30 Years Ago Today: Repo Man – Alex Cox and the Lattice of Coincidence. (Film Review)
If Repo Man is the seemingly miraculous meeting of perfect dialogue with perfect performances with a directorial aesthetic that both pierced the facade of Reaganomics as well as accurately representing a relatively unknown, and yet soon to be infamous sub culture along with the perfect soundtrack, then it begs the question, how often are these sorts of films being attempted? Alex Cox, then a film school grad out to make his mark was surely no more ambitious than every graduate in the same boat, and every graduate ever since, and in fact if it wasn’t for the music, Repo Man would be sitting on Cox’s shelf today being patronized by visitors to his home forced to watch it on VCR. However, the now famous story goes Universal who had withdrawn Repo Man (gone ten times over budget) in its second viewing week, only to return it to the cinema after the sound track hit sales of over fifty thousand, were scratching their heads all the way through the making of, and indeed the success of Repo Man, and probably still are. That this film was ever made is an accident so noteworthy it still, thirty years later, gives the film an underground feel, as if it is some sort of anti-establishment success for the counter-culture it so respectfully portrays.
It’s damn near impossible to separately analyse why Repo Man is such a success because just about every aspect of it throbs with brilliance. It was a first of so many things; treating punk culture with respect, poking fun at Scientology, collapsing generic brands onto the one shelf (of all the generic food packaging used to great effect in Repo Man, only “food”, “drink” and “butyl nitrate” are actual props made for the film), analyzing the fall from hippy culture to Christian conservatism, and that stunning list of punk cameos from The Circle Jerks as the lounge singers. Note this quote from the Criterion analysis of Repo Man: ‘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. ‘ And then, when it isn’t the first, its celebrates all the right things, from Iggy Pop’s fantastic opening song (complete with a band made up of the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones and two members of Blondie) through to the smoldering patrolman’s boots, an image supplied by Nesbit himself, The ex Monkey producer. The McGuffin, that bright shining light in the trunk of THE car is taken directly from the hissing “great whatsit” from the noir thriller Kiss me Deadly made in 1955.
Even with the repeat watch inducing game of spot the references, the treatment of an L.A. in a country about to re-elect Ronald Reagan for a second term and the piercing political commentary add the depth consistent with the best enduring films. The four main Repo men, Otto, Bud, Miller and Lite of the Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation weren’t just named after beers, but took on certain philosophies they impart throughout the film via counselling and the ingestion of hard core drugs. Harry Dean Stanton’s Bud turns the role of the Repo man into a a calling with famous one liners such as, “The life of the repo man is always intense”, “Look at those assholes, ordinary fucking people. I hate ’em.” and “Credit is a sacred trust, it’s what our free society is founded on. Do you think they give a damn about their bills in Russia? I said, do you think they give a damn about their bills in Russia?” All of this is tied up with the Repo man’s code that Bud follows, believing it separates him from the ordinary people (along with an impeccable credit rating). Next to him is Lite, who offers Otto the book Dioretix: Science of Matter Over Mind, which is a clear reference to Ron L Hubbard’s 1950, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. Lite has his own set of rules which include passenger seat-belts and shooting blanks at those who question his authority. Finally it is Miller who is the most spacy-spiritual of the Repo men, and Miller who provides Otto with one of the films most famous quotes:
A lot o’ people don’t realize what’s really going on. They view life as a bunch o’ unconnected incidents ‘n things. They don’t realize that there’s this, like, lattice o’ coincidence that lays on top o’ everything. Give you an example; show you what I mean: suppose you’re thinkin’ about a plate o’ shrimp. Suddenly someone’ll say, like, plate, or shrimp, or plate o’ shrimp out of the blue, no explanation. No point in lookin’ for one, either. It’s all part of a cosmic unconsciousness.
Otto: You eat a lot of acid, Miller, back in the hippie days?
Miller: I’ll give you another instance: you know how everybody’s into weirdness right now?…
These three offer Otto (Emilio Estevez), who is a blank canvass having all too easily given up his punk/anarchist ideology and yet hovering in the non committal world of the abstracted virginal ambition of the penniless, the spiritual offerings associated with self sufficient success, as exemplified by his hippy parents who buy his way into heaven for him by spending his college fund on a television evangelist. The three offers of salvation can be summed up as New Age Theory, Self Help religions that burst through the 80’s such as Scientology and EST and Objectivism. Among all of this is the distraction of aliens and their drastic sub plots, that help Otto refuse to commit to any of these choices, and in fact allow coincidence and fate to drag him along. There are many astonishing scenes in Repo Man, but few are as chilling as the walk Otto takes when he fights with Bud over the worthless humans on the street. Alex Cox reveals an L.A. where people live on the streets, and can even die in the middle of a footpath or sitting on a park bench and not be noticed as deceased for several days.
This brief summary, only touches on the detail, intricacy and abstract hilarity that is Repo Man – I haven’t even mentioned the Malibu – but there is so much in a film like this, that multiple watchings produce multiple interpretations. If you’ve never seen Repo Man, do yourself a favor and ‘hire the VHS’.
(The image used as the title poster for this post on Repo Man is taken from Bleedingcool.