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Drug-Money Masterpiece BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN EL MARIACHI Directed by Robert Rodriguez Au 1 ALWAYS WANTED to be a mariachi,” says the dark, handsome stranger who strides into the saloon, steps up to the bar and asks for soda pop. A violent but cheery tale of mistaken identities, El Mariachi deftly subverts the conventions of macho action cinema. Like the wandering musician, a narco-thug also dresses in black and totes a guitar case, except that his conceals the instruments of his own felonious tradelethal weapons. Confusion between killer and strummer propels the plot, a lively medley of melody, romance and murder. At its world premiere, Sept. 4 at the 19th Annual Telluride Film Festival, Cuban novelist and critic G. Cabrera Infante introduced El Mariachi as “a small masterpiece.” Anyone who comes to Telluride, high in Colorado’s majestic San Juan mountains, for the waters is mistaken, especially during Labor Day weekend. The old mining town doubles its population for the annual marathon of about 30 new films. This year brought eye-opening offerings by Werner Herzog, Ric Bums, Abel Ferraro, Quentin Tarantino, Agnieszka Holland, Nikita Mikhailkov, Kenneth Branagh, Kevin Rafferty, Tiana Thi Thanh Nga, Jean-Claude Lauzon and others. But El Mariachi, a first feature made for a mere $7,000, was the prodigy of the festival. Popular demand forced four additional screenings: Robert Rodriguez has always wanted to be a filmmaker, at least since the days when his family used to file into the Olmos Theater, a repertory cinema in San Antonio since demolished and replaced by an office building. Born in San Antonio 23 years ago, Rodriguez directed El Mariachi. After local high school, Rodriguez moved to Austin to attend the University of Texas. He still lives in Austin and is still enrolled at UT, though contractual obligations to graduation more remote. How could anyone possibly make a movie for a mere $7,000? Columbia Pictures was so eager to find out that they signed Rodriguez to a lucrative two-movie deal. “I used my own money,” answers Rodriguez, sharing his thoughts with The Texas Observer during his triumph in Colorado. To come up with the cash, meager as it was, for El Mariachi, Rodriguez spent 30 days at Pharmaco, a drug research facility in Austin. He was paid to take an experimental drug designed to reduce cholesterol. Also lowering Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative liter ature at the University of Texas at San Antonio. COLUMBIA PICTURES INDUSTRIES Robert Rodriguez his cholesterol and raising his capital was Peter Marquardt, whom Rodriguez recruited to play Moco, the gringo drug lord in El Mariachi. The Mariachi himself is played by Carlo Gallardo, an old classmate from St. Anthony High School who also helped write and produce the film. To make El Mariachi, in 14 days, with no second takes, they went to Gallardo’s home town of Acutia, Coahuila In addition to directing, co-writing and co-producing the film, Rodriguez handled the camera, sound and editing. His multiple functions were less a matter of control, he explained, than a desire to learn everything he could about making a movie. “I wanted to enroll myself in my own film school, for $7,000.” The money moved to larger magnitudes when , International Creative Management, Hollywood’s most powerful agency, discovered Rodriguez and chose to represent him. Rodriguez created a comic strip, Los. Hooligans, that ran for three years in the UT campus newspaper, the Daily Texan. But lackluster grades barred him from the university’s film program. However, when the shorts he stubbornly made on his own won prizes at a dozen festivals, he was eventually allowed to study film. His first semester’s project was Bedhead, an Hispanic family drama starring his own sib lings he is the third of 10 children that Rodriguez hopes can be the basis for a TV sit com. The short itself already has aired on PBS. Rodriguez is a bit embarrassed by all the acclaim for his initial feature film. “If I had known anyone was going to see it, I would have put more into it,” he said. His original intention was to make a few quick pieces for the Spanish video market in order to earn enough money to finance more ambitious cinema. “All I wanted was to double our investment.” El Mariachi never did make it to the Spanish video market. Columbia provided English subtitles and blew up the original print into a 35 millimeter version that it is expected to release for theatrical distribution this fall. Rodriguez would just as soon reshoot the film, in English. He conceived El Mariachi as the first installment of a trilogy and is uncomfortable with the prospect that the sequels in “the first all-Latino trilogy” could be much more polished than the original. with Like the Coen brothers’ stunning debut with Blood Simple, El Mariachi announces an original talent. Rodriguez attributes some of the film ‘ s, brash pizazz to the fact that “I had made it for practice only. I made it with much greater freedom not thinking that anyone would see it.” After its success at Telluride, it was scheduled to be seen also at the Toronto and Sundance Film Festivals. Will success spoil Robert Rodriguez? Though flown to Hollywood and treated regally, he intends to stay in Austin. “You can’t get an original idea in L.A. I hated it there. It’s distracting. It’s nice just to go there, do your work and then go home. It’s all about the work. To get soft is the worst thing you can do.” The young director’s nose remains hard about Hollywood, and he has no illusions about its dedication to art. “It’s all a matter of money. If you can prove that your kind of movies will make money, Hollywood will make a lot more of them.” The kind of movies made until now hav tended either to ignore or to demean Latinos. El Mariachi does perpetuate ethnic stereotypes of drug lords and violent hombres, but it also spoofs them, and it features an unusually assertive woman, played by Consuelo Gomez. As a Latino director, Rodriguez is conscious of a special responsibility, not to beg for a piece of the media pie but to enrich the total recipe: “The question is not: What can Hollywood do for us? It is: What can we do for Hollywood?” Yet Rodriguez refuses to limit himself or his audience to the Bijou’s ethnic balcony. “I want to make movies for the masses. I consider myself a citizen of the world. I want to make movies where everyone identifies with the characters because they are human.” THE TEXAS OBSERVER 21 411.4.-,