About alexcoxfilms

film director, writer, actor

BREUGEL IN VIENNA

To Vienna, to see the Breugel exhibition at the Kunst Historisches Museum.

It’s the largest Breugel show ever – two thirds of his paintings, and many of his sketches and the prints thereof. If you like Breugel and can make the trip, you should. Sixteenth century paintings don’t travel well, and it’s unlikely that so many of the Elder’s works will ever be assembled in one place again.

The first piece of art I ever took an interest in came on loan from the local library in Bebington. It was a tiny print of his Triumph of Death – just the kind of thing a morbid fourteen-year-old Wirralian would love. When I lived in Tabernas I made multiple trips to Madrid to visit the Prado – still my favourite art museum – and never failed to visit The Triumph, and Bosch’s Hay Wain, located nearby. Though the subject matter is in theory different, the two paintings have a lot in common… but I’ll save those observations for another time. When I last went to the Prado, in January of this year, The Triumph was gone – off for conservation work in Brussels. From there it went straight to Vienna, where I caught up with it yesterday.

The show is a bargain at 20 euros (which includes the rest of the museum, including a selection of art pieces drawn from the stacks by the American film director, Wes Anderson, and his partner – some of which are fascinating). But beware! There are big crowds at the Bruegel show, and you have to buy a ticket with a specified entrance time. I’d planned to spend two days at the Museum, but on the day I arrived, Bruegel was sold out. On the second day I couldn’t get in until 15:50 hrs. Usually the Museum closes at 18:00, but fortunately it was a Thursday, when the place stays open till 21:00. (In theory you can jump the queue by paying 30 euros, but in fact you can’t – the queue-jumper tickets are limited, and on both days were sold out.)

The exhibition begins at the beginning with early landscape drawings. The first painting is The Drunk Cast into the Pigsty, borrowed from a private collection (so if you don’t see it here, you may never see it at all). Next come pastoral scenes painted much later: including Hunters in the Snow, a lovely painting full of irony: two hunters with their posse of 13 dogs return with a single dead fox to show for their efforts. These are the famous winter paintings which include much ice-skating. After the prints of seven vices and seven virtues (which you could spend many hours on), more big paintings appear – The Battle Between Carnival and Lent and Childrens’ Games. These, I learned, are called “wimmelbild” – busy pictures. You probably know them both (they are quite famous, and part of the Museum’s permanent collection).

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After several seafaring prints and paintings (the Elder was clearly knowledgeable about how ships were built and sailed) we enter a room which features two more large paintings: The Triumph, and Dulle Grillet. The catalogue gets a bit forlorn at this point, as the exhibition wasn’t able to include The Fall of The Rebel Angels, which like the other two is hugely influenced by Bosch. Why The Fall wasn’t included isn’t clear. Some of Breugel’s paintings – such as The Blind Leading The Blind – are too frail to travel. Perhaps this was the case with The Fall, which remains in Brussels (however, The Sermon of John the Baptist was denied an export license by the Hungarian authorities – it remains in a private collection, so we may never get to see it at all).

But what wonders The Triumph and Dulle Grillet are! Both were recently restored at the same place, and the work done is marvellous. The colours in The Triumph are much improved; its vision of multiple skeletons rampaging across a ruined landscape, stabbing, hanging, murdering, catching humans in nets or driving them into a hideous box, is clearer and more timely than it’s ever been. As the catalogue observes, by the standards of the sixteenth century, this is a very odd painting. Unlike Bosch’s Last Judgement (which I saw at the Theatre Museum the same day), there is no God and there are no angels: no one escapes death, no one is found worthy of heaven, all are doomed. For some reason this painting isn’t described as a “wimmelbild” although it certainly looks like one.

The Triumph of Death is a very contemporary painting. I love and admire it still, and yet… I think I admire Dulle Grillet even more. This – using a similar colour palate and technique – depicts the harrowing of Hell, by an army of women, led by the eponymous Mad Margaret. I’m not a Christian and so won’t attempt any theological explanation. All I know about the harrowing of Hell comes from Caryl Churchill’s great play Top Girls, in which D.G. recounts invading and ransacking the Devil’s kingdom. She is the largest character to appear in any Bruegel painting yet – with a metal helmet, lugging a sword, a knife, and much booty, including a frying pan. Again, there is no judgement or redemption in the painting: just a nightmare Boschian landscape full of monsters, and a band of women, led by Margaret, battling the monsters and the men.

