Editorial: Sin City 2, Machete Kills, and a Crisis of Conscience…

Posted on April 26, 2012 by Ben

by Ben Bussey

The long-winded blather that follows has been stewing in my skull for the best part of a week now. Some readers, I suspect, will wish I’d left it there. I know many of us feel it is good form to keep personal politics separate from entertainment; we like to think that when we go into a movie we unplug our higher brain functions, temporarily exit the real world, and just have fun. However, I’m less than convinced that this is ever really the case, or indeed that it should be. And recent movie news has got me reassessing just what it is we expect from films and filmmakers, particularly as fans of (if you’ll pardon the term) ‘extreme’ cinema.

My jumping off point, then: as you may well have read elsewhere, 2012 looks to be a busy year for Robert Rodriguez. Not only is Sin City 2 finally happening, once again with Frank Miller co-directing, but there’s also a Machete sequel on the way which will apparently co-star Mel Gibson (on a side note, it’s now being reported that Rodriguez’s long-mooted live action remake of Fire and Ice will directly follow these). Just a few years ago, I probably would have been thrilled to hear this news, but I must confess my first thought was whether anyone but Robert Rodriguez would be willing to work with those guys today. With Gibson’s notorious anti-Semitism and misogyny being long since well documented, and Miller having a) belly-flopped spectacularly as a solo director with The Spirit and b) turned most of his old fans against him with his outspoken Islamophobia and his equally virulent badmouthing of the Occupy movement, we can quite safely say the offers from old liberal Hollywood aren’t exactly flooding in for either Gibson or Miller. Except, that is, from Robert Rodriguez.

Rodriguez is of course well used to procuring collaborators deemed unemployable by consensus opinion. He cast a pre-Rocky Balboa Stallone in Spy Kids 3, a pre-Wrestler Mickey Rourke in Sin City, and a post-I Know Who Killed Me Lindsay Lohan alongside a post… well… 1990s Steven Seagal in Machete. It’s also well worth noting that Machete himself, Danny Trejo, is himself an ex-convict and recovered heroin addict whose rise to fame is largely down to Rodriguez. Arguably, one of Rodriguez’s key strengths is his overall lack of concern as to the current mainstream star power of his actors (Jessica Alba notwithstanding, although again he played a significant role in making her a star); looking at the casts he assembles, it’s apparent that he wants the best, most interesting performers in his films. Not to claim that bankability isn’t a factor; just that it comes second to suitability and, more often than not, novelty. But of course, there’s a fine line between unexpected casting and stunt casting. Lohan’s topless nun was very clearly the latter, an obvious grab for tabloid inches; and really, at this point in time casting Mel Gibson in anything would also feel that way.

But what are we to take from this? Should we assume that, in casting Mel Gibson in Machete Kills and reuniting with Frank Miller on Sin City 2, Robert Rodriguez shares or condones their views? Or does he simply respect their talent as artists? For let there be no mistake, whatever we think of Gibson and Miller’s respective worldviews – and I for one completely reject both – they are still, without question, storytellers and craftsmen of tremendous talent. The Dark Knight Returns, 300 and the Sin City books sit proudly on my bookshelves, whilst my DVD shelves carry the Mad Max and Lethal Weapon films, as well as Apocalypto, which is easily one of my favourite films of the past decade. No, I don’t like everything that falls out of the mouths of these men, but it doesn’t stop me admiring their work. (As South Park put it – say what you want about Mel Gibson, but the son of a bitch knows story structure.) Also, there are plenty of people whose work I admire whilst having no notion of where they stand politically; this is certainly the case with Rodriguez, who – beyond the odd comment on the anti-racist overtones of Machete – I have never heard voice an explicitly political opinion.

I suppose for the sake of balance I should make my own personal politics clear. I’m essentially a dyed-in-the-wool leftie, opposed to violence, racism, sexism, homophobia and religious hatred. However, as you might have surmised from the content of this site, I’m also a huge fan of films full of graphic gore and female nudity; films that can quite easily be said to glamourise violence and objectify women. Is there a contradiction there? I’m not sure. I should hope not. This isn’t quite as simple as the old, stupid question of whether screen violence directly causes real violence; I’d hope we all agree that’s bollocks. No, the question here is how the values presented in a film might influence the values of the viewer, and that’s a trickier one. But even so, isn’t it possible to enjoy a film without necessarily sharing the perspective it might seem to put across?

