Fermat's Room

Format: Cinema

Date: 29 May 2009

Distributor: Revolver Entertainment

Directors: Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopeí±a

Writers: Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopeí±a

Original title: La habitacií³n de Fermat

Cast: Lluí­s Homar, Alejo Sauras, Elena Ballesteros, Santi Millí¡n, Federico Luppi

Spain 2007

88 mins

There’s a sub-genre of murder stories called ‘the locked room mystery’, which consists of a dead body being found in a locked room with no obvious way for the killer to escape. This has been investigated by everyone from Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie’s various detectives and is the main premise behind the TV series Jonathan Creek. Fermat’s Room presents a novel variant on the genre: a murder is being committed in a locked room, which is shrinking to crush its four inhabitants (played by Lluí­s Homar, Alejo Sauras, Elena Ballesteros and Santi Millí¡n) to death, and the murderer may be inside.

This makes for a film that is both original and also over-familiar. The idea of characters being crushed to death in a shrinking room has been covered in all kinds of films from Goldfinger to Toys, Indiana Jones and Star Wars while rooms that exist purely as death traps have filled screens in recent years from the Cube trilogy to the endless Saw franchise. Even having a maths genius as the main protagonist occupies the middle ground between the TV series Numb3rs and the tedious Russell Crowe biopic A Beautiful Mind.

However, due to elegant cinematography, an intriguing premise and a good cast and script, Fermat’s Room rises above the ubiquity of its premise to make for an intriguing mystery that unsettles the viewer by combining claustrophobia and the modern fascination with games. There’s been a number of unspeakably awful movies based on computer games, but Fermat’s Room flirts with the medium by using the iconography of ‘brain-training’ games, and features a genuinely gripping and subversive car chase that is reminiscent of one of the early Grand Theft Auto games. The film’s low budget necessitated a small cast and limited number of locations, but as in Richard Linklater’s underrated Tape, creative set design, superlative camera work and intelligent use of the resources mean a lot of enthusiasm and a little money go a long way.

The film, like its characters, is flawed. No one in the film is as interesting as the plot thinks they are, and having everyone operate under a pseudonym distances the characters more than the story necessitates. And, because there’s no real concern for the characters, or their dual identities, this device does occasionally make the film a purely intellectual exercise, like a game of Cluedo.

As a film that lauds genius, the plot treads a double-edged sword. The characters in Fermat’s Room are aided in their escape by their common interest in maths and puzzles but are equally handicapped by their all too human vices. In the same way, the film is likely to attract an audience that has seen other examples of the genre and will probably spend the picture trying to double-guess the plot and spot the references. This kind of obsessive study could ruin enjoyment of the film, even though the story celebrates such activity. It might seem disingenuous to state there’s a lot to be appreciated in a movie that comes across as a more intelligent and family friendly version of Saw, but in this case familiarity doesn’t breed contempt.

Alex Fitch



Format: Cinema

Date: 8 May 2009

Distributor: ICA Films

Venues: ICA Cinema, Renoir (London) and key cities

Director: Kornél Mundruczí³

Writers: Kornél Mundruczí³ and Yvette Biro

Cast: Félix Lajkí³, Orsolya Tí³th, Lili Monori, Sí¡ndor Gí¡spí¡r

Germany/Hungary 2008

96 mins

In an insular rural community where cattle and people exist alongside one another, a man struggles with a shrieking pig as his wife’s son Mihail returns after a long absence. Delta is Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczí³’s award-winning third feature film and it is named after the geographical location where the story unfolds. Set in the verdant Romanian Danube Delta, the film is a simple, universal tale of true love between siblings Mihail and Fauna.

Shortly after Mihail’s arrival, Fauna leaves the parental home in order to devote herself to helping Mihail build a house away from the village. The community’s disapproval of her decision and of the introspective Mihail is felt strongly, encapsulated in a real Straw Dogs moment when Mihail enters the local village bar, his discomfort palpable as the hostile attention of the entire room turns towards him.