I could have spent a day looking at just these two paintings. But the crowds were thick, and the next room presented a sight almost as tremendous: two paintings of the Tower of Babel. The large one, perhaps slightly more famous and familiar, is part of the Museum’s permanent collection. The smaller painting, on loan from Rotterdam, depicts a tower twice as high (you can tell from the size of the tiny figures at work on the massive structures). Either painting takes the viewer’s breath away. If you would like to see them side by side, make haste to the Kunst Historisches Museum.

The exhibition winds down with Peasant Wedding and Peasant Dance, paintings in which the landscape and backdrop give way to larger, foreground characters. Near the end is another small painting: the two chained monkeys, borrowed from Berlin, with a fascinating side display showing the stages in which the artist created the work.

Seeing the paintings all together in one place enables one to make connections which might otherwise be missed. Do the two monkeys reappear in a window in Hell, looking out over the battle of women against all in Dulle Grillet? A sightless face-mask appears at least twice: worn by a child in a window in Children’s Games, and again by a skeleton, pouring away wine (no longer needed!) in The Triumph of Death.

If I could wish for anything (besides all the missing Breugels), it would be for the exhibition to include one of two copies of The Triumph, made, perhaps, by Breugel’s nephew Jean. Both were painted around the turn of the century, and reside in Gratz and Lichtenstein, I think. They are not exact copies: a man in a blue robe, captured by a skeleton, is depicted with a red robe in the re-makes – so he is a Cardinal (his captor also wears a red Cardinal’s hat). It would be nice to see two or three Triumphs side by side! But this is the old guy’s exhibition, and it has its priorities.

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Two notes about Vienna, where I had never been before. I was trepidatious about travelling there, since I speak no German, and even less Austro-Bavarian: but of course almost everyone I met spoke English, and was entirely welcoming. And in three days I didn’t see a single baseball cap. Not one. Is this a cultural sea-change?

The Breugel exhibition ends on January 13. If you like the old guy, and can afford the trip, well, you just must go.

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ITALIAN WESTERNS IN TUCSON, ARIZONA

If you find yourself in the American Southwest during the month of August, please feel free to visit The Loft Cinema in Tucson, any Sunday. You’ll find me there, deosa volenti, introducing four of what I think are the best of these films, and hawking copies of my book, 10,000 Ways To Die – about Italian Westerns.

The films are FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, screening on Sunday 5 August; Lizzani’s REQUIESCANT, screening the following Sunday; Questi’s SE SEI VIVO SPARA / DJANGO KILL! on 19 August, and Corbucci’s IL GRANDE SILENZIO / THE BIG SILENCE on the 26th.

IL GRANDE SILENZIO is a new HD transfer and looks very nice: it’s Corbucci’s masterpiece, and one of a bleak handful of Westerns-in-the-Snow. You’ve perhaps seen DJANGO KILL! on DVD or even VHS, but the experience of watching this insane and brilliant picture in the theatre cannot be beat. REQUIESCANT is almost as demented, with a fabulous cast of villains and a Pier Paolo Pasolini in a supporting role, as a revolutionary priest.

If you’re in Tucson, come on by!

Cox and Lizzani, 1984(The illustrative image, by the way, is of my younger self shaking hands with Carlo Lizzani, director of REQUIESCANT. He was directing a play in Rome. I had just made REPO MAN, my first film. Perhaps you can see my Jesse Jackson for President badge… Lizzani was a very gracious man to waste time shaking hands with such a bozo when he had his play to attend.)

A GREAT VICTORY … AND TWO GOODBYES

A wonderful thing has happened in Europe. The European Parliament has voted to reject a draconian extension of copyright law, favoured by big content owners and the European Commission. The EFF reports:

“… with the support of nearly a million Europeans, MEPs voted earlier this month to reject the EU’s proposed copyright reform—including controversial proposals to create a new “snippet” right for news publishers, and mandatory copyright filters for sites that published user-uploaded content.”

Sometimes people are surprised when I say that I am against any extension of copyright law, and think that copyright and patent periods should be rolled back, not extended. After all, I am a ‘creative’ and must therefore benefit when the Hollywood studios and music industry get longer rights ownership/more power and money, right?

