By Catherine Wagley
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“A lot of people don’t realize what’s really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidents. They don’t realize that there’s this, like, lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything.”
Fans of the cult classic Repo Man will recognize these lines as the film’s leitmotif, spoken by the only character who doesn’t drive in a movie about cars and their people. But readers of Alex Cox’s autobiographical X Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker learn that the scene doesn’t appear in any of screenplay’s 14 drafts. Written as an audition piece for the actor Tracey Walters, it turned out so well that Cox ended up using it in the film.
The “lattice of coincidence” can be applied to nearly every aspect of Cox’s experience in the film industry, from financing and casting to distribution. Indeed, after reading X Films, one marvels that any — let alone 10 — of Cox’s feature films managed to be made.
This isn’t what aspiring filmmakers want to hear, of course, but X Films is an invaluable resource for students of the genre. The book is divided into 10 chapters, one for each film. Every chapter is subdivided into four sections: preproduction, production, postproduction and release. Cox, who came to Los Angeles from Liverpool on a Fulbright scholarship, dishes about his career from his first feature-length film, Edge City, which he shot with UCLA film school colleagues, to Searchers 2.0, a “microfeature” that debuted earlier this year.
X Films isn’t a “how-to” book, and Cox doesn’t explain terms like “master print” and “foley,” but he offers plenty of advice for would-be directors, along with a few inviolable rules — never shoot in a friend’s house, for instance — that are inevitably broken. Reading the book is a lot like walking onto a set: You’re introduced to a large number of people in a short period of time and it’s not always clear who is responsible for what. But as with any story, once the film progresses, the principles assert themselves.
Cox is at his most instructive when he reveals how easily a project can be derailed for the most asinine reasons imaginable. If you get to the end of his book and you still want to make movies, you might be a filmmaker after all.
Those looking for behind-the-scenes stories won’t be disappointed, especially with regards to Cox’s more well-known work; but his revelations about what goes on after the film is in the can are nothing short of astonishing. Cox knew that getting Repo Man in front of audiences would be a challenge, for example, and he was prepared to fight the studio tooth and nail. Never in his wildest dreams could he have imagined that Universal would hire the “head of public relations at Pan American World Airways to denounce the film,” who proselytized: “?‘I hope they never show this film in Russia!’?” Cox writes with a pleasing mix of wry wit, anarchic irreverence and a deep suspicion of entrenched systems. That doesn’t mean fellow travelers at the front get a free pass. Take this description of William S. Burroughs: “Certainly he was a great writer, but he was also a snob, a bad painter, a wife killer, and a trust-fund junky.”Repo Man’s cult status makes it easy to forget that it was a studio film. (If that seems inconceivable today, it was even more so in 1983.) Cox followed up with Sid and Nancy, an unstintingly unsentimental look at “two pig-ignorant junkies.” It’s impossible to imagine what the film might have looked like with Daniel Day-Lewis as Sid Vicious, Courtney Love as Nancy Spungen and Ian Drury as Malcolm McLaren, but Cox tells us they all auditioned. After Sid and Nancy, Cox took a left turn into obscurity, and his work has struggled to find an audience ever since. Perhaps with good reason. Cox has always been a filmmaker with eclectic interests, as his credits attest: Straight to Hell, a spaghetti Western starring Joe Strummer and the Pogues and filmed in the style of Giulio Questi’s surreal If You Live, Shoot!; Walker, an anachronistic biopic of a 19th American fortune seeker who made himself president of Nicaragua; El Patrullero, the story of a highway patrolman in the north of Mexico; Death and the Compass, the Borges adaptation for the BBC; Three Businessmen, an “intellectual date film” about two couples who drive around the world; Revengers Tragedy, a futuristic adaptation of an early 16th-century Jacobean play; and the aforementioned Searchers 2.0, a tongue-in-cheek ode to the oaters of yesteryear. (Cox has always been infatuated with spaghetti Westerns and has written a comprehensive book on the subject.)
Needless to say, this is not the résumé of a director who’ll be directing the next summer blockbuster.
Of all his films, Walker, which was recently added to the Criterion Collection, is clearly Cox’s favorite. “Walker is my best, my most expensive and my least-seen film.” Set in the distant past in a remote foreign country, the film had two strikes against it before the first scene was shot. Then consider that it was made with the aid of the Sandinistas in the midst of a Reagan-ordered embargo. Not even the blistering performance by Ed Harris and the haunting score by Joe Strummer, to whom Cox was close, could rescue the film from obscurity.
In his prose, as in his films, Cox holds nothing back, but what makes X Films such a pleasure to read is Cox’s generosity. He doesn’t have an ax to grind. Although he admits to “loathing the contest,” he clearly loves the collaboration and camaraderie of filmmaking.
Beneath the skin of the radical beats the heart of a romantic, whose favorite moments include wandering the wilderness of Almeria, Spain (where Sergio Leone filmed numerous spaghetti Westerns), and Monument Valley, Utah (where John Ford shot The Searchers). Again and again, Cox stumbles upon the sets of his cinematic forebears.
Chalk it up to the lattice of coincidence? Not really. As Alex Cox knows, every spaghetti Western begins the same way, with a solitary figure in a wide-open desert.
X Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker | By ALEX COX | Soft Skull | 312 pages | $18 softcover