The disquiet intensifies as it becomes clear that the pair intend to live together when the house is completed. The stepfather rejects the idea of Mihail and Fauna ‘living together like pigs’. Fauna’s very name alludes to this assimilation of animal and human behaviour in Delta, although the animal metaphor is a complex one. In a scene of sexual violence that recalls the opening pig-handling scene the viewer is distanced from the action by long shot framing and this sense of restraint is characteristic of the film.

As brother and sister grow closer, their flourishing physicality is elliptically suggested rather than explicitly shown and the viewer is again denied another voyeuristic opportunity. In one scene, Mihail and Fauna lie contentedly on the wooden floor of the unfinished house, intimating that their relationship has been consummated. They are framed from above, Fauna gently caresses her tortoise, and in the microcosm of this moment they seem perfectly happy. Their self-containment is interrupted when Mihail opens a door in the floor to board his boat, visually bisecting the space. Fauna’s reluctance to see him go is unsettling, a portent of events to come.

Delta‘s brilliant soundtrack was created by virtuoso violinist Félix Lajkí³, who also played the role of Mihail. Taking inspiration from the Delta region, he composed the music as filming took place. Also notable are the hammer symphony that scores the building of the house and the fervent cacophony of insects whirring over an earlier scene of acute sexual tension between Fauna and Mihail. The use of Popol Vuh’s music to accompany the ethereal floating funeral procession made me wonder if, like Werner Herzog, who used their music in several films, Mundruczí³ wishes to impart to his audience the indifference of nature to mankind.

Drawing from Shakespeare’s classic revenge tragedy Hamlet and Euripides’ Electra, the siblings’ downfall is duly played out, their circumstances and familial relations contriving towards their destruction as surely as the river flows. I am reminded of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s debut The Return (2003), which also features a fractured family floundering amid a vast and tranquil wilderness. The natural setting of both films is cinematically impressive and the characters are not hindered by their environment but by each other; the brutality of human nature ultimately overcomes and destroys the protagonists of Delta of in spite of their resilience. The immutability and impartiality of nature further accentuates the humans’ violent tendencies; in the closing shot of Delta, Fauna’s adored pet tortoise crawls slowly along in total oblivion to the fate of its keeper.

Jessica Dickenson


Momma's Man

Format: Cinema

Date: 8 May 2009

Distributor: Diffusion Pictures

Venues: London and key cities

Director: Azazel Jacobs

Writer: Azazel Jacobs

Cast: Matt Boren, Ken Jacobs, Flo Jacobs

USA 2008

94 mins

On paper, Momma’s Man sounds uninspiring: a thirty-something man named Mikey (played by Matt Boren) with a wife and baby in Los Angeles visits his parents’ New York loft while on a business trip and finds himself incapable of returning to the West Coast. But this quietly astonishing film from Azazel Jacobs is much more than the sum of its parts; it’s a smart, beautifully constructed lo-fi meditation on childhood, family and aging. Jacobs filmed his follow-up to The GoodTimes Kid (2005) in his childhood home in lower Manhattan and cast his own parents, Ken and Flo Jacobs, as Mikey’s parents. Although they have little acting experience, they are both important artists in their own right - Ken an influential experimental filmmaker and Flo a painter.

Mikey, already on his way back to the airport, suddenly decides to delay his flight by a day. After his exceptionally kind, patient mom cooks him dinner, he heads up to his bedroom in a ramshackle alcove, drapes himself in an old Halloween costume, finds a guitar and thumbs through a high school notebook, full of badly written lyrics about break-ups like ‘I hope you die too’. As the days start to pass by, he keeps delaying his flight home, repeatedly making excuses for prolonging his stay, jeopardising his relationship and his career.

Haunted by the idea of watching his parents get old, he begins to revert back to adolescence, seeming more juvenile with every day that passes. He creeps back into the house after getting drunk playing arcade games, and sits around reading comic books in bed wearing nothing but shabby long johns. His mother fusses over him, constantly trying to feed him, making sure that he’s dressed warmly enough, and even gives him pocket money - in short, fulfilling all of the endearing, yet exasperating, rituals of parenthood. Eventually, Mikey becomes more childlike, more helpless, unable to even leave the loft by himself.

