ATRUE "radical" filmmaker is not satisfied to merely bloviate from the red carpet or screening room. One must turn art into action.
Alex Cox is ready with a personal manifesto: He calls feature filmmaking a dying art form in the Digital Age, has open contempt for corporate Hollywood and feels kinship mainly with hackers, who have "replaced filmmakers and investigative journalists as our best cultural revolutionaries."
From the man who began his career with the 1980s cult classics "Repo Man" and "Sid & Nancy," none of this should be surprising. He aims to displease.
And so he does from the opening pages of his engaging memoir, "X Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker." The book begins with his arrival in Los Angeles in the late 1970s as a young British expat, finding inspiration at UCLA film school and the local punk-rock dives.
From there, he describes three decades of film work with the likes of Gary Oldman, Emilio Estevez, the Clash's Joe Strummer and a young, pre-fame Courtney Love.
In "X Films," Cox writes about the movies that got made, from "Repo Man" and the pro-Sandinista, historical epic "Walker" to his latest effort, the low-budget road movie "Searchers 2.0." He barely mentions the dozens of screenplays that found no takers, nor the aborted projects that crashed and burned. (Cox famously was set to direct "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" until a disastrous meeting with Hunter S. Thompson.)
Cox notes that dreams, like films, last about 90 minutes, and he writes accordingly, telling his tales of guerrilla moviemaking quickly, with breezy good humor and flashes of radical outrage.
"Repo Man" was based on his experiences riding shotgun across L.A.'s urban sprawl with a real repo man named Mark Lewis, who paid Cox $20 to drive his car home if a defaulter's wheels were successfully repossessed. They fueled up for the long nights on pre-mixed cocktails in a can.
For the film, Cox let his mind wander, inventing a story of repo cowboys, government agents and disaffected SoCal punks chasing after a '64 Chevy Malibu with a mysterious sentient force in the trunk.
Cox recounts his sales pitch and still cringes, observing the tensions between indie filmmakers and their investors: "People with spare money to invest in film are liable to have issues about their wealth, their parents; whereas independent filmmakers are apt to be political, angry, and scornful of the rich."
True enough, and there are other revelations: During casting, Harry Dean Stanton's agent tried to get Cox to instead offer his part to Mick Jagger. (He refused.)
In 1986, the director followed "Repo Man" with "Sid & Nancy," which told the sad, sickening story of Sex Pistols antihero Sid Vicious and his toxic girlfriend, Nancy Spungen. Then there was a scattered post-punk spaghetti western, "Straight to Hell," with a cast of musicians, including Strummer, Elvis Costello and the Pogues. Not even Cox thinks much of it now.
For all his radical intentions, Cox largely avoided actual political content until 1987's "Walker." It remains his proudest achievement, a beautifully photographed, tragicomic, radical epic, telling the little-known story of American military adventurer and mercenary William Walker, who conquered and briefly ruled Nicaragua in the 1850s.
Cox sees "Walker" as the moment he truly became a director, calling it "my best, my most expensive, and my least-seen film." Meant as a statement of solidarity with the Sandinista government -- and made with its cooperation -- the movie was somehow paid for by Universal, even as the Reagan administration was spending $80 million a year funding the Nicaraguan Contras. That is true radical filmmaking.
The production adopted a Sandinista slogan: "Aqui no se rinde nadie" ("Here, nobody gives up"). But there were casualties. A boy was run over and killed during the shoot, and Cox caused choking dust storms when he dumped dirt on Granada's city streets, disrupting the daily lives of Nicaraguans.
As he admits: "Was there anything worse than a pompous English filmmaker, trying to be useful to the Revolution?"
"Walker" earned a few rave reviews and many bad ones, and it was in and out of theaters in just two weeks. Cox has since produced dependably idiosyncratic films, from the tense comedy "Three Businessmen" to the gritty morality tale "El Patrullero" (a.k.a. "Highway Patrolman").
By the end of "X Films," Cox is on a road trip to John Ford's beloved Monument Valley with three high-definition video cameras and a small cast and crew to make a "micro-feature" with $180,000 of Roger Corman's money. His "Searchers 2.0." would be shot in 15 days and return Cox to the kind of DIY, guerrilla filmmaking that he'd always intended to do.
If there is any surprise in "X Films," it's not just that Cox has kept working but that he's done it without serious compromise. He has ignored the comforts and temptations of mainstream Hollywood, happily working on the margins.
Steve Appleford is a journalist based in Los Angeles.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun