Apr 29, 2013

Straight to Hell

When I first saw British cult auteur Alex Cox’s anarchistic surrealist slapstick Western Straight to Hell (1987)—a work titled after the 1982 Clash song of the same name—I thought it was one of the most incomprehensible cinematic failures of the director’s career (I had yet to see most of the filmmaker's post-El Patrullero (1992) oeuvre), especially when compared to his debut feature-length masterpiece Repo Man (1984), but I have given it a couple subsequent viewings since then and the film has grown on me like a juicy cyst that is just waiting to be popped. Co-written by Dick Rude (A Cox regular who played protagonist Otto’s skinheaded criminal punk friend “Duke” in Repo Man) and Cox over a mere three day period of apparent coffee addiction and sexual tension (apparently, the two writers were entranced by a woman sunbathing in a hotel room nearby their own) and shot over a four week period in Almería, Spain—the place where many great Spaghetti Westerns were filmed, including a number directed by Dago master auteur Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly)—Straight to Hell was not originally intended as a film, but a concert tour of Nicaragua of all things in support of the quasi-commie Sandinistas against the USA (like most ethno-masochistic whites/Europeans, Cox has had a lifelong obsession with leftist Latin American revolutionary movements), yet things fell through due to lack of funds and political reasons, and it was also probably decided that it would be much easier to raise money by making a feature-length with rock stars being cinematically killed opposed to being literally killed at concerts very few people would probably attend. With all the musicians already around that were supposed to support the unofficial “Rock for Communism” festival, including Joe Strummer of the Clash, Elvis Costello, and Grace Jones, as well as members of the The Pogues, Amazulu, and The Circle Jerks, Straight to Hell already had a punk rock star cast for a punk rock parody of Spaghetti Westerns in the spirit of Repo Man (1984), albeit with much less pre-production planning. An extremely loose remake of the criminally underrated Spaghetti Western Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot! (1967) directed by comp-symp auteur Giulio Questi—a gothic surrealist Western featuring a gay gang of fascistic blackshirt bandits—Straight to Hell is all the more nihilistic than the film that inspired it in its loving antagonism of the Guido cowboy genre that it is pathologically obsessed with. Advertised with the more than literal tagline, “A story of blood, money, guns, coffee, and sexual tension,” Straight to Hell is the closest in spirit to Cox’s masterpiece Repo Man, aside from possibly Walker (1987), albeit all the more uncompromisingly cynical, misanthropic, aesthetically malicious, and thematically anarchic, yet that does not also necessarily make it the lapsed punk filmmaker’s greatest film either, but it does not make a bad way to waste about 80 minutes or so. A torrid and sardonic pseudo-Spaghetti Western about four innately ill-starred and incompetent hit men/bank robbers who hide out in a peculiar desert town inhabited by the decidedly deranged and degenerate, Straight to Hell—a work director Alex Cox once described as an “anti-capitalist, anti-world trade, political parable”—is a classic story of what human beings do best, killing each other, and the altruistic big businesses that support them doing it. 

 Straight to Hell opens with the introduction of three goofy hitmen, Willy, Norwood, and Simms (played by co-writer Dick Rude, Cox regular Sy Richardson, and the Clash frontman Joe Strummer) as they prove from the get go they are incompetent criminals by botching a hit against an ostensibly Jewish businessman named Mr. Greenberg by oversleeping after an all-night alcohol binge. Norwood—a swag-driven middle-aged black man who happens to the oldest and wisest, if not equally self-destructive of the criminal clan—also has brought along his brazen and bitchy pregnant old lady/bride Velma (played by pre-Hole Courtney Love) for the wild and reckless ride. In fear for what might happen to them after their suavely-dressed employer Amos Dade (played by filmmaker Jim Jarmusch) learns they really fucked up the job, the four fiercely fallible felons rob a bank and head for the desert, but their car breaks down so they bury their money and head for a seeming ghost town “till the heat blows down,” where they are silently greeted by a turned over car that looks much like their own with a dead man still in the driver's seat, thus offering a potent premonition of their dubious futures. The next day, the goofy hit men have a bloody showdown with a gang of outlaw bandits named the McMahon clan (made up of Celtic punk band the Pogues) who are addicted to killing and coffee. After mindlessly killing a couple of people, the hit men earn the respect of the mad and murderous McMahons and their crudely charismatic leader Frank (Biff Yeager), thus resulting in a dubious truce for the next couple days in the rather treacherous tradition of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. Not long after, Simms and Willy fall in love with two local women from the town, Fabienne (Jennifer Balgobin)—the French wife of an insanely paranoid ex-war veteran turned hardware shop owner—and Louise (Michele Winstanley)—a British bitch that is quite adamant about finding out where the hit men’s money is buried as opposed to what is hidden in the horny hit man's pants. When the McMahons' respected patriarch, a disgruntled old man, is killed by his own deranged granddaughter Sabrina McMahon (Kathy Burke), who pops her pop-pop over the head and knocks him off a roof just for the hell of it, the blood gets flowing and starts flying. Naturally, with Straight to Hell being a spoof of the Spaghetti Western genre, a quasi-metaphysical and festive funeral is held where a friend of Amos, Whitey, makes the mistake of showing up at the wrong place at the wrong time as he is looking for the renegade hit men and is subsequently hanged as he is blamed by the bloodlusting and vengeful McMahons for being a “stranger” and, naturally, the death of dear old grandpa. Not long after, a supposed house manufacturer named I.G. Farben (Dennis Hopper) and his genteel wife Sonia (Grace Jones) show up to the town and delivers a number of high-tech weapons that everyone in the town will inevitably use to exterminate one another in one of the most erratically eccentric and needlessly nonsensical battle scenes ever filmed in cinema history. When Amos Dade shows up at the town, the cat is finally let out of the bag in regard to the hit men's deceit and the bullets begin flying in a less than civil, civil war between the townspeople, the hit men, and Amos’ criminal crew. Frank McMahon inevitably sides with Amos in reconciliation for mistakenly hanging Whitey for the death of grandpa McMahon and the hit men are essentially all by their lonesome, including among themselves as treachery reigns.  Velma proves that Courtney Love was always a whore and Willy and Simms put holes in a holy man and one of the two men eventually betrays the other. In the end, only Norwood—whose wanton wife has cheated on him and ultimately pays the ultimate price via a karma-based car explosion—and a couple cute prostitutes are left standing. In the end, only the mysterious I.G. Farben and his big oil company win. 

