Robert Rodriguez’s inspiring 1995 book, Rebel Without A Crew, makes a convincing case that anyone can make movies–all you need is chutzpah, a few friends, and the ability to previsualize the entire movie in your head, so you can do everything in one or two takes and edit it together in a few weeks by yourself. It’s a surprisingly great read, and even when he’s going on about all the successes that rained down on his head after Columbia picked up El Mariachi in 1992, he’s still engaging and mostly likeable.

So I finally decided to watch El Mariachi this weekend. Short version: Knowing that it was shot and edited for $7,000 adds a lot to one’s enjoyment of the movie; it looks like it cost at least $50,000, as KJ put it. It’s clearly a brilliant debut, but it has rough edges and it drags in parts (strange, for a movie that is paced so quickly, jumping from shot to shot every few seconds). The DVD is terrible–it’s cropped in too closely, so it’s always cutting off extreme closeups at the actors’ upper lips, so you can’t see their mouths. (We spent half the movie wondering if this was just some crazy camera technique Rodriguez invented — the ultra-extreme closeup?) The colors are muted and muddy, which is a shame, since one of the added features shows clips from Rodriguez’s original videotape, and it’s a lot clearer and brighter than the DVD’s main feature. But the story shines through, it’s a lot of fun to watch, and Rodriguez has some commentary that is actually instructive for people interested in making movies. His “ten minute film school” is filled with practical tips and shows a bit of how the movie was made, and the disc also includes the short film he made before Mariachi, “Bedhead.” The flip side of the DVD includes Rodriguez’s later sequel, Desperado, starring Antonio Banderas. As for Mariachi, it’s good to see a brilliant filmmaker at work before the studio has polished all the burrs off; it makes the movie seem more real, more human, and more achievable. Now, where’s my camcorder? Desperado / El Mariachi DVD: B