Saturday, August 25, 2007

Spaghetti Madness: Alex Cox's "Straight to Hell" (1987)

Alex Cox’s 1987 flick Straight to Hell is an odd duck, to say the least. Cult fans know its bizarre history already, but for the rest of you, here’s the rundown from an interview with the director on his personal website: Producer Eric Fellner planned to expand a Brixton show featuring the Pogues, Joe Strummer, and Elvis Costello benefiting the leftist Sandinista Liberation Front into a full-blown tour of that organization’s home of Nicaragua. Politics came into play after the musicians agreed to hold off their own plans for August 1986, so Fellner convinced everyone to shoot a low-budget feature during that time instead. Hastily collaborating with co-star Dick Rude, Cox cobbled a screenplay together, and it was filmed in a few weeks in the expansive deserts of Almería, Spain, shooting location for many of the spaghetti Westerns that inform Straight to Hell. It was and always will be primarily a lark for the circle of friends who created it. But should it have ever been released to a wider audience?

Reviewers at the time certainly didn’t think so. Roger Ebert, having liked Cox’s previous films Repo Man and Sid & Nancy, described it as “a record of aimless behavior, of a crowd of pals asked to dress up like cowboys and mill about on a movie set.” Washington Post writer Hal Hinson jeered that Cox “never attempts anything other than antagonistically unfunny, home-movie-style gags.” The New York Times’ Janet Maslin was more positive, merely dismissing it as “a mildly engrossing, instantly forgettable midnight movie,” although she also thought it was “[not] even halfway as amusing as it sounds.” Even contemporary reviews mostly write it off as the incomprehensible and indulgent equivalent of a cinematic vacation slideshow. The film did poorly in theaters but, like many of Cox’s features, has languished in cult status since.

I’m happy to report that twenty years have been good to this do-it-yourself, witty, sly little hodgepodge of a movie, and it’s time for a reevaluation. The ostensible plot involves three bungling but cool hit men (Sy Richardson, Clash frontman Joe Strummer, and co-writer Dick Rude) and their pregnant, whiny moll (a chubby, pre-plastic surgery Courtney Love) high-tailing it to Mexico when they over-sleep a job at a motel. They quickly rob a bank, the spoils of which are constantly being swept up by the wind or dropped by the inept crooks until they are finally buried, and find themselves in a ghost town run by a motley gang of coffee-addicted cowboys and Western stereotypes. As played by such punk luminaries as the Pogues, Elvis Costello, and Zander Schloss of the Circle Jerks, and near-respectable actors like Miguel Sandoval and Xander Berkeley, the townspeople are funny, unpredictable caricatures, as apt to sing a song as to fire a six-shooter. The strangers ingratiate themselves through droll comic vignettes, killing off the dominant gang’s enemies, unsuccessfully romancing the local chicks, but kept alive only so long as their loot is still hidden. Eventually the thieves’ boss, an incongruously growling Jim Jarmusch, makes an appearance and triggers a nihilistic bloodbath tempered by some fine visual gags and ellipses. The final credits promise to go “BACK TO HELL,” but there’s not much chance for that at this point.

The first thing to notice in Straight to Hell is its striking visual style. Obviously taking a cue from, among others, Corbucci and Leone (even aping that director’s signature extreme close-ups), as well as the jagged landscape of Spain, cinematographer Tom Richmond employs a sumptuous widescreen aesthetic that allows all kinds of interesting compositions and eye-popping colors. The empty, piercingly blue sky in particular (even if its shade of blueness shifts between shots) gets a wealth of deserving screen time, contrasting with the grungy, lovingly-detailed characters below it. Costumes, from the mariachi-style dress of the Pogues to Jarmusch’s crisp white suit, bring characters a distinct visual appeal quite beside their performers’ acting abilities. If this sounds like an apology to Ebert’s phrase “dress up like cowboys and mill about on a movie set,” so be it; I am merely commenting that time, effort, and artistry went into this throwaway excursion of a film, and it shows.

