Tuesday, 23 April 2019

X Films - True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker

Thoughts on the book by Alex Cox

Roger Ebert, a one-time sports writer who looked as if he'd never picked up a bat or ball or run a marathon in his entire life, turned to movie criticism as a potential career opportunity and became one of the most influential American film reviewers of the late-twentieth century. Ebert's approach was to adopt the perspective of the potential consumer. He had enough of the history behind him to make his opinions more valid than the average Joe's, but he presented himself, absolutely, as the 'voice' of the mainstream moviegoer; he spoke to the people, but he spoke for them as well.

If Ebert loved a movie he would rhapsodise about it the way a fanatic might. If he hated it, then his rage and disappointment would take the form of a condescending rant that framed the film as a joke and encouraged the audience to join him in mocking its perceived failures. He reduced the cinema to a tale of winners and losers, which cheapened the art, but in turn inspired countless generations of film critics - professional or otherwise - who assumed the same voice, the same attitude.

The Simpsons: Season 2, Episode 12: "The Way We Was" [David Silverman, 1991]:

Ebert's mainstream profile and claim to authority was due in part to the success of his television partnership with fellow critic Gene Siskel. So ubiquitous was the pair's particular brand of populist criticism that it even became recognisable enough to be lampooned by mainstream programmes, such as The Simpsons, above.

One of the filmmakers that Ebert initially championed was the British writer and director Alex Cox. When Cox released his first feature-length work, the enduring cult-classic Repo Man (1984), Ebert praised it, writing: "This is the kind of movie that baffles Hollywood, because it isn't made from any known formula and doesn't follow the rules." In discussing Cox's next film, the punk biographical drama Sid and Nancy (1986), Ebert said that it announced Cox as a "great director" who "pull(s) off the neat trick of creating a movie full of noise and fury, and telling a meticulous story right in the middle of it." The tide would turn however with the release of the director's next film, the gonzo 'Spaghetti Western' pastiche Straight to Hell (1987). In his one-star review, Ebert gives Cox the benefit of the doubt, describing the filmmaker as follows: "I believed that he could scarcely do wrong, and that there was a streak of obsession in his genius that might well carry him into the pantheon." However, when Cox released his fourth feature, his masterpiece, Walker (1987), the gloves were well and truly off.

Walker, an intentionally anachronistic and anarchic biographical film about William Walker, the American filibuster who invaded Nicaragua and appointed himself president of the country, was made in solidarity with members of the Sandinista National Liberation Front. Rather than provide a conventional historical narrative, Cox's film, scripted by Rudy Wurlitzer, was intended to draw a line between the actual Walker's misguided 1855 political campaign across a divided Central America and the insidiousness of contemporary American foreign policy during the Reagan administration and the period surrounding the Iran–Contra affair.

Walker [Alex Cox, 1987]:

Walker remains one of the visionary films of the 1980s; a wild, chaotic mix of Sam Peckinpah inspired violence and furious politics, all anchored by an eclectic supporting cast led by a rarely better Ed Harris. In his review, Ebert rewarded the film no stars and apparently drove the final nail into the coffin of Cox's career as a mainstream filmmaker, describing the work as "a pointless and increasingly obnoxious exercise in satire by Cox, the director, who doesn't seem to have a clue about what he wants to do or even what he has done. Although the ads for 'Walker' don't even hint it, this movie is apparently intended as a comedy or a satire. I write "apparently" because, if it is a comedy, it has no laughs, and if a satire, no target." While Ebert had praised the earlier Repo Man as a film that baffled Hollywood, that didn't follow formulas or rules, he was apparently not so generous to celebrate the similarly rebellious spirit found in Walker.

