Retro-View: Repo Man (1984)
I hated REPO MAN when I first saw it in the summer of 1984. The film was barely released in a few theaters by Universal, and if you look at the long winded synopsis on the poster, you can see they must have been stymied as to how to sell this true original. I especially love that “Meet Otto. He’s a clean cut kid in a dirty business.” Except Otto was a punk, or at least the USA version of it. 1984 was probably the height of the American punk movement, and tho I loved reading MAXIMUMROCKNROLL zine because it represented the sympathetic politics of the genre, I was never a hardcore fan of the sound. I always thought the music was so chaotic and violent that whatever proto-revolutionary goals were had were lost in the sonic — and stage — violence. Along with the “genuine” punks, there were the poseurs, like the downtown skinheads I knew, racist suburban assholes no better than Southern cross-burnin’ shitkickers. I empathized with those protesting nuclear proliferation, anti-funding “Freedom Fighters” and other causes in the era’s struggle against Ronald Reagan’s Falwell Just Do It Gordon Gekko America, a period when our cultural heroes became bullying forces with big guns.
This was a time when the President of the United States actually quoted Dirty Harry in policy speeches and the hit films were jingoistic paens to re-winning ‘Nam via the struggle against Russia The Evil Empire, such as in RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART 2; TOP GUN; RED DAWN; MISSING IN ACTION; etc. I found it tough to be a young freethinker in the 80’s when my peers were applauding Rambo wiping out an army of Vietnamese soldiers with a crossbow and dynamite. The xenophobia of the period was palatable, and even ALIENS had an aura of jingoism I found disturbing. But there was a lot of fantastic art that sprung from the neon decade, in film, literature and especially music. At the time, I was as confused and idealistic as anybody, my philosophical influences being The Beatles, Jack Kerouac, Harlan Ellison, Ayn Rand, Ray Bradbury, Tom Wolfe, Ian Fleming, Duran Duran, and Rush Limbaugh (long story). In other stolen words, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Fortunately, writer/director Alex Cox, who hailed from England, had a better idea of the disparate punk and political zeitgeist than just about anybody else in Hollywood. His European outside gaze gave him more objective insight on the US culture; thus his screenplay REPO MAN was born, naturally focusing on America’s true love: the automobile. The story details the misadventures of Otto, the aforementioned punk, as he joins the sleazy elite ranks of the Repo Men on the fringes of the off-kilter, desolate “Edge City” aka downtown Los Angeles. Otto ends up joining the wild and violent chase for a 1964 Chevy Malibu driven by J. Frank Parnell, the “creator of the Neutron Bomb” who may or may not have radioactive aliens in his glowing trunk. Intended to be shot for around 70 grand, it took two years before visionary music video mogul Michael Nesmith read the first scene of the script and agreed to produce REPO MAN for one million dollars. Nesmith then got Universal Pictures onboard for distribution. Another reason to love The Monkees.
This is pitch-perfect satire. From the generic labels of FOOD and BEER to the prescient jabs at the mind science of “Dioretix: The Science of Matter over Mind” to the carefully placed smiley faces and odor trees in every car, REPO MAN was one of the handful of 1980’s films to accurately take the cultural temperature of the Reagan era and diagnose it as terminal — Cox just happens to be using a rectal thermometer. A perfect example of his ability to flip sentiment and character is when Otto’s once-pal, Duke, lay shot and dying in a convienence store and tells him, “I blame society.” Otto replies, “That’s bullshit. You’re a white suburban punk like me.” Duke’s last line is, “But it still hurts…” as he dies in gargling pain. If REPO MAN had come out in the late 80’s/early 90’s indie boom, Cox would have been put up there with Quentin Tarantino for his dialogue. In fact, this very post-modern film has a few similarities to Tarantino’s pop universe. Miller’s “John Wayne was a fag,” speech is profane and hilarious, uber-brave at a time when the president seemed to believe he was a movie cowboy (so it goes). I really admire this screenplay and I use it as an example for myself and others to study the character and construction, along with the brilliant subversive wit.
Cox has a garage load of awesome actors on hand to fuel the madness. Emilio Estevez makes for a perfect apathetic suburban punk, whether he’s slam dancing or bullshitting his stoned parents for cash. It’s still his best work. Like I said, he’s so effective I disliked the movie — at first. Of course, Harry Dean Stanton steals the show as Bud, the meth-head boozing Repo Man mentor. “Ordinary people, I fucking hate ’em” he says before snorting a rail. Fox Harris also immortalized himself as the lobotomized, radioactive Parnell. Oddball character actor Tracey Walter gets his greatest role here as Miller, his unique deadpan style a perfect fit for the mystic mechanic. Apropos, he delivers the film’s thematic speech (what Nesmith calls the “heartbeat of the movie”) in a quiet scene where he tells Otto about the Lattice of Coincidence that guides the universe. There are many other memorable character bits from the large diverse cast, from the punk gang licking the scientist’s steel hand to the Rodriguez Brothers drinking their sodas in resignation after losing the Malibu.
In fact, this must be one of the most quoted films in cinema history. People will still be saying, “Let’s go get sushi and not pay” well into the 22nd century — if we get there. Amazingly, Sam Cohen, the actual creator of the neutron bomb, called Alex Cox to tell him his two favorite films were DR. STRANGELOVE and REPO MAN! The pair can be seen on the DVD as Cox shows Cohen all the excised clips, none that are noteworthy except a shoulda-been-included moment with Otto visiting his TV zombified parents one last time — a brief, powerful scene.
Along with what I believe to be the best soundtrack of the 1980’s, special mention must go to Wim Wender’s cinematographer Robby Mueller for his fantastic camera work here. The lighting is particularly impressive, the city coated by a sheen of blue and green as befits a neon dashboard world. And if there’s such a thing as transcendent punk art, the finale of REPO MAN would be the perfect example as all the characters gather in the repossession lot for one final showdown with the glowing Chevy Malibu. Buoyed by the absolute commitment to character, Otto’s rejoinder to his girlfriend’s, “What about our relationship?” is a simple “Fuck that.” Even Harlan Ellison loved the line (he championed the film in his print review). And when Miller beckons Otto to join him in the joy ride of a lifetime, the combination of The Plugz mythic spaghetti-surf-western track “Reel 10” and the legal car thieves flying across the cityscape into the infinite beyond makes for one of the coolest emotional climaxes of 80’s cinema, a lo-fi subversive CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. Deservedly, REPO MAN has earned a place in the Great Los Angeles Films canon, with Alex Cox’s prophetic and unsentimental vision of a city over-ruled by its vehicles.
Or as Miller says, “The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.”