By Max Dropout
The early 1980s for American Cinema was a dire celluloid wasteland. Outside of a few exceptions, Hollywood was taking no chances, much like the country at large. In 1984, the consensus was that the United States was going to hell in an Orwellian hand-basket. Ronald Reagan had just won a second term as president, white-picketed WASP wombs were channeling yuppies into suburban streets, and synthesized new wave music dominated the airwaves. Then along came writer/director Alex Cox’s (“Sid and Nancy”) dark comedy, “Repo Man, ” a grimy, filthy, anxiety-ridden piece of work from the epicentre of the Reagan era.
Set in the seedy world of car reposessors, Cox’s film (produced, poetically enough, by the Monkees’ Mike Nesmith) cruises through the south Los Angeles streets strung-out on equal doses of satire, science fiction, conspiracy theories, and social commentary. But more importantly, it’s fueled by the threat, fear, and paranoia of living in President Reagan’s America. Though in Cox’ film, the threat of nuclear annihilation isn’t coming from the Russians. Instead, it’s coming from the trunk of a ’64 Chevy Malibu. From the opening credits, with Iggy Pop blaring from the screen, Repo Man sets itself apart from all of the other would-be music video films of the time. As the map zooms in on the middle of nowhere, Iggy wailing that he “Was a teenage dinosaur/stoned and obsolete/I couldn’t get fucked and I couldn’t get kissed/I got so fucking pissed” you immediately know whether or not you are going to identify with this film. (The VHS version features an instrumental introduction.)
This movie is not about alternate careers for yuppies, it’s about careers for the rest of us. It’s about punk reaching its maturity, and being forced into the mainstream; it’s about the mainstream consuming all that it touches. It’s about taking responsibility for your actions, and answering to a higher call than merely money in the end. Emilio Estevez stars in one of his earliest roles as Otto Maddox. In our first ten minutes with Otto, we learn, through a series of living snapshots, that he is self-centered and generally unaffected by the things happening around him. He walks out on his grocery store stocking job after he’s confronted, militantly, by his superiors. The blindly ambitious Otto represents to many of his superiors the opportunity inherent in youth, and therefore finds himself at the brunt of their frustrations when he refuses to take their road with any sort of spring in his step. Otto may not know where he’s going, but the talking heads on pikes who hire and fire him clearly serve as some sort of warning in the back of his head. Later, after shrugging off his responsibilities, we find Otto grappling and slamming about along with some other local toughs to the tune of the Circle Jerks’ “Coup D’Etat, ” where he is joined by a comrade returning from a short stint in prison. Only a few hours after welcoming this agressive archetype back into his world does he find him in bed with his girlfriend. Like everything else, Otto shrugs it off and turns his back on the situation.
Otto is the rebel on the verge of a clue, aging reluctantly, and fearful of the responsibility on his heels, which has forced him into gingerly stalking his future. While others are content to blindly pursue the American Dream, Otto is a stone cold insomniac, looking for a way out. Otto has a major conflict with selling out to some shit minimum wage job in order to survive in today’s America. Is a life dictated by the necessities of survival really living at all?
Black Flag’s condemnation of blind ignorance, “TV Party, ” is the first song featured in the film, and it really drives home Otto’s general disillusionment with society. Otto shouts the lyrics as he wanders aimlessly into the early morning hours. It is here when random chance, a big theme in the film, singles Otto out, and he crosses path with a repossession man, Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), who becomes Otto’s philosophical mentor. Otto is initially repelled by the position offered to him, but the money is too good to resist. It is later the vices of adrenalin, violence, cocaine and alcohol that the job entails which fascinate him, and in a strange way, the job nearly represents the harsh encroaching of economic reality — a wake-up call for those lost in the dream Otto resists. Rapidly, Otto falls into the world of the repo code, and soon finds himself in a straight-laced into a position of responsibility that entails reckless abandon, and personal disregard for the everything in the world but whatever car they’re stealing at the moment.
