Alex Cox

b. 15 December 1954, Liverpool, England

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Ever since Repo Man burst onto the scene in 1984, Alex Cox has been one of the most disruptive voices in Anglophone independent cinema. Although his public profile has diminished since he made his name in the 1980s with Repo Man and Sid and Nancy (1986), Cox has continued to work steadily, with sixteen films to his credit as of 2008. Most of these have received little attention from critics, audiences and even the director, who mentions nothing he has made post-Sid on the website for his latest film, Searchers 2.0 (2007). The worst neglect has been in the US, where his recent work is almost impossible to locate. Yet, in the past fifteen years, Cox has continued on his iconoclastic path of cinema as cultural critique, while also becoming the host of Moviedrome on English television and a prolific writer. In the latter capacity, Cox has developed an interesting voice as a public intellectual with a substantial interest in media culture, something that expands the ideological project that sustains his filmmaking.

In this overview, we look at a career that has spanned a quarter century so far. Our goal is to emphasize the politics of Cox’s filmmaking, which reflects his deep ideological commitments as an artist and activist. In each of his films, we describe the prescient commentary that Cox offered on the ills of American empire, consumerism and perverse self-mythologizing, all of which he tackled with his innovative punk æsthetic. To us, Cox is the architect of his own form of punk surrealism, equal part fantasy and anarchy, dream-imagery and youth rebellion iconography. Stylistically, he is remarkably bold, wedding the jolt of Spaghetti Westerns and low-budget road movies like Two Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman, 1971) with the æsthetic daring of European art filmmakers such as Luis Buñuel: “You may as well steal from the best”, Cox has confessed about his debt to the Spanish director. (1) Ideologically, he is one of the most significant Anglophone directors of the past three decades, for reasons we will attempt to lay out.

Cox was almost 30 when he released Repo Man in 1984. Born outside Liverpool, England, in 1954, he attended Oxford University, Bristol University and UCLA, where he wrote a smart thesis on Spaghetti Westerns and completed a student film called Edge City for under $10,000. In the early 1980s, he fell into the punk scene in Southern California, where bands like X, Circle Jerks and The Germs were gaining prominence. Cox saw a subculture movement that “encouraged anarchic tendencies because it had revolutionary expectations” (2). Repo Man would be his opportunity to bring punk energy and oppositional politics into cinema.

Repo Man (1984)

Repo Man

Repo Man took Harry Dean Stanton, a craggy-faced character actor, and Emilio Estevez, a golden child of the Hollywood élite, and inserted them into the gritty punk underworld of Ronald Reagan’s America. At its core, Repo Man is a tale of dissent against the Cold War establishment, which Cox presents as equal parts corporate capitalism and paranoid militarism.

The film begins with pulsating riffs from punk-pioneer Iggy Pop on the soundtrack. Sounding like the original Batman theme on a bad day, the song offers an ominous accompaniment to what we see rising out of the black leader: in fits and starts, the camera jerks back to reveal luminous green lines on a map of Los Alamos, New Mexico, one of the key sites for nuclear research in the US. Then, the title is scrawled in an angry red graffiti. The mapping continues through the credits, with zooms on towns like Two Guns, before stopping on the spot where the narrative will begin.

In the first live-action shot, we see an early 1960s Ford Falcon weaving on a desert two-lane. Inside the car, a fifty-something man with broken sunglasses is singing “My Darling Clementine”, an allusion to John Ford’s 1940 Western of the same title. When a motorcycle cop stops the car and searches the trunk, he is vaporised by a mysterious force. Nothing remains except his smoking boots as the car accelerates down the dusty highway. This sci-fi paranoia is the essential backdrop of the film.

Cox then introduces his sociological case study: an angry young prole named Otto (Estevez). The camera pans across a supermarket lit in depressing blue florescence – an ideal visual counterpart to the dull Muzak humming in the background. The store is stocked only with generic food as it was packaged in the 1980s: plain black lettering on a plain white background. Generic food remains a running joke throughout the film and, with it, Cox seems to allude to the generic nature of life under Cold War capitalism. Otto is stocking shelves while his dim-witted colleague, a forerunner of Napoleon Dynamite (John Heder), sings an advertising jingle (“Feelin’ 7-Up”) ad nauseum. Then Otto’s doughy, be-speckled boss appears, reminding him of the plight of “many young men of your age in these uncertain times”. When the boss keeps hectoring him about why he should be grateful for his job, Otto erupts in violence, throws his co-worker to the ground and prompts the security guard to pull his weapon. A classic rebel, Otto calmly regards the gun aimed at his chest, removes his bowtie and retreats to the subculture waiting in the streets outside.

Cox’s depiction of American punk scene is significant, because he saw it as the locus of rebellion in a complacent So Cal landscape (and his depiction provided 1980s American punk with its most visible and influential representation). Tellingly, the next scene shows a circle of punks dancing to the song “Coup d’Etat”, while a young man with shaved head marches across the screen in a Sid Vicious t-shirt with the words “I DID IT MY WAY”, an image that will resonate with a later Cox project. Otto hails him and asks him when “he got out of the slammer”, all of which serves to establish his underground bona fides.

Cox’s sense of rebellion veers toward the simplistic at times; it often requires loud music and hyper-masculine posturing. Yet Otto is an odd, and probably ironic, embodiment of resistance: with his perfect white teeth and tanned good looks, Estevez looks more Beverly Hills than southwestern punk squalor and his celebrity status may give additional force to Cox’s critique of US consumer culture. Otto sits alone with a can of generic beer and quotes the Los Angeles punk band Black Flag: “Don’t want to talk about anything else / We don’t want to know / We’re just dedicated / To our favorite show.” Shouting out the names of American television shows like The Jeffersons, The Flintstones and Saturday Night Live, Otto slams his beer to the ground and walks alone through an industrial wasteland. He has been deadened by insipid media products, just as he has been subjected to tasteless generic foods. He is a product like the food on the shelf – indeed, his unusual name, Otto, is a play on that quintessential American product, the auto, something that is made explicit by a character who laughs and asks him if his name is “Auto … Auto Parts?”

Cox continues his sharp satire of Cold War culture in the scenes of Otto’s home life, where his ineffectual parents stare like zombies at a televangelist who exhorts them to defeat “the twin evils of Godless Communism abroad and liberal humanism at home”. Otto eats from a can of dog-food-like substance marked “FOOD”, which his mother encourages him to put on a plate so that he’ll “enjoy it more”. “I couldn’t enjoy it any more, mom”, Otto replies. “Mmm-mmm-mmmm, this is swell”, he adds with a sarcasm that is lost on his parents. He asks them for money, but the parents explain that they’ve given everything to the television preacher: “We’re sending Bibles to El Salvador”, the mother says as she inhales a joint.

The misfit repo men, with their “repo code” of behaviour, form his only family. Stanton’s character says, “Ordinary fucking people – I hate them”, because of their fear of “tense situations”. The repo men, on the other hand, seek out intensity (and the sense of meaning it provides) in a way that Otto finds appealing. Like an earlier gang of misfits in The Dirty Dozen (Robert Aldrich, 1967), the repo men see themselves as a band of thieves and invite Otto to live in opposition to the status quo. The position of the repo man is significant, for he is a vulture, a scavenger, who lives off failed dreams of consumption.

