The course of Alex Cox’s career parallels the fortunes of American independent cinema over the past thirty years. During that time, Cox has made the transition from studio-funded wunderkind to transnational indie director to a filmmaker working in what he calls “microcinema”: movies made for very little money, shot digitally and distributed by adventurous small companies. This trajectory places him squarely in the tradition of many of the maverick filmmakers that have inspired Cox, like Samuel Fuller and Monte Hellman.
Born near Liverpool in 1954, Cox studied at Oxford before moving to Los Angeles in the late 1970s and attending film school at UCLA. His first two films reflect a sense of being a stranger in a strange land—the 1980 student film Edge City and his feature debut Repo Man — with the punk attitude of the latter continuing to his next project, Sid and Nancy (1985), about Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, and spilling over to much of his subsequent work as well. From Los Angeles, Cox discovered the West of both the US and Mexico, the setting of a number of his films, from Straight to Hell to Searchers 2.0, and the place where Cox now spends much of time, teaching on the faculty of the Film Studies program at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
In a way, the beginnings of Cox’s career represent the last gasp of the openness that the studio system exhibited in the 1970s. Repo Man was actually produced by Universal, as was Walker. That film, shot in Nicaragua and critical of US foreign policy toward that country’s Sandinista-led government, marked the last time Cox worked in Hollywood. Since then, he has led a peripatetic existence as a filmmaker, finding locations and funding not only in Mexico, but in Britain, the Netherlands and Japan as well. He’s also worked as an actor for such directors as Arturo Ripstein, Dennis Hopper and Alex de la Iglesia.
Cox’s love of cinema, evident in numerous articles and books and his stint as the host of the BBC program “Moviedrome,” centers especially on the work of those filmmakers who have invigorated their work with the vitality and drive of genre cinema; besides the directors already mentioned, these include Ford, Kurosawa, Leone, Peckinpah and Roeg. Inspiration from and homage to these auteurs occurs frequently in Cox’s own films. But far from being a Tarantino avant la lettre, Cox eschews cynical pastiche for a passionate belief in cinema as critique—of consumerism, of warfare as foreign policy, of the fusion of politics and the media—and as an art form well suited to expressions of anarchic energy.Special thanks: Todd Wiener, Steve Hill – UCLA Film & Television Archive
Directed by Alex Cox. With Harry Dean Stanton, Emilio Estevez,
US 1984, 35mm, color, 92 min
The tale of a young man learning the tricks of the trade of repossessing cars from an old hand serves primarily as the MacGuffin for a manically satirical look at life in the US during the first Reagan administration. With a doomsday device in the trunk of a car giving off a menacing glow (lovingly lifted from Kiss Me Deadly), Cox lightheartedly makes some serious points about the all-pervasive menace of the military-industrial complex, and gives the staggeringly great cast of character actors brilliant material to resourcefully ply. Set in the wasteland that then was downtown Los Angeles in the age of punk, Repo Man is in many ways an outsider’s view – that of an Englishman suddenly landed in the urban sprawl of a most un-European city.
Directed by Alex Cox. With Ed Harris, Richard Masur, Rene Auberjonois
US/Mexico/Spain 1987, 35mm, color, 94 min
Made at a time when US involvement in Central America was a hot topic, Walker is probably Cox’s most overtly political film. It is a decidedly postmodern version of the true story of William Walker, the American adventurer and apostle of Manifest Destiny who led a failed revolution in Mexico, fled south with an army of mercenaries, and toppled the Nicaraguan government in 1855 with the support of US industrialists. The film was actually shot in Nicaragua in 1987 as the Sandinista government was still attempting to quell the American-funded Contra insurgency. At the time of Walker’s initial release, many critics seemed perplexed by Cox’s abundant and overt insertion of anachronistic objects that disrupt any sense of the film as a period piece. Seen today, these objects are a clever way of pointing out the parallels between Walker’s Nicaraguan exploits and those of the US government in the 1980s.
Directed by Alex Cox. With Roberto Sosa, Bruno Bichir, Vanessa Bauche
US/Mexico/Japan 1991, 35mm, color, 104 min. Spanish with English subtitles
While making Walker, Cox hired a driver who regaled him with stories from his previous career as a member of Mexico’s Federal Highway Patrol. From these reminiscences, Cox fashioned a restrained but exciting and even moving tale of a young policeman’s existential struggle to remain honest in the face of crime, corruption and gringo contempt. The beautiful Mexican vistas and the unending roads are captured for the most part in long takes. Cox himself has said that the film was made under the spell of the great Mexican director Arturo Ripstein and has spoken movingly of the film as a tribute to the warmth of the Mexican people who retain their dignity in the face of poverty and violence.