What makes the film so exceptional, aside from a great performance by Boren, are the filmmaker’s inspirational parents, and the loft itself. It’s packed with eccentric ephemera collected over the 40 years that the family have lived there, from dancing plastic robots and a collection of snow globes to 78 records, which Ken lovingly listens to. His son, with the help of the cinematographer Tobias Datum (who also shot Gerardo Naranjo’s Voy a explotar), seems to document his home for the sake of posterity, but it’s also an intimate exploration of a very personal space, laid bare for the audience. The incredibly genuine performances delivered by both Ken and Flo seem to further blur the line between biography and fiction; scenes of them watching Ken’s films, projected in the loft, add another beguiling dimension to the picture.

Although the laid-back pacing demands a little patience, Momma’s Man is full of comic moments, while the poignant relationship between parent and child is rarely portrayed on screen with so much honesty. It’s a tribute to both Jacobs’s parents and to childhood, not to mention a bohemian New York lifestyle on the verge of extinction.

Sarah Cronin



Format: Cinema

Date: 8 May 2009

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Venues: Curzon Soho, Ritzy, Screen on the Green (London) and key cities

Director: Bent Hamer

Writer: Bent Hamer

Cast: Bí¥rd Owe, Espen Skjí¸nberg, Ghita Ní¸rby, Henny Moan

Norway 2007

86 mins

I think I understand this film. Not that it’s difficult, but I think that there is something to ‘get’ about the film.

It is a film about Odd Horten. A taciturn train driver who has just retired. It is obviously a film about old age and death. That is what the narrative is about. But the literal depiction of this subject is embedded in its metaphorical and symbolic representation. The things that are done and said are not just things that occur in a few days of an old man’s life: they poetically express his human condition.

It is all over for him. He sits quietly amid fun and noise. He gets left behind. He gets stuck. He is late, he is missing, he escapes, he can’t be contacted. He gets shut in. He casts off his possessions. He puts the cloth over his canary’s cage. He is alone and in the dark.

He meets another old man. This man is lying in the snow. Odd goes to where he lives, in a dark place full of ice and strange things from other places in the past. This man shows him something very old, and tells him that though it has come to rest, its journey is not over. Odd accompanies him as he goes blindly on a last journey.

Finally, Odd sees someone from his own past. He takes a leap into the unknown. And he is reunited with someone who thought she wouldn’t see him again.

Here are a few things that the film is not:

It’s not weird, contrived, or surreal. All these events happen plainly, gently. The mood is sombre but not grim. Sad but not depressing. Melancholy but not maudlin. Slow but not boring. A cliché would be ‘bittersweet’, but in fact it’s better for being neither bitter nor sweet. It looks unblinkingly at some of the most difficult things in life without ever dipping into the sentimental.

Here are some reasons to see the film:

It looks beautiful. It shows a dignified, old-fashioned side of Norwegian urban life, set off against the gleaming winter landscape that surrounds it, and the svelte iron machines that master that landscape.

It sounds beautiful. The Norwegian dialogue is a delight for an Anglophone to listen to, with its pleasing resemblance to a quaint form of English (for instance someone who ski-jumps appear to be a ‘hopper’). And there is a suitably icy soundtrack featuring glockenspiel and pedal steel.

It is about age, loss, and death, and it reflects on these things in a calm, quiet way.

Peter Momtchiloff


The Decameron

Format: DVD and Blu-ray

Date: 27 April 2009

Distributor: BFI

Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini

Writer Pier Paolo Pasolini

Based on the book by: Boccaccio

Original title: Il Decameron

Cast: Franco Citti, Ninetto Davoli, Pier Paolo Pasolini

Italy 1971

112 mins

Pier Paolo Pasolini, poet, painter, writer, homosexual, Marxist, filmmaker and enfant terrible, was certainly a multi-faceted artist. His films similarly show great variety, from his late neo-realist gangster classic Accattone (1961) to Greek tragedy in Medea (1969), from intellectual allegory in Theorem (1968) to the popular pastoral bawdy romps that Pasolini called his ‘Trilogy of Life’. The Decameron makes up the first part of this trilogy; the other two films - The Canterbury Tales (1972) and Arabian Nights (1974) - are similarly based on medieval folk tales and storytelling. However, from the opening shot, which shows the director’s regular collaborator Franco Citti (who starred as Accattone) bludgeoning an unseen victim, we are never in any doubt that this is a classic Pasolini film.