Repo Man

Interspersed into Otto’s travails are X-Files-style scenes of the mad scientist in the Ford Falcon and the government agents in pursuit. In one of the moments of high fantasy that typify Cox’s approach, Repo Man ends with Otto ascending into a space ship (presaging the ending of Sid and Nancy, in which the punk rocker rides a New York taxi into the mythic haze of memory).

With his first feature, Cox had established himself as a director to watch for those whose tastes run toward the bitterly anarchic. Indeed, Repo Man has aged very well; its ideological critique still seems relevant, even prescient. And Cox’s years at UCLA paid off in terms of setting: the film captures the grimy impersonality of blue collar LA in a way that few films have equalled. Cox also put together an extraordinarily rich soundtrack that featured some of the best punk of the early 1980s, as well as some multicultural elements that were quite rare in 1980s filmmaking (i.e., the repeated use of conjunto music on the soundtrack, as well as the visual emphasis on Hispanic and Asian cultures in LA).

Sid and Nancy (1986)

Cox achieved his commercial breakthrough with his next film, Sid and Nancy, and he did so without artistic or political compromise. Far from selling out, Cox retained his signature punk surrealism while working with at his most mainstream in terms of narrative structure and characterization, not to mention mass-market distribution. Sid and Nancy is the story of a dim addict who is hailed as an avatar of authenticity (i.e., he signifies real rebellion in the film, while older rock stars supposedly represent decadence and compromise). Continuing his interest in resistance from Repo Man, Cox paints Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) as Otto in overdrive.

In his classic look at the literary culture in Europe between the world wars, Malcolm Cowley epitomized the Dadaists as the masters of the “significant gesture”, an almost random outburst against authority that resonates with a generation. He describes the Dadaists as a literary movement of great “childishness and audacity” that “played violently with art and politics” (3). (Cowley describes his own version of the “significant gesture” – punching a Parisian barkeep. (4))

Cox depicts the incoherent Vicious as the unwitting author of “significant gestures” against the enervating consumer culture of late 1970s England; even though Vicious doesn’t know what he is doing, his actions seem to resonate with a titillated public. “We don’t fucking care”, he blurts out with his bass on his lap. “No!”, John Lydon/Johnny Rotten (Andrew Schofield) corrects. “No ‘fucking’ – it’s just ‘We don’t care!’” Lydon is shown as a punk self-promoter of considerable charm and savvy, the man who puts a little substance into Vicious’ vacuous pronouncements. (The real John Lydon detested Cox’s depiction: “It was all someone else’s fucking fantasy, some Oxford graduate who missed the punk rock era”, he claimed in his autobiography. (5))

Cox’s Sid Vicious is no mythic monster of punk mayhem; instead, Cox gives us a lost young man of limited talent who stumbles into pop stardom as a boorish anti-hero.

Sid and Nancy

Despite his acts of violence, Sid is not shown as a vile creature: he tries (unsuccessfully) to vacuum his mother’s apartment, and there are scenes of considerable tenderness with his drugged-out American groupie girlfriend, Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb), who he eventually abuses and murders. Cox tracks Sid across an earlier landscape, that of romanticism and the cult of the artist-rebel. As Malcolm McLaren (David Hayman) puts it in the film, “[Sid] embodies the dementia of a nihilistic generation.” Fittingly, Sid and Nancy promise that they will “go out in a blaze of glory”, as Cox alludes to both gangster movies and the tradition of the poet maudit. With a heavy dose of bathos, the film presents Sid Vicious as a postmodern Rimbaud: a drugged out artist heading to an early grave.

In Cox’s work, punk seems like a logical response to the crisis of authority in the West in the 1970s. Ennui-riddled children of disintegrating families, a decadent arena-rock culture and dingy consumerist squalor, Vicious and his mates have given up on the ideals of the dominant culture. “I’ll never look like Barbie”, Spungen complains as she surveys her pale, needle-damaged legs. “Barbie doesn’t have all these bruises.” In opposition to the Barbie ideal, Cox emphasizes the grossness of bodies and their various fluids, such as Rotten’s squeezing of pimples in front of an opulent hotel suite’s mirror, the incessant gobbing of pogoing audiences, and the oozing blood on Sid’s chest where he has scratched his girlfriend’s name. Sid and Nancy cannot look up to their elders, not even in the realm of rock music. When a wealthy rock star tries to claim a family relation with the Pistols while pedalling ludicrously on a stationary bike (“They call me the granddaddy of punk”, he brags implausibly), Sid is too distracted to respond. Always more alert, Rotten takes swig of whisky and says it all: “Fuck you!”

Ultimately, however, the vacuous Vicious has nowhere to go except into pop mythology. His childish, inchoate mind keeps him fixated on the drugs and violence associated with American culture (his American girlfriend hooks him on heroin and they play with guns and knives in several scenes), and he is ultimately a cipher who spouts whatever lines are suggested to him. He is the perfect emblem of a postmodern era in which the play of surfaces conceals the emptiness within. Herein lies one of Cox’s main points in the film: Vicious provides him with a case study in the commodification of dissent. As Sid performs Sinatra on a faux-Vegas stage, he pulls out a huge chrome pistol and stares down an audience, surreally composed of aristocrats and French police, who shower him with money and affection. Sid shoots the audience, including his girlfriend, Nancy, who is the only person to get up unharmed and walk onstage as the lights fade. Later Sid promises to “go out in a blaze of glory” in an adolescent fantasy inspired by Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967). Cox’s punks employ a rhetoric of radical autonomy, of “the great refusal”, yet only Rotten seemed to realize his dependence on the corporate media machine that he mocked (Vicious could only shoot wildly at it). Cox suggests that the Sex Pistols intuitively positioned themselves as lucrative culture jammers of the Society of the Spectacle, cleverly hawking themselves as the ultimate refusniks.

Location is always crucial to Cox’s films and Sid and Nancy is no exception. The film is about America as much as the UK. Like all of Cox’s films in the 1980s, Sid and Nancy include scenes from the American southwest, as we see the Pistol’s tour bus crawling across the desert, a trip that, for reasons that make no geographical sense, culminates in Atlanta. “A great tour for a great country”, an insipid journalist tells Rotten, who replies with disgust, “Yeah, it’s lovely … It’s America.”

Sid and Nancy

Significantly, Cox’s film takes a surrealist turn in America. Fantasy first appears when McLaren protects Sid from attackers with nothing more than his fingers in the shape of a gun, which produces real gunshots on the soundtrack. America, land of cowboy violence and Vegas crooners, is at the heart of Cox’s look at pre-Margaret Thatcher: the film begins in NYC, follows the American Nancy as much as Sid, crosses the American landscape, and ends with Sid as Sinatra. When Sid meets an annoying American in Paris, he spews vomit on the man’s shoes while an American gasps behind the most terrifying orthodontic brace this side of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985). “You’re going to make someone a lot of money, Sid”, the American predicts, and Cox cuts to Vicious on-stage in an expensive mockery of Sinatra’s most famous song.