The plot of the film itself is a tangle of several threads of varying flimsy and whimsy, which in the end all come together beautifully. Otto and Bud wander through L.A. in search of a hot ‘64 Chevy Malibu with a hotbed of nuclear meltdown in its trunk, which the government desperately wants, prompting an outrageous reward for the car. What ensues is a series of fuedal hijinx, involving Otto, Bud, their illegal car-thieving counterparts, the Rodriguez Brothers, those ominous “men in black, ” Otto’s old punk rock crew, and a lobotomized nuclear physicist on a mission to kill those pesky myths pertaining to the so-called dangers of radioactivity.
“Repo Man” is driven by a soundtrack chock-full of West Coast punk. Otto’s first meeting with UFO theorist Laina is made particularly memorable thanks to the Burning Sensations’ cover of Richman classic “Pablo Picasso, ” as well as “Hombre Secreto” by the Plugz. A particularly striking scene midway through the film sees Otto sitting in a strip bar with the Circle Jerks as the house band (playing “When the Shit Hits the Fan”). This scene in particular illustrates Otto’s evolution, as he looks away in disgust and remarks, “I can’t believe I ever liked this band.”
One element of the film, which is ultimately responsible for establishing tone, is Tito Larriva’s majestic Western-flavored guitar score, which lends an expressive, or perhaps even interpretive, voice to the characters and situations. A masterful and proper use of instrumental work, the score’s contemporary operatic flare serves also as the emotional voice for the characters’ pathos. Larriva was also a member of the Plugz, who also appear on the soundtrack. Larriva, sadly, only went on to work limitedly as a composer for films. He leant his skills to scoring the Traci Lords porno film, “New Wave Hookers.” Larriva also scored the Robert Rodriguez films “Desperado” and “From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, ” in which he appears with his band Tito and the Tarantulas.
Cox creates a surreal and hilarious satire, making the most of the period’s excess and social cosmetics, with sly and sometimes overt jokes about institutions including televangelism, the food industry, the integration of new age theology and the counterculture, and boredom’s romance with nihilism. What Cox does best, aside from creating an unlikely atmosphere of soothing pandemonium and lunacy, is suggest the seriously weird goings-on underneath the bland surfaces. In a kind of reverse product placement, “Repo Man” is full of consumer items so generic that their labels read simply “FOOD” and “DRINK.” Meanwhile, most of the characters are named after well-known beer brands (Miller, Bud, Lite). He’s not trying to say anything overtly, but instead communicates through mood, symbolism and incident.
“Repo Man” feels as if it’s about to come undone at any moment. Luckily, though, Cox keeps things from nose-diving into pure apocalypse (unlike Spielberg’s “1941″ or Terry Gilliam’s directionless “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen”). In many ways, “Repo Man” has a lot in common with another cult film from 1984, “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the Eighth Dimension.” Both films are surreal and slightly cartoonish, and both feel as if they’re about to implode at any moment, which for their ardent fans is part of the fun.
Cox’s film, though, has a controlled chaos to it. You may not always be sure where you’re going, but you trust that Cox does know, even though there are some plot threads that don’t go anywhere (i.e. the Rodriguez Brothers’ revolution).
During the audio commentary on Anchor Bay Entertainment’s DVD release of “Repo Man, ” Cox does admit that he had to drop that thread. Apparently, the film was going to end down in Central America with Otto joining forces with the Sandinistas. For some time, Cox was pursuing a quasi-sequel to “Repo Man, ” known as “Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday, ” the story of a young man recently returned to Earth from Mars who must choose between his boss and his girlfriend — love or money. That idea has been permanently shelved, although storyboards can still be found online.
“Repo Man” is a small gem of independent filmmaking, the kind of movie that doesn’t appeal to everyone, but is undeniably creative and original in many striking ways. Too many movies lack inspiration; they are well-made and professional, but they don’t have that spark to set them apart. Repo Man has that spark, thanks in tremendous part to the music found within.