From a generic standpoint, the movie is surprisingly, radically glib, most obviously influencing the work of Tarantino. It’s no less in-jokey and violent than Reservoir Dogs, say, and Sy Richardson’s Jheri-curled badass Norwood may as well be getting royalty checks from Jules Winnfield; but it purposefully lacks the slick, transgressive language Tarantino is known for in favor of cliché and deadpan comic dialogue. Despite this, it somehow received an MPAA R rating for “strong language” when the saltiest thing said is “heck.” While being ahead of its time, for better or worse, in fusing bloodily comic irrationality with specific genre tropes, Straight to Hell has its own share of cinematic referents and direct homages, from sassing a classic quote from Shane (“A gun is just a tool, it ain’t no better or no worse than the man who uses it.” “Just like shoes.”) to staging Peckinpah-inspired massacres; it at times has the sun-drenched incoherence of a punk-rock movie nerd’s El Topo. Even when the film’s non-sequiturs become more absurd than funny, a few actors still manage engrossing presences; Joe Strummer in particular has an energetic nonchalance, whether idly smoking a cigarette or running a gasoline-coated comb through his hair, that also enlivened Jarmusch’s Mystery Train. The aforementioned Schloss, as an inexplicable hot dog vendor-cum-commercial jingle singer, gets a ridiculous performance scene than nonetheless binds the community like a campfire singalong in Hawks or a funeral dirge in Ford.

Which brings me to perhaps rightfully Straight to Hell’s most overlooked feature, its pretty unsubtle capitalist satire. To call the film a revolutionary comic attack on corporate imperialism is blowing its real but minor virtues out of proportion, yet such a group of dedicated, organized political figures could not have made anything but with a left-wing bent. Without giving too much away, a major if somewhat indistinct plot point involves the smiley cameo of Dennis Hopper (who made his own disastrous pseudo-Western, The Last Movie) as oil magnate I.G. Farben and his drilling operation in the middle of the town. Such incidental details as his name on a pump handle in the city and oil drill towers dotting the landscape belie the shoot-em-up going on within the town, and death may be just another step in someone’s business deal. Money is supposedly at the root of the crosses and double-crosses that punctuate the film’s second half, yet it turns out to be a slippery commodity in itself. Whether purposefully considered or merely a byproduct of Cox’s and Rude’s political feelings, this subtext is admittedly slight compared to its insistence at being a down-and-dirty paean to the Western, camaraderie, and rock ‘n’ roll.

Buoyed by a lively, earthy soundtrack by some of the musicians involved, Straight to Hell is a relatively obscure, worthwhile cult diversion. What it lacks in polish, dramatic heft, and multidimensional characterization it nearly makes up for in visual verve and good-natured, clever senselessness. It deftly mingles punk’s homegrown spirit of communal anarchy with the movies’ creative generic structures, to produce a fun, headlong romp that’s too short to overstay its welcome.

More images:

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

A Personal Alternative to the AFI Top 100, Part 3

A Face in the Crowd
21. A Face in the Crowd (57, Kazan)
An extremely well-paced indictment of media saturation and superstardom. Making his film debut, America’s favorite sheriff Andy Griffith plays Lonesome Rhodes, a hobo/jailbird who becomes a radio and later TV folk hero with songs, wit, and not a little manipulation. Patricia Neal initially takes notice of him and is caught up in his media rise to fame. Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg mine the corruption of American glamour and its whirlwind in the media spotlight.
Alt to the Alt: Quiz Show (94, Redford). Some of the same themes show up in the real life drama of fixed TV quiz games.

Fat City
22. Fat City (72, Huston)
John Huston’s career produced a number of fantastic films in various genres, but Fat City is perhaps the most underrated of his filmography. Stacy Keach and the perennially underrated Jeff Bridges play boxers on opposite slopes of the profession, one going down and one going up. Fat City is in line with Huston’s subtle, realistic, dramatic output, from Night of the Iguana to his swan song, The Dead. If you can find it, it’s a real winner.
Alt to the Alt: Champion (49, Robson). With a searing performance by Kirk Douglas, this is also one of the great boxing films, akin to a classic Hollywood Raging Bull.

