Saturday, January 22, 2011

Thinkin' 'bout Alex Cox's Searchers 2.0

Though it is never mentioned, a quote that appears in Wim Wenders' somewhat grim 1982 film The State of Things hangs eerily in the background of Alex Cox's Searchers 2.0.:
These people had a kind of courage that may be the finest gift of man: the courage of those who simply keep on, and on, doing the next thing, far beyond all reasonable endurance, seldom thinking of themselves as martyred, and never thinking of themselves as brave.

The quote is a sort of epigram (or is it an epigraph?) to Alan Le May's novel The Searchers, the classic western that was the basis for the John Ford film, which Searchers 2.0 is referencing in its title. While there is no reference to either this quote or LeMay's novel in Searchers 2.0, Cox's film shares with The State of Things another notable quality, as famed producer Roger Corman appears in both films (he also served as executive producer for Searchers 2.0 - Cox somewhere has quipped that he got it all backward, starting out working for Universal and ending up working for Roger Corman).

There are, in fact, more differences than connections between the two films. The State of Things is black and white, set in Portugal and Hollywood; Searchers 2.0 is in colour, filmed largely in Arizona's Monument Valley (or on the road to said location). The State of Things is a somewhat dark arthouse film, bearing no resemblance whatsover to any John Ford western; Searchers 2.0 is a slightly surreal lowbudget comedy that very much resonates visually and thematically with The Searchers, surveying the landscapes where the film was shot, and even taking us to the room where John Wayne stayed during the shoot - preserved as an historical landmark. It is filled, furthermore, with cinematic in-jokes that have little to do with Ford, for sophisticated cineastes to spot (since no one else would likely get them - I mean, you have to be paying attention to know that the French actor in The Great Silence was Trintignant, not Depardieu; I wouldn't have known this myself, prior to interviewing Cox and thus getting enthused about spaghetti westerns). Two of Cox's guests on the commentary, composer Dan Wool and sound designer Richard Beggs, theorize that people could enjoy the film without getting said in-jokes, but I beg to differ; I think that unless you're attentive to such matters, you can at best only arrive at a rather impoverished reading of the film, a slim sliver of what's actually there for viewers. If you don't know that this film is to some extent a film about films, and about how confused and limited American discourse about cinema has become, you're missing something fairly significant. It is this very self-consciousness - the extent to which both this film, and the Wenders', however different, are about cinema - that sets the LeMay quote hovering in the peripheries over the proceedings in Searchers 2.0.

In The State of Things, the LeMay quote - if indeed LeMay wrote it; it's presented as a quotation with no attribution at the beginning of his novel, so could be from some other source - precedes a dour post-apocalyptic film-within-a-film that Wenders' onscreen analogue, Friedrich (aka Fritz, played by Patrick Bauchau) is shooting in Portugal. In this film (which takes up the first ten or so minutes of the movie proper), the theme of survival - and of the cost of "keeping on" - is heavily underscored by the struggles of the survivors, many of whom fall by the wayside, succumbing to a mysterious and fatal condition and left behind by their comrades, who cannot afford to stop, lest their own desperate quest fail. This film abruptly ends - and the "real" narrative of the film begins - as the director discovers that his shoot has completely run out of money, his cameraman (played by Sam Fuller) informing him that they haven't a single frame of film left to go on shooting with. The cast and crew mill about Portugal while Fritz leaves for America to try to track down his producers and money men, to get things back on track; his journey climaxes with the discovery of one of his producers, terrifically played by Allen Garfield, hiding out in the back of a (mobile) mobile home, looking sleepless and unshaved. Garfield sings a very cynical and despairing song about Hollywood, and reveals to Fritz that the film was backed by mob money; some problem with the deal has left him a fugitive. The final images, which I won't describe (but which can be seen on Youtube without audio, if you like), are among the grimmest in Wenders' canon, suggesting (with perhaps a smidgen of self-congratulation and self-pity, belying the LeMay quote) that the survivors and martyrs Wenders means are the independent filmmakers (and other artists) of the world, who go on being creative despite the indifference, greed, cynicism and cruelty of the film business. It's a fairly effective protest against "the state of things" for independent filmmakers in 1982, and probably still quite relevant - it's been some time since I've seen it.

