So dig this: I actually had a chance to become a repo man once. I was sort of in between jobs at the time, and this particularly maniacal acquaintance of mine, Jon Fox, stated that not only had he secured employment in the repo field, but that there were additional openings. He filled me in on a few of his escapades repossessing cars from people who had neglected their payments, including one story of an irate victim opening fire on him. (A tale, like a lot of Jon's, that may or may not have been true.) The pay seemed pretty low considering you were risking your life, but you got to work your own hours and there was no deny the high-flying, gol-derned adventure of it all. But I ended up not taking the gig, primarily because I've always been kind of a pussy and I got a job at Amazon.com around the same time.
Fortunately for all of us, Alex Cox wasn't a pussy. While, contrary to popular belief, Cox was never a repo man himself, he did travel in their world and eventually made a film about it. "Repo Man" contained all the lessons Cox learned while trolling the underground, plus a couple of other elements thrown in for good measure. Things like radioactive aliens, mad scientists, a great punk rock score and some of the best dialogue ever committed to celluloid. In fact, check out the first of our.
So there ain't no doubt that "Repo Man," released by Universal in 1984, (Mike Nesmith of The Monkees produced.) is a great flick. But the question is, what made "Repo Man" such a fucking beloved classic? Why have I watched it more times than the Elizabeth Smart bondage video making rounds on the Internet? How can so much of its dialogue be imprinted in my memory, despite the years of absinthe abuse that have rendered my brain a steaming pile of mush often unable to remember my own name. (It's "Ahib," right?) This is one of life's great mysteries, my friends, and now is as good a time as ever to solve it.
Often, what draws an audience to a film is a great plot. In the case of "RM," after years of repeated viewings, I'm still not entirely sure what the plot is. Young Otto (Emilio Estevez), gets fired from his job as a grocery store stock boy after decking a co-worker because he won't stop singing an annoying 7-UP jingle. ("It's that crisp refreshing feeling, crystal clear and light! America's drinking 7-Up, and it sure feels right!") Later that night, Debbi, a mohawked punker who passes for Otto's romantic interest, spurns him by bedding his best friend. Dejected, Otto wanders the streets, only to be tricked by a wayward Harry Dean Stanton into stealing a car and returning it to the repossession company he works for. Otto is lured into the line of work and soon becomes familiar with a crazed array of characters, including Miller, the deranged junkman who spouts high philosophy ("I do my best thinking on the bus. That's how come I don't drive. The more you drive, the less intelligent you are."), the sexy Leila, employee of the United Fruitcake Outlet, the Rodriguez Brothers, hispanic repo men who play by their own rules, and J Frank Parnell, a lobotomized mad scientist driving around in a Chevy Malibu with trunkload of (what might be) dead aliens that've attracted the attention of the U.S. Government, a scheming televangelist, and repo men of all stripes and colors.
So yeah, it's a kooky plot, but in the wrong hands the film still could have been a disaster, so I think we need to look elsewhere to find the source of the films's enduring popularity. The next likely suspect is usually the actors, and "Repo Man's" got some good ones. Emilio Estevez does a thoroughly convincing job as Otto, the punk with a heart of pewter. (Watching Estevez spew teen angst, cocky rebellion and belligerent cluelessness, it's hard to believe that "St Elmo's Fire" was just around the corner.) Tracey Walter, as Miller, also has some timeless moments. (Just as Antonio Fargas was inescapably cast as a pimp/hustler throughout the 70's, Walter, almost always appears onscreen in the role of some sort of homeless madman.) An accessory character, Miller is nonetheless key to the film's story and unquestionably gets the film's best bits of dialogue. (See Top Five All Time Repo Man Quotes. #1). Olivia Barash does a handy job as Leila, the kirky girlfriend everyone has had at least one of. (If you're lucky, you learn the first time.) Doing a bit of research on Barash for this article (Yes, occasionally at Acid Logic we do research.) confirmed something I'd long suspected, that she had a small role at the tail end of the Fame TV series. She also composed some of the music for Oliver Stone's, "The Doors."
But the key actor in "Repo Man" is undoubtedly Harry Dean Stanton as the quintessential repo man, Bud. (Bud was, at least loosely, based on Cox's real life repo-mentor, Mark Lewis.) Bud is 100% street swagger, a frail man who could nonetheless wipe out an entire bar with his unlimited supply of outrage. Squarely dressed in the image of a heat-packing detective, speed snorting and cool under fire, Bud is what Otto could grow up to be if he lives long enough. Stanton's played a lot of great roles - the detective in "Christine," or the grizzled Nevada store owner in Sean Penn's "The Pledge" - but Bud is his classic part, the one they'll remember him for when he's dead. (In fact, Stanton used to play in a band called "Harry Dean Stanton and the Repo Men.")
The movie's cast did have a lot to do with botexing the film's status as classic cult. But I don't think it's the whole answer. Perhaps by looking at the direction, the vision of the film, we can find the complete explanation. As mentioned previously, "Repo Man" was directed by Alex Cox, a cinematic maverick who's provided a number of iconoclastic movies over the years. But few would deny that "Repo Man," one of his earliest films, is also one of his greatest. What shines in the movie, is Cox's meticulous attention to detail - some of the best gags of the film are in the corner of the screen or dialogue ticks that call no attention to themselves and often don't show up til the third or fourth viewing. (More that any other flick, "Repo Man" demands repeated screenings.) Take the film's obsession with generic food products, for instance. Otto eats an unrecognizeable food substance from a plain can labeled "FOOD." Bud buys beer labeled, "BEER." This is Cox's light touch - other directors would require a punch line for the gimmick, or at least for some character to point it out, but Cox leaves it up to the viewer. He does the same with his various jabs at the "religion" of Dianetics. (Disguised in the film as "Diarectics."). There's never an obvious slander, just off-hand comments from bit characters and a scene of the Diarectics treatise being tossed into a fire.
Cox ultimately has a message to his film - he's condemning maniacal excesses of the 80's, such as runaway televised religion, governmental secrecy and the Reagan era buildup of weapons capable of wiping out the planet many times over. A worthwhile message, no doubt, but one, had it been delivered in the preening fashion of an Oliver Stone would have ruined the film. Once again, it's Cox's light touch that saves the day. Instead of self righteously preaching the message at you, he leaves it there for you to absorb. Whether you pick it up on the first viewing or the fourteenth doesn't matter to Cox, because he has something most directors lack: a faith in his audience. He knows "Repo Man" gives you a lot to chew on, but also knows that you'll eventually swallow.
However, even Cox's deft direction doesn't completely explain the quality of the film. After all, aside from "Repo Man" and "Sid and Nancy," most of Cox's films have been mediocre and failed to demand much attention. (Though I have heard good things about his latest, Revenger's Tragedy, and he did contribute to the screenplay for Terry Gilliam's "Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas.") Whatever Alex Cox brought to the Repo Man it would seem as much divine inspiration as much as it was innate talent. Perhaps that, combined with a kooky, amusing plot, and skilled acting is what gave the film its success. But I can be no more certain of that that I am as to what exactly what is in the trunk of J Frank Parnell's Chevy Malibu.
The truth is, ours is not the place to really understand "Repo Man." After a hundred viewings, there will still be jokes left to laugh at, new dialogue to memorize and more hidden meanings to dissect. I doubt that Cox, Nesmith or any of the actors truly realized what they had created when they released the film and are probably still appreciating it, years later. All we can do is join them.
I should footnote that while I was writing this piece at the local Starbucks, the bum behind me spent the entire time making Frankenstein noises. It seemed utterly appropriate in a "Repo Man" sort of way.
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