Though few people think of him this way, iconoclastic British filmmaker and punk auteur Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid and Nancy) is something of a film historian and conservationist. His various recent projects range from a documentary about the films of Akira Kurosawa to one about the famously imitated Emanuelle sexploitation films. Before that, he was the host of Moviedrome, a BBC2 dedicated to introducing viewers to cult films like The Wicker Man and Django. In 2005, he published 10,000 Ways to Die, a book he'd written as a student about the semiotics of the spaghetti western, and last year he premiered a restored version of Straight to Hell, his surreal homage to more offbeat spaghetti westerns like Django, Kill. Straight to Hell Returns includes new footage not previously released from the film's original 1986 theatrical cut and new color correction from cinematographer Tom Richmond. I talked with Cox this past Sunday about the importance of legacy, being blacklisted after making the anti-Reaganite, Sandinista-financed acid western Walker, as well as RoboCop and Sarah Palin.
Slant: Your projects of late largely concern legacy—cinematic legacy specifically, whether it's your films or other directors' films or characters. Do you often think of how people will remember and accept your films?
Alex Cox: Not really, I don't think, for the long-term. Of course, a filmmaker can't help but think of how the audience will respond when they first see it, but beyond that, I don't think very far ahead into the future, especially, funnily enough, with the most recent films I've made. What form will digital movies survive [in]? When movies were kept on film, there was a certain longevity to them, a certain understanding that they could be projected or copies could be made. But now there's no certainty that the media will endure, that the little flash cards that we use, or tapes, or whatever will have information that will be meaningful. I don't know.
Slant: That's interesting. I was just in a rental store yesterday and they didn't have a single DVD on the shelf—it was all VHS and it seemed so...strange.
Slant: There's this great joke in a YouTube video I recently saw where Nicolas Cage's agent is joking that they're going to shoot his next film on Fruit-by-the-Foot instead of actual film stock [Cox laughs]. There's no way to know where the medium is going, whether it's evolving or devolving at this point.
AC: Yes. The special machinery that we watch movies on, or the format. Will a Quicktime movie or doc or file have any meaning in a generation's time? Or will everything have to be migrated to new formats once or twice to be viewable? I don't know!
Slant: Would you say that you're optimistic about where film is going?
AC: Oh, I think that we face far more serious problems than this! [laughs] I don't think it matters in the least compared to some more dreadful and pressing problems, such as war or the destruction of the environment. That's the least of our worries.
Slant: Can you talk a little about how people's perceptions of Straight to Hell has changed over time, if you've even noticed a change?
AC: Not really over time in the sense that there's been an evolution of people's responses. There really are two Straight to Hells: there's the original Straight to Hell, which came out on film in 1986, and there's Straight to Hell Returns, which was generated on HD Video from a film negative. We filmed it purely for the television market and it's been beautifully preserved at Cannes. The digital version has scenes that were cut out of the original 35[mm print]. It has new stuff: a stop-motion animation skeleton, a shot of Miguel Sandoval's feet, all kinds of stuff. There's also a new color treatment by Tom Richmond, the cinematographer, which makes the film look very yellow and the blacks look very crushed. It gives it a very contemporary, postmodern, very fucked-up look as opposed to the very pure colors of the original.
I didn't really answer the question though. So therefore, there are two different versions of it. One can say, "I like the first version better" or "[I like] the second version better." I think the second version has been responded to with greater enthusiasm because everybody's living in a postmodern world now. The original audience that saw the film has also grown older: people who say 25 years ago now have children and grandchildren. And they look at the film and think, "Ahhh, happy days," you know? "Oh, Joe Strummer was a handsome bloke!" For them it becomes more of a...nostalgic, introverted experience. And then there are people who haven't seen it before and are seeing it for the first time.
Slant: Speaking of postmodern viewership, you yourself were the host of BBC2's Moviedrome program.
AC: I did the introductions to a bunch of cult films of minor interest and foreign-language films, yes.
Slant: Because of that, I'm curious about what you meant by a more "introverted" audience, a more individualized viewing experience for cult film and film in general to a postmodern audience. How does that effect moviemaking and movie-watching?
AC: Even though that's a phenomenon that we expect to see more of, prices for paying audiences go up every year in terms of demographics, or what someone's paying to do. So going to see film as a communal experience is dying out, but maybe it's being restricted to these very large studio pictures with lots of tie-ins and stuff...novels. It's like you say: Then people who see art films or foreign films or old film, do they become lone media consumers as opposed to part of an audience? I was going to the cinema to the second half of obscure double bills anyway, some obscure spaghetti western. But it's changing. It's becoming something else, the experience of how and what a film is. Maybe a film will become more like a game eventually.