Tuesday, May 03, 2011

El Mariachi: Robert Rodriguez's Libertarian Parable

In 1995, Robert Rodriguez made El Mariaci for a mere $7,000. While making the film he had few ambitions for it as a major film -- it was produced as a Mexican b-movie.

For many, a mariachi would seem to be a strange fit as the lead character in a film fusing the best elements of Hong Kong action films and psychological westerns.

For Rodriguez, however, it was only natural. Growing up in San Antonio, Texas, mariachi bands are a staple of the local culture: they hold a particular appeal for tourist crowds.

Throughout the three films spawned by the appeal of El Mariachi, Rodriguez creates one of film's most compelling libertarian parables. His films outline the precariousness of libertarianism amongst criminal anarchy.

At the beginning of El Mariachi, Rodriguez's title character -- played in this film by Carlos Gallardo -- is a humble man with humble wants. Hitchhiking from town to town, all he wants is to find a good woman to love and settle down to a quiet life playing his music.

He's come to regard the elusiveness of this simple dream with a dereliction of hope. Nothing seems to change in Mexico, least of all for him.

In between bouts of begging for work, he spends his time honing his craft in order to become as good a mariachi as his father and his grandfather. For all his hard work, he's regarded as less valuable than an electric keyboard.

If El Mariachi didn't have bad luck, he'd have no luck at all. His misfortune takes a turn for the disastrous when he winds up in the middle of a gang war between Maricio (Peter Marquardt) and Azul (Reinol Martinez).

Rodriguez's Mexico has something deeply in common with the real-life Mexico: where the law doesn't mean little, it means nothing at all. Prison guards barely acknowledge the bribes they are handed as duelling squads of gunmen enter and exit with impunity.

It's in this environment that El Mariachi meets his misfortunate. Like Azul, he dresses in black and carries a guitar case. The difference is that El Mariachi's case actually holds a guitar, while Azul's is loaded with guns.

In the early goings, El Mariachi has no such defences. His only option is to flee, in a chase scene so brilliantly filmed despite the production's meagre budget as to leave no doubt as to the scope of Rodriguez's talents.

Domino (Consuelo Gomez), the owner of a local bar, allows him to take refuge in her apartment. He quickly falls in love with her. In time, she begins to share his affections.

Their love isn't to last. In a fit of jealous rage, Mauricio kills Domino. After killing Moco (which is Spanish for "booger"), El Mariache is driven into a life as a desperado, living on the run from Mauricio's powerful allies.

There is no authority to answer to in Rodriguez's Mexico. By default, the life of any Mexican not aligned with a gang or drug cartel must live the life of a libertarian.

Libertarians value personal freedom above nearly all else. They recognize few legitimate constraints on individual freedom. For libertarians, freedom of action, freedom of thought, and freedom of association hold complete primacy. For libertarians, the legitimate role of law is to protect individual freedom and private property.

Yet it isn't the personal security necessary for the primacy of individual freedom that reigns in Rodriguez's Mexico -- it's the worst kind of anarchy.

Like libertarians, anarchists believe in the primacy of individual freedom, especially freedom of association. Anarchists tend to imagine that only in the absence of lawful authority can individual freedom truly thrive.

Yet in the absence of lawful authority, and its protections of individual freedom and private property, the anarchy that emerges is simply chaos.

A libertarian can only live free if he can live in peace. The anarchy of Rodriguez's Mexico makes it nearly impossible for men such as El Mariachi to live in peace.

Anarchists often imagine that they are natural allies of libertarians. The chaos that explodes in the absence of potent lawful authority everywhere in the world where it lacks -- from Mexico to the Sudan -- demonstrates the polar opposite:

El Mariachi makes its case quite clearly; anarchy is the enemy of liberty -- especially for libertarians.


  1. That was a very fine analysis, for which I think you. But Rodriguez is something of a conundrum to me. I'm still trying to figure out just how seriously he intended Machete to be taken. It seems to carry a very strong anti-authority, nihilistic, almost anarchic message; but, when these issues are raised, it's very easy for Rodriguez and others to laugh and say "Oh, it was all satire." Patriotism may be the last refuge of a scoundrel, but satire is another, whether the scoundrel is Rodriguez or Oliver Stone. Or Rodriguez could simply pass it off as another paycheck movie, like Spy Kids.Anyway, as a libertarian, I enjoyed your analysis.

  2. The whole Mexico Trilogy is pretty much a parable for libertarianism, as well as being just plain great cinema.


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