J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Hispanic Heritage Month: The Head of Joaquin Murrieta

Joaquin Murrieta had to be a significant Mexican folk hero, because Ricardo Montalbán played him twice, once on Death Valley Days and later in the TV movie Desperate Mission. Murrieta was the inspiration for Zorro, but he came to a bad end. Over one hundred fifty years after his death, filmmaker John J. Valadez wrestles with the Robin Hood-figure’s life, times, and legacy in The Head of Joaquin Murrieta (trailer here), which premieres on World Channel this Wednesday, as part of its celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month.

In 1853, the highwayman and/or Mexican nationalist was gunned down by a band of state-chartered vigilantes, who decapitated his head as proof. For years, they used the head as a grotesque sideshow attraction, until it was allegedly lost during the San Francisco earthquake. It was not the finest moment for California’s justice system, or Murrieta.

Although the head (preserved in a bell jar full of alcohol) was out of circulation, reports of sightings still persisted into the current century. Obviously, it is prime documentary fodder, but Valadez’s first attempt at a Murrieta doc fell through when his attempts to find the head did not pan out. Then one day, a mysterious package arrived at his home.

Valadez is maddeningly vague about a lot of details. Yes, we understand he wants to make a serious, socially conscious documentary, but when your film is constructed around a head in a jar, you have to indulge viewers’ morbid curiosity. There is no speculation as to where it came from, nor is there any attempt to authenticate it. Call us square, but shouldn’t you tell the police if you receive a severed head in the mail, even if it is from the 1850s?

In fact, Valadez readily admits he has no way of knowing if this is the real Murrieta or not, but he is content to accept it as a symbolic relic. Out of respect for the historical figure and the dispossessed people he championed, Valadez sets off on a trek to bury the head in his old stomping grounds, but he will have to drive, because obviously. Along the way, we get plenty of less than edifying American history. However, Valadez will also get an awkward reminder from his own family history that many of the Mexicans who were forced off their property by western expansionism had done the very same thing to the indigenous populations a generation earlier.

You have to give Valadez credit for keeping that part in the film, even though it is clearly embarrassing to him. Although, we would like more hard information about the head itself, the way he treats it on camera is quite tasteful and shrewd. Usually, he just shows it concealed by the box it was shipped in, which quickly takes on a sinister aura, sort of like the briefcase holding Marsellus Wallace’s soul in Pulp Fiction.

While clocking in just under half an hour, The Head of still manages to be persistently lectury. Nevertheless, it is an interesting story and it is fair to say Valadez is uniquely positioned to tell it. The adage “possession is nine-tenths of the law,” rooted in ancient Roman jurisprudence, certainly seems aptly to suited to this short doc, whether it be applied to misappropriated heads or twice-appropriated lands. It is provocative, but not knee-jerk. Recommended for those fascinated by folk legends, The Head of Joaquin Murrieta airs this Wednesday (9/20) on World Channel.

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