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COMPANION PIECES with Alex Cox

Updated: Jun 28

Barquero (1970) / Cockfighter (1974)


For many of us growing up in Britain during the late ’80s and through the ’90s the BBC’s Moviedrome series made a huge impression. Opening our eyes to a treasure trove of cult movies and taboo subject matter; as the original presenter, filmmaker Alex Cox — with trademark British cynicism — not only introduced movies but lit a fuse. Having directed the cult classics Repo Man (1984), Sid and Nancy (1986) and Walker (1987) he is one of the original punk filmmakers who still relishes the challenge of independent filmmaking. His latest (and last) movie has just launched its crowdfunding campaign via Kickstarter. Having written 10,000 Ways to Die: A Director’s Take on the Spaghetti Western (2009), it is no surprise his “last hurrah” returns to the genre he holds so dear. Alex took some precious time out from the production to discuss a Warren Oates double bill and (modestly), his influence and influences…

 

How often are you reminded of your influence on cinephiles with Moviedrome; those of us who have grown to appreciate cinema and all its hidden obscurities? I’m thinking whether by email or events.

 

I once did a signing event at a big exhibition centre in Birmingham. They sat me next to one of the actors who played Doctor Who and we were supposed to sell autographs. Throughout the day, he sold 2,000… I sold two. But, I managed to get a lot of signatures for a petition to renationalize the railways!


In terms of how I may have influenced others, I don’t have a feeling or really think about it. Occasionally first-time filmmakers contact me (because they may need a quote for their posters) but I rarely hear from established filmmakers. Sometimes I reach out to other directors when they have done something I very much admire. Most recently, I emailed Koncholovsky praising his 2019 film Sin and he sent me a generous reply. In a more general sense, filmmaking is like an ocean in which the waves carry us to and fro. Filmmakers inspire and influence each other and are washed away in the tide.


On Moviedrome, you didn’t always necessarily like what you shared, but certainly found a nugget to highlight... at the very least. Is it the same with these two — that you are aware of both their qualities and criticism or are they held much higher than that to you personally?

 

Very few films (other than Citizen Kane) are perfect. What was amazing about Moviedrome was that I was able to actually criticize the picture — to say “This film is no good, but it has one outstanding sequence where...” The dude in the suit who introduces films on TV is supposed to be 100% positive — no matter how crappy the movie — and it was remarkable to be given the freedom to honestly critique the film. Perhaps that’s why people still remember the series and post the introductions online.

 

Have you ever been tempted to deliver something similar on your YouTube channel, recommending further films?

 

No. Copyright issues would prevent me from including clips unless (like the BBC with Moviedrome) I owned the exhibition rights.

 

What are your earliest memories of the movies?

 

Going to a cinema in Morecambe with my father, where we saw a gladiator movie that I always recall featured a dinosaur in a cave. It was an Italian/French production called Goliath and the Dragon with some stop motion of the dragon at the end. I’m sure I read somewhere that the stop motion was the last of Willis O’Brien’s work. But that story may not be true.

 

I’m interested to hear a little more about your attraction to America and their movies as a Brit.

 

I came to the US because in the UK it wasn’t possible to find work in the film industry unless you had relatives in it or did a three-year course at the National Film School. I wasn’t keen to live in London and was fortunate enough to get a Fullbright grant to go to UCLA. Of course, American films and their directors were ubiquitous then, just as they are today.

 

You have vast influences though, from Buñuel to Spaghetti Westerns and Kurosawa; your love for the latter clearly displayed in your excellent documentary Kurosawa: The Last Emperor (1999).

 

Thank you. Buñuel and Kurosawa are very specific and confident in their work. To see one of their films is almost always a lesson and an inspiration. As to what cinema is… (to me?)… well, French critics call it “le septieme art” — “the seventh art” — so, perhaps that is the best answer!

 

Do you prefer making movies or discussing your love for cinema?

 

How many people love blathering on… as opposed to working? At the end of the day, I am much more interested in making my own films than talking about other people’s. However, talking fills the gaps sometimes.

 

How did you come to choose this double feature so quickly? I’m assuming Warren Oates is a firm favourite?

 

Warren Oates was an extraordinarily talented American actor. Great American actors like Ed Harris, Harry Dean Stanton and Dennis Hopper held him in (uniquely) high esteem.


“How many people love blathering on…

as opposed to working? At the end of the day,

I am much more interested in making my own

films than talking about other people’s.”


— Alex Cox


Aside from being an Oates double feature, are there any themes you feel cross over with these two movies?