Choosing 10 stories from Boccaccio’s 100, and dispensing with the framing narrative - seven women and three men (with their servants) tell stories to while away the time spent in the country to avoid the Great Plague of 1348 - Pasolini’s film nevertheless perfectly captures the spirit of these tales. The film is divided into two parts, each composed of five stories, one framing the other four. All are faithful to Boccaccio’s originals but are also well suited to Pasolini’s world view: sinners are remembered as saints, evil doings go unpunished and religious hypocrisy is rife. Typically, Pasolini also juxtaposes contradictory tales to emphasise their political aspect. We go from aspirational parents who insist on marriage when they catch their daughter in flagrante with the son of a wealthy man, to the famous ‘Pot of Basil’ story, in which a girl is caught with a lower-class lover, with grisly results. The latter tale is kindly shortened, allowing the girl to keep her pot of basil and water it with her tears, in contrast to Boccaccio’s original tale or Keats’s great poem. Although Pasolini is interested in the political subtext of the tales, he hardly offers a Marxist reworking - the bawdy folk tales are told simply and the film never feels didactic.

Pasolini himself plays an artist dreaming of and painting frescoes of heaven and hell on a church wall. In Boccaccio’s epic, the artist is the Early Renaissance painter Giotto, although he is modestly recast here as a ‘student of the master’ (in The Canterbury Tales, Pasolini similarly plays Geoffrey Chaucer). The film has a painterly look with colours that seem to have been taken directly from Giotto’s palette, although the scenes are perhaps more reminiscent of Breughel or Bosch. Perhaps Giotto’s most important legacy was his introduction of the technique of life drawing; a similar impulse can be seen in Boccaccio’s embrace of popular folk tales and particularly in his decision to write in vernacular Italian rather than Latin. Similarly, Pasolini, it seems, is striving to create a vernacular cinema.

The depiction of the Middle Ages may not be quite as filthy as that in Monty Python and The Holy Grail (1975), with its mud-encrusted peasants, but with carefully chosen locations and non-professional actors (framed in Pasolini’s long, still close-ups) clearly cast for their medieval dentistry, we get an essentially realist depiction akin to Rossellini’s Francesco Giullare di Dio (1950). Unfortunately, the clumsy post-synchronised sound seems to be the price we pay for those great locations.

The emphasis on simplicity means that the stories seem slight and at times underwhelming (even Ennio Morricone’s score is free of bombast and confined to folk ditties), and the humour (falling into cesspits, etc.) is not so far removed from a Carry On film. However, there is an honesty about sexual relations rarely found in 20th-century literature or film, as well as a determination to entertain the audience that was key to the storytelling tradition. These films were Pasolini’s biggest box-office successes. This led to a series of imitation bawdy romps to be released in Italy, which caused Pasolini to write a repudiation of his trilogy and to return to a rather less crowd-pleasing cinema with his next film - Salí³, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975).

The Decameron, like most of Pasolini’s work, never fully satisfies, lacking the epic sweep that such an adaptation deserves, but it is a serious and worthy attempt. The film ends with Giotto’s student (Pasolini) looking at the completed dream-inspired frescoes, asking a question that could be applied to any such adaptations or even to artistic creation itself, one that fully captures Pasolini’s self-doubts: ‘Why paint a picture when the dream is so much better?’

Paul Huckerby

Also available from the BFI on DVD and Blu-ray: Arabian Nights and The Canterbury Tales.


