Deposed Royalty

The lower depths: Director Akira Kurosawa as seen by Alex Cox

At one point in Alex Cox's made-for-cable documentary Kurosawa: The Last Emperor, an ashen Francis Coppola recites the names of the Four Emperors of Cinema: Bergman, Fellini, Kubrick...and Kurosawa. But Cox, leaping over the five decades between Kurosawa's first international hit, Rashomon (1950), and his farewell tours, Ran (1985) and Rhapsody in August (1991), doesn't go on to discover anything about the work of one of the last century's most celebrated film artists that you didn't know before--even if what you knew before was only the barest dictionary definition of "Akira Kurosawa." And the blue-ribbon panel of assembled Major Moviemakers fails to lend any psychological insights--or any other insights, for that matter. (Bernardo Bertolucci, Andrei Konchalovsky, and John Woo scarcely seem able to form sentences.)

Still, Kurosawa: The Last Emperor does exert a queer fascination. It conjures to mind, like a drowned man's life flashing before him, an entire movie career in a freeze-frame instant. And it isn't Kurosawa's career: We've had that lifetime of masterpieces burned into our brains over the last several decades, and at this point, more than a year after the director's death, there was almost no need for another eulogy. Rather, the tragically cut-short career here belongs to that redheaded stepchild Alex Cox. Without wishing to sound unkind, I wonder: How did the guy who directed Repo Man and Sid & Nancy wind up making this posh version of an "E! Hollywood True Story"?

Imagining the snaggletoothed auteur of Eighties smelly-cantina flicks like Straight to Hell parked on a curb somewhere with a half-drained bottle of Mezcal, I gasped at the recent sight of an Alex Cox who had met a much darker fate in the real world: hawking acting lessons on the Internet. Indeed, sells DVDs, soundtrack CDs, VHS cassettes, and, coming soon, the thespian tutelage of The Man Who Made Gary Oldman into Sid Vicious. Alongside Cox's entrepreneurial gambits is an autobiography, in which the strange arc from Repo Man to Kurosawa is treated with an admirably ginger, almost Buddhist circumspection.

A Liverpool kid with the brains and means to attend Oxford Law, Cox instead went to UCLA Film School. The product of his alumni connections was the initially independent Repo Man (1984), known to us now through one of those negative pickup deals that have since become old-fashioned. One of the unlikeliest, and most likable, buddy movies ever made, Cox's debut pairs a surly young punk (Emilio Estevez) with a square, bad-suit-wearing, speed-addicted, stuck-in-the-Fifties repo man (Harry Dean Stanton)--a car repossessor. The movie's coolly blank absurdist comedy, the gorgeousness of its images of downtown L.A. antiglamour, and its absolutely ruthless eviction of all sentimentality have made this a movie that teenage weirdos have glommed onto from its release to the present day. (I still recall the relief I felt reading Pauline Kael's review: "This is the kind of movie, with nothing positive in it, that can make you feel good." She got it!)

After Straight to Hell (1986), a what-the-fuck cast-and-crew luau in Mexico unjustly preserved on film, Cox made what was probably his biggest commercial hit--Sid & Nancy (1986), a biopic of the stumble and fall of Mr. and Mrs. Sid Vicious, a film that greedily laps up all the schmaltz that Repo Man swept off its plate. Sid & Nancy, too, is a perennial favorite of the teen hipoisie: There's something irresistible, sad to say, about the shot of the two lovers kissing, their embrace doused not with moonlight but falling hunks of garbage. Seen today, Sid & Nancy is brayingly acted (by both leads) and borderline incoherent, but it's the only movie of its kind, and so it seems to have a permanent place in film history as a sort of punk-rock Saturday Night Fever.

But what the director did next nearly defies categorization. Delivering Walker in 1988, Cox damned the torpedoes with an act of sedition so blaring as to make "subversive" Eighties movies such as Blue Velvet seem like mere whispers. Topping even the huevos of Warren Beatty's Reds, Walker is an explicitly pro-Sandinista epic about a nineteenth-century American visionary, a home-brewed Fitzcarraldo, who sought to invade Nicaragua and absorb it into the American fabric. With a magnificent performance by Ed Harris as Walker (for shame, Klaus Kinski!), and a hilariously unexpected one by Marlee Matlin, the film clangs to a climax with Huey helicopters joining the clash with the Nicaraguan armada. Walker recalls the woozy experiments of early-Seventies studio cinema--in particular, the solo works of Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda--but joined to a bracing political commitment. It suggests what "counterculture cinema" could have been if it'd had brains and guts rather than mere druggy malaise. And it proved to be the iceberg that cracked the prow of Cox's ship.

Through most of the intervening decade, Cox has spent his time drawing Godzilla comic books (!), adapting Doctor Strange for the screen with Stan Lee, and hosting "Moviedrome," a BBC program that features cult movies. (Attention Quentin Tarantino: This would be an even better between-movies gig for you.) Meanwhile, the features Cox has concocted have been stillborn and sad. The Borges short story "Death and the Compass"--as spare, factual, and O. Henryishly brutal as any Borges anecdote--was turned by Cox into a long, splatty, peyote-crazed circus for the BBC. Cox simply didn't get the distance--quite a long one--between Borges's rigor and the head-shop antics of a Jodorowsky movie.

And the director's latest flirt with the "mainstream," 1996's The Winner, is right at the bottom of the barrel--one of those cable movies that thinks "colorful noir" equals "Damon Runyon farce." Vincent D'Onofrio is a Vegas dimwit who can't place a losing bet; Rebecca DeMornay is the big-haired, lobster-slurping bimbo after his cash; and Billy Bob Thornton, Delroy Lindo, and Michael Madsen stand around in ill-fitting suits, counting the change in their pockets. Cox contributes some elaborately staged long-take sequences, wherein eight pages of dialogue play out in a single, gliding shot. But when the material is this bad, you can't help thinking: Man, that Steadicam operator's back has got to hurt!

And so the bastard son of Sam Peckinpah and Joe Strummer finds himself here, at the beginning of a new millennium, teaching "indie film"-loving teeny boppers about The Seven Samurai on cable TV, and hoping coeds will sign up for his Internet acting class. Hell, it could be worse: Peckinpah himself was doing Sean Lennon videos in his dotage. Cox just needs a little Keith Richards blood transfusion--he needs a writer with a Repo Man-ish sensibility to give him something tasty to chew on, along with a few well-placed boundaries and limits. (Cox, in a disciplined phase, could have handled the script of Being John Malkovich as well as Spike Jonze.) In the meantime, skip his cable documentary, go to his Web site, and spend a few bucks if you can: Cox's buyout checks from his aborted Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas won't last forever.


Kurosawa: The Last Emperor airs Monday at 3:00 p.m., Tuesday at 1:30 p.m., and additionally throughout February on the Independent Film Channel (cable channel 56B in Minneapolis, 73 in St. Paul).

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