Feed the Kitty
23. Feed the Kitty (52, Jones)
Genius is taking the simplest concept and making every moment and detail count. Chuck Jones is one of the undisputed geniuses of animation, and Feed the Kitty is but one example of it. A bulldog named Marc Anthony happens upon and is immediately charmed by a fearless little kitten, and the entire cartoon concerns his efforts to hide it from his owner. From this bare premise Jones and Maltese and their team craft some of the most brilliant facial acting in Looney Tunes history, and despite his muteness, Marc Anthony truly comes alive in each of its seven essential minutes.
Alt to the Alt: One Froggy Evening (55, Jones). The other great animal Looney Tune, also with some fabulous animation via the frog’s owner and Michigan J himself.

Force of Evil
24. Force of Evil (48, Polonsky)
The eventually blacklisted Abraham Polonsky made his first film a keeper, a New York-based critique of the evils that can be perpetrated by capitalism. John Garfield (a corrupt lawyer) and Thomas Gomez (a banker trying to stay straight) are brothers caught in the web of illegal business. With poetically hard-boiled dialogue and a classical plot structure, Force of Evil is like a Shakespearean On the Waterfront.
Alt to the Alt: East of Eden (55, Kazan). Another brother-brother drama with gorgeous cinematography.

25. Freaks (32, Browning)
Unquestionably among the greatest of all American films, Tod Browning’s Freaks is a disturbing but humane examination of prejudice, mistrust, and conformity. Using real sideshow performers as actors and entirely sympathetic characters, the film upends the conventional connection between outer and inner beauty and instead puts the audience in with the “freaks.” Only when the performers eventually turn on the “normal” people does their righteous anger appear horrifying. A complex and important piece of work.
Alt to the Alt: The Elephant Man (80, Lynch). Less horrifying but still touching.

The Front
26. The Front (76, Ritt)
This black comedy about the Hollywood blacklist is the best Woody Allen movie that he didn’t write or direct. He’s Howard Prince, a politically neutral nebbish hired to stand in for writers in the industry. He still gets caught up in the House Committee on Un-American Activities witch hunter and must make a moral choice. Also features a superb turn by Zero Mostel in the most dramatic role of his career.
Alt to the Alt: Good Night, and Good Luck. (05, Clooney). Stirring and claustrophobic look at the McCarthy phenomenon from behind the doors of CBS News.

Groundhog Day
27. Groundhog Day (93, Ramis)
A high concept stretched just far enough and helped along by a genuinely transformative performance. Bill Murray deftly straddled humor and drama (although liberally leaning into the former) as the asshole forced by fate to change his ways on the most absurd of holidays. He carries the film on his shoulders and never falters on each successful day/life.
Alt to the Alt: Here Comes Mr. Jordan (41, Hall). A dead boxer is given a second chance at life by inhabiting the body of a millionaire. Hilarity and romance ensue.

Harold and Maude
28. Harold and Maude (71, Ashby)
Perhaps the most unlikely romance in the history of film, Harold and Maude are portrayed with vigor and life by Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon. He’s a death-obsessed adolescent who likes to stage fake suicides; she is a senior who ignores the law and defies social convention. It seems by the end that Maude provided Harold with the piece of his life, the joy of living, that he lacked; but perhaps they each had something the other needed.
Alt to the Alt: “Quirky” is a poor epithet for Ashby’s achievement, but another colorful tale of adolescence, age difference, and, let’s say, a “unique sensibility” is Ghost World (01, Zwigoff).

The Haunting
29. The Haunting (63, Wise)
A psychological ghost story of the highest caliber, this adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s story is blessed with an effective, low-key cast and the sure hand of Robert Wise behind the camera. Julie Harris is the ostensible heroine as the psychic and emotionally stunted Nell who is enlisted with others to investigate the haunting of Hill House. Brilliant sound design ratchets up the terror until the literally haunting conclusion.
Alt to the Alt: Rebecca (40, Hitchcock) is a similarly Gothic story more interested in character than outright scares.

The Heartbreak Kid
30. The Heartbreak Kid (72, May)
The second film in Elaine May’s ill-fated directorial career is perhaps her most perceptive on gender dynamics and the peculiar tendencies of the middle-aged Jew. A perfectly cast Charles Grodin waffles between poor, whiny Jeannie Berlin and fluttery blonde Cybill Shepherd. Infinitely funny and infinitely sad. A pitch-perfect final scene as well.
Alt to the Alt: My Favorite Wife (40, Kanin). Less cynical but still a funny marriage farce.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007