[Watch out for spoilers, and for irradiated Chevy Malibus.]
I rewatched Alex Cox’s cult classic Repo Man (1984) last Thursday, talked about it briefly on a radio show on Friday, and still have some ideas about it that I want to mull over. I first saw it on New Year’s Eve a couple years ago, and an additional viewing reinforces the reasons I enjoy it: its muddled rebellion, its raw charm, its defiance of genre conventions, its je nais sais punk. It earns its “cult” status because it captures in amber a specific moment of cultural history, with all its youthful anger, ideological chaos, and quirky stylistic confusion.
Let it be said: Repo Man is above all a film of its time. This was a time when its star, Emilio Estevez, was about to appear in The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire, a time when Ronald Reagan was about to be reelected in a landslide, and a time when the Soviet Union had less than a decade left of existence. Sid Vicious, the subject of Cox’s next movie, had died five years earlier; the explosion of the Iran-Contra affair was just around the chronological corner. I may not have been around, but all available clues suggest that the mid-’80s were a prime era of disillusionment, of young people trying to piece back together who they were and what they could believe in. Repo Man‘s Otto (Estevez) is offered no end of solutions, and responds to most of them with an instinctive “Fuck you.”
I recently caught up with The Breakfast Club at last, and the contrast between Estevez’s roles in the two films is startling. The opening quote of the John Hughes film (from David Bowie’s “Changes”) asserts that it’s a movie about “these children that you spit on / As they try to change their worlds”; throughout the story, the five stereotyped teenagers from suburban Chicago attempt to reconcile their identities, their futures, and their relationships with their parents. In the end, they conclude that the world of high school is tough, and cliques are unfair, but that in each of them is a brain, jock, etc., and they’re not so different after all. Much soul-baring goes on, and it leads to a comfortable set of answers.
Otto, meanwhile, never quite pulls together a coherent question. Unlike his Breakfast Club counterpart, he’s not concerned about whether he’ll grow up to “be like [his] parents,” since they’ve sold out his future for a greasy televangelist’s false promises. (Between Reverend Larry, the television he’s on, and their shared blunt, this scene literalizes a lifestyle based around “opiates of the masses,” akin to Brave New World‘s soma vacations.) Otto’s crisis isn’t that he’ll sink into the shallow, bourgeois mold of his parents, but that he – and by extension, America’s youth – has no older role models who aren’t hypocrites or symbols of crass consumerism.
Early in the film, after an unsatisfying party with his punk friends, Otto walks along railroad tracks, singing Black Flag’s “TV Party“: “We’re just dedicated to our favorite shows! Saturday Night Live, Monday Night Football, Dallas…” The punk creed espoused by the film is that the mass of Americans have been reduced to brain-dead drones – like Otto’s coworker Kevin, who obliviously sings a 7 Up jingle – and that any past ideals have been co-opted by Corporate America. Opportunity knocks, however, in the form of Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), a hard-assed old-timer who initiates him through deception into the world of repoing cars. “Repo man is always intense,” explains Bud.
For Otto, the life of a repo man is an alternative to both conformity and punk nihilism. It’s a lifestyle positioned on the edge of the law, a career based on glorified grand theft auto. Bud dresses “kinda square” so that he’s viewed as a detective, and this hints at some of the film’s noir roots (as do references to Kiss Me Deadly and The Big Heat). By joining with Bud and the other repo men, Otto can find some common ground to rest his feet on, even if he shares it with loners from decades past. It’s a chance for him to ply a trade, but a trade that amounts to lying and stealing – the repo men don’t make anything, they take prized possessions away. Theirs is a job that prospers amidst economic decline. Instead of buying into the American dream, Otto gets paid by commission to repossess the dreams of others.
