Sunday, August 11, 2013

Spare Parts: The Criterion Collection Release of Alex Cox's Repo Man (1984)

In British director Alex Cox's 1984 debut cult film, Repo Man, which the Criterion Collection has recently released on regular and Blu-ray DVD, people are long past being stirred by the sunny allure of Los Angeles. They're now well into its shady violence. The L.A. of this cheerfully nihilistic picture isn't even that sunny anymore. The neon-bright daylight skies (shot by the crack cinematographer Robbie Müller) could be lit by the same florescent bulbs that adorn a 7-11. The night scenes come across as black ink blots brightened by sparsely placed street lamps that make the city look about as desolate as its inhabitants. According to Cox, whatever appeal Los Angeles had in its past, by the Eighties it's nothing more than a junk yard of spare parts where people are essentially hanging on to whatever junk they've got left.

This maniacally funny science fiction comedy basically tells us that the dashed dreamers who once littered this west coast paradise are now hostile predators brutally protective of their possessions. And since it's a pretty common joke that people in L.A. only travel in their cars, it's the car that has now become the vehicle of their rage (just as it was in Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend). Since the Hollywood hits of the Eighties were usually 'buddy movies' like Lethal Weapon (1987) and 48 Hrs. (1982), Alex Cox satirizes how in those weepies for men the buddies settle their personal conflicts to learn important life lessons about civility. Repo Man features two guys who really don't give a shit about civility (or each other). The only life lesson they learn is the tools to repossess a car in record time to survive the economic downturn. Cox's punk ethos, which is far less self-conscious than it became later in Sid and Nancy (1986) and Walker (1987), is totally refreshing and it clears your head. Repo Man – gratefully – doesn't set out to improve anybody.

In the story, Otto Maddox (Emilio Estevez) is young punker who gets fired from his dull job as a supermarket stock clerk. Upon arriving home, he's horrified to discover that his Sixties boomer parents, who are chronically stoned on grass, have given all the money saved for his education to a televangelist. In total despair and walking the streets, Otto runs into Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), who cons Otto into repossessing a car. When Otto finds out what he's done, he gets enraged and shows his displeasure by pouring a bottle of beer on the floor of the agency. (All the workers there, worn down by their endless cynicism, are revived by Bud's act and yell, "You're alright!") But once Otto sees money in it – that is, instant cash – he becomes Bud's partner in a life that Bud describes as "intense." Intense isn't the half of it. What gives Repo Man a distinctive charge from most cult films is that it doesn't pander to a cult audience. Instead of making a movie with the intent of being worshiped and adored, Cox resists the kind of fetishistic desires that lead people to see cars as extensions of themselves (and a cult movie as a talisman). One of the funniest characters, Miller (Tracey Walter), an acid burn-out tending to the lot's garbage bins and who hasn't lost all his marbles, pretty much sums up the picture's intent by saying, "The more you drive, the less intelligent you are."

Emilio Estevez & Harry Dean Stanton
There's a running subplot in Repo Man that comes right out of the early Cold War pictures that deal with the neutron bomb testing at Los Alamos (like Kiss Me Deadly) and the possible hiding of space aliens. A scientist (Fox Harris) is possibly carrying around some space creatures in the trunk of his 1964 Chevy Malibu. (Each time someone opens the trunk to investigate, they get vapourized by radiation.) But the film's plotting slackens when Otto's girlfriend Leila (Olivia Barash) tells him there's a $20,000 reward offered by the government for the car, and he and rival repo men from Mexico compete for it. Repo Man's single-minded drive ends up a little too dispersed towards the end. (Fox Harris, though, with his frizzy mad scientist hair and thick eye-glasses, is a hilarious and ingenious cuckoo – a chatty conspiracy nut on amphetamines.) The pairing of Harry Dean Stanton, with his pock-marked face that seems eaten away by ravenous inertia, and Emilio Estevez, with his baby-faced anomie, is also truly inspired. Stanton's Bud is so used to the dull ritual of taking people's cars that Estevez's continued petulance gives him a caffeine jolt. And Tracey Walters, a regular in many Jonathan Demme pictures, is a feral pixie, a punkier Puck, who muses on hilariously in fractured sentences about the "cosmic unconsciousness."

Tracey Walter & Emilio Estevez
Repo Man, like the cars that get repossessed, is hot-wired by various lively punk songs by Iggy Pop (the main title song), Black Flag and The Circle Jerks (who pretty much sum up the ethos of the picture with "When the Shit Hits the Fan") and The Plugz, whose delirious "Hombre Secreto (Secret Agent Man)" brings the Johnny Rivers' classic back from the dead.  But if Repo Man stays true to its punk aesthetic, that doesn't mean its punk refusal is an empty stance with a decorative bobby-pin through its cheek. At one point, Bud lectures Otto by saying, "Never broke into a car... Never broke into a truck. 'I shall not cause harm to any vehicle nor the personal contents thereof, nor through inaction let the personal contents thereof come to harm.'" Otto, high on speed and in a frenzied daze, can't fully comprehend the lecture, so Bud adds, "It's what I call the Repo Code, kid!" Repo Man, with its shaggy insolence, does have its own dignity.

*** The Criterion Collection director-approved edition includes audio commentary featuring Cox, executive producer Michael Nesmith (formerly of The Monkees), casting director Victoria Thomas, and actors Sy Richardson, Zander Schloss, and Del Zamora. New interviews with musicians Iggy Pop and Keith Morris and actors Dick Rude, Olivia Barash, and Miguel Sandoval. Deleted scenes and trailers. Roundtable discussion about the making of the film, featuring Cox, producers Peter McCarthy and Jonathan Wacks, Zamora, Richardson, and Rude Conversation between actor Harry Dean Stanton and McCarthy. There's even Alex Cox’s “cleaned-up” television version of the film and the customary trailers. There's the Criterion high standard informative booklet that features a new essay on the film by critic Sam McPheeters, an illustrated production history by Cox, and a 1987 interview with real-life repo man Mark Lewis.

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. 

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