Searchers 2.0, by contrast, for all its self-consciousness, has absolutely no self-pity or self-regard to be seen: if Cox, who has had a far more challenged career than Wenders, ever partakes of such things, he does it offscreen, to his great credit. There is definitely a sort of "protest against the state of things" informing Cox's film, however, which seems to ask how a) American cinema and b) America itself could have gotten HERE from THERE - from the time depicted in The Searchers to now, from the Golden Age of Hollywood to the Golden Age of Spielberg and Lucas.

Digression: I'm still kind of annoyed with Ray Carney for alleging that he's
discovered an "unseen Cassavetes film" which he isn't going to tell anyone about, though increasingly I suspect that there is no such film and the whole thing is a pissed-off but pointed put-on, a "lesson" about the costs of disrespecting academics. At the same time, I practically wanted to stand up and cheer when I read the following quote about camp-Spielberg-and-Lucas, from Carney, sent to me recently by a friend, who shall go nameless:
They've sold their souls to the double devils of money and marketing. They and their work and everything else they have done have totally SUPPORTED AND ENDORSED the America-first macho-militarist views of life that has gotten us into Iraq and supported political malfeasance in the Middle East. They and their work have FOSTERED AND ENDORSED the me-first, selfish, self-centered, fiercely individualistic, ruthlessly competitive, profit-obsessed, Faustian impulses that are destroying the environment and creating global warming. They and their work have SILENTLY COOPERATED WITH the horrors of American foreign policy to disenfranchise the Palestinians and prop up the maliciousness of the Israeli government and its highly paid American lobbyists. That's what Schindler's List is really about. That's what Star Wars is really about.

How have Lucas and Spielberg used their immense cultural power? When did their work do ANYTHING to critique and change the culture of death and conquest and militarism we live in? When did you ever hear Spielberg or Lucas make a single controversial, daring, or courageous political statement--in their work or outside of it? When did they ever give one speech that ruffled feathers? Make one film that critiqued American foreign policy? They have done worse than wasted their lives; they have made careers as collaborators. Intellectual, ideological collaborators with the powers-that-be, with the way things continue to be done. There is a lot of blood on their hands. Getting booed in public is the least that should happen to them.

(To quibble, I thought that Spielberg, after being associated with Michael Jackson and being portrayed as a sexual sadist with an interest in scaring children and/or showing them in danger in the ANSWER Me! article, "Pederast Park," was actually kinda gutsy sticking up for gay scout leaders, but, well... nevermind. Hey, didja ever notice that the hook in Hook looks strangely similar to the velociraptor claw that Sam Neill uses to demonstrate how one might disembowel a fat kid, in the first Jurassic Park movie? Is menacing kids with hook-shaped sharp objects an actual MOTIF in Spielberg's cinema? If so, where could THAT have come from? ...but I digress yet further; Carney's quote should be shouted from the rooftops of every cineplex in the country, no?).

Searchers 2.0 - made in 2007 but unreleased in North America on DVD until now - takes on, among other things, the will to REVENGE in American life and/or popular cinema (tho' as I recall, it targets Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Clint Eastwood, more than it does Spielberg or Lucas). In doing so, it somehow manages to entangle a comically misguided, revenge-driven roadtrip (two somewhat bumbling unemployed actors travelling across country with one of their daughters to kick the ass of a screenwriter who abused them - coincidentally or not, named Fritz, and played by Cox regular Sy Richardson) with the partially revenge-driven wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. There is also the role of capitalism and the oil industry to be considered, brought most sharply into focus by the bumper sticker on the back of the SUV the main characters are using, which reads, "Kick Their Ass and Take Their Gas" - apparently a real bumper sticker one used to see in the States! How deeply is Hollywood in cahoots with the military-industrial complex? Are Americans the victims of a sort of gadget-and-entertainment driven mind control, driving about in absurd gas-guzzlers in a state of self-or-otherwise-medicated denial, cut off from a perception of the world around us by a false world that has been imposed over it? What role has cinema played in bringing America to this current state, and what are we to make of that state, where people live in a fog of half-baked media references, diddling incessantly with their cellphones, nurturing private obsessions over pursuing public good, and misunderstanding pretty much everything around them? What is a filmmaker to DO in such a circumstance?

