WESTERNS, COPS, & PUNK: WHO KNEW?

PUMP UP THE COLUMN EXPLORES THE MANY INTERPRETATIONS OF PUNK AESTHETIC USED IN CINEMA

Exactly how much correlation can we draw between punk rock and the Western Movie? On the surface, they do seem a rather unconventional pairing, as Westerns are, I think, generally regarded as something only our conservative grandparents enjoy — and what could be further from punk rock idealism than John Wayne repeatedly spewing exaggerated bravado onscreen for upwards of 100 minutes? That stigma is what gives even modern Westerns such the reputation for being outdated; they act as a sort of testament to romanticization of the past, or of “the old way” of doing things. But for me, it’s a logical progression from there to punk, because honestly, what is punk rock if not a shake-up of an old establishment? Let me explain.

I often think Westerns are misunderstood. Strip away conceptions we have of our grandparents’ politics, and Westerns are, at their core, a showcase of independent ethos. By and large, Westerns continually present a somewhat utopian interpretation of freedom: westward expansion, staking a claim — livin’ the dream, as it were. Westerns speak to the part of us that wants to live without rules or bureaucracy, the DIY part of us that thrives living solely on our own terms. After all, “Punk rock is just another word for freedom,” as Patti Smith is famous for saying on numerous occasions, and those words hold a lot of clout. When punk mixes with the Western, the result goes beyond the overly-simplistic, conventionally conservative thought of “good guy vs. bad guy,” evolving — or perhaps, devolving — into a chaotic mess full of raucous idealism (see: Alex Cox’s Straight to Hell or even Penelope Spheeris’ neo-Western, Dudes). It’s an intensity rivaling that of a cult comic book. I mean, can you imagine all the outrageous ‘zines that could’ve been made in the Wild Wild West?

Alex Cox might understand this almost more than anyone. Cox is as much of a film lover as he is a filmmaker, and his affinity for Westerns (Spaghetti Westerns in particular — check out the book he wrote as a graduate student) is on display in almost everything he creates. From his unapologetic embrace of the Sandinista movement in Walker to the snarky declaration of “John Wayne was a fag” in Repo Man, Cox is absolutely no stranger to the concept of radically shaking things up. And we’re here today to discuss his (probably) best, (maybe) least-mentioned, (definitely) most mature feature, 1991’s El Patrullero (Highway Patrolman).

Pedro Rojas (Roberto Sosa) is a rookie Highway Patrolman in a sleepy Mexican town that happens to be located smack-dab in the middle of a international drug trafficking ring. As Pedro spends more time on the force, his character morphs from lawful good cadet to sleazy corrupt official. But of course, his story does not end there.

Granted, El Patrullero isn’t a Western in the traditional sense. There are no vaqueros, no caballeros, nor even gauchos; no cartoony long-mustachioed villains, no horse thieves, no greedy land barons, or railroads-coming-to-town. It is, however, the second in a trilogy of Latin American features in Cox’s filmography (bookended by the aforementioned Walker in 1987 and 1992’s Death & The Compass, a relatively obscure adaptation of a Jorge Luis Borges story), and it does easily fall into the category of revisionist Western. Our setting is the beautiful and open northern Mexican desert, a place, even in the 1980s, ripe with very “Western” potential. The area is desolate and mostly quiet, but strangely full of apprehension. It’s a rocky atmosphere that’s not exactly dreadful, but…concerning. Cox and screenwriter Lorenzo O’Brien had it in mind to make a Western cop drama. Their goal: a cop movie stripped of typical Hollywood trappings, unrelient on relentless action and quippy catchphrases; basically, an arthouse cop feature. The duo took inspiration from their production driver while filming Walker; the man, a former Mexican highway patrolman, hooked them in with stories of the general unruliness he experienced while serving. Later, faced with the challenge of acquiring backing for the film, O’Brien turned to a group of Japanese producers, pitching (and selling) the film as a modern take on a samurai movie. All this, I think, acts as evidence that there really isn’t much difference between genres — Western, cop, samurai, what-have-you — and kind of solidifies those freeing feelings regarding what makes this a punk movie. El Patrullero helps us understand the value in playing around with genre, of stripping ourselves from those rigid boundaries (Hell, it’s not even that much of a stretch to interpret El Patrullero as an Odyssey, a hero’s journey derived from a staple of classical drama and filmmaking.). And especially compared to other, more typically-regarded “punk” movies of Cox’s career (oh, let’s say Sid & Nancy), El Patrullero effectively acts as an embodiment of Cox rebelling against himself. So, not only is the film a revisionist Western, it could very well be called revisionist punk.