Not really. One thing the last ten years have shown us is that while the mega-rich get richer and richer, the rest of us do not. Copyright law extensions (via the Sonny Bono Act, the Berne Convention, the TTP and other scams) benefit multinational rights-holding  corporations and their owners. Criterion may bring out a beautiful blu-ray edition of SID & NANCY but neither I nor my co-author Abbe Wool will see a penny from it. Nor will Peter McCarthy, the producer. We all made SID & NANCY for a proper, ethical British company, Zenith. But Zenith is no more, and in the US our film is now owned by MGM, and sub-distributed by Fox, Murdoch’s company. Too bad for us…

A decade or two ago, Margaret Matheson and I tried to get a British TV series of H.G. Wells’ WAR OF THE WORLDS off the ground. We approached Ardman Animation about doing the special effects. We were counting on the book entering the public domain that same year (it was already out of copyright in the US, but still in copyright in England). Then the Berne Converntion was ammended to extend copyright periods by fifteen more years. We couldn’t convince the British “rights holder” to let us go ahead. So our project didn’t get made.

I don’t mean to complain – only to point out that anecdotes like these are the tip of a very large iceberg in which ‘creatives’ are frozen out of profit-sharing and the right to adapt other creative works. Copyright law – and extensions thereof – don’t benefit most creators in any meaningful way. Whereas creators would benefit if Copyright periods were much shorter and all creative works entered the public domain sooner. Then I could make my long-planned epic, GODZILLA VERSUS MARS ATTACKS MEETS CITIZEN KANE.

Meanwhile, sad news from the diaspora of REPO MAN. Robby Muller, the cinematographer, and Martin Turner, the stills photographer, both died last week. Robby’s passing was noted by the MSM, and he was rightly celebrated for some of the wonderful work he did. Our hiring him for REPO MAN was strictly fortuitous: Michael Nesmith, our executive producer, had rejected my first choice of cameraperson. Peter McCarthy told me, “Take this as an opportunity. Now you can ask for anyone you want!” Having been awestruck by his work on THE AMERICAN FRIEND, I asked for Robby Muller. Nesmith was all in favour, and we got him. It was his second American film.

Robby was a genius of lighting, and of composition. He didn’t like closeups, preferring wider shots which celebrated the performances of all the actors in the frame. He wasn’t much interested in camera movement when we worked together. On his other American film he’d been given a Steadicam. He and his crew took it out of the boxes, marvelled at how heavy it was, put it back in the boxes, and used them to sit on.

Robby was a great artist – as was Martin Turner, though he’s perhaps known to fewer people. “Stills photographer” doesn’t do justice to his work on REPO MAN, as he was also a supporting actor and – together with Jonathan Wacks – came up with the concept for the film’s finale. I met Martin at film school – what was then the Radio, Film and TV Studies course at Bristol. He and David Hutt made a highly ambitious student film called NEARLY WIDE AWAKE, based on Knut Hamsen’s “Hunger.” (We paid no attention to things like Copyright! We were students!) I acted in it.

Martin worked for Lindsay Anderson in the art department on THE OLD CROWD and BRITANNIA HOSPITAL. He was responsible for the slide show which the guests in THE OLD CROWD enjoy, and which causes the death of “Tottie.” THE OLD CROWD greatly offended the London critical fraternity, and is rarely seen. I don’t know if a DVD exists. [Update — THE OLD CROWD does exist on DVD! A friend has found it in a set of TV Dramas by Alan Bennett, available on the Network label: Network clearly have good taste since they also distribute THE PRISONER.] But it is a wonderful film – perhaps Anderson’s best work of all, part Buñuel, part Brecht – and Martin had a lot to do with its insane inventiveness.

Back in the days of a government quango called “British Screen” Martin wrote two very good feature screenplays: THE BATTLE OF TORREMOLINOS and INTO A DESERT PLACE (the latter was an adaptation of Graham Mackintosh’s book about travelling Baja California on foot; I was to direct it). I thought them great scripts. But times were increasingly conservative, money was said to be scarce, and if you didn’t have a TV personality from The Young Ones or The Comic Strip pre-cast, it was hard to get a British film going. Too bad! Because they were great stories – especially TORREMOLINOS, an original script in which Martin pitted the English hooligan class against itself, and everything else, in a Spanish seaside tower block.