Cox rounds out the film with scenes of Sid and Nancy in America, devouring B movies and expressing a genuine enchantment with American culture. Yet America continues its poisonous affect on Vicious, with one exception that reflects Cox’s politics. The only good advice Sid Vicious receives comes from various African Americans – a sympathetic cop, a savvy clerk at a methadone clinic, and three ebullient kids who tell him “stop being so stuck up” and dance. At the end, Sid treads down a train tracks with the Twin Towers looming in the background, looking for a slice of pizza while (problematically) dancing with black kids. Then he sees a taxi with the now-dead Nancy smiling in the back seat. The film ends with the punk Romeo and Juliet disappearing into the smoggy NYC sunset together.

Like Repo Man, Sid and Nancy has a remarkable richness of texture: everything from ratty t-shirts to background graffiti looks right. Moreover, Cox elicits very strong performances from his cast, most notably from a young Gary Oldham (but not the awful Andrew Schofield performance as Lydon), and continues his ability to bring together sharp cinematography, riveting underground music and subversive political commentary. A better film about Vicious and his world could hardly have been made, which may be why his subsequent project was such a disappointment to audiences and critics.

Straight to Hell (1987)

Straight to Hell

Straight to Hell was a missed opportunity for Cox to do something meaningful with the Mexi-Western framework associated with Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. Certainly, his timing was right. Cox was years ahead of Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino and other directors who became “ironically retro” in the 1990s. “Somebody else owes us a debt of gratitude”, co-writer Dick Rude complains on the director’s commentary of Straight to Hell, noting that he and Cox were the first to reinvigorate the ironic killer in black suit, white shirt and skinny tie.

Unfortunately, the film leans too much on its sartorial flair. Despite some brilliant cinematography, clever moments of homage and quirkily appealing performances, Straight to Hell is all dressed up with nowhere to go. As in most of Cox’s films, Straight to Hell contains more politics than might be first apparent. However, Straight to Hell is unlike his best films: on a dusty Spanish set that once belonged to a grade-B Charles Bronson production, Cox created an incoherent allegory of empire, a victim of too much spontaneity in production and too little sober consideration about how to sustain an ideological critique underneath jokey, stylish exterior. (Perhaps the lone silver lining is that the film’s emptiness and incoherence provide their own pleasure.)

The film was treated as a lark from the start. When Sid and Nancy was showing at Cannes in 1985, Cox spent a long drunken evening with actor-writer Dick Rude and cinematographer Tom Richmond. Shortly before dawn, several of the men went to their hotel’s pool, where they lounged in black suits dripping with sweat – an image that Cox replicated at the start of Straight to Hell.

Despite its comical elements, Straight to Hell was a prelude to the more serious Walker (1987) for Cox, who wanted to make a film in a Spanish-speaking country. (6) Cox claims the film had its origins in a rock tour that he was arranging with The Pogues, Joe Strummer and other musicians, who would travel to Nicaragua to show their solidarity with the Sandinistas. (7) “Tragically,” Cox says, “we hadn’t raised the money for the rock and roll tour.” Shooting a feature in Spain was last-minute alternative to the Nicaraguan tour, but it required that the writing of a script on short notice. “And that’s why it was written very quickly”, Cox admits, “and that’s why it’s full of rock stars.” An almost unrecognizably young Courtney Love, years before her 1990s stardom, plays a character not unlike Nancy Spungen – an inebriated and unsympathetic blonde. The title of the film came from a The Clash song, whose lead singer, Joe Strummer, was the single non-American among the four characters. Physically, the film was shot in a punk vision of the US-Mexican border. Befitting his Spaghetti Western obsession, Cox used a set that had been constructed for a Charles Bronson Western, Valdez, il mezzosangue (aka Caballos salvajes, John Sturges and Duilio Coletti, 1973), in Almeria, Spain. Cox had it furnished with black-velvet Elvis posters and other items shipped from Tijuana, Mexico, to give it a suitable border feel.

The film is a dark satire of innocents abroad, of bumbling Americans running amok with guns and money across Latin America (and, in this sense, Straight to Hell anticipates Walker). Alluding to the Rambo character that Sylvester Stallone made popular in the 1980s, a Latino shop-owner poses shirtless with ammo around his neck, oversized machine gun in hand and knife clenched in his teeth. The spoofing of American power does not end there. The film saves its most vicious moment for its resident American idiot: the all-American hot dog vendor who constantly sings advertising jingles. However, the most potent figure of Americanism über alles is the oil man played by Dennis Hopper, who comes to the desolate town that “needs sprucing up a bit … a 7-11… AM-PM mini-mart … [it would] be just like America. Of course there will have to be some changes.”

Cox’s vision of American “progress” puts the emphasis on raw violence and, accordingly, the oilman instigates “some changes” with machine guns he pulls from an electric guitar case. After bullets destroy the town, oil derricks are built ever closer to its heart. (Characteristically, Cox makes the only survivor the African American bank robber). The brute force of capitalism has won out. In the final scene, we see a huge sign for FARBEN OIL over a pile of dead bodies in the back of a pick-up. “The oil company has come to town … only the cops and the gravediggers remain.” As if to undercut the gesture, Cox said in his DVD commentary: “And who’s been behind the whole thing? This is obviously an anti-capitalist, anti-world trade political parable.”

Stylistically, the film gestures consistently to Spaghetti Westerns. As Cox sets his violent anti-heroes against equally violent villains, he relies on extreme close-ups of maniacal laughter and grotesque facial expressions, repetitive music cues that are both eerie and irritating, dusty vaquero costumes and a production design that emphasizes a desolate wild west location seemingly outside the bounds of law or nation (though presumably Northern Mexico, somewhere along the US border). Even the titles allude to those used in the opening of Per qualche dollari in più (For a Few Dollars More, Sergio Leone, 1965). (8)

Unfortunately, Straight to Hell is less than the sum of its allusive parts: the film is lost in homage, a postmodern dead-end of pastiche and parody. Yet, underneath the mayhem is the usual political twist that Cox gives his work: the power behind the scenes is named “I. G. Farben”, an allusion to the inventor of death-camp gas, Zyrkon-B. As played by Dennis Hopper, this smiling merchant of death is the quintessential capitalist: he is an American oilman whose name provides a bookend to the film. “Farben” appears on the gasoline pumps that the bank robbers use to launch their ill-fated journey, while the film ends with Farben’s oil wells having triumphed over the town. Capitalism über alles is Cox’s sardonic observation in a film that missteps but to no great loss. The stakes were not nearly as high as in his next film, a project that aimed its satire at the arrogance of US power in the Cold War.

Walker (1987)

In the 1850s he became as famous as Elvis Presley or Muhammed Ali were in their heydays […] He had all the accepted virtues: he was a doctor and a lawyer, a God-saluting, mother-worshiping Protestant who was also a firm patriot and zealous defender of his country’s principles. And, as a wildly popular man of action, Walker was capable of betraying his principles without blinking an eye.

