Alex Cox’s punk masterpiece gets the 35mm treatment at Circle Cinema
There was a time when the Reagan-esqe ideals of the Sharper Image catalog, conspicuous consumption, and upward mobility led to the capitulation of the free love movement and which tumbled into modern capitalism. A generation of people who spent their youths rebelling against the system until the hedonism of the ‘70s wore itself out and the warriors of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll collapsed into a hypocritical event horizon of consumerism. They turned into Republicans. This bore fruit in the angst of their disaffected, yet likely spoiled children, clashing like a cultural wave, resulting in the underground music and fashion of the ‘80s punk movement. There were other reasons for that—across the world—but conservatism, in America and England, fomented an unrecognizable force.
Of course, the former camp barely noticed or cared about the latter, ignoring the growing entropy of a Gen X who, if they were raised to believe anything at all, were probably told that greed and God were good, and that all they needed to do was go to college to make something of themselves. In America, it was a duplicitous end to the ideals of LBJ’s Great Society that the Boomers enjoyed—when getting a good education didn’t require wealth and their favorite bands sucked. To those adults, punk culture was a curious, if amusing fad that, even if they didn’t really understand it, left them confident that their children would grow up to carry on their generational values.
Otto (Emilio Estevez) is a similarly disaffected punk kid, working a dead-end grocery store job with his nerdy friend Kevin (Zander Schloss) until he flips his needy boss the double birds and they both get fired. Otto hates all of his friends. His friends don’t seem to have much regard for him, either. They all wander the wasteland of Greater Los Angeles in the early ‘80s.
Otto comes across Bud (Harry Dean Staton), a hound dog-faced company man, who convinces Otto to drive his pregnant wife’s car out of a “bad area.”
Turns out Bud doesn’t have a pregnant wife. He’s grooming Otto into being a repo man—working for a pirate cadre of burnouts and borderline criminals who repossess cars for money. At first, Otto is as anti-social towards them as he is in general. But once he gets into some adventures with Bud, learning the “repo code,” he begins to see the pleasingly anarchistic elements of stealing cars from “assholes who don’t pay their bills.”
In the middle of that is a ’64 Chevy Malibu, driven by the irradiated Frank Parnell (Fox Harris) who has an extraterrestrial alien body in the trunk which fries anyone who opens it, and which Bud and Otto, along with the crew of a competing agency, the Rodriguez Brothers, all want to repo because, unbeknownst to them, a secret government organization is offering a sick commission. It just gets weirder after that.
Repo Man, released in 1984, is a seminal combination of Alex Cox’s nihilistic worldview and killer direction (who later became more famous for directing a similarly cult quasi-biography, “Sid and Nancy,” based on the legendary punk band, The Sex Pistols).
The performances from his game cast—particularly Harry Dean Stanton, who owns this movie like someone who just signed a mortgage—are all clearly doing God’s work, creating a futurist satire of a capitalist hellscape where literally every commodity has a black and white, generic label. Cans of beer say “Beer.” Cans of food say “Food”, and no one thinks twice about living in a lo-fi Judeo-Christian banana republic rife for subversion by the reprobates, punks, coked-out weirdos, televangelists, and natural born freaks dotting the hood, even as they all operate within something resembling society. Nihilism at its best. It’s pure, prescient cinema, and one of the most quotable films ever made. Like Bud says, “I don’t want any Commies in my car. No Christians, either.”
Among Repo Man’s many joys is the soundtrack, working in tandem with the idiosyncratic anger of Cox’s vision. It’s such a product of its time. Iggy Pop, The Plugz, Suicidal Tendencies, and Black Flag, along with Circle Jerks doing an antithetical, acoustic version of “When the Shit Hits the Fan,” all of which are concentric cultural circles in a Southern California galaxy that couldn’t have existed in any other place, or time.
If you can’t tell, this is a desert island flick for me. If you’ve never seen, or heard of it before, I envy you. But I can’t explain magic, and I’m not going to try.
“Repo Man,” a part of Oklahoma filmmaker Blackhorse Lowe’s curated CINEDOOM series, in conjunction with the Tulsa Artist Fellowship, plays for one night only at Circle Cinema on 35mm film on Oct. 26. For tickets, visit www.circlecinema.com