Martin was also a painter and sculptor. He painted a number of canvases depicting dreadful scenes from THE BATTLE OF TORREMOLINOS, and received a commission to display them at the Torremolinos Festival of Comedy, some years later. Martin and our mutual friend Karl Braun hung all the artwork, and went around the corner for a beer. In their absence the President of the Festival arrived, saw Martin’s art works, and ordered the building locked until the offending paintings could be removed.

Somehow Martin’s stories seemed to end that way: a great idea, a great piece of creative art somehow uncreated, or unseen, or banned, or – in the case of THE OLD CROWD – completed then mercilessly disparaged by clowns. No matter! Martin did his work. in the footsteps of Derek Jarman he moved to Dungeness, where he bought a lighthouse and renovated it, with his own hands. His wonderful partner, Brenda Morris, died a few years ago. Martin died at the lighthouse, at the end of last week. He’s survived by an ace daughter, Kathryn.

CACTUS DISASTER IN SPAIN

About a week ago I went to Almeria in the south of Spain to visit my pal, Rafa. He picked me up at night, and so I didn’t see what had happened until the next morning. Then I set out for a walk up the hill to the old ruined Moorish castle, as you do. And I encountered this:

Nopal_Disaster_1 copyYou’re looking at a forest of dead nopal cactus. What the gringos call prickly pear, and the Spanish call la chumbera. Fried to dessicated chunks of black or brown. It’s as if a wildfire had torn up the hillside, and burned only the cactus.

Years ago, when I lived in Tabernas, Malcolm McLaren came to visit: he and his wife were staying in the beautiful hotel in the Alhambra, and Charley Braun and I had driven over to meet him and extol the virtues of the Tabernas desert, where we had a little office supposedly dedicated to the production of feature films. We took McLaren on a tour, which included a scramble up the side of that hill, back when it was thickly garlanded by clusters of spine-covered nopales.

Now Malcolm was a very intelligent and knowledgeable person. He had managed the Sex Pistols, and had just released a wonderful album of his own –Madam Butterfly. But he was not worldly in a desert-oriented sense. As our little party neared the castle walls, I looked back down and saw Malcolm pulling himself up the hill by holding onto the cactus bushes… Mrs. McLaren spent the rest of the afternoon extracting spines from her husband’s hands, as the rest of us marvelled at how many of them there were.

Not any more. The “cactus plague” has blasted all spines and living tissue away.

Nopal_Disaster_2 copyThe disaster began to unfold in Murcia in 2012. Apparently a company making lipstick dyes had imported a large number of cochinilla insects from the Canary Islands; the bugs escaped and immediately swarmed the province’s nopal cactus, planting eggs and killing them. When I visited Tabernas in 2013 the town and the hillside were still verdant with nopales. They are all dead now. Over the last five years the bugs have swept across Andalucia, wiping out nopal populations in Valencia, Albacete, Almeria and Granada.

I saw some stands, sick-looking but surviving, near the coast in Almeria, and from the train north of Guadix. But it is a disaster both ecological and aesthetic. The nopales were an invasive species, brought back by the Conquistadores, but they produced outstanding fruit (and rajas) and were a vision of green beauty in an arid land.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA As you can see, the colour version of this history is even sadder than the infrared.

MORE INFRARED SAGUAROS…

Can’t resist sharing a few more of my Tucson IR Saguaro pictures.

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The camera which shot them was the only mirrorless APSC camera Pentax made — a not-very ergonomic square box camera designed by one “Marc Newsom”. Apparently said Newsom’s trademark was objets coloured bright yellow, something I am very in favour of. But the yellow K-01s were in short supply, and so I got a black one, which a company back east called Digital Silver Imaging converted to infra-red (I think by removing the anti-aliasing filter and putting an IR filter in its place. Thus the sensor records light wavelengths we don’t normally see — such as the brilliant white reflected by chlorophyl.

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For Bill The Galactic Hero DSI converted a Black Magic video camera in the same way – with an 830nm (nanomtetre) IR filter. The numbers determine the amount of regular light versus infrared light passing through the filter.

