In John Ford’s “The Searchers”, John Wayne plays a Civil War veteran who spends years searching for his niece, who was captured in a Comanche raid. Through out his journey, questions regarding the nature of justice, racism and the motivation for violence are explored and over time, the film has gradually gained favor with Western enthusiasts and critics. Now, the film is considered to be one of the great Westerns of all time and may very well have been what saved Wayne from the fallout of his other 1956 film; the dazzlingly lousy “The Conqueror”, in which he was hilariously miscast as Genghis Khan.
Two films inspired by the epic classic, “Tracing Cowboys” and the aptly named “Searchers 2.0,” screened at the 2008 Nashville Film Festival and they couldn’t be any more different from one another.
“Searchers 2.0,” Alex Cox’s hyper-low budget send-up comedy is a rambling film which holds very little significance for anyone outside of two washed-up actors on a quest for revenge and their fellow film geeks. When Mel Torres and Fred Fletcher, played by Del Zamora and Ed Pansullo, were children on the set of “Buffalo Bill vs. Doc Holliday,” they were traumatized by a cruel screenwriter named Fritz Frobisher, played by long-time Cox collaborator Sy Richardson. Now, with a special screening of the film looming coupled with a Q&A by Frobisher himself, the two decide to trek down to Monument Valley for the express purpose of beating up the 86 year-old screenwriter.
As Torres and Fletcher meander down the road from Los Angeles into Arizona, in a black SUV driven by Torres’ beautiful, Ayn Rand obsessed daughter Delilah, they hamfistedly tackle political commentary about when violence is justified, the war in Iraq and conspiracy theory, but only when they aren’t babbling on and on about obscure westerns. But, the film isn’t a complete waste for the layman. Cox, who also directed the punk rock cult films “Repo Man” and “Sid & Nancy,” is a dedicated bender of the rules of film and “Searchers 2.0″ is at its best when Cox is ignoring the rulebook.
In one particular scene, the motley crew has stopped at a bar where the actors are chatting about the great revenge dramas of film history. Delilah interrupts them and for a few minutes, looking straight into the camera, breaks the fourth wall to explain why these two have it all wrong and utterly deflate their entire motivation. This is the kind of flagrant disregard for the rules where Cox is at his best. But no matter how good he is at breaking down conventions, it takes more than an edgy filmmaker and a cameo by b-movie legend Roger Corman to salvage a movie that wanders as aimlessly as “Searchers 2.0″ does.
On the entire opposite edge of the spectrum is the beautifully shot drama “Tracing Cowboys,” which tells the story of Ethan and Debbie (named for the Searchers characters) in a fragmented timeline. When Debbie vanishes from their ranch home, Ethan goes on a journey to track her down during the height of Day of the Dead in rural Baja, Mexico, spurred from photographs she had taken along the way. As the film progresses, however, it becomes increasingly obvious that the film is less about the journey itself than it is about Ethan, which is particularly poignant considering the real life tragedy which befell the production: On the final day of shooting, the film’s screenwriter and lead actor, Sacha Grunpeter was killed in a car wreck.
“The script and the story were very close to Grunpeter’s life and to the things he was interested and who he was,” said director Jason Wolfsohn in an interview at the festival. “I don’t want to say it’s autobiographical, because it absolutely wasn’t. There were many things about that character that Sacha was interested in and attracted to and wanted to explore. In many ways, those were things that he was interested in his own life.”
Ethan is introduced as an Englishman who is fascinated with the American west and aspires to be country-western singer. With his cowboy hat and demo tape in hand, he has the sensibility that has so often been seen on the streets of Nashville. Anyone who has spent any amount of time in downtown Nashville can attest to the amount of country hopefuls, either playing in bars or busking on corners. While Ethan has the demeanor of someone who wants to make it, he’s also weighted down by a distinct feeling of half-heartedness.
Viewing the film with the knowledge of Grunpeter’s death gives it an otherworldly feel. Wolfsohn said that although the film is very close to their original vision for it, in a practical sense many pieces of the character are unpolished. Grunpeter wasn’t available to shoot additional scenes, record dialogue looping or reproduce the music sung by his character in the film. As a result, Ethan is oddly understated. His voice is quieter than the other characters and that feeling of isolation travels through out the film. All of these unintentional elements pull together to strengthen the main theme of discovery in the film and, in the end, the story being told is about one man’s resurrection and the search for something more metaphysical.
Tracing Cowboys was an impressive sleeper at the Nashville Film Festival which deservingly won the festival’s award for best cinematography. Even when the real-life context is removed, the film is striking but the fact that this was Sacha Grunpeter’s swan song makes it an uncompromisingly emotional narrative.
What made this film succeed, on one level, is what caused “Searchers 2.0″ to flounder. At no point does the viewer feel as if they’re missing something by not being fluent in spaghetti western. Even with a brilliantly funny performance by Sy Richardson, “Searchers 2.0″ is a tough sell to the average moviegoer. Even the non-average moviegoer is going to have a hard time appreciating this one unless they belong to a very specific cross-section of Alex Cox fans and die-hard western lovers. If you can’t call allegiance to both groups, “Searchers 2.0″ is not the movie for you.