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Reel People
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Alex Cox:
King of Cult

by Thomas Cropper
Alex Cox
What do you say about a man who offended Hunter S. Thompson, who took inspiration for a movie from a couple of Sandinista soldiers, and is currently trying to sell a science fiction movie written in Elizabethan verse and set in a futuristic Liverpool? Alex Cox has been a champion of cult film fans ever since his 1984 debut Repo Man. As director, writer and actor, he has challenged, enthralled, bemused and offended in roughly equal measure. Love him or hate him you can't turn your back on one of his films for even a moment.

To most of us Neanderthals he is best known as the man who presented Moviedrome on TV, but Alex Cox, anarchist, revolutionary - call him what you will - represents a divergence in film making culture. Had he wanted to he could have done anything. He could have lurched down the path of mainstream commercialism and raked it in, but instead he chose to keep making small art house projects. As such he has remained an outsider, at odds with both Hollywood and British cinema. It is a mantle he relishes and one that turned him into a messianic figure to his small band of faithful supporters.

In the mid-1980s he had the world at his feet. Two successful movies - Repo Man and Sid & Nancy had marked him out as a talent to watch. As offers for larger projects arrived everyone expected him to leap up the ladder of commercial success. But instead he opted for a low budget, art house feature, Straight To Hell. What made him do it and why he never turned over to full scale commercialism is one of the things which makes him a unique figure in film history.

His origins, like many, were rocky and owed much to luck as well as judgement. He left a law degree at Oxford to study film at Bristol University and at the UCLA. Upon leaving he wrote a number of scripts which were never produced until finally he got his break with Repo Man. Repo Man originated from a chance meeting with two friends from UCLA; Jonathan Wacks and Peter McCarthy. They now ran a company with offices in Venice, California, which specialised in doing adverts and public information films. He suggested that they should move into features and hire him as a director. They agreed on condition that he write them a script to look at first. His first attempt, The Hot Club, was a comedy about nuclear blast veterans and nerve gas thieves (just the kind of comic combination that always works). It turned out to be too expensive so he moved on to write Repo Man.
Emilio Estevez as Otto in Repo Man  
   
Otto and Lite (Sy Richardson) in Repo Man
The script attracted the interest of Michael Nesmith, former member of the Monkees. He got Bob Rehme at Universal interested who picked it up as a 'negative feature'. All seemed to be plain sailing until, near the end of the film's production, Rehme was replaced as the head of Universal.

Here, Cox experienced a brutal introduction to studio politics. New executives in Hollywood tend to make a clean sweep. When one is thrown to the wolves, so too is any project he's been working on before. Repo Man, it seemed, was destined for oblivion.

Cox's first move was to take out an advert in Variety challenging Universal to make the picture. The studio responded by hiring a PR man to discredit it. He came out with the remarkable exclamation "I hope they don't show this film in Russia." Repo Man, though, was saved by the intervention of Kelly Neal who went out of his way to support both Repo Man and another casualty of the change over, Rumble Fish.

In many ways Repo Man is the perfect film of the punk era. Savage in style, and determined in message it warns against the ideals of the neo-conservative age. It was a strange film to be made by a Hollywood studio, but that is the thing about Hollywood, the one thing that makes it both a place to love and despise. Every now and again they would go against type and take a punt on a film that had no reason and no right to expect success. This was one of those times and gave Cox the clout to launch into his next project, a film that would also be at the heart of the punk movement.

Sid & Nancy made him a name and a hero to punk rockers everywhere. Gary Oldman made his break out appearance as Sid Vicious in a perverted 'Romeo and Juliet' tale of death, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. It confirmed Cox's status as one of the up and coming directors and he now seemed qualified for the next step in his career arc - an offer appeared to direct The Three Amigos (a lucrative and inviting prospect), but he never took it. Instead he opted to not only to pursue a low-budget feature, but a film which would bring his promising start to a juddering halt. Straight To Hell was a spoof western, but the jokes fairly flew over the heads of audiences. They didn't get it and didn't enjoy it. Of all Cox's films this is the most despised of the lot of them, even by diehard Cox supporters. It did win the critics award at the Madrid Film festival, but it seems they were the only people who liked it.

You often wonder what might have happened had he taken the chance to direct The Three Amigos. Such a choice is typical of the man, but The Three Amigos could have put his career onto a whole new level. The follow up to that could have played to a much larger audience and on a much larger scale. What a perfect platform that might have been for a man who prides himself on his use of film as a political messageboard.

