The arrival of cult film-maker Alex Cox’s on the faculty of the University of Colorado at Boulder has created a rustle of excitement in the world of film obsessives. Perhaps best known for writing and directing the 80s cult hits, Repo Man and Sid and Nancy, Cox has a long and accomplished body of work to his name. He talks by phone to Frieda Klotz about punks, Margaret Thatcher, and the groves of academe.
You’re in Oregon at the moment. Is this your home, or a base for a film?
My wife and I live in Southern Oregon, south of a town called Ashland, in the forest. It sounds like a fairytale—we live in a thing called the WUI, which stands for the Wildlife Urban Interface. My wife moved here 20 years ago, and we got together a year later, so I followed her here about 19 years ago. But we’ve got a spring and we’ve got electricity—it’s all quite civilized.
Maybe you could tell me why you decided to become an academic after working in film for so long.
It had been suggested that I should apply for a couple of academic jobs before, but I hadn’t actually applied for the ones that I was asked to apply for because I wasn’t quite ready for it. And then when I saw this one I thought, how many times does something like that present itself? There was both a creative and an academic aspect to it, and it’s the University that Stan Brakhage taught at. He was an extremely important experimental filmmaker.
Your new job will be quite different from what you’ve done up to now.
Part of my job is to keep making films. And I’ve been in and out of academia a bit. I did a little bit of teaching at UCLA and in Oxford and I was involved in designing a course for John Moores University in Liverpool. I like the groves of academe. Because if you’re only working in the commercial sector, you always are driven by efficiency, by getting it right, making the right move, because the film has to make money, it has to be popular. If you’re actually working in a more experimental or an academic context, you can take risks, you can take the risk of failure or of attempting something that doesn’t succeed; it increases your creativity, because you’re in a good environment to do that.
One of your most famous early films was the gritty biopic of the Sex Pistols bassist, Sid Vicious, and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen. You were in your twenties when the punk movement started up. What attracted you to it? Were you angry and rebellious?
Oh yes, sure! I think I was a little bit old to be a punk, though, you had to be a little bit younger to be a punk, unless of course you were John Lydon or Joe Strummer. I was very enthusiastic for the punk movement. It was a good thing, to have that rebellious spirit—and they had reasons to be rebellious. The idea was that you’d draw attention to yourself with your outrage and your outrageous antics. That’s the function of the artist.
That was slightly before Thatcher, wasn’t it?
It was before, yes. That’s the interesting thing. We didn’t realize how good we had it. We were complaining about the status quo and how awful life was in the 70s, but it was great in the 70s. It was wonderful! It got much worse in the 80s, just as in the U.S. things got much worse. It was paradise before that.
But weren’t you quite privileged? You went to Oxford.
I was very very privileged to have gone to Oxford, sure. There was a Latin exam that you had to pass, translating passages from Pliny or Cicero or Caesar’s Gallic Wars. I was very lucky simply to go to that incredible university. To go through it all without any debt. It was great! But this was socialism, these were the fruits of socialism. At that time the government owned everything—it owned the airline, it owned the power, the water, electricity, the gas—all this money would flow into the coffers of the government. We all felt like we owned the country. And it all got sold off. We lost our patrimony.
In the trailer for one of your films—Three Businessmen—your characters complain about monoculture in contemporary cinema. Do you feel pessimistic about the industry?
At the moment it’s definitely very monocultural, because the focus is so much on special effects and superheroes and talking animals. [Groans.] It’s a good time to be a visual-effects person. But there’s not much originality and there’s not a lot that’s exciting, you know. But that’s the present and it doesn’t mean necessarily that I’m pessimistic about the future. The very simple and monochromatic storytelling that we have at the moment must at some time be replaced by something far more exciting. Things will change. Just like people developed a taste for documentaries—who’d have thought that people would want to see documentaries again? Documentaries became this great thing for a while.
You have described yourself as being blacklisted by the studios. What are your feelings about them?
The studios are entertainment companies owned by large conglomerates. NBC Universal is part of General Electric, one of the largest military contractors in the world. They probably made more money off the Iraq War than Halliburton. And all the studios are part of these very large corporate enterprises. They are an instrument of capitalism rather than art, they propose a dominating world-view rather than a collaborative one—you just have to see it in that context.
I didn’t realize they were so deeply political in that embedded way.
I think also the thing is—Ernesto Acevedo made this remark, my chairman at CU—the United States doesn’t have a ministry of culture, or a department of culture. So in the absence of that, there is the studio system. But it isn’t balanced by an actual cultural idea of film as an art form, separate from a purely imperial consumer-driven rampage to sell popcorn and give people an imperialist mindset.
It’s kind of an opiate for the masses, maybe?
Well, or speed for the masses or something—to make them really wound up.
In the 80s, you were upset about what the Reagan regime was doing in Nicaragua, as you expressed in your 1987 film Walker. Is politics still a preoccupation in your work?
The road movie that Jon Davison was the producer of, Searchers 2.0, that’s pretty much about Iraq and Afghanistan and their effect on people—the economic and social effect on small towns. But in a more obtuse way, not overtly so. But it is about that, about how the middle gets torn out of things.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m trying to put together a documentary about a film made by Dennis Hopper called The Last Movie. It was shot in the 1970s, in Peru. To do that I have to go and track down the actors. They’re all spread all over the place and I have to go to Mexico and Arizona and Los Angeles. So it will take a while to do all those interviews. Also, I hope to do a science-fiction film at some point—I’ll force the students into working on the science-fiction film.
The Colorado Daily said you want to teach your students to have a good time while working hard. Do you mean they need to have life experience to be good film makers?
No! I was talking about having a good time. I think it’s important to have a good time! Whatever you’re doing you should be enjoying it because if you’re not enjoying it, what’s the point of it? I know that kids sometimes take education seriously and worry a lot, but they should enjoy it too.
How about the fact that they’ll be taking on a lot of debt? That would give anyone cause for worry.
Then you’d better be enjoying what you’re doing. If you’re accumulating that debt and taking that sort of risk, you’d better be enjoying it and getting something out of it and feeling good about it. People have vocations, not everybody is suited to everything so people need to find out what they’re good at. That’s the great beauty of the classical education. You’re not just in it to make money. You’re also doing it because you learn all sorts of skills that will be useful in unexpected ways.
What are your plans for the evening? Are you working?
I am kind of working. Because we live in the WUI, we’re in the volunteer fire department, so I have to go fire training tonight, for two hours. We have to dig a trench or something like that.
I hope there aren’t any fires.
So do I, so do I. The good thing about going to Boulder as well is that they’re very professional. We’ll be in the Boulder city limits protected by a professional fire department, and I won’t be going training for a while.
Frieda Klotz is an Irish-born critic and journalist in New York City. She taught Greek literature and philosophy at King’s College London and is co-writing a book on the ancient philosopher Plutarch for Oxford University Press.Return to Top