend discrete, surface “issues.”
Even Machete’s sequence of production is evidence of the film’s incursion on the boundaries between art and life. The first trailer for the film was made as a hoax, with no film in production. The second trailer is prefaced by a direct address to Arizona, during the period when the oppressive SB 1070 law was enacted. This law required police to arrest all those suspected of being illegal immigrants, indicating a new Bantustan logic with all Latinos and otherwise ethnic seeming residents potentially criminalized. Criticism of this polarizing law adhered to the superficial, issue-driven logic we see in the contemporary political film. Arizona, the argument went, has regressed to Nazi tactics of surveillance and interrogation. This authoritarianism is clearly antithetical to American democracy. Though it went largely unnoticed, SB 1070 was not antithetical but rather an integral and logical extension of contemporary forms of “democracy.” The drafting of SB 1070 was rooted in its connection to the systematic forms of the U.S. military industrial prison complex. The law was written at a conference of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization with a long, ignominious history of supporting private prison industry groups. There were numerous ties between the private prison industry to both the conference and to Governor Jan Brewer who made the bill a law. The timing of the bill uncannily filled an economic gap that threatened the private prison industry.
This hidden causality is a reminder that the daily threat of prison, profiling, and deportation is the norm, not the Arizona exception. Danny Trejo’s ravaged face is a product of this system, engraved with a memory that cannot be wiped smooth of the battering and hardening in his prison years. The semiotics of his cragged face attests to the texture of Machete, which provides an outside to the smooth discourses prevalent in liberal political films. It is not only Trejo’s face, but the historical lineage of Machete: blaxploitation, grindcore, and the lesser-known Mexploitation genres that Robert Rodriguez draws on for his retro film’s aesthetics. In the seventies these exploitation films were produced en masse as disposable and topical films, appealing to both proletarian desire for spectacle and for representations of political repression. These films were roughly textured, often poorly made, or intentionally disjunctive. They addressed taboo subjects-- drugs, sex, violence. This form dovetails with Fanon’s call for an unapologetic anti-bourgeois culture for and by the oppressed: “They point explicitly to a conflict of values, with an overt attempt to continue the project of decolonization, if only through human or subjective freedom from the constraints of bourgeois art. In the period of decolonization the colonized masses thumb their noses at these very values, shower them with insults and vomit them up.”
These forms of unapologetic anti-bourgeois creativity and energy were central to the resuscitation of a dying cinema. Late to register the massive mid-century changes in culture, Hollywood finally opened its eyes to this new sensibility in the seventies, and opened its door to new ideas and experiments shaped by the “shocks” of sixties cultural and political changes: “It was like the ground exploded in flames and tulips,” as Peter Biskind puts it in his Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. This is Jameson’s “universal abandon” done Hollywood style—“It was one long party. Everything old was bad, everything new was good. Nothing was sacred, everything was up for grabs, it was, in fact, cultural revolution, American style” (Biskind).
African American cinema had even more explicit connections to the sensibility of sixties militant culture. African Americans were vocal about their rejection of timid or outdated representations of black culture, siding against the rehashing of Sidney Poitier’s mannered appeal for a place at the dinner table. Instead, the point was to turn the dinner tables over altogether by recognizing and listening to African American audiences. Avant-garde films, literalized in Luis Buñuel’s film The Exterminating Angel, shared this rejection of the bourgeois dinner table, where guests trapped in a mannered party degenerate into a rapacious, homicidal horde.
While an attenuated version of this radical sensibility has gradually given way to the tepid political films we see today, the desire for it has not waned. Machete first appeared as a fake trailer for the campy retro double bill Grindhouse, Rodriguez and Tarantino’s homage to the pleasures and politics inherent in these lost genres. The Machete trailer stole the show, instantly becoming one of the most talked about moments in Grindhouse. The trailer is pure epic theater. It begins with a “baring of the device,” as the film malfunctions and the audience sees flashes of an unadorned film reel. This is followed by a series of iconic and violent gestural sequences, stark flashes of a mythic narrative: Machete’s persecution by “the man,” followed by his spectacular, gratifying revenge. The final moment shows Machete in a fantastic action shot, riding a motorcycle in mid-air above an exploding car while shooting a machine gun. Crackles and grains surround him, a nod to the willful amateurism of the genre.