 The key to the anti-capitalist/anti-globalist ‘message’ of Straight to Hell is the character I.G. Farben played by Dennis Hooper. Hooper's character is named after the German chemical industry conglomerate of the same name that had the patent for the Jew-iciding gas Zyklon B which was found guilty of war crimes and seized by the Allies in 1945 and liquidated in 1952 (now only existing as an asset-less shell that pays ‘reparations’ to its victims). I.G. Farben was also in cahoots with John D. Rockefeller's United States-based Standard Oil Company and possibly had ties with DuPont, a major investor in and producer of leaded gasoline, United States Industrial Alcohol Company and its subsidiary, Cuba Distilling Co., as well as countless other “Allied” companies, but the kraut company would ultimately act as the scapegoat for all the other cancerous corporations who have only become all the more powerful and world-conquering today. Straight to Hell points to the fact, using a maniac microcosm of the pseudo-Spaghetti Western as the context, that while big corporations on opposing sides were getting rich together exploiting their nation’s war effort, the civilians of each respective nation were the ones that ultimately paid the price for an illusionary war (or the ‘Grand Illusion’ as famed French auteur Jean Renoir once called it) established to do one thing and one thing only—to make the rich even richer at the expense of everyone below them, especially the philistine peasant. Indeed, the overall ‘message’ of Straight to Hell is a bit preachy in the quasi-punk fashion, even if few viewers of the film actually seem to notice it, thus making for one of the many reasons why the film just cannot compare with Cox’s celluloid magnum opus Repo Man—a celluloid goldmine of nihilistic ideas and absurdist comedy—but the two together do make for an ideally idiosyncratic double-feature (and a triple-feature with Walker (1987) makes for all the more farcical fun). Although Straight to Hell concludes with promise of a sequel with the inter-title “COMING SOON: BACK TO HELL,” Cox would never get around to making it but he did create a rather pointless ‘director’s cut’ of the original film. Inspired by Francis Ford Coppola’s disastrous “Redux” version of Apocalypse Now (1979), Cox released a director’s cut of his Spaghetti Western parody entitled Straight to Hell Returns (2010) a couple years back, which features a couple deleted scenes, new CGI scenes of skeleton wolves and dogs, and a slightly upgraded soundtrack. Considering Alex Cox’s filmmaking career has plummeted to unimaginable depths of celluloid ineptitude with the marvelously mundane anti-Western melodrama Searchers 2.0 (2007) and his blasphemously bad non-sequel to Repo Man, Repo Chick (2009), one can only assume he needed to find a way so his electricity would not get cut off and Straight to Hell Returns was the rather unfortunate answer.  Still, I found Straight to Hell Returns to be infinitely more enjoyable and inventive than a masturbatory pomo fanboy porn flick like Quentin Tarantino's negrophiliac celluloid defecation on Spaghetti Westerns, Django Unchained (2012).  After all, where Alex Cox admits he is a pussy "pacifist" (he even had the gall to personally tell Neutron bomb inventor Samuel T. Cohen this), which Straight to Hell fully illustrates in a meaty manner that actually has testicular fortitude (even if the director has none in a real world context), Tarantino, despite his incessant celluloid licking of black and brown butts and women's feet, has yet to fully embrace his inner beta-male and direct a two-volume piece of big budget interracial cuckold porn.  In short, I will always prefer going Straight to Hell to seeing Django Unchained.

-Ty E