SXSW 2012: Omar Rodriguez Lopez targets male ego in 'Los Chidos'
When Omar Rodriguez Lopez picks up an electric guitar with the Mars Volta, his playing is usually defined by its otherworldly, psychedelic effects. But as a producer-director picking up a camera for his latest film, “Los Chidos,” his artwork has medicinal properties that are more akin to ipecac than acid. That is to say, he’s more interested in purging and exposing the worst parts of reality than escaping from them.
Ahead of next month's reunion with his landmark band At the Drive-In at the Coachella festival in Indio, Calif., the El Paso native headed to the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, this week to unveil his latest film, “Los Chidos.” Speaking on the phone with Pop & Hiss, he says that the main objective of this dark comedy about a Mexican family destroyed by machismo, misogyny, classism and homophobic values was to help him heal and become a better person.
And, of course, making movies forces the often reclusive guitarist to get out of his house.
“Anytime I make a film, I have to go out and meet people, I have to go book a place to rehearse, I have to meet strangers,” Rodriguez Lopes said. “That’s therapy for me. Because I’m the type of person that would rather hide from what I perceive to be a very crazy world and just be at home with people that know me and understand me.”
The film premiered this week at SXSW and has already garnered some buzz for its fearless, forthright and gut-churning commentary on the destructiveness of the male ego and long-held social stereotypes within Latin culture.
“On the posters for the movie, we wrote, ‘If you don’t criticize your culture, you don’t love your mother.’ You say that to someone and they're either on-board [with the film] or they're not,” Rodriguez Lopez said.
The plot centers on the Gonzales family, a tight-knit group that runs a tire shop in Mexico while leading a life of wanton laziness. Family members go to bars together, gossip endlessly and devour the tacos made by Mama, the female head of the household. Their next-door neighbor Rulo lives with his wife, Alma, whom he abuses physically, sexually and emotionally. By night, he dresses up like a transvestite, sneaking out to have an affair with another man.
Not too long into the film, the Gonzales family is disrupted by a wayward American named Kim who pulls into their tire shop with a broken-down car and unintentionally shakes up the community’s dynamic, causing a sadistic, unforeseen chain of events as some of the family's dark secrets begin to surface.
In the midst of all the blood-spattered craziness that ensues, the film is unambiguous in its message: All this weirdness and tragedy are the result of the male ego.
According to Rodriguez Lopez's director's statement on the film:
"The male ego, or male psyche, is a universal sickness, seeing as most if not all cultures operate on a system that puts woman below man. Find the most oppressed culture in the world and you’ll most definitely find that they in turn oppress their own woman. God is a black lesbian."
Some critics who’ve seen “Los Chidos” have criticized the amount of intense sexual violence in the film, images that might leave the average moviegoer queasy. Though his first two films haven't been released, the debut of 2010's “The Sentimental Engine Slayer,” which Rodriguez Lopez wrote, directed and starred in, garnered similar visceral reactions.
“I’ve been asked that question often, ‘Do you think this is too much?’ I say no because I’m existing within my own community. It’s only once you watch it outside of the fact that the world is not just you and your friends,” Rodriguez Lopez said. “You watch it with a group of strangers, people who don’t know me, who don’t know my politics or my sense of humor, then I became aware.”
The film was shot over 16 days in Juarez, Mexico, and features some returning cast members from “The Sentimental Engine Slayer” (including lead actors Kim Stodel and Nomar Rizo). Rodriguez Lopez also siphoned some members of Les Cabaret Capricho, a theatrical performance troupe he had seen perform numerous times while he was living in Mexico.
“I snuck backstage and I met them and I said, 'I love what you’re doing,' and I live here and I’m trying to make a film.” The next thing he knew, they were giving him access to their infrastructure, their rehearsal spaces and their actors. They even suggested some locations for him to shoot. “They understood what I was getting at,” he said.
Rodriguez Lopez has had no formal training as a director, though he writes, directs, scores, produces and acts in nearly all his films. “Los Chidos” marks the first time he abstained from scoring in favor of using works from Ennio Morricone and other spaghetti western composers. He cut his teeth as a director with cheap VHS recordings as a kid, and eventually began ingesting the work of directors such as Mike Leigh, Federico Fellini and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
“My love for film cameras started because I loved the smell of the oil used to clean them,” Rodriguez Lopez said. “I learned how to oil a camera. From there, I learned how to thread a camera, so on and so forth.”
Lately, Rodriguez Lopez has been working behind the camera at a break-neck pace. As his current film is debuting in Austin, Rodriguez-Lopez is already preparing to release another completed film, "El Divino Influjo de los Secretos," and is working on the script for "Niño de Esperanza," which he plans to start shooting in El Paso this fall.
Even with that output, Rodriguez Lopez says there’s a lot more material he chooses not to release. In a constant effort to squeeze healing power over everything he creates, the point of making the film is the process itself. In that context, he views the premiere of his film as both a joyous occasion and a funeral.
“On one hand, you’re happy because it brings a passage and an evolution to it. But on the other hand, you’re sad to see it go,” Rodriguez Lopez said. “Now, it goes and people have their own opinions of it and project their own fears and desires on it and it’s no longer mine.”
-- Nate Jackson
Photo: Omar Rodriguez Lopez. Credit: Sargent House