– Rudy Wurlitzer (9)

Cox followed Straight to Hell with a controversial film that made him persona non grata in Hollywood and perhaps most clearly defines the difference between two different points de caption: at one point is Cox and the revolutionary politics through film, and at the other is Cox and the Hollywood machine. Unfortunately, these two points attempt to remove each other. Arguably, the Hollywood machine can tolerate politics, but only if it does not threaten the system itself. Walker clearly overstepped that boundary. Whether the æsthetics of the film are successful or not is one discussion, but the failure of the film as political spectacle is central to understanding the difference between a punk/DIY attitude as a critical perspective and the same as a marketing ploy. Cox’s inability to fold the former into the latter might be the best way to understand the strengths and weaknesses of this film.

Walker tells a biographical tale of the confluence of idealism and political power. William Walker, who is played by Ed Harris with an intriguing combination of self-assurance and delusion, becomes the personification of ‘manifest destiny’. Supported by the resources of the industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt (Peter Boyle), Walker transforms Vanderbilt’s desire for stability into a mission of conquest. He moves into and through Nicaragua, installs himself as its president and proceeds to slaughter its people if they conflict with his will. Unfortunately for Walker, he eventually becomes non-essential to the advance of industry and, once his efforts in Nicaragua fail, he is left to be caught and executed by the Hondurans. Cox tells this story with a combination of resources that challenge the audience: the sense of humour and irony from Repo Man, the Italo-Mexi-Western sensibility of Straight to Hell and the ambiguous anti-hero(ics) of Sid Vicious.

Walker presents this as a critique of the Ronald Regan-era policies toward Latin America in general, and Nicaragua in particular. Caught between the ‘War On Drugs’, immigration fears focused particularly on Central and South American folks, and the fears of the spread of Marxist-Socialist thinking in the region, US foreign policy stopped short of overt expressions of ‘manifest destiny’, but aggressively provided support for regimes that advanced American industrial interests. These policies were advanced as the expansion and support of democratic principles, but they would consistently align the spread of democracy with the spread of privatization and global capital interests.


Film scholar Tony Shaw has described Walker as “one of the fiercest single cinematic assaults on US foreign policy” (10). But Shaw suggests that ill-conceived anachronisms and other design flaws resulted in an ambitious muddle of a film about 19th century American adventurer-imperialist William Walker. Working within Hollywood, Cox tried to create a radical revision of US intervention in Latin America, as well as a surrealist take on the genre of historical filmmaking. Quite understandably, audiences were mystified by the appearance of helicopters and limos in 1850s Nicaragua, for two reasons: (1) Cox did not weave such anachronisms consistently through the first half of the film, and (2) he imbued the film with a solemn tone that could not accommodate such surprises. The film feels like satire trapped at the bottom of the sea, where the jokes cannot breathe under the waves of political “meaning”. What might have worked with the wry, lighter tone of Repo Man seems more ambiguous in Walker, where Cox accelerates the sort of leftist politics that define his work when humour is not at the fore. His co-writer, Rudy Wurlitzer, had worried that Cox would produce a “pretentious message film” (11). His anti-imperialist sentiment was noble, but Cox failed to connect with audiences on one of the most pressing issues of Cold War culture: the US involvement in Latin America. Instead, audiences turned away, while mainstream reviewers such as Roger Ebert dismissed the film as a “pointless and increasingly obnoxious exercise in satire” (12).

From a longer-range perspective, Walker might be due for some re-assessment. The Criterion Collection is preparing a DVD release of the film for 2008, which might spark new debates about the effectiveness of the film. A generous critic might wonder if Walker was simply ahead of its time; perhaps a surreal fable about the arrogance of American empire will find a more receptive audience in the age of endless Iraqi occupation. If so, then a more prescient response came from The New York Times’ Vincent Canby, who in 1987 deemed the movie “a hip, cool, political satire that’s almost as lunatic as the title character” (13).

Highway Patrolman (1991)

In 1991, licking his wounds after the commercial and critical failure of Walker, Cox released a low-budget Spanish-language feature called Highway Patrolman. “I had resisted doing a police film for a long time, precisely because I couldn’t stand that kind of position”, Cox said. “But then I became interested in such a story after talking to a guy who had been a policeman in Mexico.” What interested him was the theme of decency being corrupted, or, as Cox puts it, “a story about how the idealistic story of being a policeman gets beaten down” (14). The film begins with several shots of a police car tearing through the streets of Mexico City. Other than the location, the scene comes off like something from a 1980s American cop show like Hunter.

Like many of Cox’s films, the film is filled with interesting cameos, in this case by Mexican actors. (In his director’s comments on the DVD, Cox claimed that the film was like “The Towering Inferno of Mexican cinema” because of its star-studded cast.) With long shots (and almost no cutaways), Cox follows un patrullero, the patrolman of the title, as he confronts the corruption of the Mexican drug traffickers and petty bureaucrats. As his luck goes from bad to worse, the patrolman seems to embody Cox’s notion “about the impossibility of ever behaving properly or achieving anything” (15). Even in this context, however, Cox makes a humanistic appeal for decency, even when circumstances discourage it.

In this film, the most salient circumstance is history, in particular the relationship of Mexico to the US. In an interview, Cox has claimed that Mexicans exhibit a special decency “no matter [they] are abused by their powerful neighbour to the north” (16). In a quiet way, Highway Patrolman succeeds in making the ideological critique that failed in Walker: it indicts the violence born of capitalist greed and a delusional American empire, as well as its corrosive effects on the individual.

Death and the Compass (1992 and 1996)

Death and the Compass

Death and the Compass offered Cox the opportunity to adapt a piece of literature for the first time. The film is based on a short story (originally titled “La Muerte y la brújula”) by Jorge Luis Borges, first published in Sur in 1942, but not translated into English until 1954. This was the middle of a trilogy of detective stories Borges wrote, and was published precisely 100 years after “The Mystery of Marie Roget”, the middle of Edgar Allen Poe’s Auguste Dupin trilogy of stories. While Poe offers the detective frame for Borges’ story, the sense of enclosure in a labyrinth inside a nightmare comes from Franz Kafka.

Cox was offered the opportunity to make the film through the BBC, which asked if he would be interested in directing a version of “La Muerte y la brújula” as their “contribution to a ‘strand’ of Borges teleplays in connection with the 500th Anniversary of the Spanish Invasion of the New World” (17). The film currently in circulation was actually completed in two phases. The first phase was a film shot in 1992 as a 55-minute version, which was screened on Spanish television and on the BBC. Additional material was shot a year later to work toward a feature version. But a lack of post-production funds and some confusion over the theatrical feature rights put the completion of the feature version on hold.