The full-length film sustains this sensibility, but with a diluted final outcome. The high points of the film are build-ups to the same iconic shots from the trailer. The film knowingly brings us to these punctual points, with great pacing and style. Throughout, we are often treated to close-ups of Danny Trejo’s uncompromising face, reminding us of how far we are from the gentrified faces of contemporary Hollywood. Trejo is, however, surrounded by these Hollywood faces, pulling us out of the mood and style of seventies Mexploitation. (The supermodel-like Jessica Alba and the beautiful Michelle Rodriguez are particularly notable). Many of the heroines of Mexploitation and blaxploitation cinema were bigger, tougher and more imperfect “super women,” “bad black women,” with non-standardized sex appeal. In the Oakie-sploitation film, Big Bad Mama, we are treated to steaming sex scenes with a smoking hot, fifty-three year old Angie Dickinson. The original blaxploitation film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is notable for its depiction of a ghetto sex show featuring old and young, women and men with flawed skin and imperfect proportions, and ending with one of the women magically transforming into a man, the trickster hero of the film. Mariachi, Rodriguez’s earlier attempt at an homage to Mexploitation, featured a more amateur cast with a genuinely ass-kicking heroine—her dark skin and unusual features were a far cry from Jessica Alba’s appearance of milky, perfect smoothness.
Machete, like Lonestar, seals itself up at the end. The last shot lacks the dynamic finale of the trailer, where Machete rides a bullet spewing motorcycle through a flameball. Still on a motorcycle, at the end of the film he is depicted straddled by Sartana Rivera, the immigration officer played by Jessica Alba, in a parody of the western genre happy ending. This can be seen as a sentimental dilution of the trailer. But the rough, amateur aesthetic of the film is never completely smoothed over. Sartana straddles Machete in a humorously awkward, or highly constructed position. Trejo’s weathered, dignified face contrasts sharply with Alba’s smoothly prettified visage. The dialectic of smooth and rough has now entered into the film itself. In this light, the film becomes a commentary on, rather than a dilution of, the trailer.
This dialectic is a response to a changed conjuncture, a moment where we have lost the social and institutional apparatuses that supported seventies exploitation films. Machete’s sense of humor about its own lack of integrity is exemplified by its celebrity roles and cameos. Most significant roles are cast with actors who have a long and varied relationship to film history and who exemplify the contradictions in new forms of representation. Much of the humor of scenes with these actors derives from the audience’s collective associations. Robert De Niro’s role as a corrupt anti-immigrant Senator plays into the aesthetics of negation and contradiction through the ironic use of an Oscar winning method actor to play a purely gestural, caricature of the villain, (with a nod to the cadences and expressions of George W. Bush). De Niro’s notable roles in many of the enduring films of quintessential 70’s directors Martin Scorcese and Brian de Palma also plays into the continuity and/or break with seventies counterculture cinema. Steven Seagal’s role as a murderous drug lord estranges the place of current exploitation cinema, plucking the right-wing hero from contemporary straight-to-video action movies, where he can often be seen slaughtering Machete-wielding Mexicans by the dozen, while re-contextualizing him in a movie that honors the leftwing roots of this genre. Cheech Marin as gun-wielding priest connotes a lineage of New Left, counterculture camp and subversion of the sanitized roles for Latinos in cinema. Don Johnson, playing a racist border vigilante, represents the dialectics of the culture industry; before starring in the vacuous if iconic eighties show, Miami Vice, his career included playing in a psychedelic band and starring in the hippie-sploitation sci-fi film A Boy and His Dog. Lindsay Lohan’s role as "a socialite with a penchant for guns" points to the heightened, dazzling state of the reality spectacle. Her “real-life” role as criminal and prisoner effectively eclipses the repressed stories of the prison-industrial complex and the virtual enslavement of Danny Trejo and a vast number of the disappeared poor and people of color. Arrested by the logic of the blockbuster, just like everything else in the megaplex, this postmodern “exploitation film” suffers its burden of “stars” with some measure of glib grace.
Another word for this self-referentiality is familiar to us from the genre camp of Quentin Tarrentino and Robert Rodriguez—pastiche, i.e. the inability of contemporary film to access history and the substitution of realism with an assortment of empty references and citations. Machete can certainly be seen in this light, but the overt, didactic address of immigration at a key historical-political moment differs from the typical Tarrentino pulp aesthetic. Pedagogy/didacticism in film can be seen as crude and unsubtle, but here I would argue it serves as a formal negation of contemporary impasses in political representation. Of course, the fact that this can come across as just a parade of stars having some campy fun, makes Machete a “failure” but in this light the film’s failures do not appear to be tragic, but comic inevitabilities. Perhaps the allusive unfaithfulness to exploitation film signals the emergence of a new generic possibility, adequate to the apparatuses and contradictions of a later moment, one that does not follow the TINA politics of contemporary “issue” film but represents a new dialectic of closures and openings.
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