10,000 Ways to Die: The Punk Westerns of Alex Cox

Monument Valley of the Shadows of Death: “Searchers 2.0”

Punk filmmaker Alex Cox has issues with the western genre. 10,000 Ways to Die, his book of essays on the spaghetti western that was originally written as his graduate thesis, relates his distaste for more respectable western icons like Clint Eastwood and John Wayne, and his preference for the more amoral, corrupt symbols of Italian horse operas. Cox prefers Franco Nero’s Django, the bounty hunter that carries around a gatling gun in a coffin that he drags behind him everywhere he goes, to Eastwood’s Man with No Name, a character that Django essentially rips off: “There are two opposed sets of outlaw gangs, and the hero suffers horribly – it feels fresh and original.”

Joe Strummer in “Straight to Hell Returns”

So it stands to reason that both of Cox’s own westerns are primarily subversive comedies, where bad guys face off with other bad guys and no one leaves intact. His 1987 acid western Straight to Hell features a bunch of equally sleazy gangs, almost entirely played by musicians like The Clash’s Joe Strummer, all members of The Pogues, Courtney Love and Elvis Costello. They converge on a small town for no good reason and wind up killing each other for totally inconsequential reasons. In Searchers 2.0, a pair of washed-up bit actors (Del Zamora and Ed Pansullo) set out to get revenge on the evil screenwriter (Sy Richardson) that beat them when they were child actors for the sake of shooting a more realistic scene.

Both Searchers 2.0 and Straight to Hell, the latter of which was recently recolorized, updated with previously unreleased scenes and retitled Straight to Hell Returns, are both proudly crude. Almost everyone in Straight to Hell mercilessly beats Karl “the weiner man” (Zander Schloss) simply because he looks funny and has the unfortunate habit of showing up when he’s least wanted. In both films, Cox proudly wears his disrespect for empty symbols on his sleeve and actively mocks the idea that violence could ever have a positive value beyond providing immediately gratifying spectacle.

Watch Straight to Hell Returns on Fandor.

Cox’s westerns implode generic symbols as an irreverent means of selectively preserving and destroying film culture. Straight to Hell seeks to distill the weirdness and the cruelly cynical sense of humor of spaghetti westerns while Searchers 2.0 trivializes the revenge drama that Wayne and director John Ford turned into a cinematic milestone in The Searchers. Both films nihilistically mock the fact that the traditional western as we know it lacks a hard-and-fast “moral imperative,” as the characters in Searchers 2.0 put it. The characters in Ford’s westerns get to have their cake and eat it to, never paying the price for seeking revenge as characters in traditional revenge tragedies do.

The self-seriousness of the western is put most squarely in Cox’s crosshairs in Searchers 2.0. Pansullo’s quest for revenge, like Wayne’s in The Searchers, looks like it might redeem his clueless and wayward character but no such thing happens. Nobody rides off into the sunset here, though Pansullo does fly off with a herd of helicopters further into the mesas of Monument Valley, the filming location made famous by John Ford’s westerns. Cox doesn’t want to pay homage to that tradition, he wants to tweak its ear and create his own style from its remnants.

Watch Searchers 2.0 on Fandor.

Simon Abrams is a NY-based film, tv and comics critic for various outlets, including the Village Voice, the Onion’s A.V. Club and Wide Screen. He collects his writing on film at Extended Cut.

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