Rights issues were a labyrinth unto themselves. The feature rights to the story were held by a producer in Spain, and Mexican- and Japanese-rights problems needed to be worked out before the feature version could be completed. Film negative elements were in Mexico, in London, in Los Angeles and Seattle. These issues were finally resolved, and the 96-minute film was completed and screened in Fall 1996. It is this version that was released on DVD.

The film works in a cabalistic process between sets of three and sets of four. There are three central characters at the centre of the story, and each has a colour code that works like a leitmotif and clues viewers into their psychic states. Treviranus (Miguel Sandoval), the police chief, is coded and dressed in yellow. He possesses the most direct relationship to the audience, whom he addresses directly. He speaks to the audience in a series of scenes set late in his life, as he looks back to the past to the point where the central action … the series of murders … takes place.

Treviranus tells the story of the last case of a master detective, Erik Lonnrot (Peter Boyle), who is coded and dressed in a bright blue. His nemesis is master criminal Red Scharlach, whose dresses in red.

These three primary characters/colours/forces are brought together as the result of a series of murders: first, of a Jewish scholar in a hotel, and then of a local political hack. Clues are left at the scenes that indicate to Lonnrot that the crimes are the work of a Jewish cabalistic cult, committing blood sacrifices. Treviranus wants the case closed quickly, wants to avoid the speculation (one might practically hear him call it “mumbo-jumbo”), but whether this means the murder is actually solved or not is a separate issue altogether.

Lonnrot, on the other hand, finds the most reasonable explanation to be “possible, but not interesting”. His interests are more æsthetic than practical, a fact that is not lost on Scharlach.

A fourth character appears through most of the film to be of great importance, named Alonso Zunz (Christopher Eccleston), a character who Cox took out of another Borges story and deposited here. But this fourth character is a deception, since Zunz turns out to be Red Scharlach himself.

The deceptive slip from three to four and back again happens in the murder sequence as well. After the second murder of a local politician, the third murder is committed but no body is found. Lonnrot’s dedication to the compass and the cabalistic cult explanation (three murders, in the North, East and West) leads him to the fourth compass point (the South) and the four-letter code-name of God (JHVH). But the third murder was a fake, a pose perpetrated by Zunz/Scharlach.

The eventual killing of Lonnrot at the hands of Scharlach becomes the third murder … or perhaps, one could argue, a kind of analytic suicide committed by Lonnrot to the extent that he and Scharlach are doubles. Each is motivated by revenge for a past wrong. Lonnrot wants revenge for the murder of another detective (a blind detective called “Borges”) at the hands of Scharlach. At the same time, Scharlach is looking to avenge the killing of his brother at the hands of cops led by Lonnrot.

These actions take place in a Western urban environment that has clearly moved to a state of decadence. The police are routinely asked to clean up the torture room when they are done using it; Treviranus (whose name suggests the inhabitant of the Roman city of Trier (18)) has a scene where he appears before some investigative body, offering testimony that stonewalls the true circumstances of Lonnrot’s death. Treviranus is a police captain more concerned with the view from the police department’s new facility than in solving the murders that Lonnrot is investigating.

Borges story briefly mentions the notion of the Janus head, the face that looks both toward the past and to the future. Cox’s film demonstrates a playfully similar take on time. The outer frame story, narrated by Treviranus, is a narration from memos in the present. The story he tells, of Lonnrot and Scharlach, takes place in the past; the past is motivated by a point even further in the past where the grudges between Lonnrot and Scharlach find their origin.

Death and the Compass

But beyond the story, the style Cox chooses plays with time as well. The city of the film seems further removed into a future of oppressive police and crime-ridden streets. At the same time, the vibrant costuming (in yellow, red, and blue) and the synthesizer musical score evoke a late 1990s echo of the mid-1980s. In Cox’s vision, the future and the past surround us in the present, like the spirals of the labyrinth.

Finally, it is the character of the labyrinth that explains the situation of these incidents. In the same way that Kafka’s existential nightmares can transcend whatever present one might briefly associate with them, the trap set for Lonnrot by Scharlach is as much a rat’s maze that Lonnrot boldly moves into. He proceeds in the case without “backup”, only to be trapped as a result of his own analytical pursuits. Once he has realized his time is up – trapped on a dais at the centre of an enormous spiralling labyrinth – he discovers that his thoughts move forward in time to the next inevitable meeting between Scharlach and himself. He asks that, in their next meeting, that the labyrinth be a straight line. This would indicate the idea of the labyrinth of time, a line that waits for no individual, where the idea of not getting caught in one’s own circumlocutions might be possible.

The Winner (1996)

The Winner is an Alan Smithee film, according to its director Alex Cox. But the film itself, as released on VHS by Lions Gate/Live Home Video, lists Cox as the director. So it goes.

There is no controversy that the film was scripted by Wendy Riss, based on her stage play, A Darker Purpose, which was produced by the group Naked Angels in October 1991. Cox was in Cannes in 1995, where he was helping to promote La Reina de la noche (1994), which he had acted in under the direction of Arturo Ripstein. He had taken the job acting in the film to make money to complete the revised version of Death and the Compass. While he was in Cannes, Cox was approached by producers who wanted to hire him to direct the film version of A Darker Purpose. He read the script and signed on, hoping that the money would assure the completion of Death.

The film, which the producers renamed The Winner, tells the story of what happens after an everyman named Philip (Vincent D’Onofrio) has a change of luck; when he had decided to commit suicide on a Sunday, he went to a second-rate casino to blow all his remaining money. But instead he won, and he kept winning every time he gambled (though this was only on Sundays).

This winning streak attracts several dodgy folks who wish to take advantage of him, including a trio of hapless grifters with almost no grifting skills, a sociopathic brother who is wanted by the law and a lounge singer named Louise (Rebecca De Mornay), who has already captured Philip’s love and his lust, and circles in to take his money. Louise is assisted by Jack (Billy Bob Thornton), who also works as muscle for Kingman (Delroy Lindo), the owner of the sleazy casino. And Louise owes Kingman money. While these themes have certain resonances with previous Cox scenarios (recall Repo Man’s memorable call, “Lets do some crimes!”), the previous sense of irony is brought to the surface and the ‘inside’ of the joke is made into a Las Vegas tragedy-in-the-making.

But the tragedy is how that irony moved from the inside of the film to the circumstances of its treatment at the hands of the producers, because of the way the film was handled once Cox turned in his final version in the early 1996. Whatever this version may have been, it was greatly re-cut and rescored by the producers. Cox’s usual accompanists, Pray For Rain, put together a score that reportedly highlighted the ironic and humorous side of the film. The newer music gave the film the feeling of a low-rent ‘caper’ film, more jazzy, but clearly less ironic. Cox describes the music as the kind “producers buy by the yard for pornos”.

The director’s cut of the film was reassembled and recombined with the original score for several screening dates in Japan, but this version is very difficult to locate. Cox disowns the version in distribution, giving it a red circle with a slash on his own website. But the film is worth considering for several different reasons. The cast includes many actors that are worth watching as they try to find a way out of their troubled hell. The photography includes several extended takes, a style of shooting that Cox has played with now and again. His sense of energy and motion in these shots is a reminder of other long take sequences: whereas Orson Welles’ conclusion to the opening shot in Touch of Evil (1958) is a bomb, the cut here lands on the low-rent performance of Louise in the Pair-a-Dice Casino. Boom.

