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January 3, 2012

5

Desperado: My All-Time Favorite Guilty Pleasure

by GEOFF GEIB

Film critic Pauline Kael famously once wrote/said [1], “Movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them.” One man’s treasure is another man’s Indiana Jones and the One with the Alien Ending, and so in honor of all the great trash that has splashed movie screens through the ages, I will spend a few words on my all-time favorite guilty pleasure, Desperado.

A Robert Rodriguez movie starring Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas, Desperado isn’t the most salacious movie on my list of favorites, that goes to the Wachowski Brothers’ Bound and it’s not the most outrageous movie ever, that selection goes to the Paul Walker Running Scared, nor is it the best worst movie, which despite the obviousness of the selection still remains for me Plan 9 from Outer Space. Desperado is just my favorite overall guilty pleasure film, for the simple reason that it clearly isn’t a great movie, far from it actually, but for most of its running time you could be forgiven for thinking so, and there’s something undeniably magical about something you love that defies both logic and every attempt at understanding [2].

I’ve always loved movies, and my parents were classic enablers of my addiction, taking me to see The Empire Strikes Back some dozen or so times in the theater. It was around the start of my sophomore year in college, however, that I began thinking about films in a critical sense, which is useful in explaining why you’re reading this right now but had to be annoying to many of my friends at the time since I could no longer sit through a film like The Birdcage and not spend the ride home complaining about how awful it was [3]. This happened as a natural outgrowth of my love of film but also as a necessity of going to school in upstate New York in the winter when there’s only so much drinking, illicit drug use and reckless, unprotected anonymous sex somebody can have between skipping class [4].

The mid-’90s was also a good time to be diving into the movies, with films like Pulp Fiction and Clerks signaling a sharp rise in independent cinema, and slick, nihilistic thrillers like The Usual Suspects becoming trendy box office hits, all of which contributed to my long-term career aspirations [5]. This was the era in which Robert Rodriguez burst onto the scene with his $7,000 effort El Mariachi, and a short time later Desperado, his studio debut, ostensibly a sequel.

I must admit, I can’t remember the exact details, but it was during a trip to or from college in ’95 that my mother and I went to see Desperado, and while I’m sure she bought my ticket, I can’t be certain that she also bought me popcorn and soda [6]. Rodriguez has become a fairly big name in Hollywood in the 17 years since, but at the time he was as unknown and anonymous as that one guy who did that cool stuff about that thing with those people that happened a long time ago [7]. Knowing virtually nothing about what I was about to see when I stepped into the theater made the experience all the better, though I don’t think any description would have done justice to the spectacle.

All of Rodriguez’s trademarks are on display- the rapid fire editing, the sumptuous color and bold composition, the humor, blatantly gratuitous and excessive violence, excessive everything really, and an almost swashbuckling attitude towards the process. All of his flaws are on display as well, the anti-climactic and somewhat unsatisfying ending, the shallow character development, the mix and match sensibility of tone and humor. It plays like a music video at moments, a homage to the kinetic Hong Kong New Wave the next, all the while with the general feel that you’re watching the really, really expensive home movie of a talented kid without the presence of the annoying adult who would have otherwise stepped in with patronizing hand on shoulder and said, “You know, Robert, sometimes less is more.”

Roughly 20 years later, that still sums up Rodriguez’s career. The undeniable talent and enthusiasm bubbles to the surface even in less than successful fare like Spy Kids 2, explodes in joyful exuberance with triumphs like Sin City and Planet Terror, but crashes and burns more than just occasionally, typified by messes like the massively disappointing Machete and Once Upon a Time in Mexico, which is itself a sequel to Desperado, which was at one rambling point long ago the point of this piece.

So what’s the point? Here’s the point. Rodriguez has made some truly spectacular films, some meh movies, and some genuine failures. But he’s never dull, and in a time when movies are more and more homogenous, and perhaps worse, often looking as if they’ve been directed for television rather than the giant movie screens that are more and more difficult to find, and are built more often than not to appeal to everyone by risking nothing and saying even less, we have in Robert Rodriguez a writer/director/producer/editor/composer who is willing to take bold chances, to fire everything he can think of at the screen in a shotgun-like blast that may or may not hit the bulls-eye with every pellet, but will never completely miss the mark either [8].

We may never get Rodriguez to do what so many great directors have done and make a perfectly crafted and focused film to highlight their resume and define their legacy like Coppola with The Conversation, or Scorsese with Raging Bull and Goodfellas, or Welles with Citizen Kane, or Reed with The Third Man, or Woo with The Killer, and so on and so on. We’ll never be bored, though, and beyond the quality of the craft (Rodriguez is a magnificent visual storyteller) there’s something undeniably exciting about his movies. It’s almost as if there’s a shared sensibility between the filmmaker and his audience, a palpable feeling that neither party can really believe it’s all happening, like we’re all kids getting away with something and worried it will all stop if the grown-ups ever discover it [9].

Watching Desperado all those years ago, I remember vividly just how much fun it was in that moment, in that theater, and I remember afterward trying to figure out just why exactly I liked it so much. I’ve become disturbingly curmudgeonly over the years, and more and more the movies I see are highlighted by the flaws rather than the successes, and as a result, I’m seeing fewer and fewer films. I’ve seen Desperado dozens of times by this point, and every time I watch it, I find something else wrong with it, a moment to nitpick, a spot where Rodriguez missed the mark, but by the time the movie is done, I also know it’s not the last time I’ll see it. Not by a long shot. I can’t help myself, it’s just too much fun.

