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.