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In Features, Issues

THE COMEBACK OF ALEX COX
Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Long Take.

By Peter Broderick

Alex Cox is back, having just begun Act Two of his filmmaking career. The intermission between acts was so long–four years–that many people doubted he would ever be heard of again. Act One began brilliantly. Cox burst into prominence with Repo Man, his first feature, which became a sleeper hit. He then made Sid and Nancy, which received as much critical claim as Repo Man. He then knocked off Straight to Hell, a variation of the spaghetti western that no one seemed to like. Next he shot Walker in Nicaragua, a historical epic that was neither a commercial nor a critical success. He then seemed to vanish without a trace.

Cox appeared this September at the Toronto Film Festival where his new feature, Highway Patrolman (El Patrullero), was having its world premiere. I had glimpsed Cox once in the interim; in London during the Summer of 1991 I saw him give an extremely perceptive introduction to Badlands on a BBC2 film series called "Moviedrome." Given the chance to interview him in Toronto, I was eager to learn where he had been and why he had come back.

How had he spent the four years between shooting Walker in 1987 and filming Highway Patrolman in 1991?

"I worked on screenplays and thought about filmmaking. The first couple of years were very frustrating. I could have worked, but not on my own projects. I was asked to do both Robocop movies and other things I was very uncomfortable with, including Three Amigos and Annie II. If I had done one of the Robocop movies, I would have achieved financial security."

Of the screenplays he worked on, "The best thing I wrote during that period was Dr. Strange, which I developed with Stan Lee."

After Walker, Cox, who is a British citizen, lived in Spain. Since 1990 he has been based in Mexico City. The years between features and his distance from the film business gave him a valuable new perspective. He saw more clearly the "unresolvable contradictions of filmmaking." As he puts it, "It can be creative, making you buoyant and happy, and it can be destructive of personality and soul." Cox continues, "I became aware of a certain process that often happens to a director. One can become impatient and very arbitrary. On Repo Man and Sid and Nancy, I felt I behaved badly, that I had lost a degree of humanity. I sensed the brutalization of filmmaking and being a director, which can involve a lot of hierarchy and unnecessary cruelty. If you are protected by a large corporation, you can do whatever you want–even kill some kids–and get away with it."

During this period, Cox also had plenty of time to think "about how to tell a story, and develop a style. My first four features were each made in different styles. If I’d kept making a film a year, I wouldn’t have developed a new style." He saw Rob Tregenza’s Talking to Strangers (shot in extremely long takes) and was inspired to "develop a more austere and rigorous approach." He chose a style with long takes, no unnecessary cutting, and no close-ups. "I was committed to shooting each scene in its entirety in a single take. Viewers react in a different way, because they are offered the choice of who to watch. It isn’t all mediated by a dull, reactionary editing style. It is the difference between cooking your own food and eating at McDonald’s." To prove that this wasn’t a style limited to avant-garde filmmakers, he cited Marx Brothers’ films ("shot in single takes") and Casablanca (done mostly in two- or three-shots, not close-ups.)

Cox’s first chance to use this new style came on Highway Patrolman, a feature shot in Spanish with a Mexican cast and crew that was financed by the Japanese (Cable Hogue and Marubeni). Cox noted that "as a filmmaker, I’m a lot more seriously regarded in Japan than in the U.S.," and explained that the film’s backers "viewed it as a Samurai movie."

Costing little over $1 million (which made it the most expensive Spanish-language feature ever shot in Mexico), the film tells the story of an idealistic highway patrolman’s encounters with the darker realities of his new career. Cox pulls no punches in his portrait of "law and order," and challenges viewers to decide to how they would solve the moral dilemmas that the protagonist faces. Inspired by the experiences of a former Mexican highway patrolman, the script was written by Alex’s partner, Lorenzo O’Brien (who produced Walker and Highway Patrolman). The film was shot in Mexico during the summer of 1991. Cox was impressed by the professionalism of the Mexican cast and crew. Shooting in long takes, he didn’t get stuck in coverage. "We just had to get it right twice, with one take for protection."

He was so pleased with his crew that he used them again on his next film, Death and the Compass. With a script by Cox based on the famous Jorge Luis Borges story, this one-hour film starring Peter Boyle was shot in March 1992, for the BBC. Although filmed in Mexico, it was done in English. Cox used the same style of long takes, and "only shot one close-up." Having completed Death and the Compass, he is now writing a feature about Che Guevara.

Cox would like to remain based in Mexico for several reasons. He enjoyed working with his Mexican crew. He enjoyed working with his Mexican crew, the first time he has ever done two films with the same crew. He feels that Mexico’s independent film sector is thriving. Contrasting the state of British cinema (which "has gone a bit defunct") with that of the Mexican cinema, he explained that Mexican filmmakers don’t have the same temptation to go to the U.S. and work because of the lack of a common language.

His feelings about Hollywood filmmaking are deep. "Hollywood exists to make the American public hate foreigners, prepare for war, love the police, and to encourage Yuppies to have babies, which were also the goals of the film industry of the Third Reich." Although he remembers, "that the American cinema was the best in the world when I was growing up," he believes that "the increased control by multinationals and the vast expense of American films have encouraged a more cynical and mercenary attitude." The only recent exceptions he cited were JFK, Do the Right Thing, and Dick Tracy (a non-naturalistic film not enslaved to a mundane concept of reality, with an impressive visual imagination").

Cox did not lose his passion, enthusiasm, or talent during his four-year intermission, and he gained a great deal. He changed his perspective on directing, developed a new visual style, and found a stimulating base in Mexico. He also managed to alter his outlook–"I stopped worrying. I realized that if you don’t live in the moment, you are condemned to live in the future filled with anxiety." As the renewed Alex Cox begins Act Two of his career. The possibilities are exhilarating.

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