The film has a plot that often circles back on its own paths. Kingman, the sleazy casino owner, has already had the father of Philip and Wolf killed over an unpaid debt. Although we do not see who kills Philip’s father, we can assume it’s Jack, since Philip’s father’s severed hand is deposited in Louise’s fish tank by Jack in an effort to scare Philip into giving Louise money to pay off her debt.

Las Vegas figures prominently as a backdrop to the action, but it is the mythical Vegas of a gambling ‘strip’ surrounded by dessert. It fulfils its role of a place where people become trapped in their own schemes and desires, feeding off of each other. At one point, Jack tells Kingman that things are going “as smooth as water”. Water is, of course, the thing most lacking in the desert setting, so nothing is really going well at all.

Being trapped in place is a theme that runs through many of Cox’s films and we could speculate this the trapped nature of the characters appealed to his æsthetic sense. On the other hand, as a director for hire, Cox had limited control over several aspects of the project. In part, he was caught between his lead actress (Rebecca De Mornay) and one of his executive producers (also Rebecca De Mornay). While such an arrangement is common, and becoming more common all the time as the roles of star and producer overlap, people who try to trade in critiquing the system are somewhat caught.

Cox becomes trapped in his own labyrinth with The Winner. He needs the money to keep working, so he does work that may in fact make it difficult for him to work or get money in the future. But, more important, Cox is trapped by this film because of the politics of Las Vegas. The city is in many ways a pressure valve for an American society that is partly puritanical, partly libertarian. Vegas is not a critique of the capitalist system, nor was A Darker Purpose/The Winner. The victims are tragic and comically sad, but they are not victims of a bad system as much as they are trapped in a bad pocket of a larger system. Perhaps Cox was looking for a way to further his own version of America seen in Repo Man, but the cultural politics are too situational. The first image of Vegas we see in the film is an island of buildings rising up out of the desert. At the end, Kingman throws a switch, and the last we see is the lights of the casino being extinguished, followed by the darkening of the city and finally the darkening of the stars themselves. Where the end of Cox’s films usually plug in to some larger reality – reaching across time and space to connect to other realities – at the end of The Winner the story is actually unplugged.

Three Businessmen (1998)

Cox’s Three Businessmen offered an opportunity to develop a vision of film with less financial and artistic constraints than had been the case prior to this film. This arguable gave Cox a more individual canvas on which to develop his ideas.

In the film, Bennie Reyes (Miguel Sandoval), an American who dresses like a southwestern businessman, arrives in Liverpool on some sort of undefined business trip. After a frustrating arrival, he ritually sets up in his hotel and then ventures to the restaurant for dinner. In a large, almost-empty dining room, he is sat next to the only other patron, a British businessman named Frank King (Alex Cox). They order and begin to wait. Their initial contacts are uncomfortable, with Bennie starting small talk, while Frank’s responses indicate a desire to be left alone with his newspaper (which he occasionally pauses in his reading to tear out an article, fold it and place it in his pocket). When dinner does not arrive, the two find themselves in an abandoned dining room, with the hotel’s front desk abandoned as well. They decide to solve their predicament together and set out for a place to get fed.

This leads to the main action of the film, where the two looking for a place to eat, wandering and getting lost in the Liverpool night. In fact, their circular wandering, which involves trains, busses, ferries and cabs, does more than frustrate their desires to get back to a place they can identify. Boarding a light rail train in Liverpool, they are left off moments later in Rotterdam. Eventually, their evening of wandering takes them as well to Tokyo, Hong Kong and finally to an unidentified desert. While they are lost, they remain tied to the idea that they are still in Liverpool.

Three Businessmen

In this wandering, Cox demonstrates the loneliness and alienation of the modern urban landscape. Bennie and Frank are the kind of successful travelling businessmen that the modern world was built to suit. They certainly in their own ways demonstrate a kind of entitled expectation about the world(s) they move through. But they are also quite sad figures, accomplishing little, making not much of a real connection between each other, and having no apparent connection with anything more deeply than they are connected to their newspapers, cell phones, and computer printers.

The transitions in location are not terribly obvious and a viewer might not at first notice the impossibility of the movement from one place to another. All of the locations, however, fit together in their artificially lit and coloured sameness, linked by pedestrian walkways and modes of transportation that are familiar to anyone with an experience of the modern city. These characters try to figure out where they are and where they are going, but the effort is half-hearted.

The closer they get to the desired outcome, the more their wandering takes over. They arrive at a restaurant where the table is soon piled with enormous plates of food. Frank takes one small taste, and suddenly Bennie is overcome by a panic attack that forces both of them to leave, and the food uneaten. So the potential fulfilment of desire can be just as much of a threat in this modern cityscape as the possibility of a serious relationship with another person.

Cox’s film plays with inversions of several literary notions. There is a bit of Waiting for Godot in the way the characters never seem to get anywhere near there goals. There is also something of an inverted picaresque style to the story, following these characters on their travels. But they are less the rogue (picaro) than a typical picaresque hero, and survive less on their own wits than the cradling familiarity of one urban landscape that suddenly becomes another.

The film also brings to mind the notion of the wandering flâneur, who aimlessly moves about to experience the city. But, again, this requires a level of engagement that neither Bennie nor Frank demonstrates. They are in the city on business, and their travels are a more impulsive gratifying of material needs than a collecting of urban observations.

The end of the film brings in the third businessman, Leroy (Robert Wisdom), who is already wandering in the desert, though he is convinced he is in Chicago as much as Bennie and Frank are convinced they are still in Liverpool. The three find themselves in a small desert town, shot in the same location as the concluding sequence of Leone’s Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars, 1964), where they are finally able to enjoy a meal prepared by Josefina (Isabel Ampudia), a Latina “businessman” (who says to them, “Of course I speak English, I am a businessman …”). After the meal, the woman takes the three to her newly born niece. The three men, who now step into their names as kings, pass on the world to the infant, giving her money (gold), sage (incense), and … wait for it … a toy model of the Mir space station (myrr …).

And then the condition of their lives, the wandering with little connection, continues. Something a little happier and more meaningful has taken place, and the film gives a glimpse of hope in the future for better things, but the possibility of salvation will have to wait.

Revengers Tragedy (2001)

Revengers Tragedy

In 1947, Alex Cox wrote a book called Deer Hunting in Texas: A Handbook for Hunters. This is important to note because the book is not by the same Alex Cox who made the films discussed in this essay – an interesting fact in the context of Revengers Tragedy, in which binaries of misidentification are the key to opening up the film and its significance in the development of Cox’s work. Ultimately, his Revengers Tragedy is about how the difference between being the protagonist and being the antagonist can become blurred when passions drive action. The person becomes fragmented in the effort to find justice if it is allowed to author events.

