Q&A: ALEX COX
Highlights from Issue 36: Expatriate
Photograph by SAM JONES
Saturday, August 09, 2008
The following piece is an unabridged interview that originally appeared in the Expatriate Issue
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THE DARK SIDE COMES OUT ON HOLIDAY
A talk with filmmaker Alex Cox
By James Hughes
Looking back on his 1987 film Walker, a lampoon of 19th century American imperialism that literally put its money where its mouth was — studio dollars were pumped into the heart of Nicaragua in the midst of the Contra war — director Alex Cox remains astonished by the conduct of Americans abroad. “The dark side comes out on holiday,” he says.
A similar assessment could be made of the influence of Los Angeles on Cox’s work in the Eighties. Far from Bebington, the small town near Liverpool where he was born, Cox, who originally went to California to attend UCLA, created films that satirized and dignified the castaways and miscreants of the gone world. He epitomized the doomed travelogue in Sid and Nancy (1986); staged an extraterrestrial intervention in Repo Man (1984); retreated to the desert in Straight to Hell (1987); and put a knowing twist on the acid Western with his latest offering, Searchers 2.0, in which two never-was actors embark on a failed quest to reach Monument Valley, cinema’s ultimate iconic template.
In addition to his own contributions to the lexicon, Cox is also a chronicler of films: He did a stint as the host of the British television series Moviedrome in the Nineties and writes a regular column for Film Comment and occasional filings for the Guardian and Independent. (His essays were recently compiled in the book X-Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker, available from Soft Skull Press.) Cox spoke with me this spring from his home in the woods near Ashland, Oregon.
Stop Smiling: Liverpool was selected as the 2008 European Capital of Culture. Is that meaningful to you, the actual pageantry of it?
Alex Cox: There won’t be any pageantry because it’s in the hands of a diabolical bunch of local politicians who, as we say in England, couldn’t organize a piss-up in a brewery. Last year was the 700th anniversary of the founding of the city of Liverpool. There were huge celebrations and pageantries. They completely blew it and couldn’t organize anything. Even the Beatles Festival, which has been happening for the last 20 years — and we’re making a bit of money on the Beatles’ legend — they couldn’t even organize that. That’s the first time in 20 years that the Beatles Festival has collapsed.
But the thing is, it’s not about pageantry anyway. Who gives a damn about these bureaucrats and their pageants at all? The reason the advisory or selection committee picked Liverpool as the capital of culture is because of the unique cultural aspect of the people. Now, if you compare Liverpool to Oxford, which was also on the shortlist, Oxford is far more cultural than Liverpool. So is Birmingham. But it was the unique nature of the people in the city, and their bizarre and fascinating and funny culture, that got the city the prize — and that has been completely betrayed by the Liberal Democrat regime.
SS: In the Guardian you wrote that the bureaucrats “see themselves as second-rate losers, [so] they assume everyone else in the city must be a second-rate loser too.”
AC: Right. But they’re not — the people in the actual grassroots city are marvelous and really hardworking. But they also have to suffer through the disdain of these pathetic political and cultural bureaucrats who are ashamed to be living in a provincial city and would do anything to live in London or New York. They have no respect for their own client group. I’m still hoping that, in spite of that, the people of Liverpool can be recognized as this unique, cultural resource, that they can contribute — even if it’s just spontaneously and voluntarily — and they can create their own capital of culture.
SS: Do you worry about the loss of regionalism here in the US? It’s quickly becoming like France, where much of the culture pools straight into Paris.
AC: Well, just look at how the independent cinema has collapsed in New York and San Francisco and folded back into Los Angeles. The same thing happened in England. There’s been no meaningful support for any kind of provincial cinema: Everything is about London and the Hollywood studios.
SS: There’s the line in Sid and Nancy where Sid says, “Things will be better when we’re in America.” And Nancy says, “We’re in America.” I wonder if you have similar moments of displacement.
AC: I used to when I would travel more. Ten years ago I was traveling to raise money for films. I would wake up in hotels and not know where I was. But that’s such a common 21st century phenomenon. Anyone in business must experience that frequently.
SS: In Dispatches from Nicaragua, Terry Schwartz’s documentary on the making of Walker, he asks a group of Nicaraguan school kids, by a show of hands, how many want to come to the United States, and the response is unanimous.
AC: Yes, they all want to be expatriates! Well, the population of Nicaragua is less than what it was when we were down there 20 years ago, because they’ve all moved to the States.
SS: Were you received positively when you were filming in Nicaragua?
AC: When I was there, even the Sandinista government would complain, because they all wanted to go to New York, but they were all embargoed. They wanted to go to the United Nations and let their wives go shopping. [Laughs] Everybody wants to be an American. They see American television and assume there’s an amazing lifestyle: Everyone lives in a loft in New York, everyone has a convertible. And they’re a single parent! America is incredible! But how is this to be achieved?
SS: How do you feel about the low turnout for American films about the Iraq war? Brian De Palma’s Redacted, for example.
AC: I didn’t see it. It’s for hard for me, though, the dramatization of rapes. I know it’s a De Palma specialty. But it’s very hard for me to encompass. The only De Palma film I ever liked was Body Double, and I did think it was very good. He’s very in the shadow of Hitchcock and Dario Argento, in the same way that Clint Eastwood has never had an idea in his head that didn’t come from Leone or Don Siegel. But the thing is, does anyone remember Don Siegel? It’s like the Beatles and Oasis. The Beatles are disappearing from the consciousness of the young. Because they’re not still touring. [Laughs] They just think Paul McCartney was the guy who was married to the woman who had the line of vegetarian fashion.
SS: To go back to Iraq, will there be a contemporary war film that lasts?
AC: No, because the thing is, when you try and make a film about how bad war is — or in my case, when you try to make a film about how bad heroin addiction is — you fall into this trap of making it glamorous. No matter how unassailable your take on it is, people will come along and watch Apocalypse Now!, like Anthony Swafford wrote in Jarhead, and watch pornography for people who love war. Sid and Nancy was the same for people who want to become junkies.
SS: What films are you keeping up with?
AC: I don’t pay attention to anything, really. I live in the woods. We don’t have telly. Our only connection to the Internet is half a telephone line. The only American film I saw last year was 300. [Laughs] I was at a friend’s house and he wanted to show it to me. You know, I thought it was fucking great. I’ll tell you why: Because it is a straightforward pro-war American film. It’s getting the Americans ready for a war against Iran — and there are no bones about it. I thought that was a very honest form of filmmaking. And it has no movie stars — a horrible, obnoxious Hollywood violent action film with no movie stars. So it broke the domination of the Tom Cruises and all those dullards.
SS: What film, to you, is the quintessential alien encounter film, keeping in mind the idea that aliens are the ultimate expats?
AC: It would be 2001, wouldn’t it? A film where you never even see the aliens. It’s clever because it’s also about what it is to be human, and how the apes become human by murdering. Then how HAL the computer becomes human by murdering. It’s an interesting philosophical position for the film to take.
For more on Cox, visit alexcox.com
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