Sunday, January 23, 2011
Few films make it, but The Searchers is certainly one—it sits comfortably amongst the pantheon of classics considered nearly unassailable (well, there’s always someone), the standard by which other westerns are typically measured. So it takes a somewhat perverse filmmaker to deliberately court comparison, and it takes an especially bold one to tackle that much-loved film armed only with a micro-budget and no more plot than you can fit into the backseat of an SUV. Or in other words, Alex Cox.
Searchers 2.0 is certainly not a remake of Ford’s original. It’s not even a screwy homage or satire. Cox wrote and directed the film out of a simple desire to argue with The Searchers, the entire western genre, and just about anything else that comes up along the way. And the best way to get people going on one of those rambling movie conversations— you know, where someone asks what the best war movie is and suddenly you’re spouting your theories on the connection between Hollywood and the Pentagon—is to stick them in a vehicle and have them drive through the middle of nowhere. Throw in a couple of car breakdowns and a few random encounters and you’ve got yourself a feature film.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single contrivance, in this case the meeting of Mel and Fred, two hard-luck middle-aged men who both appeared in the same cult western as children. The two men reminisce about the abuse they suffered at the hands (or more accurately, whip) of the film’s screenwriter—Fritz Frobisher, whose name evokes nothing so much as a rogue Germanic Mountie (he's not, but the prospect tantalizes the imagination). Almost immediately, they bond over plans of revenge. The two men set out on a rather ignoble quest to kick the ass of the now-quite-elderly Frobisher at a special open-air film screening in Monument Valley, iconic setting of numerous westerns, including The Searchers.
These two are clearly not tragic heroes, as the prosaic circumstances (and questionable intent) of their scheme suggests. Mel, the more affable half of the pair, is a deadbeat dad and day labourer. Fred, a small-time working actor, watches his old films in a dingy apartment and greets guests with a gun. He is, as the film tells us every ten minutes or so, an asshole. And one of the characters telling us this is Mel’s daughter Delilah, who mocks the men’s fuddy-duddy follies while chauffeuring them to meet Frobisher.
Clumsiness of the opening aside—Cox is so hasty to get on the road it’s a wonder he didn’t just start there and skip the whole forced meeting of Mel and Fred—the film reveals an unruly charm once in motion. Less a story than a sort of free-floating debate touching on Cox’s pet subjects, the film is little more than the three characters arguing about movies and politics, revenge and morality. The director wants a dialogue—not just between his characters, but also between himself and us. Technique is a secondary concern here. Characters pause in the middle of lines not for dramatic effect, but simply because they’re struggling to remember what they’re supposed to be say (the whole thing was apparently filmed in 15 days, and it shows). This is punk filmmaking at its core: shabby, confrontational, weird.
Yes, of course, narrative is a bourgeois trap, using the candy of order and aesthetic pleasure to lure us into the oven of hidden master ideologies (or whatever), but part of me wishes Cox would just do away with the story entirely. The film still goes through the motions of a narrative, even though it clearly distrusts that whole game. But instead of completely trashing the story, Cox follows it half-heartedly until finally throwing everything out the window only in the last ten minutes or so. When you’ve got one foot over the edge, why wait so long to jump? As always, sensible behaviour is the sworn enemy of self-sabotage.
As a filmmaker, Alex Cox flirts with bad ideas in a way that is often thrilling. I can easily see him making a deeply flawed, even bad film, but never a mediocre one—there’s too much at stake for that to ever happen, even in a small film such as this one. It’s true that the film can be obvious, sometimes to the point of irritation (Delilah’s SUV constantly runs out of gas BECAUSE THE IRAQ WAR IS WRONG YOU PLUTOCRATIC GITS), but there’s also a keen humour and insight that runs through the whole thing. There’s something energizing about watching a filmmaker openly contemplate war films as product placement for the army, or question the debased ideal of revenge in westerns, and inviting us to do the same. Look at this not as a refined, self-contained work of art, but merely another salvo in a cultural dialogue that has been going on for over fifty years.