Monday, January 21, 2013


The life of a repo man is always intense – Harry Dean Stanton 

Alex Cox's feature film debut may not be on the same level as some of the other great works released in 1984 (Paris Texas, Stranger Than Paradise, Love Streams, The Element Of Crime, etc) but its cult status is unmatched. Repo Man takes me back to my earliest video store memory. For some reason I was always drawn to the VHS box cover art as a kid. The Repo Man box was the first thing I’d go to every time we’d make that trip to the video store. There was something about that grungy looking font, the greenish tint and Emilio Estevez standing in front with his arms folded - it looked badass. Repo Man is a fun, silly, random film that also deals with issues like; televangelism, Conspiracy Theories involving aliens, nuclear war, misguided youth (specifically in the L.A. punk scene), drug addiction, etc. As a kid I was obviously too young to catch any of that stuff but when I revisited the film in college, thanks to a surprisingly good entertainment weekly article on cult films, I got what Alex Cox was doing. After repeated viewings I came to the conclusion that Repo Man is a brilliant film in disguise under a bunch of bad takes & bad audio synchs that shoulda been redone (Repo Man holds a comfy spot on my all-time top 25 but I’m not above pointing out its faults for those of you who haven’t seen it). But at the same time I think that's part of what draws people to Alex Cox - his early work had rawness & moments of imperfections that served as a contrast to all the big budget blockbusters that were starting to emerge in the early 80’s. It takes guts to make a film like Repo Man. It went on to influence other great random & forgotten about L.A.-based movies like Tapeheads & Roadside Prophets (both films are made up of a lot of the same cast & crew from Repo Man) as well as not so great movies like Dude Where's My Car. The first half hour of Bette Gordon’s Luminous Motion also has the same kind of ambiance right down to the opening credits. Cox's overall style also went on to influence Tarrantino (both Reservoir Dogs & Pulp Fiction borrow heavily from Cox's third feature; Straight To Hell). Along with Lost Highway, The Day Of The Locusts, Mulholland Drive, Barton Fink & Chinatown - Repo Man is one of my favorite films that shows the more alternative, dark yet quirky side of Los Angeles. Without too many traditional landmarks Alex Cox captures the ambiance of the city perfectly. He effortlessly exposed viewers to LA's multiracial population long before films like Crash, he showed us the punk scene, crime and how spread out the L.A. is (you have to drive everywhere in order to get somewhere). This film also shares a connection to other works like Williams Friedken's To Live & Die In LA and Wim Wenders' Paris Texas (all three films were shot by Robby Muller, set in the American west and two of the films star Harry Dean Stanton). Repo Man is centered around the punk scene (a genre of music I'm not really in to) but unlike other music genre-based films like 24 Hour Party People (post-punk/new wave) or Who's The Man (Hip-Hop) there aren’t too many inside references or jokes catered only to people within that specific music scene. Repo Man's main inside joke is that half of the characters are named after beers ("Bud", "Lite", "Miller", etc). There’s also an ongoing joke throughout the film where all food labels are modeled after that generic no frills label. Repo Man has this rare unique quality in that even if you aren’t a fan you'll still have a good time watching it.
In the film Emilio Estevez plays; "Otto" - A young L.A. punk who loses his job, girlfriend & life savings (his parents give it away to a televangelist) all in the same day. With no source of income he becomes a car repossessor under the tutelage of "Bud" (Harry Dean Stanton) - a washed-up, coke addicted repo man. Otto quickly learns the ropes from Bud and the rest of his veteran repo coworkers (Lite, Miller & Marlene) and takes to the coke snorting, car stealing, hot-wiring, no-sleep lifestyle. Otto becomes a repo man at a very interesting time as every car repossessor in Los Angeles (along with a group of secret government agents) are on the hunt for a mysterious green Chevy Malibu (there’s a $20,000 reward for returning it). This Chevy Malibu just so happens to contain a trunk full of dead alien bodies which still emanates a deadly radiation (anyone who opens the trunk is immediately zapped in to dust). Soon the race is on to see who can get to the car first. This isn’t exactly the kinda movie you look too for great acting but Harry Dean Stanton and Sy Richardson (somewhat of a staple in the L.A. independent movie scene) all deliver underrated comedic performances.
Underneath all the Mohawks, screwball humor and all around randomness lies brief moments of intellectualism and the kinda stream of consciousness though found in a David Lynch film (who at the time of Repo Man hadn’t even fully come in to that signature style of his yet). Another clever element about Repo Man is that there always seems to be something going on in the background during a lot of scenes – notice the dead body on the ground in the laundryman scene or the Altman-esque moments where random lines are spoken off camera that still have something to do with the storyline.

I gotta admit, I used to feel sorry for Alex Cox and how bad he fell off. That independent/maverick/D.I.Y. mentality worked for his peers like John Sayles & Jim Jarmusch yet not so much for him. After Sid & Nancy everything he did got worse & worse (I honestly don’t understand why people think Walker is so great especially when we already had Burn starring Marlon Brando which makes Walker look like a joke when you compare the two films with each other). Throughout the 90's and the last decade Cox never let the lack of funding or distribution stop him from making films that hardly anyone would see but ever since he made Repo Chick (the sequel to Repo Man and quite possibly one of the worst movies ever made) I have no more sympathy for him or his career (there were plans for a legitimate sequel in the mid-90's which was supposed to include the original cast members along with Willem Dafoe but it fell through).
Repo Man is timeless and appeals to many different groups - It was made for punks, pseudo-anarchists & rebellious youth of the early 80's, rediscovered by the video store generation in the late 80's (video store rentals & VHS sales played a huge part in keeping Repo Man afloat), then dug up again by generation Y (my generation) who were babies & toddlers when Repo Man was first released. With minimal use of computers and no mention of virtual reality, this film still manages to fall in to the cyber punk genre - Otto's environment is somewhat dystopian (with a comedic twist), artificial intelligence is a major part of the story and its full of twisted & rebellious characters. Instead of the threat of computers & artificial life, the threat in Repo Man was nuclear war which was a clear jab at Reagan & Thatcher. Cox is one of the few people to have a connection to both Thatcher (he's from the UK) & Reagan (he moved to the U.S. during the Reagan years and was taken in by the punk scene which wanted nothing to do with Reagan). Fans of William Gibson, Eating Raoul, World On A Wire & Bladerunner should enjoy Repo Man.
This year Criterion blesses us all by adding Repo Man to the collection (I honestly didn’t see that one coming). Normally I'm not a fan of Criterion putting out films that already have multiple special editions already in circulations but this one gets a pass (plus most Repo Man DVD's are currently out of print).


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...