Steve Buscemi delivers an eight minute long introduction for the main character that could have been accomplished in 40 seconds without dialogue, but he delivers the story in such ebullient fashion to such marvelous reception, it’s impossible not to get sucked in. At one point, Quentin Tarantino tells what feels like an eight-minute long joke that serves absolutely no purpose. Steve Buscemi’s link to the Banderas character is never fleshed out, the shootout ending doesn’t really work and the ending-ending is anticlimactic, and that’s all just for starters. None of that matters though, and that’s probably the best definition of a guilty pleasure, the enjoyment of something not because of the flaws themselves, but because the flaws ultimately fade in favor of the overall effect [10].

So here’s the real point to all of this, besides just a bunch of footnotes [11]. Desperado was a life-changing movie for me. It came along at a time when I was craving meaning and excitement from movies, and it defied (still to this day) my best efforts to apply the former while excelling at the latter. This is the main reason why I still go to the movies, why I fork over $12 to see all manner of movies, from 13 Assassins and Zombieland to The Hangover and The Artist, because when it’s all said and done, sometimes I want to try my best to figure out what it all means and fail miserably in the process, to allow a little more wonder to enter my life, and to be simply and completely thrilled by the shiny lights and loud noises in front of me, and Desperado is nothing if not loud and shiny.

Footnotes

[1] My guess is that this was written, but I’m not 100% positive, and to be honest, I sort of like the idea that she was at some dinner party, slightly tipsy on below-average Chablis, asked a question about Jonathan Demme’s Caged Heat, and responded with the aforementioned line, which was then preserved for prosperity by a marginally more sober attendee who likely butchered the phrasing, thereby earning Ms. Kael’s eternal enmity.

[2] Like the Chicago Cubs or women or our ever-expanding universe.

[3] And it was. It really, really was. It stunk in 1996 and remains a shit movie today.

[4] This might only be funny to me, but I don’t care, at least it gives me an excuse to add another footnote. I love footnotes. When it comes to literary devices, they’re my favorite guilty pleasure.

[5] And by career aspirations, I mean being consistently unemployed while complaining about crappy Spielberg movies.

[6] Ten bucks says she did. Thanks, Mom!

[7] You know, that one guy.

[8] Run-on sentences with numerous and extraneous use of commas is my second favorite literary device.

[9] This could easily be a subject for an entire article, for this sort of relationship between filmmaker and audience is a relatively recent phenomenon and hardly one exclusive to Rodriguez. Former indie star Kevin Smith has a rabidly loyal fan base, seen most recently with the tour of Red State, which sold out shows despite exorbitant ticket prices, and the cult of Quentin Tarantino has been rolling along for two decades now. The similarities between the three, aside from the quality and content of their films, is striking. They share almost identical origin stories, an obvious and passionate love of genre movies and maintain a fierce loyalty to their fans, which is returned tenfold. All are stars in their own right, the force of their personalities shaking and defining the audience’s experience to no small extent, something we would likely never say about contemporary giants like Ridley Scott, Michael Mann and Christopher Nolan.

[10] This not only defines the guilty pleasure, but separates it from the best worst movies like Plan 9 or Troll 2, films that are terribly entertaining solely for failures of craftsmanship and execution, whereas a guilty pleasure becomes a triumph separate from and despite its failings.

[11] Like this one!

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jan 5 2012

    This post is classic. :D Defining a guilty pleasure as a movie where the flaws ultimately fade in favor of the overall effect is right on target. I’ve never found the entertainment value in bad movies but I have more than one favorite that meets your standard.

    It’s funny that we both cited the many trips to the theater to see “Empire” in our essays, but what makes it even better is that we remember the number differently. ^_^

  2. Mom
    Jan 5 2012

    You’re welcome, Geoff. I remember that movie experience, too, and the sheer fun of it – I love the opening musical bit in the bar, the Buscemi storytelling part, the the colors and light, and especially the gorgeous golden light bathing the street as Banderas walks among the burro carts and crowds of a Mexican town (sadly, the scene doesn’t look like anything special on the TV screen but in the theater it bowled me over).

    Can one be an enabler if indulging one’s own addiction? I didn’t have to drive either of you all those times to see Empire (1), or any of the many many other movies we’ve enjoyed together. It’s great to share the them, the great to the guilty pleasures.

    (1) I think the number of viewings depends on whether you count only those during the original release or the rerelease and trilogy showings. It’s a lot.

  3. Jan 5 2012

    I was too young to watch any of the original Star Wars films in the theatres but did up with them on VHS during the ’90s and then later on DVD.

    @Desperado, I love that movie, too. I loved from the first time that I saw it, again I was too young to see it in the theatres, but I place it side by side with El Mariachi. I find them both to be terrific films.
    The third film, however, I watched (unfortunately) in the theatres and note, still ’till today that the movie only gets good in the last 15 minutes. It’s a terrible film that should never have been made or, at least been made differently.

    *sigh*

  4. Richard Winters
    Jan 7 2012

    Of course it has been awhile since I have seen it and I admit it is a bit stagy and static and the young couple in the film is too annoyingly perfect for my tastes, but I still didn’t think ‘The Birdcage’ was THAT bad. Of course it is based on ‘La Cage Aux Folles’, which is highly overrated and not much better.

    I really enjoy Geoff’s caustic humor. He talks about being unemployed, which is a travesty because he should be paid to write this stuff. His writing style and passion for movies is highly entertaining.

  5. khizar ali
    Jan 20 2013

    i love you all the team of desperado

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