And, in that, it’s worth noting the struggle some “punk” filmmakers have with the idea of authenticity. Punk ideology certainly is keen on authenticity, given the emphasis on not selling out. But what it means to be an authentic punk is relatively subjective, even within the subculture itself. On top of that, media has undoubtedly changed how we view punk idealism, leading the lot of us to believe that spiky hair, leather jackets, and safety pins are enough to sell a philosophy. Subsequently, behind the snarl in a lot of “punk” features lie empty takes on what it means to earnestly live the punk lifestyle; filmmakers can easily mistake a bad, destructive attitude for personal integrity and actual values (seriously glaring at you, Jubilee). Further, legalistic perspectives toward authenticity threaten the very concept of authenticity; it’s not difficult to lose sight of who we are while we’re too preoccupied with who we’re trying to be.

So, in the search for personal authenticity for oneself and one’s creation of art, it’s deeply important to remain true to one’s own ethos rather than worrying about whether or not that creation is cool enough or “punk” enough to please critics and peers. Of course I can’t say if Alex Cox ever in his career even gave a thought to the potential of being labeled a sellout, but I can say he stuck to his guns (so to speak) making El Patrullero, a film that bends the rules of media-ready punk filmmaking and does whatever it wants to. I don’t think Cox is telling this story to be purposely edgy; he’s showing us a different, more subtle kind of rebellion. Our hero’s puro foundation is corrupted by life itself, forcing a quick maturity that shows the strength in really considering what one’s values should be. Pedro’s journey is, in some ways, Cox’s journey, too.

Our introduction to Pedro comes through his tenure in Highway Patrol Academy, where he is the shining star of his class. We can liken Pedro’s attitude to that of an eager Boy Scout, he wants to do good; he wants to please. It’s actually a strange kind of moral situation, because Pedro is, at his heart, a decent person with an implied (but clear) set of values that include fortitude and integrity; however, those values are tested when his academy instructor teaches the recruits some very unethical practices. “They’ve always broken the law. When you follow a vehicle, stop it first, then decide what they have done,” the cadets are told, setting them up for lengthy careers full of compromising values so the local government can make a quick buck. Somewhat surprisingly, Pedro is willing to conform. We can only speculate why Pedro decides to accept those corrupt teachings, but it really seems as though his desire to please an authority is directly related to his desperation for the approval of his father (“Mother, dad hasn’t spoken to me in a year!” Pedro cries. His mom answers, “He wanted you to study medicine.”) Throughout the film, we’re reminded that Pedro’s father is perpetually just out of reach; he’s absent at the most important occasions in Pedro’s life (his graduation, his wedding), only later appearing as a spectre — a figment of Pedro’s imagination — at a key moment in the story. The absence is no doubt as emotional as it is physical, leaving Pedro without a truly positive male role model, and likely making him insecure with his own masculinity. 

We can pause here for a moment and think about how Mexican culture views masculinity, and how that affects our protagonist. Alex Cox succeeds in capturing certain aspects of Mexican culture in El Patrullero, in distinct touches scattered here and there that remind us of where we are. First, hints of machismo are spread throughout: the idea that men must be dominant in both their households and general society; men must always command respect and assert themselves above other men, lest they be classified as some kind of passive weaker-than. Unfortunately this means that healthy relationships between men are often pushed to the weyside; if those healthy relationships are formed, then authority is lost. So, in many ways, men think they must be “hard” to be successful and respected. A funny example of this comes when Pedro and his partner Anibal take a break inside a local cantina, disappointed that the barkeep is out of beer. A couple of white European men offer the pair some of the German beer they’ve brought with them, setting the bottles down on the table. The two officers shrug off the offer, and Pedro says “Mexican beer is best.” But after the two gringos leave, Anibal gingerly opens the beer. It’s a small example of how pride gets in the way of practicality. So, we can only assume Pedro’s father’s repeated absences are symptomatic of the kind of pressure men in this type of culture place on themselves, keeping his distance in order to retain authority. Additionally, we can mention the concept of familismo, which basically states an interdependence between one and one’s family members. Often, Hispanic families place heavy demands on one another, putting the needs of the family before the desires of the individual. The “burden of the family” is a huge component to El Patrullero, from Pedro’s obvious obligation to his wife and baby to his secret obligation of keeping his mistress comfortable in her casa chica the next town over (which, by the way, adultery is a long-standing practice in Mexico, and, as of 2011, is no longer illegal. It’s totally not uncommon for Mexican men to have more than one family.). These cultural earmarks become increasingly obvious as the film progresses.

