Flickhead
DVD Reviews
By Richard Armstrong

____________________

hp_Vanessa.JPG
Vanessa Bauche in Highway Patrolman

____________________

Two by Alex Cox:

Highway Patrolman and Three Businessmen

Presented on DVD by the British Film Institute

____________________

Highway Patrolman

Directed by Alex Cox. Producer/Screenplay by Lorenzo O’Brien.
Cinematography by Miguel Garzón. Edited by Carlos Puente.
Music by Zander Schloss.
With Roberto Sosa, Bruno Bichir, Vanessa Bauche,
Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez, Ernesto Gomez Cruz, Jorge Russek.
Originally released in 1991; Color, 100 minutes.
On Region 2 DVD from the British Film Institute

Three Businessmen

Directed by Alex Cox. Producer/Screenplay by Tod Davies.
Cinematography by Robert Tregenza. Edited by Bob Robertson.
Music by Pray for Rain.
With Miguel Sandoval, Robert Wisdom, Alex Cox, Isabel Ampudia.
Originally released in 1999; Color, 77 minutes.
On Region 2 DVD from the British Film Institute
____________________

____________________

    In Britain Alex Cox is better known for the Moviedrome cult movie slot he introduced on BBC2 than for his own films. Between 1987 and 1994, Cox presented a host of wild and woolly movies from Alphaville to The Thing from Another World, The Honeymoon Killers to Stardust Memories. In Cox aficionado Steven Paul Davies’s words: “his original and compelling Sunday night introductions to a variety of classic films inspired a whole generation of film fans.”
    The BBC hired Cox because his reputation had gone before him. Cox accepted the job because he needed the work. Since the punkish thriller fantasy Repo Man (1984), that left-field classic Sid and Nancy (1986), the DIY spaghetti oater Straight to Hell (1987), and Walker (1987), that incendiary interrogation of the Monroe Doctrine, Cox was seen as a wild man, an untamable mélange of redrawn genre, youth sensibility and political indignation that outraged studio heads, perplexed critics, and, increasingly, baffled audiences. highway_patrolman.jpg(Cox calls himself a “rock’n’roll filmmaker” in the audio commentary accompanying Three Businessmen). In a conversation with me, British critic Brad Stevens remembers how Cox introduced a Moviedrome screening of Walker by reading out the derogatory Monthly Film Bulletin review! In his September 1994 Sight and Sound review of Highway Patrolman—notice how long Cox’s film took to reach UK screens—Robert Yates wrote: “About Alex Cox’s films, one thing that can be said with certainty is that they are unusual.”
    For audiences used to the heroics of conventional Hollywood cop movies, Highway Patrolman is a difficult watch. Following the experiences of a recruit to the Mexican Federal Highway Patrol from innocence to experience, it is tempting to surmise a metaphor for Cox’s own career as an errant spirit driven to make his own way by a corrupt system. “They’ve always broke the law. You pull them over first and figure out what it is later,” Pedro Rojas (Roberto Sosa) is told in class. Assigned the ‘pig route,’ a dusty oblivion frequented by drug traffickers and kids hawking dead iguanas by the roadside, Pedro’s integrity is worn down by criminals and civilians chafing beneath a draconian system of bribes and quotas. With his wife Griselda (Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez) pressuring him to take money, his prostitute girlfriend Maribel (Vanessa Bauche) in need of drugs, his best friend murdered by a drugs gang, and a stray bullet in his leg, Pedro goes in search of the pushers and becomes a hero. But throws in his badge.
    In the short film accompanying Highway PatrolmanPatrolleros and Patrolleras—Cox returns to interview the cast and crew 14 years on. Whether reflecting upon how the film looks and moves, the state of Mexican cinema, or their experiences since the shoot, individuals speak by implication of the crisis of globalization in which Hollywood rules while regional visions struggle for screen space. Cox asks if, as a filmmaker, Producer Lorenzo O’Brien feels corrupted by the business: “No, we still have to tell our stories and make our films.” In audio commentary which constantly celebrates Cox’s collaborators, Cox and O’Brien remind us that, like Pedro, these are little guys trying to do something they love well in an imperfect world.
    Cox rebels in every sense. In American and in British films, he argues, “genres are rigidly controlled by marketing.” Those ‘metaphysical’ moments, as when Pedro’s dying father appears to him as Pedro lies wounded, or when a death’s head ornament is seen as Pedro is in for counseling, violate the boundaries of what ostensibly is a cop movie to a degree that would be unacceptable to the suits. Rather than adhere to a conventional script with its format arcs and trajectories, Sosa observes that each scene felt like a story in itself. The effect of Cox’s long take style is to enable experience, rather than to facilitate Hollywood-style narrative. Elsewhere, somebody observes that the plano secuencia keeps the audience thinking. In connection with Repo Man, Cox recalls how mounting cameras on cars can detract from the people inside them. Although there are a number of car mounts in Highway Patrolman, they emphasize less the sensation of speed, of the mechanical, as they would in a conventional thriller, and more the feelings in the scene.