Directed by Alex Cox. With Christopher Eccleston, Kevin Knapman, Michael Ryan
UK 2003, 35mm, color, 109 min. In English with French subtitles
Like Death and the Compass, Cox’s other literary adaptation stars Christopher Eccleston and features a quite mannerist mise-en-scene, with production design by Cox’s frequent collaborator Cecilia Montiel. The source material here is The Revenger’s Tragedy, a Jacobean play from 1606 attributed to Thomas Middleton, and like so much English drama of its era, it is a bloody tale of lust and murder littered with corpses. Cox transplants it to a post-apocalyptic Liverpool in the distant future of 2011 where government surveillance satellites patrol the skies and media images are omnipresent. The film’s ironic stance towards its own gore is clearly a directorial strategy whereby Middleton’s dark musings on the corrosive nature of power are updated to point out that the contemporary fascination with violence reveals a corruption stemming from the media and the state alike.
Directed by Alex Cox. With Peter Boyle, Miguel Sandoval,
US/Mexico/Japan 1992, 35mm, color, 86 min
Cox first discovered the writings of the great Jorge Luis Borges when he was approached by the BBC to direct an adaptation of one of his stories. He selected “Death and the Compass” about a master detective undone by his own brilliance. The choice is an apposite one for Cox, since this story contains Borges’ famous remark that “the world is a labyrinth,” a statement that holds true for the worlds depicted in most of Cox’s films. Where Borges is deliberately quite dry, even deadpan, Cox here deploys his most striking visual stylization, with dark, saturated colors, elaborate camera movement, video imagery and baroque sets and costumes.
Directed by Alex Cox. With Sy Richardson, Joe Strummer, Dick Rude
US 1987/2001, digital video, color, 91 min
Featuring Joe Strummer, Courtney Love, Shane Macgowan, Elvis Costello, plus cameos by Dennis Hopper, Grace Jones and Jim Jarmusch – for its cast alone, Cox’s 1987 film Straight to Hell has found an audience over the years after its overlooked initial release. But beyond the cult appeal, the film is a loving spoof of spaghetti Westerns, following a trio of hit men who go on the lam from Los Angeles to Mexico in the wake of a botched job. The ensuing comic mayhem involves caffeine-addicted cowboys, sweaty villains, revenge plots and epic gun battles. Twenty years later, Cox re-edited Straight to Hell, restoring several minutes previously cut and adding digitally enhanced gore to the film’s many shootouts. The result is comic lark Straight to Hell Returns, not unlike Beat the Devil gone south of the border.
Directed by Alex Cox. With Del Zamora, Jaclyn Jonet, Ed Pansullo
US 2007, digital video, color, 96 min
A bittersweet Valentine to cinema’s continuing existence even as it dies, Searchers 2.0 brings together several of Cox’s cinematic preoccupations: the landscape of the West, the road movie, a delight in colorful and unique performers and, as the title indicates, the Hollywood Western. The plot concerns the reuniting of two actors who are tracking down the tyrannical screenwriter who had terrorized them years before on a film shoot. The two have never become stars, but they continue to work as extras and character actors in a continual stream of low-budget genre films. They remain film lovers and pass the time on their road trip talking about movies. As they zero in on their prey, we see the West of Monument Valley but also a place full of SUVs and memorials to soldiers dead in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Directed by Alex Cox. With Miguel Sandoval, Robert Wisdom, Alex Cox
UK 1998, 35mm, color, 80 min
Working from a screenplay by his wife, producer and publisher Tod Davies, Cox fuses Buñuel and Beckett in the age of transnational capitalism. One night, two traveling art dealers, a brash American and an uptight Brit, meet by chance in the dining room of a Liverpool hotel. They go off in search of a colleague and a decent vegetarian meal, but after they get lost, their search develops into a globetrotting odyssey as they visit five different countries in the course of a night and the following day. Captured mostly in long takes without inserts or close-ups, the film follows their endless conversation as they wander from dystopic cityscapes into the desert.
Directed by Alex Cox. With Greg Alarcon, Christine Burton, Alex Cox
1980, digital video, color, 40 min
A student film made by Cox at UCLA’s film school, Edge City manifests his fascination with the urban sprawl of Los Angeles and with American society in the late 1970s. The film presents a portrait of a stranger in a strange land, with Cox playing a recent British transplant. What he finds in Los Angeles are skyscrapers, oil wells, apartments with thin walls, and of course endless freeways. The plot proceeds along a chain of associations, variations on the theme of the angst of the young artist. What ties the film together are the impressions of a society adrift, with an ever-present undercurrent of anxiety as Los Angeles prepares to transition from being a large Californian city to a global megalopolis.