Arabian Nights

Format: DVD and Blu-ray

Date: 27 April 2009

Distributor: BFI

Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini

Writers: Pier Paolo Pasolini, Dacia Maraini

Based on: Arabian Nights

Original title: Il fiore delle mille e una notte

Cast: Franco Merli, Ines Pelligrini, Ninetto Davoli, Franco Citti

Italy 1974

129 mins

How would a notable director make a film based on the Thousand and One Nights now? Enlist some notable actors, build some spectacular sets, spend a lot of money on CGI to give visual expression to the fantastic. Maybe, for a highbrow audience, include some knowing or ironic framing material, to encourage consciousness of our apartness from this exotic world of stories, of our status as post-colonial voyeurs…

Pier Paolo Pasolini, choosing this for the last in his series of three erotic picaresques, took a different route. He enlisted a ragtag of young Italians with little acting experience, and trailed around spectacular locations (in Ethiopia, Yemen, Iran, Nepal), apparently picking raw local talent on the spot to fill out the cast. Nor is there any question of distance from the story: he plunges us straight in, and the best way to enjoy the film is to submit to the tale-telling. Pasolini dispenses entirely with the story that frames all the other stories, and which gives piquancy to the narrative’s endless inventiveness (Scheherazade’s survival depends on her being able to keep up the entertainment). This makes the film less subtle than its literary source, but does perhaps help us forget that we are playing make-believe.

The film is not just a random string of disconnected tales. The themes of captivity, escape and freedom run through it. We see, perhaps, that life is harsh, but that freedom and pleasure can be found through resourcefulness. We can also ponder the film’s motto: the truth is revealed not in one dream but in many. The stories are out of our reach, we can hardly see them as true. But they do show us some true things about our world.

The use of amateur actors works wonderfully, at least in dramatic terms. These stories were invented, enjoyed, embellished, and passed on by the folk, and it is entirely appropriate to see them inhabited by the folk. Never mind that most of the leading actors clearly do not belong in the locations as the rest of the cast do. This is a film in which European viewers are invited to enter into the world of the stories, as the European actors do. The effort of suspending disbelief is not great, thanks to the vigour of the performances. The crude dubbing can be distracting, but probably the scenes would not have been performed with such spontaneity under the constraints of live sound recording.

One thing that a filmmaker would certainly not do now, on pain of scandal, is enlist teenagers from much less sophisticated cultural backgrounds than his own and get them to enact sexual scenes. Well, this certainly does give a sense of freshness to the erotic content running through the film, but is also likely to make the viewer feel some discomfort at enjoying watching the cast go at it. My judgement, naí¯ve maybe, is that Pasolini’s film is knowingly transgressive, but not in a cynical or debasing way. The use of amateur actors was one of the enlivening features of post-war Italian cinema, and I would like to think Arabian Nights is an honourable continuation of that tradition. Whatever the ethics of Pasolini’s relationship with his cast, in that uninhibited era, I think what we have now is a film that the participants could be proud of, rather than ashamed of. Though ribald, sexually explicit, and violent, it is not coarse or brutal – a series of dreams, flickering only occasionally into nightmare.

Peter Momtchiloff

Also available from the BFI on DVD and Blu-ray: The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales.


The Last of the Crazy People

Format: DVD

Date: 18 May 2009

Distributor: Peccadillo Pictures

Director: Laurent Achard

Writers: Laurent Achard, Nathalie Najem

Based on the novel by: Timothy Findley

Original title: Le Dernier des fous

Cast: Julien Cochelin, Annie Cordy, Pascal Cervo, Dominique Reymond, Fattouma Ousliha Bouamari

France/Belgium 2006

95 mins

The Last of the Crazy People is the second feature film from French writer/director Laurent Achard, adapted from Timothy Findley’s 1967 novel of the same name. Not dissimilar from the films of Michael Haneke, it is a work of formal sophistication and psychological complexity.

The film opens in a dark room, on a softly illumined eye peeking outside through a chink in a door. We soon learn that this eye belongs to Martin, the somber, 10-year-old boy who we follow throughout the film. Martin lives on a farm with his family and their maid. His mother, Nadí¨ge, seems to be psychotic; she refuses to leave her bedroom and is prone to fits of screaming. His brother, Didier, is a would-be writer/poet, tormented by self-doubt and by his impossible relationship with a man who is engaged to be married. The other characters act as provocateurs and/or peacekeepers to the intense atmosphere of the household, while the action centres more and more on the suffering of Nadí¨ge and Didier, and on its effects on Martin.