3b_Holy_LandAA.JPG
Three Businessmen

    As Yates observes of Highway Patrolman, what distinguishes what on paper seems like a conventional genre movie is the film’s lack of melodrama, its matter-of-fact attention to the exterior degradations of Pedro’s trajectory and their domestic consequences. If a Hollywood film makes more time for the crisis of conscience and the hero’s psychology, Cox shifts the drama out of the station house and into the kitchen. Highway Patrolman is a film about “what is acceptable between couples.” Rather than confronting us with Pedro’s mental struggle, his reflections on his resolve, Cox and Sosa make you work harder by implying what the protagonist feels. As Yates observes, while Pedro’s buddy Anibal (Bruno Bichir) lies brutalized among the cacti, Pedro (and DP Miguel Garzón) are still struggling up the road. Long takes emphasize the pain, the heat, the distance, the hopelessness, as Pedro limps towards his friend. Highway Patrolman is nearer to the everyday struggles of world art cinema—Iran, ‘kitchen sink’, Neo-Realism—than to the triumphalism of Hollywood: “Even buzzards are at a loss here.” At one point, Cox and O’Brien talk about the drugs and arms trade that provides the backdrop to Pedro’s story. This resonance is real-world. On the night I began this review, they ran a report on the UK Channel 4 News from Nuevo Laredo, the Mexican border town plagued by drug-related killings and city fathers tainted by the revenue from narcotics.

    As you watch the anecdotal Three Businessmen, a number of other films spring to mind, all of fiercely independent temper. Cox’s film follows the odyssey of a pair of art dealers, Bennie Reyes (Miguel Sandoval) and Frank King (Alex Cox), traipsing around Liverpool in search of a decent restaurant. Conversation ranges from economic uplift to laptops to the model names given American cars. As the men hop on a series of subway trains, taxis and ferries in search of sustenance, we become aware that Robert Tregenza’s long takes are taking them to Rotterdam, Hong Kong, Tokyo and what resembles the Durango desert. Eventually, they meet Leroy Jasper (Robert Wisdom), another businessman who takes them to a little place in the desert.
    Cox’s inspiration for Three Businessmen was Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film in which, despite the extraordinary circumstances, conversations dwelt in the mundane. Watching Cox’s film, you are reminded of more recent cinematic watersheds. It appeared in 1999 and its characters become reminiscent of the denizens of a series of millennial journeys. In a pub the guy in the corner expostulates on Liverpool’s regeneration. His observations recall another verbal account of Britain’s socioeconomic condition in those twilight years. three__businessmen2.jpg But if these guys sound like they read too many magazines, Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Space (1997) mounted a gnomic, wry but literate challenge to globalization on the eve of the new century, one it feels as though Cox and screenwriter Tod Davies are mocking. A deserted series of pristine municipal spaces strewn with Daddy Z flyers and the borrowed sentiments of karaoke invokes the dislocations of Lost in Translation (2003), another movie dazed by the recent turn of the calendar. Bennie’s advertising patter on behalf of his ‘Plutonium’ credit card recalls Bob Harris’s hollow plugging of Suntory whisky in Sofia Coppola’s film. The card’s vaunted “total salvation” is eventually stymied by that peculiarly forlorn siren of the contemporary metropolitan landscape, an endlessly repeated answer phone message. While Davies’s whimsical dialogue and enigmatic encounters recall such nocturnal wanderings as Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993) and Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth (1992), the disorientation as a deserted Liverpool seems to mutate before them carries uncomfortable reminders of those kids lost in the woods in The Blair Witch Project (1999).
    One of the surest measures of the truly independent filmmaker is that, rather than propound themes and their expression, critics cast around, as I have done, for analogues for the strangeness before them. In the notes accompanying this DVD, Steven Paul Davies, author of Alex Cox: Film Anarchist (Batsford, 2000), writes coherently of Cox’s unique vision. Confronted with an increasingly battened down and homogenized new century in which the suits are clearly running scared, filmmakers like Cox are a tonic, while interlocutors like Davies throw light on our era’s darkest imaginings.

—Richard Armstrong

____________________

____________________

____________________

Flickhead                                                        
Copyright © 2005 by Richard Armstrong