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Repo Man Revisited
Are we still willing to live by the code of Alex Cox's 1984 punk movie classic?
Certain films capture your heart at 15, but how awkward and old-fashioned would they make you feel if you watched them with a teenager now? And what horrifying things might they reveal about the person you once were? Avoid embarrassment, and the waste of £1.49 in rental fees, by letting us take the risk on your behalf.
Repo Man (1984)
‘White suburban punk’ Otto Maddox (Emilio Estevez) falls in with ‘repo’ man Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), a debt collector whose job is finding and repossessing cars whose owners have defaulted. Bud is obsessed with repossessing a Chevy Malibu for a $20,000 reward; also after the Malibu are Bud’s arch enemies the Rodriguez Brothers, UFO nut Leila and an army of Men in Black. Because the Malibu’s owner, mad scientist J. Frank Parnell, has stashed something uncanny - possibly the radioactively decaying bodies of aliens - in the boot.
The first name you see in the opening credits of Repo Man is not that of the director Alex Cox, or the stars Emilio Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton, but that of the producer Mike Nesmith; son of the inventor of Tippex, pioneer of music video television and, most importantly, Monkee.
It might seem like an odd combination - the sitcom bubblegum pop performer and the hardcore punk indie movie - but if Repo Man is reminiscent of anything, it's the Monkees movie Head (1968). A very ‘60s media hyperobject of parodies, cut ups and metanarrative mucking about, Head opens with the Monkees committing suicide before being torn limb from limb by screaming teenagers. And then it really gets going. As may be evident from this description, it does not take itself at all seriously.
Repo Man is the punk version of this tongue-in-cheek mash-up approach. It’s a collage of B-movie tropes, weirdo Americana and daft jokes, all soundtracked by hardcore LA punk band The Circle Jerks. The plot is nugatory and very silly, and the dialogue was apparently mostly improvised. What matters is the attitude and the mood, the vibe. And the vibe is very cool indeed: ramshackle, cheery, homemade. Punk.
Can we show the kids?
Why not? It’s still pretty good fun. Perhaps more pertinently, if you wanted to give them a more accurate idea of what 1984 was like than the one provided by the first season of Stranger Things, then this is the movie to play. Stranger Things is mostly inspired by early-’80s Hollywood kids’ films, while Repo Man satirises the great consumerist, mainstream machine of Reaganite culture. Even as technology and finance were enabling wild, fantastic blockbusters, they were also enabling anyone to pick up a camera and make a movie. Repo Man is as representative of the ‘80s as Ghostbusters.
Three big ones: Harry, Dean, Stanton. Stanton was already a character actor of repute, most notably in Alien (1979) and Wise Blood (1979), but it was Repo Man and Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (also 1984) that made him indie royalty. (That he is the uncle of friend of this publicationmakes him Metropolitan royalty too).
However terrible the film, if Harry Dean Stanton is in it you’re guaranteed at least one interesting performance. In Repo Man, he is the film and it's worth watching just for him. As the tired, ornery, avuncular Bud, all self-opinionated monologues and unlikely advice, he is the central wheezing calliope around which the entire merry-go-round spins.
But it’s also worth watching for many other reasons, most of all that free-for-all punk affect. You can well believe that a deal of the dialogue was improvised, because you get the sense that everyone was fully involved, committed and enjoying themselves. It is not pleased with itself; it is just good company.
Despite its enjoyably lackadaisical approach to conventional plot and structure, it is a well crafted bit of film making. Not all the performances are professional, but they’re all interesting; there are no duff or predictable line readings. The images of the post-industrial forgotten outskirts of LA captured by Alex Cox and cinematographer Robby Müller are delightful and frequently beautiful, lyrical framings of sunset gradients and neon nights. And the ‘needledrop’ soundtrack of hardcore punk is splendid.
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Is it as good as you remember?
Actually, you know what? Better.
As Roger Ebert, the American movie critic, said in his review:
This is the kind of movie that baffles Hollywood, because it isn't made from any known formula and doesn't follow the rules… I saw Repo Man near the end of a busy stretch on the movie beat: three days during which I saw more relentlessly bad movies than during any comparable period in memory. Most of those bad movies were so cynically constructed out of formula ideas and commercial ingredients that watching them was an ordeal. Repo Man comes out of left field, has no big stars, didn't cost much, takes chances, dares to be unconventional, is funny, and works.
One of the running jokes of the movie is that all the stores are filled with generic products, white tins and bottles labelled things like ‘Beer’, ‘Drink’ and ‘Food’, like the Canadian chain Loblaw’s famous ‘No Brand’ packaging designs of the late ‘70s. The film evidently views conventional Hollywood movies as the same kind of generic product and sets out instead to make something individual and artisanal: a little bit wonky, a little bit weird, but full of character, craft and charm.
These generic products also refer to the film’s fascination with mundane Americana. The plot is full of leftover bits of B-movie esoterica, and the images are equally full of overlooked ephemera: car lots and convenience stores, pine tree car fresheners. A repo man is himself quintessentially American, a blue collar freelancer chasing other people’s debts. Bud - whose job only exists because car owners default on their loan payments - is obsessed with the idea of credit and debt, understanding it as the engine of American capitalism.
These are not quintessential American heroes, and this is not the America of cinematic Hollywood. This is the America of actual Los Angeles: backlots and junkyards and suburbs, the weird and the wired and the tired. In all of this Repo Man pre-figures the American indie movie of the following two decades, from Jim Jarmusch’s outsider weirdos to Quentin Tarantino’s pop-culture-literate trash talk.
Repo Man is a reminder that in the ‘80s there was still a significant divide between the mainstream culture and the underground. The underground gave and took in equal measure; it was eclectic in its inspiration, and gleeful and generous in its presentation. Alex Cox went on to present the peerless cult film show Moviedrome for the BBC in the ‘90s, where he introduced everything from D.O.A. (1950) to Cry-Baby (1990). It was where I first saw Sunset Boulevard (1950), Stardust Memories (1980) and Carnival of Souls (1962). It was a cinematic education for a generation, and Repo Man has the same spirit: it is serious about finding some alternative to the mainstream, and intent on having fun in the process.
For more indie movies of the 80s: