Monday, December 15, 2008

Repo Man (1984)

A week or two ago, my brother called me up with some news that he stated was about to make my day. Needless to say, it made my year. What was that news? The announcement of the sequel to 1984's cult classic Repo Man. The sequel, entitled Repo Chick and slated to be produced by David Lynch, will be the first return (in film at least) to the Repo Man franchise by director Alex Cox since the film's original release.

My obsession with Repo Man began before I knew it was a cult classic, or that I would one day be writing about weird underground films on a blog for the hip internet masses. I was introduced to this film back when the only source of influence on my tastes was my father. I remember watching this film on TV with him a number of times as a child. I would go to school and try to explain the plot to my friends, only to receive looks of complete confusion: "See, there is this car, and in the trunk is this alien thing that lets out a bright glow and vaporizes people and only leaves their shoes."

Of course at that age I was unaware of all the small subtleties within the film - the fact that the "alien" in the trunk might actually be a neutron bomb, or the nods toward the nuclear war scare of the 1980's.

The film opens with our protagonist Otto, a down and out punk kid living in the bright and rusted landscape of east LA, losing his job and befriending a strange group of repo men (who are all named after beers - Bud, Lite, Oly, Miller). They end up looking for a 64' Chevy Malibu being driven by a crazed scientist named J. Frank Parnell, who claims to be the inventor of the neutron bomb (which may explain what is in the trunk). Also looking for the car are a set of cheapskates called the Rodriguez Brothers, as well as an organization known as the United Fruitcake Outlet (U.F.O.) that believes the trunk holds aliens (another explanation for the bright glow), and government agents. Amidst all the searching are machine gun fights in hospital stairwells, contemplations of a cosmic unconsciousness, car repossession, the "repo code," and a who's who of the 1980's punk music scene (both in soundtrack and actors).

In high school I visited the local video store where I grew up, and found a copy of the film on VHS for sale as they purged their collection. For the next few years I would watch it religiously. This film contains elements that I am uncontrollably attracted to and have found in several other films - They Live, Terminator, Miracle Mile, Blade Runner, etc. All these films deal with Los Angeles in the 1980's: solitude, doomsday, all while featuring the unmistakable aesthetic of the time. The worlds in these films are filled with chain link fences, bright pavement, dark alleys, fluorescent lights, the Second Street Tunnel, and feelings of helplessness and isolation in a city populated by thousands.

I don't know if I was born with some kind of natural draw toward such themes, or if the influence came directly from my father. Most likely it is the latter. But while he watched these films strictly for entertainment's sake, I have taken my observations to the next level by placing them on par with other respected pieces of art. All of these films, especially Repo Man, speak to a different audience and culture than most films but should be respected for their own merits.

Repo Man contains several strange elements that run throughout. One of the first and most noticeable is the labeling of products, or the lack thereof. Most products in the film are labeled simply with what they are, underlined by a blue line. For instance "Beer" or "Food." This may be a commentary on consumerism or just an interesting aesthetic choice. At one point Miller, the repo shop's mechanic, spouts an eloquent speech on how we all share a "cosmic unconsciousness" which allows us to pick up on others' thoughts subconsciously:

Miller from Repo Man:
"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."

Later in the film a painting on a diner window can be seen advertising a plate of shrimp. Repo Man is full of small details like this that one might miss if not careful: like a man playing the part of one of the repo men's wives in the background of a party, or Jimmy Buffet as an FBI agent. The film contains a thick weave of slight variations on the norm that creates a world seemingly close to ours, but wholly different.

But it isn't just these small visual cues that I identify with. I find Otto's growth in the film to be an interesting subject. Otto begins as a punk kid kicking a can on the side of the street, and changes into a conservatively dressed repo man whom repossesses cars and gets paid to sell out his fellow citizens who have landed on hard times like himself. Repo Man seems to look with a skeptical eye on the punk lifestyle that sprouted its existence. In one scene, Otto comforts his dying friend Duke in the wake of a convenience store shootout. Duke, who has spent the entire film pulling small time robberies, coughs up blood and wheezes from a shotgun blast to his torso:

From Repo Man:
Duke: "The lights are growing dim Otto. I know a life of crime has led me to this sorry fate, and yet, I blame society. Society made me what I am."
Otto: "That's bullshit. You're a white suburban punk just like me."
Duke: "Yeah, but it still hurts."

