Sam McPheeters writes a paean to a favorite film of mine, Repo Man. Repo Man has been out of print recently, but now The Criterion Collection has rescued it, and restored it as well. I’m really tempted to get a copy. For many years, the phrase “Let’s get sushi… and not pay!” has been an oft repeated phrase in my monologues.1 Also, “I don’t want no Commies in my car!… No Christians, either!” in my best Harry Dean Stanton Old West voice…
Repo Man, released in early 1984, was the first feature film by a twenty- nine-year-old British UCLA film school graduate named Alex Cox. Even now, the film’s existence seems implausible. It is an apocalypse tale with no doomsday, a punk movie with no concert, a science fiction story with less than ten seconds of aliens. Most of its now classic music was on the far, far edge of American society in 1984. It mines a world of drugs, crime, and capitalist peril for absurdist yuks (when Cox showed the film to his contacts in the real world of Los Angeles auto repossession, they found it to be a diluted version of their much more terrifying jobs). The project, originally envisioned at one-tenth of its final budget, was picked up by Universal Studios. That backing launched the green director into the unfamiliar universe of teamsters and lawyers and the watchful eyes of a studio that could smoosh the project with one phone call.
Criterion Collection – Repo Man
How a major studio allowed such a vehemently odd movie to exist really is a mystery. Its outlandishness isn’t forced; it’s forceful. This is a film that expands a singular style of humor into an entire worldview, a physics as vast as the Force in Star Wars. But part of the mystery is also that Cox could gather so much talent in one place. Granted full autonomy in his casting, he somehow assembled a flawless ensemble. Emilio Estevez’s Otto is a pitch-perfect mix of blank ambition and obliviousness. Matching this is the world-weary exhaustion—dubbed “the Old West/cadaver look” by a friend of Cox’s—of Harry Dean Stanton’s Bud. Otto is a baby-faced punker initiated into a secretive trade by Bud, who listens to obsolete music, dresses square, and dreams small. Their worldviews collide in the new terrain of early eighties America, an era of subtle but rapid change from the Me Decade to the Greed Decade.
(click here to continue reading Repo Man: A Lattice of Coincidence – From the Current – The Criterion Collection.)
I know I saw the Repo Man film in the theatre, but I don’t know if it was during the first run, or after the soundtrack made a splash. In those old dusty days, before the internet, before cable television, before DVDs and streaming video services, I saw a lot of movies on opening weekend. I do remember it being a mostly empty theatre, but laughing hysterically at the cans of generic food…
Repo Man thrived largely because of its music. The soundtrack not only resurrected the theatrical run, it also stoked interest in the video release. The film had the wonderful serendipity to enter the VHS market during the golden age of video stores. In the mideighties, “cult film” was both an aesthetic and a status facilitated by scarcity. Video connoisseurs of the pre-Internet world foraged through shelves and bins, propelled by word of mouth and employee picks. Even if you managed to catch the infamously edited television version of Repo Man (with “flip you” and “melon farmer” dubbed over saltier insults), you would have had to own a VCR to share the experience with friends. The film bloomed as a phenomenon not just because it had to be sought out but because it delivered on expectations when finally found.
Musically as well, it’s hard to think of another nondocumentary film with the preposterously marvelous timing of Repo Man—Cox had the most vibrant and diverse punk scene in America to work with. And certainly no other film used such good fortune to such novel effect. Consider the cameo by the Circle Jerks. That scene shows one of the mightiest lineups in the first wave of American hardcore—Keith Morris, Greg Hetson, Earl Liberty of Saccharine Trust, and the celebrated drummer Chuck Biscuits—in that incarnation of the band’s only recorded performance, as a drum-machine-backed lounge act.
If you haven’t seen the film in a while, or ever, give it a spin…Footnotes:
- conversations, dialogues, whatever [↩]