Since Pedro’s father seemingly never attempted to show his son that he was proud of him — or even pleased with him — Pedro goes looking for that approval in other places. We’ve established his goody-goody nature in the academy, but after he graduates and is put into the police force, he begins to find satisfaction in other ways. Out in the real world, Pedro finds himself susceptible to bribes (he meets his wife by pulling her farm truck over for a traffic violation; she invites him to breakfast at her house to get out of a ticket) and takes an interest in the drug trade (not to deal himself, but to take the traffickers’ money when he busts them). However intriguing this new life may be, though, Pedro does inevitably succumb to a sort of existential crisis. Not knowing how to cope with the corruption of what he knows to have been a virtuous way of life, Pedro regularly gets drunk on tequila, and turns to a local prostitute to, well, relieve his burden. As an innocent, Pedro is faced with the impossibility of imposing good on people throughout the story, and in this crisis of integrity and self-worth, Pedro falls almost effortlessly into the trappings of compromised values and easy rebellion. 

But, Pedro never goes full-gangster cop. Even though he’s got these newfound questionable tendencies, Pedro never forgets his sense of responsibility. Like the thief who steals bread to feed his family, Pedro takes a little off the top of every bust before turning the evidence over to his superiors, stashing the extra cash in a suitcase he has buried in the desert. It’s an emergency fund he dips into at times like when his cocaine-addicted mistress needs to dry out at her mother’s house, or when his wife simply needs to pay bills at the farm. There are subtle times as well that we see Pedro’s devotion to his version of doing the right thing, like when he confiscates illegal contraband (it’s actually a truckful of toys) from a traffic stop and gives it to the local Catholic school, or when he helps a small village rid itself of a dangerous rabid dog. Or how about when Anibal pulls a ring off a deceased traffic accident victim and is surprised when Pedro opts to put it in the personal property bag instead of keeping it? All these things show us Pedro’s propensity to, in effect, be both.

Punk is easy to go dimestore nihilist, but this story never dips into the territory of total destruction and meaninglessness. I think, actually, a lot of punkers get the concept of nihilism wrong; the philosophy itself doesn’t end in destruction. Nihilistic thought may say life is inherently meaningless, but it also says that human beings create their own meaning to assign to life. So, to ignore the creation aspect of nihilism is to keep oneself in that very juvenile headspace thinking stuff like “actions have no consequences because nothing matters.” What I find interesting about El Patrullero and Cox’s filmographic progression to this point is that it seems as though Cox is acknowledging that the meaning we give life is more important than the destruction thereof, which is a refreshingly mature perspective compared with a few of the films he made leading up to this one. It shows us that even punks have to grow up, but that doesn’t mean they have to lose their cool.

So yeah, Pedro could let the corrupt cop lifestyle completely overtake him, but he doesn’t. In the end, he makes the choice to assign meaning to his every day, choosing to live in such a way that is fulfilling to him. He’s content with balancing the life he’s built with his wife on her family’s farm with the new addition of his second family living in the casa chica; he’s content with balancing his old ideas of morality with the real-life application of those morals. Essentially, he’s found a new interpretation for being his authentic self. The final image in the film is of a billboard, stating plainly, “Paying Taxes Means Participation,” an ambiguous yet ominous reminder that life (and assigning meaning to it) is inevitable, amidst any callow ideas of destruction. Ultimately, El Patrullero is about the struggle we all face to find that balance between what we want to do and what we should do; effectively, Cox is showing his punk fanbase that a fulfilling existence can (and often should) be built from nothing. 

So, is El Patrullero a punk movie? On the surface, maybe not. But it certainly is a rebellious film, and one that encourages a discussion on what makes a movie “punk” in the first place. As a Western, as a cop drama, as a samurai movie, El Patrullero is daring enough to ask, “What if the punk establishment is the establishment you’re rebelling against?” El Patrullero is also beautifully shot by Mexican cinematographer Miguel Garzon, utilizing artful techniques such as long sequence shots (“plano secuencia,” learned from the likes of fellow Mexican filmmaker Arturo Ripstein) mixed with hand held shots where every frame has an intimacy that tells its own story. The locations used in the film range from small villages like Mapimi and Dinamita to larger cities such as Durango; Cox and his crew decidedly used certain locations that were also used in a classic revisionist Western of its own time, The Wild Bunch. And I’d be remiss not to mention the unique score done by frequent Cox-collaborator Zander Schloss, that perfectly captures the addled atmosphere of the entire film. But what’s especially enjoyable about El Patrullero is that it’s Alex Cox without a certain kind of pretense; the success of it is in part due to Cox’s reputation as a radical cult filmmaker, and by this film being in a foreign language, it takes away some of the conceit of that cult reputation. Basically, Cox doesn’t have to worry about being hip, he’s just making a movie. Of course, he’s dealing with subject matter that transcends language — there are some aspects of Pedro’s journey that are relatable to all of us in one way or another, regardless of our punk backgrounds. Maybe that’s a corny way of putting it, but remember: punk means freedom. I can be corny if I want.

El Patrullero (Highway Patrolman) is now available for purchase through Kino Lorber.