Fear and doubt are at the heart of The Last of the Crazy People, permeating form and content in equal measure. Achard depicts a world that is uncertain, violent and, worst of all, meaningless, the horror of which affects all the characters, but chiefly Nadí¨ge. Lingering on her remote, glaring eyes, the film asks: Is Nadí¨ge mad? Or just much more sensitive than the average human being? Perhaps Nadí¨ge is the only sane one, the only one who is really awake, and it is all the ‘normal’ people who surround her, and who give no thought to the horror of reality, who are actually mad?

Formally the film plays a game of push and pull with its audience, encouraging both our disorientation and our sympathy for the characters. In turns, we are tempted to think that the film unfolds from Martin’s innocent perspective, from a detached, realist perspective, and from a fantastical, hyperreal perspective. It is never certain whether the point of view is subjective or objective, reality or illusion, schizoid hallucination or prophetic vision. We search for a single fixed truth, which ultimately doesn’t seem to exist. Like the characters we are lost between the equally undesirable poles of illusion and nothingness.

There is no denying the bleakness of the film, but this is not to criticise. The Last of the Crazy People is a work of honesty, not miserabilism. One would perhaps see a glimmer of hope in Didier and his poetry, were it not for the weight of the prevailing order, and of fate, which sit so heavily on his shoulders. The world doesn’t want a poet. Perhaps it did once, as Didier’s piles of old books suggest, but not anymore. The world now seems to say, ‘you’re either normal or mad; you’re either with us, or you’re on your own’. Didier, not quite mad perhaps, but very much alone, broods unhappily towards a resolution. When he finally makes his decision at the end of the film the consequences are nothing short of apocalyptic.

The Last of the Crazy People is an excellent film. It is by no means easy viewing, but as a rare piece of serious cinema, it is essential.

David Warwick


20th Century Boys

Format: DVD

Date: 4 May 2009

Distributor: 4Digital Asia

Director: Yukihiko Tsutsumi

Writers: Yasushi Fukuda, Takashi Nagasaki, Naoki Urasawa and Yûsuke Watanabe

Based on the manga by: Naoki Urasawa

Original title: 20-seiki shônen

Cast: Toshiaki Karasawa, Etsushi Toyokawa, Takako Tokiwa, Airi Taira

Japan 2008

142 mins

2009 promises to be another year where the cinema is dominated by comic book adaptations and the first of this year’s crop, having been released theatrically on February 20, is an epic live action adaptation of Naoki Urasawa’s manga of the same name.

20th Century Boys (known as 20-seiki Shônen in its native Japan) is the first of a trilogy, and so presumably is based on the first seven or so volumes out of a total of 22 (24 if you include the final two volumes entitled 21st Century Boys). Being a faithful adaptation of the manga, it follows the labyrinthine structure of the source material, including flash-forwards, flashbacks, dream sequences and the same scene repeated from various points of view. However, this isn’t a technique that necessarily suits the film - unlike, say, Rashomon - as the plot of this first instalment at least is relatively simple… A group of friends in the 1970s form a club and together concoct a story about the end of the world. A quarter of a century later, this fateful tale seems to be coming true, whether by prophecy or design, with one member of the group having become a charismatic cult leader who is entrancing the whole of Japan.

Manga author Naoki Urasawa’s most famous comic is called Monster, and is an apocalyptic tale about a serial killer created by an eugenics experiment, so it should come as no surprise to learn that he is a fan of Stephen King, who has himself explored the subject in his novel IT, which was adapted for television in the 1990s and has heavily influenced 20th Century Boys. IT and 20th Century Boys share the same qualities and problems - the scenes of the kids in the past are gripping, evocative and engaging, the scenes of the same characters in the present less so, and when history starts to repeat itself you can’t help but think that you got the point the first time around.

20th Century Boys also suffers from the current obsession in making bloated trilogies for the cinema, presumably based on economies of scale - you might as well make two or three films for only a bit more (as you already have the actors, sets and director already hired) and hopefully triple the profits. However, like the Matrix and the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogies and the unfinished Night Watch series, the running time of this should have been trimmed considerably, not only for the story as a whole, but also for the individual instalments.

