MACHETE: Camp Deluxe

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How frackin' awesome is this poster?

Machete was not a movie that I planned to see this summer. Films like  Inception, The Kids are Alright, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, and even Piranha 3-D (yes, really) were higher on my to-do list. But there were several factors that drove us into the arms of this film: the movie theaters in Greenville do not hang on to independent films for more than a week (Get Low we hardly knew ye). In fact, if a film does not contain explosions, fart jokes, boobs, or talking animals, it probably won’t even make it to Greenville; I could only go to see a movie that was over by 10 pm (the 8 month old is still not a stellar sleeper); and finally,  my husband and I had wrangled us a babysitter. So, no matter what, we were going to see a movie dammit. And that was how I found myself sitting in a darkened theater, watching Machete last Saturday night.

Almost immediately Machete, yet another entry in Robert Rodriguez’s canon of Mexploitation films, won me over. I’m a sucker for exploitation films. Indeed, the opening credits were a perfect replica of low-budget 1970s blaxploitation films: an animated title card pronouncing our hero’s name (MACHETE!), and then a simple listing of the credits. Then there was the music. Blaxploitation films often featured cohesive soundtracks written exclusively for the film, and which acted as a Greek chorus, commenting on the action in the film, praising or scolding the hero, and making future predictions. Machete‘s thumping, rock n’ roll/mariachi band hybrid soundtrack was composed by Chingon. They sing about the film’s hero (Danny Trejo), providing him with his own personal soundtrack. Hell, the “Machete Theme” makes me want to pick up a machete and kick some ass, and I’m just some lame white lady.

Sweetback sticks it to The Man

In addition to having his own soundtrack, Machete resembles his blaxploitation ancestors in his uncanny ability to punch, kick, shoot, and of course, slice his way through any fight with barely a scratch. At one point in the film Machete is offered $500 to participate in a street fight with a shirtless thug who has just pummeled the life out of his latest opponent. Machete consents, but continues to hold onto the burrito he has just purchased. As his increasingly annoyed opponent swings and jabs, Machete calmly dunks, swerves and chomps on his lunch. The fight ends when Machete dodges a punch in a such a way that his opponent ends up punching a rafter and breaking his arm. Machete wins the fight without ever raising his fist. Finally, as in blaxploitation films, the villains of Machete are unequivocally evil. Von (Don Johnson!) shoots a pregnant Mexican woman in the stomach to prevent her from giving birth on American soil while Torrrez (Steven Seagal!) decapitates Machete’s wife as he is made to watch. By tying this evil to  the heated emotions surrounding contemporary immigration debates, the character of Machete effectively gives filmic form to the revenge fantasies of countless, enraged (and terrified) illegal immigrants living in the United States, much as Sweetback (Melvin Van Peebles) “sticking it to the Man” in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song made contemporary black audiences stand up and cheer back in 1971.

Danny Trejo, the superhuman exploitation avenger.

Where Machete differs from blaxploitation, however, is in its self awareness. Blaxploitation films were, for the most part, quite earnest. When Superfly tells The Man “You don’t own me pig!” by golly he means it. Machete contains lines like these — my favorite being “We didn’t cross the border! The border crossed US!” But they are always delivered with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Nevertheless, Machete is self-aware without being a full on parody. The film wants us to laugh, but doesn’t hit us over the head with its humor. This is a delicate balance to achieve, and one of the film’s primary achievements. For example, in the film’s best visual gag, Machete is being treated in a hospital. The attending doctor and nurses start discussing anatomy, leading one of the nurses to state “So you mean the human intestines are 80 feet long?” This statement is made in the great Chekhovian tradition of “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” Indeed, moments later Machete’s enemies storm the hospital. The doctor informs Machete that his only means of escape is through the window, which is approximately 80 feet above the ground (wait for it…). As Machete hacks his way through the crowd of baddies (with a grotesque weapon assembled out of medical-grade knives, natch), he disembowels one unlucky fellow, grabs hold of his intestines and then leaps out of the window. It took about 20 seconds for the audience to comprehend what had just transpired on-screen and then? Raucous laughter.

It kind of freaks me out when Danny Trejo smiles.

