Punked in Spain 

Alex Cox returns to his disaster film Straight to Hell

Thursday, Nov 18 2010

There are two surprising things about Straight to Hell Returns, the digitally spiffed-up version of Alex Cox's 1987 "paella Western." The first is that it even exists, considering the low esteem in which Straight to Hell was held upon its release. The second is that, as far as director's cuts that nobody asked for go, it's completely worthwhile. Judge for yourself Friday night in a UCLA program at the Hammer's Billy Wilder Theater, when Cox presents the film in advance of its DVD release as part of a six-film series recently launched by Microcinema International.

Starring Joe Strummer, Elvis Costello, Sy Richardson, Dick Rude and a pre-grunge Courtney Love as hard-living bank robbers hiding out in a town run by violent coffee addicts, Straight to Hell was decimated by critics in 1987, particularly trade journalists assessing the film's market value. "One of the worst films of this or any year," wrote BoxOffice magazine. "So self-indulgent, incomprehensible, inept and boring, it should be titled 'Straight From Hell.' " The scourge of overly clever insult reviewing inspired by Cox's third feature extended to this very publication, which dismissed Hell as "masturbatory art ... really like opening the bathroom door in a strange house and catching a bunch of self-conscious adults in frenzied autoerotic activity." Most critics suggested Cox and crew had used the $1 million production budget to party, as if the film was an incidental byproduct of a drunken jam session in the Spanish desert.

"Well, it would have been great if that could've been so, if it had been like a Burning Man experience for us all and we just had a big party and went home," Cox says today. He's calling from his home in Oregon, where he's lived for the better part of the two decades since his Hell follow-up, the implicitly anti-Contra period epic Walker, "derailed my career."

click to enlarge Dick Rude, Sy Richardson and Joe Strummer, the skinny-tied anti-heroes of Straight to Hell
  • Dick Rude, Sy Richardson and Joe Strummer, the skinny-tied anti-heroes of Straight to Hell

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"It is always a struggle to make a film with not really enough money. But I think, maybe our mistake was also letting on that it was tremendous fun at the same time. We should have kept that a secret."

One reason Straight to Hell might have been dismissed as a disposable lark — beyond the fact that the closing credits offer a "special thanks" to "all the bars in Southern Spain" — is that it's literally the product of its makers having too much time on their hands.

After Costello, Strummer and the Pogues played a successful concert benefit in Brixton, south London, for the Sandinista National Liberation Front, Cox and Nancy producer Eric Fellner tried to arrange a one-month concert tour of Nicaragua featuring the musicians, to be funded by a video deal — which never happened. The rock stars had already freed up the month, so Cox switched gears and decided to make a film instead. As Cox writes on his website, "It was easier to raise $1 million for a low-budget feature starring various musicians than to find $75,000 to film them playing in a revolutionary nation in the middle of a war."

The goal with Straight to Hell Returns was to use contemporary technology to cover the tracks of the film's initial limited budget. The soundtrack has been remastered, the gore has been digitally enhanced, the color has been gorgeously corrected and two brief elements of stop-motion animation have been added as narrative punctuation. "It's more fully realized than it was before," Cox says. "The technology has caught up with the intentions."

Straight to Hell was guaranteed lasting novelty value by its cast alone, but the restoration reveals it to be more than a curiosity with impeccable record-nerd cred. It is, against all odds, a real movie, even a pretty good one. What A Hard Day's Night is to Quickie Pop Heartthrob Flicks, Straight to Hell is to a different sub-sub-subgenre: Films Full of Rock Stars in Which None of Them Play Music.

It's a languid narrative, spotted with explosive bloodshed: Norwood (Richardson), Simms (Strummer) and Willy the Kid (Rude) party too hard and sleep through a scheduled hit job, forcing them to go on the lam with Norwood's pregnant moll (Love). When their shitty car breaks down in a town full of sultry women and French press-sipping "ruthless men" (some played by the Pogues, with Costello as their coffee-serving butler), the gang's dynamic is fatally altered by new flirtations.

The digital intervention enriches Straight to Hell's sweaty visuals, enhancing the film's dark romanticism: For all of its gonzo gags, this is ultimately a film that's propelled to its final shoot-out on a steadily mounting wave of sexual longing and jealousy.

As Cox acknowledges, it's prescient of some of the stylistic tropes that would dominate indie film five to 10 years later, from its blood splatter to its costume design to its B-genre pastiche. "Back in the '80s, the late '80s, there wasn't this, sort of, enthusiasm for Italian Westerns that there is now; they hadn't been rehabilitated and viewed as a serious, worthwhile form. And there wasn't a spate of films with hitmen in black suits and ties and stuff."

So would Straight to Hell have been received differently had it postdated Quentin Tarantino's ushering of both Sergio Leone love and skinny-tied criminals into the zeitgeist? Cox pauses before answering. "I think by that point, that sort of postmodernism had seeped into the minds of film reviewers, perhaps. It was only a few years later, but something had changed in the meantime."

Cox has directed seven features since his post-Walker retreat from Hollywood (including Mexican cop drama Highway Patrolman, which screens on Saturday at the Hammer in a double feature with Sid & Nancy), financed by foreign presales, DVD residuals and, in the case of the 2007 Western Searchers 2.0, producer Roger Corman. Most of these films you've probably not heard of, let alone seen — the Microcinema releases will be the first real exposure for many of them in the U.S.

With no desire to return to the corporate filmmaking fold — give him an opening and he'll rail against former employer Universal and its various subsidiaries — technology has fired up Cox's DIY instincts. His last feature, an unofficial sequel to Repo Man called Repo Chick, was made Spy Kids–style with heavy use of garage green-screen, and allowed him to keep working under the radar and without interference. If he has his way, his next project will be as lo-fi as they come.

"I want to do a film either with Rudy Wurlitzer, who wrote Walker, or with Harry Harrison, who's an American science fiction writer who lives in England," Cox says. "Um, and in either case, I want to do a film with hand puppets."

There's no entry on Straight to Hell in Destroy All Movies!!!, the massive, indispensable new coffee-table/reference book on punk in film edited by Zach Carlson and Bryan Connolly — somewhat inexplicable given that there is an entry on Ishtar, apparently because "a punk can be spotted in a club" in a single scene, not to mention a two-paragraph evisceration of Fight Club, included on the basis of a single character's haircut, but worth it for the compact dismissal of that David Fincher film as "Amelie for dudes."

The book also contains interviews with Cox and his frequent actor/collaborator Dick Rude, Fugazi's Ian MacKaye, filmmakers Lech Kowalski, Dave Markey and Penelope Spheeris, as well as capsules on obvious classics (Jubilee, Rock 'n' Roll High School, Spheeris' Suburbia), questionable dabblings in punk imagery with name-brand actors (Gleaming the Cube, Jawbreaker, Richard Linklater's Suburbia) and assorted arcana (the Crass movie Christ: The Movie, the After School Special The Day My Kid Went Punk).

Cinefamily hosts a weekend-long film series to celebrate the release of the book; highlights include a double feature of Markey's Super-8 portraits on the '80s L.A. underground, The Slog Movie and Desperate Teenage Lovedolls, and a midnight show of Kowalski's rarely screened D.O.A., from a print reportedly dug out of storage at Sage Stallone's house.

NO BRAKES: ALEX COX | Nov. 19-20 | Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum | cinema.ucla.edu

DESTROY ALL MOVIES!!! TWO-DAY PUNK FILM FEST | Nov. 20-21 | Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre | cinefamily.org

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