Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Revenger's Tragedy

Alex Cox's 2007 'microfeature' Searcher's 2.0 is currently available to watch on the BBC iPlayer and I personally recommend that everyone who has the chance take the opportunity to watch it before it disappears on 1st October.

Alex Cox is a unique voice in British cinema. An eccentric writer/director who makes most of his movies in the United States and is one of a very rare breed of genuinely independent filmmakers who has zero involvement with the big six Hollywood studios (more on which, later). Excepting his UCLA Film School project Edge City/Sleep is for Sissies, Cox's first feature film was cult favourite Repo Man (1984), starring Emilio Estevez as a 'punk' kid inducted into a seedy underworld populated by hoods, gangsters, spooks, aliens, conspiracy nuts and a mad nuclear scientist driving around LA with a neutron bomb in the trunk of his car. It was the critical and commercial success of his next film, however, Sid & Nancy (1986), about the drug-addled relationship between Sex Pistols 'bassist' Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, which brought Cox to the attention of the Hollywood producers he would later alienate.

The suits even offered Cox the chance to work on one of their big budget star vehicles, a film about three hapless actors mistaken for the heroic gunslingers they portray on screen who are then tasked with protecting a Mexican farming village from a gang of vicious banditos. Cox asked if he could rewrite the script. The studio refused. The Three Amigos (1986) (heard of it?), directed by John Landis, starring Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short, went on to be one of the highest grossing films of the year. In its stead, Cox made Straight to Hell (1987), a spoof Spaghetti Western starring Joe Strummer, Shane McGowan and Courtney Love, which tanked.

What happened next was probably the decisive moment in Alex Cox's career. With six million dollars in financing from Universal Studios, Cox set about making a film about 19th century American filibuster William Walker, a man who invaded Mexico and declared himself President of Nicaragua shortly thereafter. Cox gained the support of the Nicaraguan government and the Catholic Church for his film which drew direct political parallels with contemporary American interventions in Latin America, specifically CIA funding of the Contras and other anti-Sandinista rebels. The notoriously conservative film establishment reacted badly, Cox alienating just about every Hollywood money man in the process.

So, that is the background.

Searchers 2.0 itself is a comedy drama about two out of work B-movie actors who travel across America to Monument Valley in order to enact revenge on a sadistic screenwriter. The film contains numerous allusions to 1956 John Ford classic The Searchers, about a racist Confederate war veteran called Ethan Edwards (John Wayne in one of his best and most daring roles) and his search for his young niece and the Comanche tribe which abducted her four years earlier. The 2.0 part is a reference to the fact that the film was exclusively shot on digital video, to which end, Searcher's 2.0 is an effortlessly contemporary film, littered with references to George W. Bush, unemployment, Naomi Klein, popular culture, paranoia, drugs and automobile mileage.

Not nearly as explosive as some of Cox's earlier efforts, Searcher's 2.0 is a melancholy film about two older men who find a sense of purpose in their morally dubious quest for revenge. Not to say that the film is pretentious or preachy. There is violence, swearing, surreal dream sequences and dry humour, everything is shot through with Cox's Spaghetti Western/punk sensibility and the occasional pomposity of the characters is consistently undermined – Cox has a definite knack with oft-kilter framing and memorable lines.

Be warned, the film is not a 'Film Film', to coin a very clumsy phrase. You would do well not to expect any big plot twists or sympathetic characters. The 'handles' Hollywood movies typically rely on in order to engage an audience are notably absent and, while trusting people to engage their brains might seem risky, it is also much more rewarding in the long run. The film is very cine-literate, it makes constant references to other movies and consistently breaks the 'fourth wall' with characters talking direct to camera; there are long explications about the best screen actors of all time, what constitutes a great film western and the role that revenge dramas play in a civilised society. The film's dialogue is wonderfully deadpan, closely mirroring how people actually speak, as opposed to how they speak in movies, whether they are reminiscing about old times, ordering food or pontificating on the meaning of life, the universe and everything.

A rare treat.

This post is part of the 'British Picture' - The Revenger's Tragedy - Keyword description


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