There were many scenes like this in Machete — violent, disturbing scenes — that provoked the audience’s laughter.  What a strange and liberating feeling — to laugh at something which would normally provoke disgust or terror. This switching of affect highlights Machete’s status as pure camp. The term camp comes from the French word  “se camper” which means “to posture or flaunt.” To be camp, a film must be extraordinary in its aims. It must be flamboyant and theatrical. Why have your hero behead one man when you can have him behead three at once (and filmed in a stunning aerial shot)? Why have your hero use a machine gun when you can attach that machine gun to a motorcycle flying through the air?


Susan Sontag argues that to be pure, camp must be naive. Camp must love itself passionately but be blind to its own missteps.  Camp takes itself seriously but cannot be taken seriously. By contrast, most film parodies disparage their subjects, revealing a contempt for them. Sontag does admit that on a few rare occasions (as in the work of Oscar Wilde) camp can be self-aware. I would add Machete to that short list of self-aware texts that are also camp. Rodriguez knows that his film is farce, yet he is never contemptuous or disparaging. He films Machete with a real love for the character. We can tell that Machete is Rodriguez’s hero too.

Here are some of the great camp moments in the film:

1. Two words: Linday Lohan. At this point in her career, Lindsay Lohan has become the ultimate in camp. She is pure artifice, a replica of Hollywood celebrity. Like a lamp that is shaped like a woman’s leg, Lindsay is what she is not.  Every time her image appears on-screen it screams “Lindsay Lohan!” or better yet “LINDSAY LOHAN!!!”  And she is therefore a perfect choice to play April, the strung out, adored daughter of Machete’s nemesis, Booth (Jeff Fahey).

If Lindsay Lohan were a lamp, she would be this lamp.

2. In the film’s only gratuitous sex scene, Machete agrees to engage in a threesome with April and her mother, June (Alicia Marek). And yes, those names are used, but not abused, to hilarious effect. When the women reveal their breasts –as is the custom in gratuitous sex scenes — it is clear that April is being played by a body double. Even the hair is different. There is no reason why Lindsay Lohan should be shy about revealing her breasts — she’s done it before. So this moment exists more as a nod  to the camp films of yore, where little care was taken with disguising body doubles or with correcting obvious mistakes. It is also a tease to the audience “Did you come to this movie to see Lindsay Lohan topless? Too bad for you!”

The girl on the left is clearly a body double, rather than Lindsay Lohan.

3. Every character in a camp film must appear in quotation marks. When that character appears on-screen we must instantly know what that character embodies. Thus, Machete is “Machete.” Machete becomes myth/archetype/folk hero within the first few minutes of the film when he and his partner storm a house where a kidnapped woman is being held. Machete slams his foot on the gas and drives through a throng of machine guns. The bullets ricochet through the car, making contact with his partner. By the time Machete has driven his car through the wall of the house, his partner is bloodied mess (and very, very dead). Machete, however, is fine. Because he is “Machete.” In fact, when Agent Sartana (Jessica Alba) does a background check on the hero, she discovers, among other details, that his birth name is “Machete.” Of course it is.

That's right. Her name is "She."

4. Camp is all about exaggerated sexuality: highly feminine femininity and highly masculine masculinity. Woman is “woman” and man is “man.” Thus, throughout the film, Agent Sartana wears stiletto heels, despite the fact that she is often chasing bad guys around and shooting weapons. She even uses one of her heels as a weapon later in the film.  Sartana also researches the internet while taking a steamy shower (and with full make up on). Who has a computer hooked up in their shower? I would not have been surprised if she were wearing stilettos in the shower. And I won’t even mention the secret agent featured in the opening scene who hides a cell phone in her vagina because she is naked and has no other place to put it. Oops, I guess I did mention that. Sorry.

Jessica Alba as "woman"

Camp taste  is a mode of enjoyment and appreciation rather than judgment. Camp is not mean, but loving. Rodriguez clearly loves his subject: exploitation films, grindhouse cinema, seedy border films, and revenge fantasy flicks. He does not want us to laugh at the silliness of these film. Instead, he invites us to celebrate them in their excessive glory. As I watch Danny Trejo slice his way through bodies, fashion deadly weapons out of objects he finds around him, and make out with Jessica Alba while driving a motorcycle, I am not incredulous. The film tells me “I am silly but I am wonderful. Don’t judge me! Enjoy me!” And I did.

The Filthiest People Alive!: Teaching PINK FLAMINGOS

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“If someone vomits watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation.”