Those fans of Stephen King who miss his earlier work will find a lot to enjoy in 20th Century Boys, but as was the case with the TV adaptation of IT, once they’ve seen the first instalment it will take fans a lot of patience to sit through another two and a half hours of the story, let alone five, to get to the final resolution.

Alex Fitch



Format: Book

Author: Alex Cox

Publication date: 1 September 2008

Publisher: Soft Skull (USA)

Paperback: 304 pages, illustrated

There are film directors who have written books and those who have had books written about them. There are also film directors who have found fame in the public eye either through their own mystique, reputation or self-promotion. Alex Cox has occupied many of these positions, and both through his film output and on the evidence of this book, deservedly so.

I encountered Cox as a TV presenter before I became aware of his work as a director: he presented the exemplary TV programme Moviedrome on BBC2 from 1987 to 1994, introducing a variety of obscure B-movies and other esoteric titles. Cox’s choice of films was limited to a long list given to him by the BBC and some were edited and shown in a less than perfect print, but this fitted with his own experiences as a filmmaker: his career was shaped by the whims of financiers, the locations he found and the Byzantine path his films often took before ending up on screen in some sort of final form.

X Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker documents the making of 10 films Cox directed between 1978 and 2008. This choice in itself is a mixture of self-censorship and self-promotion - his first film Edge City, aka Sleep is for Sissies (1978), was actually a student film that probably wouldn’t have seen release outside of festival screenings anyway due to its 36-minute running time, and should perhaps have been relegated to the introductory passage. Elsewhere, the book omits his 1996 film The Winner, which he took on only as work-for-hire and has since disowned. That said, no matter what Cox’s own feelings are about that film, it is disingenuous to not mention anything about the movie, when the other feature films the director made during his career are documented in great length, with self-deprecation and much enthusiasm.

One of the main reasons Cox has written this book is to describe vividly what a challenge it is to make movies, particularly if they are not considered or intended to be mainstream (perhaps, one of the reasons for the exclusion of The Winner) and how it isn’t anything like the glamorous lifestyle depicted by the media. Anecdotes include nearly coming to blows with Harry Dean Stanton while making Repo Man to the perils and travails of working with rock stars in the ill-considered spaghetti-style Western Straight to Hell. While Cox talks with honesty about his own limitations and the myriad of problems a low-budget filmmaker comes across, he has censored some of his personal problems, which tempers the verisimilitude of the book, including sleeping through the first call of the day due to misuse of certain substances, which has been documented elsewhere by his peers and colleagues.

Cox is as erudite and charming a host as the author of this book as he was as a television presenter, and while some of his anecdotes of near-fatal stunts and risk-taking in the face of adversity serve more as a cautionary tale than promotional material for the film industry, it’s hard not to get involved in the adventure of it all. Like his introductions to Moviedrome, many of the stories about Cox’s filmmaking experience lead to digressions on facts, figures, other filmmakers, and Cox’s beloved spaghetti Westerns.

Illustrations are provided throughout; some productions have only a Spartan number of behind-the-scene photos, while others are accompanied by Cox’s own sketches and comic strips. While the director’s visual style isn’t as idiosyncratic or as important to an appreciation of his work compared to someone like Terry Gilliam, it would be fascinating to see a much larger collection of Cox’s comics and doodles. It seems entirely appropriate that the unmade sequel to Repo Man - Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday - has just been realised as a graphic novel. My own favourite Cox film is Death and the Compass (1992), which started life as a TV movie then was expanded to feature length - the reasons why are explained in X Films. His first feature, Repo Man (1983), had its (copious) swear words redubbed when shown on TV, including the infamous new expletive ‘Freaking Melon Farmer!’ Cox himself is fond of this version, but neither the PG version of Repo Man or the shorter (better) cut of Death and Compass are available on DVD, and so exist only as memories (or video tapes for the lucky few) for people who saw them on transmission. Reading X Films is like recalling alternate versions of the director’s movies; it casts the end product in a different light and leaves you wanting more. While the book’s shortcomings can be laid at the hands of its author, you could say the same ultimately of his films, and overall, like the finest entries in the director’s career, X Films is a startling, engaging and occasionally hilarious volume that’s well worth a read.

Alex Fitch