Reviewed by Gerry Donaghy
Alex Cox's legacy rests largely on a movie that he made a quarter century ago. Repo Man, quite possibly the only film to combine L.A. punk swagger with Robert Aldrich's classic nuclear noir Kiss Me Deadly, skewered everything from American consumerism to UFO cultists to Scientologists and successfully captured the zeitgeist of Ronald Reagan's America. The spirit of the times may have been on display in the film, but a half-hearted attempt at distribution by its studio kept it from most moviegoers' radar. However, while Repo Man may have been hard to find in cinemas, it quickly found an audience, becoming one of the first cult films produced not by the midnight-movie circuit, but rather the emerging technology of video cassette recorders and the growing number of cable television subscribers.
From there, he progressed to the punk bio-pic Sid and Nancy, his spaghetti western homage Straight to Hell, and the film maudit Walker. Unfortunately, none of these, nor any of his subsequent films, have played to packed houses. Ever the iconoclast, Cox has declined to direct studio fare such as Three Amigos and Robocop, choosing to pursue instead projects that interested him without betraying his principles. While this approach has resulted in a rather limited output, it has undoubtedly created a uniquely diverse and uncompromised body of work.
Timed to coincide with the release of his latest film, Searchers 2.0, Cox has written X Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker. Equal parts career biography, filmmaking primer, and manifesto, Cox takes the readers through the 10 films that comprise his oeuvre (his lone work-for-hire film The Winner barely gets a mention). Along the way, he describes each film's genesis, production, post-production, and reception. We also get glimpses of bad behavior (from cast and crew), amusing insights to the creative process and frequent rants about what Cox feels is the self-destructive orthodoxy of the Hollywood system.
Cox isn't a man who minces words; he is unapologetic about his leftist beliefs and is suspicious of non-cooperative power structures. This is the man made a film in Nicaragua, with the help and support of the Sandinista government, for a studio run by a close friend of Ronald Reagan. However, this steadfast subversiveness makes Cox's films and this book so enjoyable. While it would be easy to write Cox off as cantankerous and self-serving when he pens lines like, "In film and television, the entire panoply of human emotion is carved up into bite-sized segments-serving a massive antiquated, violence-fixated Hollywood fast-food chain," he buffers such ranting with optimism about the alternatives to the system that technological process offers. Cox states that feature films were "the original art form of the 20th century," but that they cannot play the same role in the 21st century. "Something that goes beyond it will displace it," he writes, "some medium equally visual and visceral, but interactive, with multiple narrative possibilities."
Cox's writing in X Films is loose and conversational, informative without being overly technical. He clearly lays out the repetitively laborious process of filmmaking, and the less than glamorous working conditions he's endured in the pursuit of his vocation. He also freely writes about his own cinematic inspirations, from Sergio Leone to Luis Bunuel, providing today's aspiring filmmaker with a satisfying film studies curriculum.
My only substantial complaint about X Films is Cox's complete omission of his involvement with the film adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a dispute over which took Cox out of the director's chair and forced him to rely on arbitration from the Writers Guild in order to receive a screenwriting credit. Perhaps he is being a gentleman (he actually attributes a very nice quote to the film's eventual director, Terry Gilliam, near the end of the book), or maybe the brouhaha was more media fabrication than reality. Still, it would have been nice to get a little background on this, not so much for gossip value, but more as a cautionary tale.
Books mentioned in this post