-John Waters

A few weeks ago I taught Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast (1963) as part of a lesson on the advent of extreme gore in American cinema. In addition to providing context for why the film was made — Lewis only turned to gore because his stock in trade “nudie cuties” were now becoming standard fare in mainstream Hollywood films — I also went over the conventions of the gore film and the slasher film (Blood Feast is both) and screened clips from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, Tobe Hooper) and The Evil Dead (1981, Sam Raimi). Given my blood-soaked lecture I suppose that my students were primed for an evening of non-stop blood and terror when they attended the Blood Feast screening.

But as the first example of gore, Blood Feast is far more restrained than its generic descendents. Therefore, during our class discussion of the film one disappointed student raised his hand and complained, “You wrote a check that film couldn’t cash.” His classmates nodded in agreement. This reaction surprised me a bit: Blood Feast may be tame, but it still contains scenes in which a woman’s tongue is ripped out and a leg is severed. I left the classroom shaking my head and wondering about the state of today’s youth.

The students found this scene to be only mildly disturbing






Theatrical poster for Blood Feast 

But as it turns out, it is possible to shock Generation Y. All it takes is a little poop eating.

For our week on camp and its relationship with trash cinema, we discussed some of the basic characteristics of the camp aesthetic described by Susan Sontag in her famous essay, “Notes on Camp” (1964), such as artifice, exaggerated sexuality and theatricality. We then related these characteristics to the work of John Waters, especially as they applied to his star and muse, the incomparable Divine. I also described Waters’ interest in the abject and bodily fluids (saliva, vomit, shit) and warned them that the film contained (unstaged) acts of felatio and coprophagia. But truly, is there any way to prepare students for a screening of Pink Flamingos?


Waters once said of Divine “She was my Elizabeth Taylor.”

Approximately 10 to 15 minutes into the film, not too long after Divine steals a piece of meat from a grocery store by shoving it under her tight lamé dress (all to the tune of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers’ “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent”), the same student who had complained about Blood Feast turned to me and said, “Okay, you didn’t oversell this one.” “Just you wait,” I replied, “There’s a lot more to come.”

There is a voyeur character in Pink Flamingos named Cotton (Mary Vivian Pearce) who pleads with her beloved, Crackers (Danny Mills), to engage in ever kinkier sex for her viewing pleasure. “I’ve gotta see more than what I’ve already seen!” she whines. Crackers complies by incorporating two live chickens into his next “love making” session.

Crackers forces Cookie (Cookie Mueller) into chicken sex.

The viewing audience for Pink Flamingos is a lot like Cotton in that we too expect Waters to present ever more shocking images as the film goes on — every scene ups the ante. This goal is achieved by having the film’s narrative center on a group of scheming middle class poseurs, Connie and Raymond Marble (Mink Stole and David Lochary), attempting to wrest the title of “filthiest people alive” from Divine and her family. This leads to the breaking of all kinds of long-standing cultural taboos, including the big three: murder, cannibalism and incest. Of course, Divine does not engage in these acts to compete with the Marbles — she does these things because they are in her nature to do them. She is, indeed, the filthiest person alive.

Divine prepares to perform felatio on her son.

The movie concludes with a kangaroo court trial of Connie and Raymond Marble, who are convicted of “assholism.” Divine tars and feathers the convicts, executes them in front of a crowd of gossip reporters, and then flees to Boise, Idaho with Crackers and Cotton.

Divine holds a press conference before executing the Marbles

At this point in the film my students were pretty shell shocked. They had watched an extended scene of passionate toe-sucking. They witnessed a singing asshole (literally)  and a pre-operative transsexual flash her penis at the camera. But then came the film’s famous denoument. My students knew it was coming and yet, they were not prepared.

As the scene unfolded my students howled with disgust. But I was in the back of the room laughing so hard that tears were rolling down my face. “You’re enjoying this?” one incredulous student remarked, “What is wrong with you?” But this scene is funny. When Divine smiles at the camera with shit-covered teeth, the image is gag-inducing but it is also hilarious in its sheer defiance. It is the ultimate in juvenile high jinks. This image appeals to the 9-year-old in me.

The credits rolled and my students slowly filed out of the classroom, shaking their heads and muttering under their breath. Watching them go  I realized that it is still possible to shock today’s youth. My hat goes off to you, Mr. Waters.