Straight To Hell was followed a year later by Walker, a chronicle of the life of William Walker who, in 1853, tried to annex Mexico. Two years later he moved onto Nicaragua intervening in the civil war ostensibly in support of one of the factions, but in reality to annex it to the US. He betrayed his allies and set himself up as president. Many people were drawn to it as a straight biopic of William Walker, but its meaning was much more, at least to Cox. For him it was a bitter attack on the foreign policy of the American government. Supported by the Sandinista government it was a little bit of movie propaganda. It was a theme that fitted in nicely with Cox's interest in the Sandanistas. In 1984 he had gone 'election watching' with Peter McCarthy, a producer on Repo Man. There they had met two Compas (Sandinista soldiers) who asked them if they were going to make a film about Nicaragua. When they said that films cost a lot of money and were difficult to make. The Compas replied that if two kids could overthrow an American stooge they could make a film about Nicaragua. This was his inspiration for Walker.

Walker compounded the weak showing by Straight To Hell and you feel, in a sense, that Cox had missed the boat. (It was to be four years until he directed again.) They were films made with the heart rather than the head. They baffled and bewildered audiences. Their heroes were unlikable and as a result you find it difficult to care about what happened. Their humour was obscure and absorbed by greater issues.

Cox never settled into an easy relationship with his audience or his fellow filmmakers and this was to be shown most drastically in his troubled tenure as director of Universal's Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. During the early stages of production he managed to alienate both Johnny Depp and Hunter S. Thompson and, in fact, "pretty much everyone" according to his successor on the project, Terry Gilliam. Cox left due to 'creative differences', but still retained a partial writing credit, alongside Tod Davies. Ironically, although Gilliam claims the Cox/Davies script was the main hook which dragged him into the film he still decided it required a further re-write. The final version retained much of the original draft; its use of Thompson's original text and the harsh no nonsense way in which it plunges you into the acid trip from hell. A cynic might say Gilliam did this just to get another credit or to make the film his own, a version of the new exec expunging all traces of his predecessor's work. That's what a cynic might say that is.

Perhaps, after all, it was a good thing that Cox missed out on Fear And Loathing. He was already in trouble as a 'pro drug' director after Sid & Nancy. Fear And Loathing might have been like a red rag to a bull. As it was his films in the 1990s were to be of a relatively calm nature, even though Cox's liking for the eclectic and the surreal shone through brilliantly. Although driven by ideals they do not possess the pure anger of his earlier projects. El Patrullero was inspired by the story of a highway patrolman who had stopped a white motorist who was stoned. He decided not to book him. It would be too much trouble and the man might have the money for a good lawyer, but when he turned his back the driver pulled a gun and opened fire. Shot in the leg, the patrolman hid in the bush until they were gone and limped back to civilisation. It is not difficult to see the politics of Cox shining through again, but here it was contained within a more humanistic setting.

But it was Death And The Compass which will be remembered, by those few who saw it, as possibly his finest work. It screened at the London film festival after he had withdrawn his original entry, The Winner.
Straight To Hell Death And The Compass Walker
Death And The Compass was commissioned by the BBC who wanted a series of television adaptations of the stories of Borges. This one was about a brilliant detective chasing down criminals in a surreal and brutal future. Surreal, frightening and eccentric, it represents everything Cox does best. It is pure cult - the kind of film you might see by accident, but it stays with you for the rest of your life. Perhaps it is his only film of the 1990s to match the energy of Repo Man.

In 1997 Cox formed, with Tod Davies, his own production company, Exterminating Angel. Through this his work has accelerated in the last couple of years. We've seen documentaries; Kurosawa: The Last Emperor and Emmanuelle: A Hard Look, as well as his most recent feature, Three Businessmen. It starred Cox himself in a story about two businessmen and their search for dinner. (The third businessman, we're told, is not present.). I can't say much about it as I still haven't seen it, but the main plot is minimalist to the extreme. Clearly there is more to it than that.

The Alex Cox story winds to a conclusion, at least for now, with a film called Revengers Tragedy. Based on the classic text by Thomas Middleton. In many ways it is a typical example of all his works to date, but also represents a real step forward. It is his first fully British film. Revengers Tragedy does not fit into any populist category. Its main character is a man who wants his daughter to prostitute herself and is there, for one reason and one reason only - to kill a man. The dialogue remains true to the original Middleton script thus making it, I think, the first science fiction film to be written in Elizabethan verse. It is also filmed in digital, an unproven technology that still lacks the potential for widespread distribution. As usual he's not making it easy for himself, but then again, he never has.

ALEX COX director filmography (A-Z):
Death And The Compass (1996), Edge City (aka: Sleep Is For Sissies, 40-minute student film, 1980), El Patrullero (aka: Highway Patrolman, 1992), Emmanuelle: A Hard Look (2000), Kurosawa: The Last Emperor (1999), Repo Man (1984),
Revengers Tragedy (2002), Sid & Nancy (1986), Straight To Hell (1987), Three Businessmen (1998), Walker (1987).
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