Perhaps best known for his work as the writer/director of alt-classics Repo Man and Sid and Nancy, Alex Cox is one of those strange Hollywood notables whom no cinephile could ever hope to dissect. Is he brilliant? Crazy? Both? Is he a great filmmaker who has, for some time, been unable to get a proper budget or is he an Ed Wood type who, back in the day, managed to get lucky?
Well, I don’t know. I suspect he might not know either, but we owe him unwavering respect for regularly pumping out truly independent cinema of his very own design (including Repo Chick, the bonkers, entirely blue-screened sequel to his breakout film).
His latest offering, Tombstone Rashomon, is exactly what it purports to be: a telling of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral using the multiple-perspective format of Rashomon … as filmed and assembled by a group of time-traveling filmmakers who happened to show up on October 28, 1881, just one day AFTER the famous gunfight. No matter – they’ll just interview the survivors and witnesses in an effort to figure out, after a century’s worth of interpretations, what really happened on that iconic day.
The thing is, the framing device is almost immediately abandoned. I think. The talking heads are all situated as they would be in a typical documentary. Brightly lit room, speaking directly at the camera while an off-screen voice asks questions. Their stories are then depicted in what may or may not be re-enactments, depending on how tightly the viewer believes Cox is adhering to his method of presentation. The players in these re-enactments are all the same as those telling their stories to the camera. Are we to believe that the time-traveling filmmakers have managed to get everyone in Tombstone to re-create their own conflicting stories? Are we to believe that everyone in town has immediately bought the idea of time-traveling filmmakers? And really, couldn’t the filmmakers time-travel back just one day further and avoid all of this?
Or maybe these aren’t reenactments. Maybe these segments are supposed to represent non-diegetic representations of events, which only exist in the imagination of the audience, in which case it would mean that the time-travel conceit is definitely 100% off the table. At one point, the story is told through what appears to be security camera footage from inside an Old West saloon, which doesn’t make any sense at all, until much later in the film when Doc Holliday hops into an SUV like it’s nothing. Even then it might not make sense, but it might also be the best thing I’ve ever seen in any movie ever. I just don’t know.
That’s the beauty of Tombstone Rashomon: despite having almost no budget, no stars, and no in-world consistency, it’s aggressively not content to fit into any one descriptor. It’s a faux-documentary-western-science-fiction-time-travel-homage … and it may or may not be aware of any of this. And whether it is or isn’t self-aware really doesn’t matter. What’s most clear is that this film is a pure realization of a filmmaker’s vision — something of a rare occurrence these days, which is why filmmakers like Alex Cox are essential. Sure, he may be operating on a different plane than the mainstream, but he’s doing so under the thumb of nobody but himself.
Luckily for all of us, Cox, along with members of the cast, will be in attendance at the Cinedelphia Film Festival. He will be doing a screening of Tombstone Rashomon with a Q&A on 4/15 at 7:00pm, followed by Repo Man at 10:00pm. Believe me, you will want to pick his wonderful brain. Event info and tickets here.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.