Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Wish you were here

The list I offered two weeks ago of movies that were filmed, in part or in their entirety, in the Spanish province of Almería, was obviously not exhaustive. One film that I omitted, quite unintentionally, was Alex Cox’s 1987 curiosity, Straight to Hell.

The very existence of this Cox movie immediately evokes another movie subgenre that we hardly ever hear about. That subgenre is the Vanity Spaghetti Western Shot at an Exotic Location by the Filmmaker and a Few of His or Her Personal Friends. And we probably do not hear a lot about this subgenre because, by my count anyway, there are only two good examples. There may be others, but I cannot think of them at the moment, but if you can, by all means, please let me know.

Straight to Hell is easily the preeminent specimen of this obscure subgenre. The Liverpool-born Cox had made only three movies before this one, but he already had a cult-like status among film buffs and had made a major impression on “serious” critics. His second film, Repo Man, was a wild trip that mixed genres and displayed a knowing fondness of all kinds of movies. It also featured a cool cast that was anchored by Harry Dean Stanton as the old hand in the car repossession business, who takes young Emilio Estevez under his wing. The movie had a lot of great lines, many of which, sadly, cannot be repeated here. Another source of mirth were the characters’ names. Estevez’s character was called Otto Maddox (automatics; get it?), and the veteran repo men were called Bud, Miller, Lite and Oly. Two years later, Cox had a breakthrough success with Sid and Nancy, about the harrowing relationship and deaths of the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious and the groupie from New York Nancy Spungen. The movie garnered critical raves and made a star of Gary Oldman.

So, when I got a chance the following year to see Cox’s next movie at the Seattle International Festival, I made sure that I was in line early. It sounded as if it would be great. The director who had brought hilarity, wit and excitment to us in Repo Man had made his own “spaghetti western,” using the same Spanish location favored by Sergio Leone. It seemed like a match made in heaven. And, to be sure, Straight to Hell had its moments. It did lampoon western (particularly of the European variety) conventions. And there was a running gag about coffee that went down well with us caffeine-mad Seattleites. But it did not seem nearly as clever as Repo Man. It had gags like this one, where a gang of robbers check their timepieces:

First robber: Synchronize your watches. Ten o’clock.
Second robber: Ten-thirty.
Third robber: One minute to nine.
First robber: Close enough.

The cast was even cooler and hipper than Repo Man. The aforementioned gang consisted of Sy Richardson (from Repo Man), Dick Rude (a filmmaker himself, who co-wrote the movie with Cox) and the late Joe Strummer (of the Clash). Hanging out with them was a blonde whom Cox had given her first-ever movie role with a small part in Sid and Nancy: Courtney Love. The gang soon finds itself in a town populated by all manner of zanies, including the McMahon Gang, which is played by Shane MacGowan and the Pogues. Other faces showing up in the increasingly nonsensical proceedings include Elvis Costello, Grace Jones, director Jim Jarmusch and the single bona fide, established movie star in the whole thing, Dennis Hopper in an all-too-brief role. By the end, it was all too clear that, to fully appreciate the movie, you had to 1) be familiar with the musical participants and their music and, 2) perhaps more importantly, be a close personal friend of Cox and Rude and/or one or more other members of the cast. I had just spent 86 minutes watching film of Alex Cox’s Andalucía holiday with his pals.

Of course, Hopper was no stranger to such holidays. At the very same Seattle International Film Festival, I attended a tribute to Hopper, which was preceded by his then 16-year-old film, The Last Movie. After his successful directorial debut in 1969 with Easy Rider, Hopper had gone to Peru to make a movie about making a movie, specifically a western. It was an intriguing idea that apparently wanted us to think about how the line between entertainment and reality can become blurred and perhaps about how American culture might affect other cultures. Or maybe not. Who knows? The whole thing was pretty chaotic and incomprehensible. Famous people came and went on the screen, apparently more or less they way they came and went during the filming. Hopper played a stuntman named Kansas. Real-life veteran director Sam Fuller played the fictional director. People dropping in included Kris Kristofferson (his film debut!), John Phillip Law, Sylvia Miles, Peter Fonda, Henry Jaglom, Michelle Phillips, Dean Stockwell and Russ Tamblyn. One critic wrote, “It is a very Sixties movie and looks like Hopper was probably doing a lot of substances while making it.” (Okay, that was me.) Roger Ebert wrote that the movie “becomes the counter-culture’s Around the World in 80 Days.” Pauline Kael wrote that it was “visually beautiful, but the editing is so self-destructive that it’s as if Hopper had slashed his own canvases.” It would be nearly two decades before Hopper would be allowed to direct again.

How totally self-indulgent is it to go off on a holiday to a nice place like Spain, shoot a bunch of film in no particular coherent manner and then try to pass it off as some kind of art and/or entertainment? What kind of ego does this sort of thing? Well, I have my answer. All this pondering got me to thinking about the video footage that we had shot on our recent Spanish holiday. Why not apply a bit of editing and make my own spaghetti western? Except that I don’t think it can technically be called a “spaghetti western,” since we are not Italian. Since we are an Irish/American family, perhaps the right term is a “corned beef and cabbage western.” Indeed, this may be the first “corned beef and cabbage western” ever made. Furthermore, I think it may also qualify as a Dogma film, since we used no artificial lighting or special effects or any other technology beyond the camera itself. The exercise was certainly well worth it since it answers a burning question that you have probably never actually asked yourself. And that question is: why do I spend all my time watching and writing about movies instead of making them myself? Hey, it may not be much better than The Last Movie (and here I am damning myself with faint praise), but at least it is 104 minutes shorter.

So, if you have three and a half minutes to spare, you can experience the world’s first corned beef and cabbage dogma western by clicking here.

-S.L., 1 December 2005

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