Frederick Luis Aldama is Arts & Humanities Distinguished Professor of English as well as University Distinguished Scholar at The Ohio State University. He is prolific: Aldama is the author and editor of more than twenty books. Aldama also founded and directs the award-winning LASER—a Latino focused academic mentor system from 9th through college.
His latest book is The Cinema of Robert Rodriguez recently published by the University of Texas Press. Aldama does more than hit his marks: he has created an exhilarating, accessible and much-needed study of one of the most inventive and multifaceted directors to come along during the last thirty years. It is a “must read” for anyone who wishes to become a filmmaker or who simply loves movies.
DANIEL OLIVAS: Can you remember the first Robert Rodriguez film you saw and your reaction to it?
FREDERICK LUIS ALDAMA: I was one of the many who sold out opening shows of El Mariachi in Berkeley. The UC Theatre double-billed it with his short, Bedhead. As an undergraduate at UC, I was finding my way to Latino popular culture. I was a grader for a Latino Cinema course with Dr. Mario Barrera. Both films blew me away. In only a few minutes Bedhead took me places only film could: a recognizable everyday but where things could happen that defied the logic of this everyday reality.
My eyes peeled wide with El Mariachi. I’d seen—and even studied—films like Born in East LA and The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, but never seen a Latino film made in the spirit of a comic book, and yet that took me into the serious—deadly even—underworld of Mexican narcotraficantes. The intercut of a dream-like sequence with the little boy and the turtle stayed with me long after the film’s end.
DO: Rodriguez’s early filmmaking style was driven, in large part, by a lack of funding but a great deal of imagination. And you observe that his “independent” work ethic does not fit well with big studio production culture. Was Rodriguez destined to be an “indie” filmmaker?
FLA: Rodriguez seemed destined for the straight-to-VHS, B-flick Spanish-language market—all those films we used to pick up during our weekends at La Pulga/”Flea Market.” But it’s that same DIY approach (together with a huge amount of skill) that allows him to energize and make real (reel?) a vision that steps to a different beat.
To put it in your terms, then, I’d say he’s indie but with an imagination that fills to the edges super blockbuster screens. He’s a Latino director who pushes the envelope—constantly—both in terms of story and the way he gives cinematic shape to story. But he’s not the guy we go see at an art-house fest to then have polite tête-à-têtes over the Lacanian significance of a turtle crossing the road. His films entertain—and each superbly so with each of their respective audiences in mind: kids with Spy Kids and geeked-out Fangoria crowds with From Dusk Till Dawn, for instance. They make you think but never demean or belittle us as an audience. Mostly, and this from Spy Kids to Planet Terror to Machete to El Mariachi—they stay with us long after they’re over.
|Frederick Luis Aldama|
DO: If you were to choose one Rodriguez film for adults and one for children, which would they be and why?
FLA: Rodriguez hit the sweet spot with the Spy Kids films. With the exception of the third installment (Game Over) that’s creatively straightjacketed by the video-game conceit, everything about the films speaks to children, tweens, and young teens: from the gadgets, to the gags, to the concerns and anxieties—and the daydreams and unrestrained imagination. In a sea of films ostensibly made for kids (Shrek, for instance) but where the humor bites with an adult-directed sarcasm, irony, and innuendo, there’s no outdoing the Spy Kids flicks as films for kids.
Rodriguez managed to pull off an extraordinary feat with Machete. It’s over the top, and it’s meant to be in that comic book way where anything goes. This elastic container, if you will, allows Rodriguez to bring to light some serious issues: anti-immigration laws, racial profiling, and anti-Latino racist sentiment generally. Masterfully, he makes a film that simultaneously entertains—and sometimes with bellyaching laughter—and that has us churning in our minds a reality filled increasingly with barbarous acts.