Robert Rodriguez is a paradox. He makes extremely violent action movies and he makes extremely saccharine kids’ movies. He doesn’t want to work in the studio system, but you could argue that his output is incredibly studio-friendly: Sequels, spin-offs, comic book adaptations. Over the last decade, Rodriguez has created an infrastructure around himself that would theoretically allow him to make any movie he wants — and in 2011, he really wanted to make Spy Kids 4.
Rodriguez was a pioneer in HD filmmaking and digital backlots and 3-D technology, which also makes him a pioneer in Things Film Lovers Despise. He is a hero of the independent-film movement, and he is sponsored by BlackBerry. He calls himself a “rebel,” but that might just be because he’s an excellent salesman. He is one of the most important Latino filmmakers ever, and the arrival of Machete in the midst of the anti-immigration wave vibed at the time like an outright political statement, but Machete Kills sands down those political hard edges and makes you wonder if they were ever even there in the first place. (If you take Once Upon a Time in Mexico seriously, it appears to be arguing that the way to get rid of drug cartels is to fight them with cooler guns.)
Twelve years ago, he cast Alexa Vega as a plucky kid spy, and now he dresses her up like a stripper in Machete Kills. It’s impossible not to find that weird, but it doesn’t necessarily read as prurient. Rodriguez makes sexy movies — this is the guy who filmed barely clothed dance scenes with Salma Hayek, Jessica Alba, and Rose McGowan — but there’s an adolescent smirk hovering over that sexiness. There’s never really any danger; there are usually happy endings. Why not? Rodriguez seems like the happiest film director alive, and his career looks much more impressive if you stop thinking about him as a film director.
Rodriguez came up with the early-’90s class of independent film directors, the mouthy hotshots who gave good interview and got everyone talking about a new age of cinema. He ran with Quentin Tarantino, but his spiritual sibling has always been Kevin Smith. Like Smith, Rodriguez had a no-budget origin story (Clerks vs. El Mariachi). Like Smith, he turned his early work into a franchise — a savvy move that, accidentally or not, positioned them both well in the post-millennium franchise-brand era, even as it simultaneously kept them shackled to the work that started their career. (Imagine if Quentin Tarantino was still making movies about hitmen with color-coded nicknames. Or imagine if every Disney movie starred Mickey Mouse.)
Rodriguez was always up to something different than his indie-brat brethren, though. He was in the empire business. The last decade-plus has revealed Rodriguez as a particular kind of filmmaker-type: the director-as-technocrat, the filmmaker-as-innovator, the guy who seems to make movies at least partially to test out new technology. Think of James Cameron or Peter Jackson — Thomas Edison. These are men who seem to spend at least half of their time developing new technology; they own special-effects houses, they insist on better frame rates or higher-quality video. (Robert Zemeckis tried to be one of these guys for a decade, before ultimately settling for merely being an extremely talented film director.) We need to redefine our understanding of the products these men produce: They are movies, yes, but they are also proof-of-concept demos for hardware and software. The patron saint of this particular subculture is George Lucas, the man who refused to do it the Hollywood way and opened his own studio in Marin County and essentially invented the special-effects era in cinema. And look how bad his movies got.
Rodriguez is not as bad (or as good) as Lucas yet, and he doesn’t usually enter the conversation when you talk about the big important contemporary filmmakers of today, but in his way, he has been ridiculously influential. For a brief-but-pivotal span of years around the turn of the century, Rodriguez was actually considered cooler than Tarantino, if you were a teenage boy. Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn were basically the movies every guy wanted to make — sexy, violence, sexy violence, badasses doing badass things. Once Upon a Time in Mexico was an action fantasia. (In hindsight, it was also the very last time Johnny Depp was completely and unabashedly cool.) And everybody loved Sin City, a movie that was just weird enough to make you feel better for liking it, but not weird enough to scare anyone away.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Sin City is actually one of the most influential movies made in the 2000s. It proved once and for all that people would go and see a movie that was basically actors walking in front of a cartoon background — anticipating Alice in Wonderland and Oz the Great and Powerful and Tron: Legacy and, well, pretty much every blockbuster not filmed by noted digital-phobe Christopher Nolan. It featured an all-star cast, but pretty much all of them had roles that amounted to extended cameos — a model of trailer-ready filmmaking that anticipates The Expendables and the rebooted Fast & Furious franchise. Everything was a knowing cliché, which meant the bad dialogue and thin characterization was excusable and even mandatory.
Sin City was an incredibly bold move for Rodriguez, but like all bold moves that turn out to be successful, it taught everyone the wrong lessons. You remember in The Player, when Tim Robbins has that great line: “I was just thinking what an interesting concept it is to eliminate the writer from the artistic process. If we could just get rid of these actors and directors, maybe we’ve got something here.” You imagine a studio executive in 2005 watching Sin City: A movie put together entirely in the editing room, a movie where most of the actors never met even if they were in the same room, a movie with lots of famous faces doing a few days’ work for low wages, a movie filled with badasses and babes, where all the really bad people get punished and all the nice ladies get saved.
You can’t criticize Rodriguez for being a savvy businessman. You can recast all of his pioneering activities in pure financial terms: Digital is cheaper; 3-D means bigger ticket sales; Hollywood was unwisely ignoring the Latino film market. It’s hard to imagine that Rodriguez wants for anything now. He’s making another Sin City movie. He’s always vaguely working on interesting-sounding projects, most of them remakes or reboots. Machete Kills didn’t make much money, but that might not have been the point. He cast Charlie Sheen and Mel Gibson at a moment when they were controversial; that made Machete Kills a fun talking point, which may have been the whole point.
But you wonder what would happen if Rodriguez put aside the empire for a year and let himself be a filmmaker again. There are signs throughout his filmography of real sparks of life. It’s in From Dusk Till Dawn, when the movie suddenly pivots from Crime Drama to Vampire Horror. It’s there in The Faculty, Rodriguez’s sole hired-hand picture, when the high school stereotypes try to weed out the alien by snorting cocaine. It’s there every time Mickey Rourke walks onscreen.
And it’s all over Planet Terror. Among cinephile-types, Rodriguez’s half of Grindhouse usually suffers in comparison to Death Proof, partially because Death Proof is more overt about making a statement. But Planet Terror is a wild, almost primal B-picture, a cocktail of zombie movies and one-legged sex scenes and a kid shooting himself in the face and a surprisingly non-symbolic castration motif and one of the swaggeriest music scores in horror-film history. Planet Terror opens with that score playing over Rose McGowan go-go dancing. It’s sex without the quote marks, so over-the-top that the film starts to break apart; it feels like an essay in voyeurism and also the perviest home video ever, with a sneakily profound closing shot that lingers just long enough on McGowan’s tear-covered face to make the randy fun feel self-critical. Rodriguez wrote the score, and wrote the scene, and filmed it himself, co-edited it in post-production; for good measure, he also hooked up with Rose McGowan.
Grindhouse was not a success. Rodriguez spent a few years trying to cast McGowan in an appropriately barely dressed genre film: Barbarella, Red Sonja, Women in Chains. Nothing clicked; they broke up; Rodriguez seems happy now to keep his franchises chugging along. Spy Kids 4 made just enough money to justify Spy Kids 5. Rodriguez is a great businessman who gets to make all his childhood dreams come true — he initially conceived Machete two decades ago, around the same time he wrote the script for the terrible Predator reboot you already forgot about. You wonder if he ever thinks about stretching himself. And you wonder how it feels to look around at your vast empire and see nothing but a green screen.