As you’d imagine, many of Repo Man‘s conversations revolve around cars. “The more you drive, the less intelligent you are,” posits Miller, the burnt-out holy fool who hangs around the parking lot; it’s an absurdist epigram whose possible truth informs much of the film’s frantic driving. Due to Miller’s supposed madness, he can question such a mainstay of 20th century American culture, rejecting a fact of life (that is, automotive transportation) that every other character takes for granted. Miller’s crazy idea is even implicitly accepted by the film’s big MacGuffin, a “1964 Chevy Malibu” worth $20,000 if repossessed, which is slowly killing its lobotomized driver. Its trunk contains something (a neutron bomb? Alien corpses?) that vaporizes human bodies in an instant. Through this sci-fi symbol, the film presents us with a deadly quandary: the automobile as both toxic and supremely desirable.
The Chevy Malibu’s many meanings are symptomatic of a beautiful tendency in the film, which is its nonstop allusions to Cold War zeitgeists. Whereas The Breakfast Club‘s teenagers live in a self-contained bubble of angst and alienation, Repo Man is very politically aware (even if its responses to late-Cold War politics are rarely nuanced or coherent). Otto, Bud, and the rest exist in the shadow of the Communist Russia, American involvement in Central America (which would become the subject matter of Cox’s Walker), and the imminent possibility of nuclear annihilation. Wally Cleaver could have easily fit in with the students at John Hughes’ Shermer High School; in Cox’s dystopian Los Angeles, the Cleavers’ family values have been dismantled and found insufficient. To this end, Repo Man also follows a trio of Otto’s old punk friends as they steal cars, pick fights, and hold up convenience stores.
Duke, Debbi, and Archie are human repositories of cultural minutiae, constructing their identities out of what they think rebels are supposed to be. As they roam the city streets, Duke howls, “Let’s go do some crimes!”, and it’s emblematic of how vague their motivations are. Just before their last hold-up, Duke turns to Debbi and proposes that they settle down and have kids – the ultimate concession to bourgeois banality – because “it just seems like the thing to do.” No matter how hard the punk kids try to rebel, they’re too unguided to avoid falling back into these well-worn behavioral scripts. As he’s dying, Duke falls into another: “I blame society.” Otto corrects him: “You’re a white suburban punk, just like me.” None of them have better excuses sociological excuses than sheer boredom; they’re just borrowing from antiquated images of “juvenile delinquents.” At least Otto’s self-aware enough to realize it.
Ultimately, I see Repo Man as a reaction. Alex Cox surveys an ugly postmodern landscape – both in terms of geographical and media realities – and considers, through Otto, all the ways a teenager could try to find some glimmer of truth in such a world. This world is an amalgamation of recycled ideas and images, from John Ford westerns to film noir, from 1950s sci-fi movies to Weekly World News headlines and conspiracy theories, from the 1950s-’60s glamorization of car culture to Emiliano Zapata, from 1930s gangster movies to drugged-out ex-hippies. And of course, punk rock. For Cox, the streets of Los Angeles – and by extension, the whole southwest – is an appropriately desolate playing field where these icons can be smashed against one another.
“John Wayne was a fag,” states Miller to the disgust of the other repo men. The film deals in this kind of debunking, bringing legends down to size – the same goal as the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen.” Some Americans put their faith in the Scientology-like text of Dioretix, while others pay for bland white containers marked “FOOD” or “BEER.” Repo Man scoffs at them all. It’s a reaction, and largely a rejection of all the lies and stupidity that the youngest generation has had to put up with, manifested repeatedly through satire. It’s not always the most clear-headed of films, but that’s much of the point. It’s a melange of genres, offering many forking paths through a microcosmic naked city, and draped in a meandering adventure saga. Maybe you can see how Repo Man is a clear source of inspiration for Quentin Tarantino.
So I think that should suffice as an introduction to Repo Man‘s raucous critiques of western civilization. In many ways, the film resembles Scorsese’s Shutter Island, which plays similar tricks with the cultural baggage of 1950s America, though Repo Man holds together more successfully. I’m still not sure what its moral is, and it might not even have one – it ends with a flagrant deus ex machina wherein Miller’s craziness gives him the edge over everyone. However, it’s endlessly quotable, has a great punk rock soundtrack, and crams its little potshots full of wit, so – as Otto might say – who the fuck cares? Repo Man may be a quirky cult hit, but it’s also an explosive, clever little time bomb of a movie.