The question of titles and authorship are perhaps a place to start turning the key. The birth of the play on which the film is based has many undetermined details. The Revengers Tragaedie, As it hath beene sundry times Acted, by the Kings Magesties Servants appears with some copies dated 1607 and some dated 1608. To further complicate this binary of shifting identity, the authorship of the play is still a point of contention. Some attribute the play to Cyril Tourneur, but some scholars argue that this is a result of misidentifying Revengers Tragedy when it appeared listed next to The Atheists Tragedy, which was attributed to Tourneur. Thomas Middleton is thought more recently and more frequently to be the correct author, which Cox takes to be the correct association. In one sense the lesson is to note how appearances can be deceiving, affected as they are by guilty associations.

Cox plays a game with time in this tragedy in a way that reflects the binaries that structure this work. This film incorporates many copies of the Janus face, the sentinel at the gate who connects the past to the future, located at a point of changes and transitions, perhaps even of revolutionary events. With one face, the Revengers Tragedy looks to the Anglophone past, to a period of dramatic art where one could choose language that was purple or language that was plainspoken. William Shakespeare chose the former, while Middleton opts for the latter. Out of this past, we hear speech that is direct, aggressive and specific. This is language that connects rather than obfuscates and points us to the history that might offer an understanding of what has gone wrong …

But these binaries of identification become a critical point in the ideological construction of this story of revenge. We can see Revengers Tragedy as an anti-Shakespeare posture. The well-trod paths of debate over identity and the role of monarchy, a subject that preoccupies the Hamlets and the Macbeths, is replaced by the direct thrusting commitment to revenge, to pierce the enemy not through a curtain, but in the face of the transgressor himself. Consistent with Cox’s cultural concerns, the transgression is manifested in the abuse of political and cultural power through leaders and the sexual exploitation of others. Vindici (Christopher Eccleston) uses the self-destructive forces within the family of The Duke (Derek Jacobi) as the wedge. Their desire to eliminate each other to finally seize power is exploited by the revenger as he moves through being their pimp, then their confidant, and finally their executioner.

Cox begins the film with this Chinese proverb: “Let the man who seeks revenge remember to dig two graves.” So from the start Cox is interested in the binary relationship, where the revenger and his/her target are bound like Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s slave-master, defined by the relationship and reflecting the bound nature of the other.

The opening scenes offer some preliminary images of panopticon paranoia: a satellite flies overhead, taking in images and transmitting this ‘intelligence’ to some anonymous security sector; images of the European continent, but with pieces missing, like Germany, France and some of southern England; hyperreal posters and electronic representations of a vain leader (The Duke) that take the form of projected advertisements that bring to mind both 1984 and Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) and the fractured geography of a blasted European land mass.

We arrive on Terra Firma to see a bus winding around a corner and careen into an abandoned and vandalized car. Right before the bus does its slow motion crash, we note that the bus driver looks dead; and, a moment later, as the camera takes us through the interior of the bus, we see that the driver and all of his passengers are recently murdered … until we reach the back of the bus where a hand with a wedding ring grasps a safety handle and Vindici pulls himself up out of the pile of corpses. One might suggest a connection between Vindici and The Stranger (Clint Eastwood) in High Plains Drifter (Eastwood, 1973), the hero who appears to be returning from beyond the grave to exact revenge and justice. But this would only be filtered through Cox’s interest in Westerns, not necessarily his desire to invoke Eastwood. In fact, here we can find a reflection of the binary. Cox thinks much of the Leone westerns that made Eastwood, but thinks much less of the films Eastwood has made (as he discusses in his rant in The Guardian, 25 May 2007). But is that Cox’s/Vindici’s vanity? Is it vanity that produces revenge?

Vindici’s motive is purer. He seeks to avenge the poisoning and post-mortem defilement of his wife on their wedding day at the hands of The Duke. He explains himself in a sepulchral soliloquy delivered to his deceased wife’s skull, and we hear her voice along with his, a chorus calling for revenge. This is a revenge not delivered cold, but offered with a pointed amount of energy and inertia. Eccleston’s Vindici reflects the hyperreal character of the world of decadence and corruption around him, using the desires of power to insert himself into the confidence of those in power. They are easily led to their own demise, but, as the ‘two graves’ reminds us, only at a staggering personal cost.

Despite these dark themes, Revengers Tragedy, as indicated by the missing apostrophe, is not a story possessed of a single character. All around are pulled into the cycles of deception, testing of wills and betrayals. Although this gives the film a perceivable darkness, it is a black delivered with the consistent smirk of a punk attitude (or perhaps even a critique of Emo culture, as we see the sons of the Duke covered in piercings, and Lussurioso (Eddie Izzard) decorates his face with cuts self administered with a razor). Moments of that negative dark are suddenly reversed as Cox introduces elements of sarcasm, absurdity and humour into the proceedings. While the Duke’s power over the population is reinforced through dance clubbing and ‘state’ repression, he is challenged by Lord Antonio (Anthony Booth), a rival whose greatest appeal is being “the enemy of my enemy”. Antonio communicates through his own television channels, and he and the Duke square off through a television show of a table football (foosball) game. The scene is set at a local football stadium with the same sort of hoopla as a major sporting event. This setting will serve later as the location where Vindici will pretend to assist the Duke in getting laid (‘scoring’), when the table is turned and revenge carries the game.

Revengers Tragedy

These moments of humour and irony reinforce the book-ended structure of the plot. Cox offers a cautionary tale of the cost of struggle. Ultimately, The Duke and all his sons are out of the way, and Antonio takes control. Antonio offers money to Vindici, which, like much of the rest of the ‘doubling’ that has transpired, has two meanings: it expresses Antonio’s thanks, but it also tests Vindici’s loyalty. Vindici refuses the payoff and turns to go, but it is too late. Antonio has become as The Duke, and Vindici’s whole family must be eliminated as a threat to the reigning power.

Cox concludes the film and closes the circle with a painting of the Queen (echoes of the Sex Pistols’ boat trip during the Jubilee). The image of the queen goes monochrome, then dissolves into an image of an atomic explosion. The mutually assured destruction launched through revenge is complete, and both parts of the binaries that Cox has shown us arrive in their paired graves.

Conclusion: “The Revolution Will Not Be …”

Across the work of Alex Cox one senses the potential for revolution just at the horizon. We might entertain a discussion of the ‘maturing’ of his cinematic politics, or discuss how his films reflect his having ‘grown up’. But the development of the ideas resists such a characterization, particularly given the abandonment of such thinking that happens as people who negotiate the relationships between art and culture find their search for meaning more inside the boundaries of what is done rather than the following the experimental track that seeks what could or should be done. The expansion of marketplace ideologies has overtaken much of the production of culture. To that extent, Cox’s resistance to the commodification of ideas, even when the work itself is clearly seen as a commodity, has made for challenging work in a culture that sees challenging work as less valuable.