 

Not really… my choice for this Companion Pieces was all about Oates. But, to put it simply, Barquero is an imitation Italian Western (perhaps the very best imitation Italian Western) co-starring Lee Van Cleef who was another excellent actor of an entirely different school. Cockfighter is a personal film by a great American director, Monte Hellman.

 

What is it about both Gordon Douglas and Monte Hellman’s filmmaking styles you admire?

 

I don’t admire Douglas as a director, but I enjoy watching Barquero. In regards to Hellman, I admire him for his humanity and his ability to work with actors.

Italian Imitation. Warren Oates in BARQUERO (1970).


What is it that stands out the most about each film to you?

 

In Barquero, that deliberate weirdness and attempt to emulate an Italian Western highlights how various American films tried to do this but only Gordon Douglas seemed to approach the strange energy of Giulio Questi’s Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot! from 1967. In Cockfighter, there is this sincerity and depth to Oates’ performance — he could act with one hand tied behind his back… and usually did). The late Roger Corman was obviously a genius, especially with his business mind and the marketing but the decision of his to include unnecessary scenes of animal cruelty screwed up the film. I think he saw Cockfighter as something that wasn’t commercially viable and attempted to fix it… by messing it up. Funnily enough, my friend Jon Davison was Corman’s head of production — he came up with the advertising slogan, “He came to town with his cock in his hand!”

 

Ah, that classic tag. What are the main qualities you feel Warren Oates brings to a film that separates him from his contemporaries?

 

A complete pure sincerity, combining self-awareness and self-deprecation. Harry Dean knew Warren and strove for this… but he couldn’t get there. To play an angry man, Harry had to become angry — watch out, cast and crew! Whereas Oates seemed completely lucid. He was there; he was the character and entirely convincing, truthful and real. How he did this, I don’t know.

 

Cockfight controversy. Warren Oates and Harry Dean Stanton in Cockfighter (1974).


Have we lost this kind of filmmaking… if not, which filmmakers and actors excite you today that are remotely close?

 

Today the actor prepares by going to the gym and checking the number of followers he/she/they have on internet platforms. So, no actors excite me today. At least no famous ones… and, unfortunately, very few filmmakers. So far this century, as mentioned, the likes of Andrei Konchalovsky’s Sin along with Steve McQueen’s Hunger are brilliant works… as are the actors within them.

 

Both Barquero and Cockfighter are a pure Alex Cox selection. They are cult movies (some Spaghetti Western elements, as mentioned) and show seeds of how they must have influenced your own work. How often do you rewatch a favourite movie to kickstart ideas or study specific moods and techniques?

 

Of course. I still take note of films and inevitably learn from the scenes or performances that stand out.

 

How much of a punk attitude to filmmaking do you retain? The fact you are blacklisted by Hollywood makes this even more potent.

 

Punk rock is nearly 50 years old. It will be interesting to see how the mainstream media deal with The Clash, The Jam’s “Eton Rifles” or Sex Pistols lyrics like “the fascist regime made you a moron”. Probably ignore them and play endless repetitions of “Rock the Casbah” and nothing else “Rock the Casbah” again.

 

Your “last movie” is currently being crowdfunded via Kickstarter. As a return to your love of Westerns, you are exploring this genre through Nicolai Gogol’s Russian novel Dead Souls. What is it about the story that translates so well as a Western?

 

Let’s see if it does! But the first day has gone extremely well and, with luck, your readers will check it out and support it too.


The "last hurrah". Alex Cox's final movie taps into familiar territory.


What does Gogol’s story tell us about today’s society?

 

It’s the story of a man who makes money off the dead. Right now in various places in our world, large corporations are making enormous amounts of money from killing people and propelling us to Armageddon. Gogol’s story shows us a lone individual following the same master plan.

 

In which order would you screen your double bill and why?

 

Cockfighter is a tough watch because of the animal cruelty. So let’s screen that second… that way the audience won’t miss Barquero when they walk out!

 

If you were to open these films, which cinema would you choose to screen these films at and why?

 

It would have been The Futurist in my home town of Liverpool. For those interested, here’s a taste…



This was a short piece by Kim Ryan made about the best cinema in Liverpool… including a The Wild Bunch nod to Warren Oates. Sadly, since that cinema has been torn down, let’s show these films at the FACT centre in Liverpool instead.

 

Thanks again for sharing. I feel this is a ‘full circle’ interview discussing movies with one of my major influences who genuinely opened my eyes to cinema, above and beyond the norm. Best of luck with your “last hurrah”, Alex!

 

Thank you. All the best, Rich.



You can support Alex Cox’s “My Last Movie” crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter and also subscribe to his YouTube channel.




 

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