To use an appropriate example under the circumstances: Sin City. There’s plenty about that film that runs utterly contrary to my standpoint, not least its wholehearted endorsement of capital punishment and its promotion of outmoded notions about women requiring the protection of men (yes, the girls of Old Town largely hold their own, but they still ultimately need Dwight to save their skin). Even so, on a gut level I loved every minute of Sin City; I reveled in entering into that fantasy world, imagining myself as one of those hard-boiled, practically indestructible tough guys coming to the rescue of those smoking hot women. The sleaziness of the thing is all part of that enjoyment. That, I suppose, is the definition of guilty pleasure; when we enjoy something despite – or indeed because – we know we should know better.

More often than not such films are easier to swallow when they are entirely unrepentant in their gleeful carnage. One key problem with Rodriguez’s films in the past has been his insistence on sneaking in moral messages amongst the slaughter. This is probably most glaring in Desperado, wherein the scenes typically alternate between either Steve Buscemi or Salma Hayek trying to talk Antonio Banderas out of killing everybody, and – er – Antonio Banderas killing everybody. Given the outlandish, stylised violence that we are clearly invited to enjoy, it rather goes against the grain to lecture us about the immorality of violence at the same time. Better, surely, to credit the viewer with some intelligence, to acknowledge that the film is pure fantasy, and just give us what we paid to see, much as Sin City does.

However – can we so easily embrace the filmmaker’s vision as fantasy when we have cause to believe they actually view the world the way they portray it? Does being able to enjoy a film in spite of not endorsing its position mean that we can in good conscience pay money to see the work of someone we know full well has a repugnant personal philosophy? I’ve read Miller’s blog (see here), I’ve listened to the various tapes of Mel Gibson (easy to find on Youtube), and I must say that both left me truly quite unsettled and questioning the mental stability of these men. I haven’t read Miller’s Holy Terror, and I hear equally unnerving things about that. Having said that, I’m also well aware that neither Gibson nor Miller are actually organising militant uprisings and/or inciting the masses to exterminate all Jews and Muslims, so naturally there are plenty of people we have more reason to hold in fear and contempt. As both a lefty and a fan of extreme cinema, naturally I’m a whole-hearted supporter of that old chestnut, freedom of speech, which I realise includes the freedom for people to say things I don’t agree with.

So what does a liberal pacifist like me take from a lurid, violent and/or semi-pornographic spectacle with right-wing inclinations? There are of course endless tomes written and yet to be written on the subject, but in short I think it’s something to do with the simplicity of it. The problems of everyday life are innumerable and complex, generally defying easy resolution, and subsequently it can be intensely cathartic to temporarily escape into a world where things are far simpler, the same morals and ethics do not apply, and a problem can indeed be solved with a punch, a kick, a bullet, a blade, or some combination thereof. The problem – and what fans of violent film perpetually have to defend against – is the notion that we are taking what we watch literally. Generally speaking it isn’t too difficult to defend ourselves or the filmmakers against such claims; the actions and attitudes of their creations are not necessarily reflective of those of the filmmakers themselves. However, when a filmmaker has indeed expressed a reprehensible viewpoint – particularly when they have done so on numerous occasions, as with Gibson and Miller – it can be rather more difficult to detach the art from the artist.

To attempt to take politics out of the equation for a moment – the bottom line is, as a fan, I’m not looking forward to either of these films anywhere near as much as I might have a few years ago. With Sin City 2, it feels like they should have struck when the iron was hot; it’s been seven years now since the first film, and it’s hard to envisage a sequel having the same primal urgency of its predecessor. With Machete Kills, there’s the basic disappointment of the original Machete to get over; while it made for a fun fake trailer, as a full length feature it ran out of steam very quickly, which naturally reduces optimism for a follow-up. Factor in widespread distaste for some of the people involved and we have to wonder how well this will all go down.

I probably wouldn’t be mulling on this so much were it not for the involvement of Rodriguez. It was really through him, Tarantino and Kevin Smith that I first gained entry to this strange netherworld of fandom back in the 90s, and I’ve always respected the way he carved his own niche in the film industry on his own terms, and without disappearing up his own arse the way Smith has. So far as I can see, Rodriguez’s agenda is simply to make entertaining films. I don’t think he seeks anything more than this with Machete Kills and Sin City 2, or that he expects anything more than this from his collaborators; and once again, there is no question that all concerned are more than capable of delivering as they have before. This time, however, I can’t help suspecting the sleazy aftertaste may be more than a bucket of popcorn and a large coke can wash away.