What makes Cox’s work worth experiencing, however, is how these very themes motivate his interests. He inverts the relationship and can arguably be thought to be inverting this trend of using mechanical reproduced media to thwart historical understanding. Often enough, his subject has been the soul-eroding result of contact with commodity culture. But the æsthetic resources he places in service to this discussion are just as significant as the social politics. Rather than producing work that easily slides into genres, his work critiques the notion of genre. Rather than developing a ‘style’ that preciously reproduces particular personal affectations, his work uses the conventional materials of filmmaking to reflect back on how it works. We find many examples of uses of long takes, short quickly edited sequences and sequences that use editing to distort and compress time and space.

These decisions are both aesthetic and political. History plays a significant role in both its presence (the Mercedes and helicopters in 19th century Walker) and its absence (the history-free characters in Repo Man and Three Businessmen). The associations with punk culture can also connect Cox’s history to Greil Marcus’ idea of a secret history, as he lays out in Lipstick Traces. (19) These historical connections are critical and subversive in how they attack mainstream notions of history as a way to renegotiate the naturalization of received history. Cox might best understood as offering what Neil Weilock calls “oppositional capital” (20), where the adoption of a marginal position is connected to the value of being consciously rebellious. While Weiloch develops this notion as a way of building group identification, with Cox it becomes an expression of a sensibility that is both political and æsthetic. Cox carries in his work a conscious identification of the traditions and coding of different cinematic influences; there is a line of identity that connects The Samurai (Toshirô Mifune) in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) to Joe (Clint Eastwood) in Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars to Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy or Vindici in Revengers Tragedy. But the connections are more critical and sceptical of the possibility of reintroducing politics into an æsthetic sensibility, even if those politics are anti-social or sociopathically driven. This works because the disease under critique is not the marginal and the rebellious, but that which occupies the mainstream. Power and the power of a naturalized order are riddled with distortion and disease. Cox offers a postmodern pathology that will probably not lead to any revolution in and of itself, but will take those who choose to view his work on a satirical and engaging tour through various manifestations of the sickness.


  1. Xavier Mendik, “Repo Man: Reclaiming the Spirit of Punk with Alex Cox”, in Nicholas Rombles (Ed.), New Punk Cinema (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), p. 202.
  2. Ibid, p. 197.
  3. Malcolm Cowley, Exiles Return: A Narrative of Ideas (New York: W. W. Norton, 1934), p. 139.
  4. Ibid, pp. 169-70.
  5. John Lydon, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs (London: Hodder & Staughton, 1994), pp. 150-1.
  6. “Director’s Commentary” on Straight to Hell DVD.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Rudy Wurlitzer, Walker (New York: Perennial Library 1987), p. 8.
  10. Tony Shaw, “Our Man in Managua: Alex Cox, US Neo-Imperialism, and Transatlantic Cinematic Subversion in the 1980s”, Media History, 12:2, p. 209.
  11. Shaw, p. 213.
  12. Roger Ebert, “Walker”, Chicago Sun-Times (online), accessed 13 November 2007.
  13. Vincent Canby, “Walker, Starring Ed Harris” (1987), The New York Times (online), accessed 1 December 2007.
  14. Xavier Mendik, “Fear And Loathing in Beverly Hills: Alex Cox on Filmmaking, Film Criticism and The Hollywood Machine”, interview by Xavier Mendik (2003), Senses of Cinema, accessed 19 November 2007.
  15. Director’s Commentary, Highway Patrolman DVD.
  16. Alex Cox, El Patrullero (online), available at: http://www.alexcox.com/ dir_highwaypatrolman.htm, accessed 3 January 2008.
  17. See John Dyson, “On Naming in Borges’ La Muerte y la brújula”, Comparative Literature, Spring, 1985.
  18. Alex Cox, Death & the Compass (online), accessed 3 January 2008.
  19. Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1990).
  20. Neil Weilock, “Collective Mobilization and Identity from Underground: The Deployment of ‘Oppositional Capital’ in the Harm Reduction Movement”, The Sociological Quarterly, 43(1), 2002, pp. 45–72.


Sleep is for Sissies (aka Edge City, short, 1980)

Repo Man (1984)

Sid and Nancy (aka Sid and Nancy: Love Kills, 1986)

Walker (1987)

Straight to Hell (1987)

El Patrullero (aka Highway Patrolman, 1992)

Death and the Compass (aka La Muerte y la brújula, 1996)

The Winner (1996)

Three Businessmen (1998)

Revengers Tragedy (2001)

Searchers 2.0 (2007)


Red Hot and Blue (co-director with Percy Aldon, Jean-Baptiste Mondino and Wim Wenders, documentary, 1990)

Kurosawa: The Last Emperor (documentary, 1999)

A Hard Look (aka Emmanuelle: A Hard Look, documentary, 2000)

Mike Hama, Private Detective: Mike Hama Must Die! (tele-feature, 2002)

I’m a Juvenile Delinquent, Jail Me! (tele-feature, 2004)

Searchers 2.0 (2007)

Repo Chick (2009)

Straight To Hell Returns (2010)

Bill the Galactic Hero (2014)

Tombstone-Rashomon (2017)


Vincent Canby, “Walker, Starring Ed Harris” (1987), The New York Times (online), accessed 1 December 2007.

Malcolm Cowley, Exiles Return: A Narrative of Ideas (New York: W. W. Norton, 1934), p. 139.

Alex Cox, Death & the Compass (online), accessed 3 January 2008.

—-, El Patrullero (online), accessed 3 January 2008.

Roger Ebert, “Walker”, Chicago Sun-Times (online), accessed 13 November 2007.

John Lydon, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs (London: Hodder & Staughton, 1994), pp. 150-1.

Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1990).

Xavier Mendik, “Repo Man: Reclaiming the Spirit of Punk with Alex Cox”, in Nicholas Rombles (Ed.), New Punk Cinema (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), p. 202.

Xavier Mendik, “Fear And Loathing In Beverly Hills: Alex Cox on Filmmaking, Film Criticism and The Hollywood Machine”, interview by Xavier Mendik (2003), Senses of Cinema, accessed 19 November 2007.

Tony Shaw, “Our Man in Managua: Alex Cox, US Neo-Imperialism, and Transatlantic Cinematic Subversion in the 1980s”, Media History, 12:2, p. 209.

Neil Weilock, “Collective Mobilization and Identity from Underground: The Deployment of ‘Oppositional Capital’ in the Harm Reduction Movement”, The Sociological Quarterly, 43(1), 2002, pp. 45–72.

Rudy Wurlitzer, Walker (New York: Perennial Library 1987), p. 8.

Articles in Senses of Cinema

Interview with Alex Cox and Tod Davies by Maximilian Le Cain

Fear And Loathing in Beverly Hills: Alex Cox on Filmmaking, Film Criticism and The Hollywood Machine”, interview by Xavier Mendik

Revengers Tragedy by Maximilian Le Cain

Walker: American Neo-Imperialism and the Will to Self-Destruction by Chris Neill

Web Resources


Alex Cox interviewed by Nathan Rabin at The A.V. Club

A Repo Man Speaks Out: Mark Lewis talks to Alex Cox and Dick Rude


About The Author

Randolph Lewis teaches at the University of Oklahoma, USA.

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