These are serious questions, raised repeatedly in the film, but the tone of the film is not serious at all. Cox regulars Ed Pansullo and Del Zamora play the two actors for comedy; the other main character, Delilah (played by newcomer Jaclyn Jonet, who has the lead in Repo Chick, Cox's newest film, coming out on DVD on February 8th) is somewhat more earnest and idealistic, but her ideals are informed, as Cox chuckles in the commentary, by two contradictory books, Naomi Klein's No Logo and Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. As they drive (repeatedly running out of gas) and bicker about cinema and politics, all of them take turns making valid points, and all of them take turns making asses of themselves - some more frequently than others, but no character really understands what's going on around them, however much they all think they do.

I'm not sure, in the end, Cox arrives at a "coherent statement" about America, or American cinema; as with the cinema of Bunuel, or even with Cox's Repo Man - which I was oddly reminded of at various points; there's a similarity of flavour, if not content - the "meaning" of the images might be best left unpacked at times ("why is that Indian golfing in Monument Valley," for example, is a question that doesn't really need a detailed, didactic answer, anymore than we need to really ask what the flying car in Repo Man signifies). Still, there is much good humour, much to think about, many effective moments, and many lovely images. It's a smallish film - shot on video on a low budget in a short time period - but it's a consistently interesting and appealing one. Those that will appreciate it best will likely be cinephiles of some sort; it should have special appeal for those of us who believe that Alex Cox is a highly significant filmmaker, a survivor in the sense of the LeMay quote, who IS labouring on quite humbly in conditions of considerable neglect, and making a far more interesting sort of cinema than what is widely available in North America today.

More on Repo Chick pending...


Anonymous said...

All I can say is, Wow! You definitely got all of what we were doing and more! How refreshing to hear an intelligent review, that understands the underlying themes and ideals of our work. I have worked with Alex Cox, a total of 9 times. He is truly, an individualist film maker. That is why he focuses on themes of individuality, which can be positive, or negative, depending on the particular person's selfishness. Yes, I concur with you, regarding your take on what Alex Cox is saying in his movies. How America, has become so selfishly self righteous and self centered, so as to lose any and all objectivity. A subjective false world, disconnected from the rest of the planet. Unable to feel, see, hear, nor comprehend that there is another whole world, outside of the USA. The USA, seems so locked into a narcissistic state, that it is slowly losing any grip of real world reality. The celebration of revenge in American Cinema, is part of this mercenary aspect of American life. Me first, screw you and all of yours, etc. The political discourse in the USA, has morphed into a cultural, social war, over who's country, it really is. Add in plenty of firearms, financial inequity, lack of opportunity, and you have the current state of the USA. A split personality country. Saying on one hand, that the USA, is the best, the brightest, the most righteous; while at the same time, displaying xenophobic behavior, denying free health services to their own citizens, entering into other country's affairs, etc. A split personality, for sure. Thanks for your most insightful review. You said it better than we could. We showed it. That is our work. You keep up your work. It heartens us, to know that some folks are also aware of what is going down. I look forward to your review for REPO CHICK, which I also star in. Thanks, again.

Del Zamora

Allan MacInnis said...

Wow, I'm totally flattered by that comment (and delighted that one of the "hermanos Rodriguez" has appeared on my blog!). Because they weren't so easy to see, it took me a long time to catch up with Alex Cox's recent films; now that I've caught up, I find his work utterly inspiring - the fact that he's gone on making such interesting films, on his own terms, makes me want to write a book about him, or somethin'; I certainly am happy to get the word out, because these are films people should see! ...I'm most eager to see Repo Chick and will indeed be writing about it. Thanks again for your comment!

By the way, an expanded version of my interview with Alex Cox is at