IMGP8472 copy I have another old Pentax camera – a K10D DSLR – with a 720nm IR filter. This lets more “regular” light through, and can produce some interesting colour effects:

IMGP8599 copy If you were to buy the only black-and-white dedicated digital camera, the Leica Monochrom M, it would set you back about $8,000 (body only, lenses extra). No doubt it is a wonderful camera. But for less than $300 you can buy a used Pentax K-01 (or spend $600 and get the yellow model new). For approx. $200, DSI or another company will install the IR filter of your choice. And for a total spend of around five hundred bucks/four hundred pounds (if you don’t mind doing some post-production work) you will have a very nice monochrome digital still (and video) camera.

IMGP8428 copy (My K-01 survived a brief drowning in the Klamath River. It is not waterproof or water-resistant and after getting wet it died. Patience, a screwdriver, an oven, and a plastic bag of brown rice brought it back to life, but I don’t recommend this experiment. )

Merry Xmas, and a happy new year!

 

IR FROM THE ARIZONA DESERT

While in the desert outside Tucson, AZ, I worked on the Billy the Kid script and took infrared pictures of the vicinity…

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The camera is a Pentax K-01, converted to read infra-red light as well as the light we perceive, by means of a filter. The lens, for the most part, is the 40mm pancake which came with the camera.

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In addition to turning green things white, the IR filter gets the best out of the sky. Even a mediocre cloudy day acquires mystery…

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The above is the frontispiece for the Billy the Kid screenplay. It has a certain antique weirdness, I think.

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Saguaros are irresistible subjects.

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As is Pearl, seen here returning from la chasse.

BILLY THE KID … AND THE PRISONER

Since TOMBSTONE RASHOMON was finished, I’ve been working on a couple of new projects — a book about THE PRISONER, which I think was the best TV show ever made, and a script about Billy the Kid.

The PRISONER book is titled I AM (NOT) A NUMBER, and is published by Kamera Books in the UK. They’ve published three other books by me – my Spaghetti Western history, my Kennedy/Oswald chronology, and, most recently, my Intro to Film. Kamera are a great company, in my estimation, and I recommend checking out their entire catalogue – much of it film-related, and Noir fiction under the Oldcastle imprint. I won’t go into my PRISONER analysis here, since the tome is now available both in hard copy (a limited edition with some very cool and expensive-to-print black pages between the chapters!) and as an e-book. Suffice it to say that in the book I analyse the episodes in the order in which they were filmed – something which has not been done before. At the outset, I don’t think anyone involved knew who ran The Village, who or what Number 1 was, or even how many episodes there would be. THE PRISONER was an organic masterpiece, which developed over eighteen months of shooting. At the outset, it seemed to be a project shared between Patrick McGoohan and George Markstein, the script editor, who had quite different ideas about who Number 6 was, and where the series was going. By the start of the curtailed second season, THE PRISONER was McGoohan’s, and McGoohan’s alone.

I’ve posted a short video about the series and its meaning here.

Since the book was done I’ve been working on a script about Billy the Kid, entitled THE THUNDERER, to be shot in the vicinity of Tucson, AZ. There seems to be less published material about the Kid than there was in the case of the OK Corral incident, but there are still a couple of good books. Walter Noble Burns (of Tombstone Iliad fame) wrote a particularly florid one, Ashton Upson ghost-wrote a biography of Billy for Pat Garrett; and Robert M. Utley wrote a nice, complete history of the Kid, A Short and Violent Life.

Rudy Wurlitzer (who wrote the difinitive script, PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID, and WALKER, and much more besides) sent me a link to an article which recently appeared in that notorious purveyor of Fake News, the New York Times. The headline is “A Photo of Billy the Kid Bought for $10 At A Flea Market May Be Worth Millions.”

BTK_NYT_Photo_PicMaybe so, but perhaps not this particular photograph, which can be compared in the original article with the “historic” picture of the Kid with his rifle. Apart from a prominent adam’s apple, I don’t think the two faces have anything in common. Even less likely is the author’s claim that the picture includes both Billy the Kid and his executioner, Pat Garrett. Garrett and the Kid may have known each other, during Garrett’s days as a Lincoln County bartender. But Garrett was famously tall – six foot four, or more – and the Kid was diminutive: around five foot, nine inches. The individuals in the New York Times photograph are all seated, so one can only judge their body height, but the one identified, by an “expert”, as Garrett appears to be average in height, while the one claimed to be the Kid looks about three inches taller.

Right now I’m Tucson for an acting assignment. Once that is done I’ll have more to report, I hope, on THE THUNDERER.