Throughout this early writing, Ebert's attitude towards Cox reads as petty and personal. It's as if by following his own path and refusing to become a maker of prestige Hollywood product Cox had someone failed Ebert and made him look foolish for putting so much faith into those first two films. Look at the way Ebert prefaces his review of Straight to Hell by including a personal anecdote about being asked by a magazine: "which young directors showed the most promise of being the grandmasters of the 21st century?" Ebert feels his response is necessary in this context: "Alex Cox was right there at the top of my list."

Straight to Hell (Director's Cut) [Alex Cox, 1987]:

Straight to Hell isn't a great film - it's loud and formless, languorous and often obnoxious - but it also isn't t a failure. Its post-modern melange of American film-noir, Italian western and British post-punk anarchy predates the recent cinema of Quentin Tarantino by over a decade, while its subtext, of a war between rival gangs manipulated by a shadowy businessman as a means of gaining control of a region so that it can be mined for lucrative resources, predicts the illegal war in Iraq.

By beginning his review in such a way - with a personal shaming that has literally nothing to do with the film, its merits, or the merits of Cox as filmmaker - Ebert was placing his own disappointment at the centre of the discussion. It was less the work of a film critic excavating the text for meaning or emotion than something equivalent to a parent or teacher scolding a child that had failed to live up to the potential said grownup had attributed to them. As an attitude, these observations by Ebert were emblematic of the critic's formative years as a sports writer; the idea of the filmmaker being given a shot at the 'big time' and fumbling it. It also plays into the accepted journey of the director, as most cultural commentators seem to see it, where the success of the individual is measured by the rise through the ranks; that progression from the small-scale independent movie, to bigger, more ambitious, more expensive ones.

The narrative that Ebert helped to assign to Cox's career over the course of those first four films has been reflected in the general perception of the filmmaker's career since. Recent praise for Repo Man from fellow cult-cinema auteurs Paul Thomas Anderson and Nicholas Winding Refn both seem to be framed around the notion that Cox is now lost to the wilderness; that he had his chance and blew it; that the films he made after Walker have been attempts to get by on whatever scraps were available; that what he really needs is for Hollywood to come a-knocking with the perfect script. Having recently finished Cox's excellent 2008 book on his filmmaking career, "X Films - True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker", I'm not sure that's the case.

X Films - True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker [Alex Cox, 2008]:

You might be wondering why this preamble about Roger Ebert is necessary to the discussion of "X Films" and of Cox's career as a whole? Cox never mentions Ebert during the course of his book and similarly doesn't seem to give much credence to the critical through-line of his career among anyone else; let alone privileged move-brats like Anderson and Refn who succeeded (in-part) through the professional connections of their respective parents. However, Ebert's dismissal of Cox's career, post-Sid and Nancy, and the acceptance of this narrative by talented pretenders like Anderson and Refn, is irresponsible, and part of a general attitude towards non-mainstream culture that is designed to keep marginalised content hidden or delegitimized by measuring their perceived lack of success against the greater successes of corporate Hollywood (including the corporate Hollywood films produced by independent or 'boutique' studios). It's also indicative of the hypocrisy of many modern critics who claim to want films that are challenging, that don't follow formulas or rules, but then expect the same filmmakers to be safe, career-driven professions that aspire to be part of the "pantheon." The best filmmakers - the true originals - are the ones that aspire to burn it down.

Furthermore, the narrative of Cox being excommunicated from the mainstream is patently untrue. After Walker, Cox would begin production on the true-life crime drama Let Him Have It (1991). He was eventually replaced by director Peter Medak only when his choice to shoot the film in black and white was rejected by the producers. He was also offered the opportunity to direct Three Amigos! (1986), The Running Man (1987) and RocoCop 2 (1990) respectively; films that he turned down for political or moral reasons. He was also responsible for bringing both Mars Attacks (1996) and Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) to the attention of major studios. That Cox didn't pursue these projects has little to do with his industry status as "persona non-grata" and a lot to do with his attempts to create films in the right environment, with the right people, and expressive of the right politics, aesthetics and ideas.