While Otto aligns himself with the same background as Duke, it is obvious Otto has changed and grown away from where he began in the film. Otto forces Duke to accept responsibility for what he has done instead of laying the blame on those around him, like so many that I grew up with. The film reveals the natural progression of the many who choose this lifestyle (or just kids in general) from angst filled youths to mature adults who can channel their aggressive feelings of injustice towards making actual change, like becoming activists or artists who can motivate people and bring to light important social and political issues. Just as Alex Cox has done with his film.


Nuclear War. Of course. What else could it be about? And the demented society that contemplated the possibility thereof. Repo-ing people's cars and hating alien ideologies were only the tip of the iceberg. The iceberg itself was the maniac culture which had elected so-called "leaders" named Reagan and Thatcher, who were prepared to sacrifice everything -- all life on earth -- to a gamble based on the longevity of the Soviet military, and the whims of their corporate masters. J. Frank Parnell - the fictitious inventor of the Neutron Bomb - was the central character for me. He sets the film in motion, on the road from Los Alamos, and, as portrayed by the late great actor, Fox Harris, is the centrepoint of the film."
While I love other films that deal with nuclear war, like Dr. Strangelove, the themes of such films don't seem quite fitting for an audience of early 1980's punks, artists, and "outsiders." It may sound stupid to point it out, but I feel it is an important aspect of Repo Man, films of this nature, and art in general. Artists take a subject like nuclear war and make it their own. They claim it for their culture and respective lifestyles.

I have been waiting for and dreading a sequel to this film for years. On the one hand, I want to see what became of Otto, as the film ends in a strange climax. I want to know what was in the trunk or if Bud lives, and so on and so forth. But on the other hand, I feel that the answers to any of these questions would ruin the integrity of the original film. It would be like sitting next to Leonardo as he painted the Mona Lisa. It would be fantastic to dispel all the rumors surrounding this painting - but do you really want to?

Despite the presence of a Repo Man sequel coming to film, I can supposedly already find my answers in a graphic novel just released entitled Waldo's Hawaiian Holiday. I remember reading about this book on Alex Cox's website years ago, but had the idea that it was an abandoned project. Looks like it has finally come to light.

According to IMDB, a sequel was attempted in 1997 but failed. It is documented in the film A Texas Tale of Treason.

This brings us to the newest film, Repo Chick. Here is the blurb floating around the web:

"Repo Chick will unfold against the backdrop of the credit crunch and the subprime mortgage crisis in the US, where repossessions of homes, cars and other forms of property is at a new high. ‘The repo business has expanded to everything from boats, houses, aeroplanes, small nations...children[.]'"
Judging by this description, it appears this may be a sequel more in spirit and theme than directly, which I more than fully support. I just hope the film is able to conjure up the same feelings that the original does for me. Often times one goes into a long awaited sequel expecting a similar product, but finds that in the last 15-20 years the filmmaker has grown, changed, and wants to take the franchise in a new direction. (See Indiana Jones and Escape From L.A.) We will just have to wait and see.

Here are a few more facts I couldn't fit in:
  • The film was produced by Michael Nesmith of The Monkees fame.
  • The film includes two of my all time favorite actors. Harry Dean Stanton, Bud, appears in a plethora of 1980s films that I am sure you have seen, as well as showing up in Alien, The Green Mile, and Cool Hand Luke. And I went to high school with his nephew's son.
  • I am also a huge fan of Sy Richardson, who plays Lite. Sy is featured in several Alex Cox films and has a bit role in another 1980s sci-fi film favorite of mine, They Live. Supposedly Sy's character in Repo Man was the influence for Samuel L Jackson's in Pulp Fiction.
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- Nick

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