If Cox is now making films like Tombstone Rashomon (2017) on a micro-budget, as opposed to getting into bed with a Hollywood studio to produce compromised cult cinema-by-numbers, then one has to assume the choice is deliberate. Not every filmmaker measures success by the standards of the worldwide box-office, or by the self-celebration of the Academy Awards®. "X Films" paints a picture of a morally upstanding filmmaker on a restless search for independence.

Tombstone Rashomon [Alex Cox, 2017]:

The book effectively details the making of ten of Cox's films (hence "X Films" - X being the Roman numeral) beginning with Edge City (1980), the author's UCLA graduation project, and concluding with Searchers 2.0 (2007), the first of his 'micro-budget' features. It skips over The Winner (1996), a heavily re-edited "for hire" assignment that Cox directed only as a means of raising the necessary funding to complete post-production on his excellent Borges adaptation Death and the Compass (1995), as well as his two cinema based documentary projects, Kurosawa: The Last Emperor (1999) and Emmanuelle: A Hard Look (2000).

Through each chapter, Cox gives an engaging if self-deprecating insight into how each of the films came together; discussing the main inspiration behind the subject-matter, the political and/or geographical context that existed at the time of the production and the general critical and commercial reception that followed their eventual release. However, he also details the various struggles and difficulties faced in getting the films made. These difficulties include uncooperative actors, meddlesome producers, lawyers with the authority to shut down a production over a single line of the script, distributors who buy and bury films for nefarious reasons, and the slow and cumbersome nature of mainstream filmmaking, with its army of trucks, large crews, intimidating police presence and heavy equipment.

As someone who fell in love with the fantasy of cinema, as defined by the films themselves, Cox's chronicle of the mundane "business" of show is hugely dispiriting; reminding us that the reality of filmmaking is not the magic of Ed Wood (1994), or even the romanticised actuality of Day for Night (1973), but closer perhaps to the autocratic nightmares of Terry Gilliam's dystopian satire Brazil (1985). For this reason alone the book should be seen as required reading for all would-be filmmakers, film-critics and film-enthusiasts of all backgrounds and persuasions. It demystifies the process of independent filmmaking in the shadow of modern Hollywood and its insights into this world are both practical and invaluable.

Moviedrome [BBC, 1988-2000]:

Cox of course has prior form when it comes to discussing films in an engaging and self-deprecating manner. As the original host of the BBC's Moviedrome series, Cox played Roger Ebert at his own game, introducing countless cult film titles to mainstream television audiences from 1988 to 1994. In 1997, the esteemed Mark Cousins would take over hosting duties until the series ended.

For me "X Films" is one of the great books about filmmaking. It's funny, informal and always informative. It's packed with anecdotes and choice namedropping, and paints Cox as a genuinely humanist figure who cares very deeply about his collaborators, and isn't too precious to acknowledge their influence in shaping many of the best scenes and images from his work. As much as Cox's career has been framed around the cult-success of both Repo Man and Sid and Nancy, or even the perceived "failures" of Walker and Straight to Hell, he's nonetheless continued to make films that possess the same spirit of post-modern experimentation, non-conformism, personal integrity and imagination. To quote the recently deceased Scott Walker from the lyrics of his song Patriot (A Single): he "never sold out."

Cox's best films work to combine genres and influences. In this sense he was ahead of his time. Looking back at the independent American cinema of the 1990s, defined as it was by the post-modern genre play of filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and the Coen Brothers (to name a few), it's impossible not to see films like Repo Man, Straight to Hell, Walker, etc. as the early forerunners of this particular cinematic zeitgeist. That Cox was denied acclaim for the kind of filmmaking that would become, post-Tarantino, the standard among the populist auteurs, must have hurt. And yet there's no bitterness to "X Films"; perhaps because Cox knows that his best work - which also includes the later efforts El Patrullero (1991), Death and the Compass, Three Businessmen (1998) and Revengers Tragedy (2002) - exist on their own terms and no one else's.