The Cult Club: Repo Man (1984) is a Punk Rock Commentary on the Crappiness of the 80s

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Alex Cox’s Repo Man is one of the key films in the cult canon. Defying traditional cinematic taxonomy, Cox’s debut offered a social critique in the guise of a genre-mash: LA noir, LA punk, Cold War paranoia, drive-in sci-fi, all bound by characters who are deadbeats or whose lives have hit dead-ends. Ronald Reagan’s optimistic re-election slogan in 1984 was “It’s morning again in America.” Repo Man seems to sneer back, “Fuck you—I’m sleeping in.”

Bring up Repo Man among movie nerds and you’re likely to hear one of the film’s quotable lines: “Let’s go get sushi and not pay,” “Let’s go do some crimes,” or “Ordinary fuckin’ people—I hate ’em!” It’s as if the script was assembled from the best snippets of conversations overheard in dive bars and bus depots.

Repo Man‘s cult canonization came immediately thanks to video stores, where many Gen-Xers and older millennials first discovered the film. While VHS and rental culture made Repo Man what it is today (Criterion Collection spine #654), the movie seems mostly concerned with television as a structural device and as a metaphor for consumerism. There’s something ugly about the tube at its worst, and by becoming the new hearth in the home, TV debased the American Dream.

[The Cult Club is where Flixist’s writers expound the virtues of their favourite underground classics, spanning all nations and genres. It is a monthly series of articles looking at what made those films stand out from the pack, as well as their enduring legacy.]

We’re gonna have a TV party tonight! / We’re gonna have a TV party all right! / We’ve got nothing better to do / Than watch TV and have a couple of brews!

The opening minutes of Repo Man introduce a couple different stories, like you’re flipping the channels and every new show is somehow linked to the last. There’s the first scene in which a highway cop gets disintegrated by the glowing contents in the trunk of a Chevy Malibu. We then meet Otto (Emilio Estevez), a disaffected LA punk who loses his supermarket job, his girlfriend, and his best friend in the same night. Otto helps a low life named Bud (Harry Dead Stanton) steal a car for $25, which leads to a new gig working as a repo man. We’re then back in the desert where the cop got zapped, the area swarming with government agents hot on the trail of the mysterious Malibu.

The film continues in a series of vignettes that reveal their interconnectedness. At first it’s visual cues, like recurring pine tree air fresheners, smiley face pins, campaign posters, suspicious G-men, foods and beverages with generic labels (e.g., “Popcorn,” “Beer,” “Yellow Cling Sliced Peaches”). A lattice of coincidence becomes a series of hilarious contingencies played out like comedy sketches.

Not everything can be explained by the end of Repo Man, but those frayed edges are part of the appeal and what make the movie so rewatchable. In one of the film’s most inspired scenes, the wigged-out repo man Miller (Tracey Walter) talks about cosmic coincidences, and how UFOs might actually be time machines. He mentions the inexplicable significance of the phrase “a plate of shrimp” and how that might correspond with something in your head. That “plate of shrimp” he planted in your brain? It comes back later as a sight gag that most people catch only on the second or third viewing of Repo Man.

I wouldn’t be without my TV for a day—or even a minute! / Don’t bother to use my brain anymore—there’s nothing left in it!

There’s an early scene in Repo Man that’s grown in significance each time I’ve watched it. Following Otto’s disenchantment, he’s sitting on the railroad tracks drinking. He shouts the lyrics to Black Flag’s “TV Party” to combat the silence and loneliness. The song’s about the vapid passivity of couch potatoes: we’ll have a party where our friends get together and watch TV, because all we care about and talk about is TV, and we barely leave the house anymore. The surf rock score kicks in, and the guitars seem chilly, sad, distant, maybe even self-pitying. The next day, Otto’s alone again, shuffling around a shitty neighborhood kicking a empty tin can—trash is the city’s tumbleweed. This is what the spiritual desolation of consumer culture looks and feels like. But even still, Otto’s better off tuning out of TV land.

TV at its worst is a kind of tranquilizer. It presents a model of the world that’s not necessarily the way it is or even the way it ought to be. The aspirations are often conformist because television (again, at its worst) is a vessel for selling people crummy products and crummy lifestyles, and if viewers buy into the pre-packaged normal way of life, they can be controlled and the status quo can continue uncontested. (John Carpenter would explore similar territory in 1988’s They Live!)

Otto’s pimply friend Kevin (Zander Schloss) can’t dream big about life, probably never has. In his introductory scene, he enthusiastically sings a 7-Up jingle to himself. Kevin probably never realized he could dream bigger since success in TV land meant buying into the myth of endless mobility from the very bottom. “There’s fuckin’ room to move as a fry cook,” he says while he and Otto browse the want ads. “I could be manager in two years! King! God!”

Saturday Night Live! Monday Night Football! Dallas! Jeffersons! Gilligan’s Island! Flintstones!

It’s not just disaffected youth burned by TV and its perpetuation of compliance. When Otto returns home to con his folks out of money, he finds them on the couch watching a televangelist. Otto’s folks are still decked out as hippies, and they’ve tuned out of reality. That hope of the 60s? It’s been vaporized after political assassinations, murder, and a failure of counterculture idealism; a decade of severe disillusionment (aka the ’70s) didn’t help. The most that the bummed-out Boomers can aspire to is sending Bibles to El Salvador via the tube. That’s why they’ve given their extra cash to the TV church, including the money that Otto was honestly going to con them out of. (During this scene Otto eats a can of “Food.” It’s unclear what kind of food “Food” is. Later, Bud buys two four-packs of “Drink.”)

This all seems to be part of the California Bummer, which is the reality underlying the California Dream (and really the American Dream). So many people went west in search of fortune during the Gold Rush, fame with the rise of Hollywood, free love with the 60s, good money during the rise of dotcoms. As noted in Penelope Spheeris’ LA punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, they wound up west and the air sucked. The dream wasn’t the real thing—just a crummy show. The real thing was disappointment, limitation, swindles, outsourcing, burst bubbles, drought. We were sold on The Beach Boys singing “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” but what we got was The Beach Boys singing “Kokomo.”

So angry teens rebelled and became punks to be part of a community. The LA punks weren’t really on the dole or victims of a major economic collapse. Many were middle-class suburbanites who felt weird and were looking for a way to release their aggression. That anger may be rooted in the California Bummer and the dawning knowledge that it’s eternal. Life in Reagan’s America was perpetual “Kokomo.” No wonder LA punk is so nihilistic.

We’ve got nothing left to do / Left with no TV, just a couple of brews / What are we gonna talk about? I don’t know! / We’re gonna miss our favorite shows!

When Otto takes up with the repo men, it’s not just because he can make a quick buck and he can do a bunch of speed. There’s an excitement to the gig rather than suburban ennui—”The life of a repo man is always intense!” Hell, it’s like playing cowboys in the concrete wild west. There’s also a scuzzy community among repo men. There’s an ethos, a code, as well. Bud talks it up as Otto does some blow. There’s an oath, some do’s and don’ts for decorum. Of course, the code gets broken eventually. All codes do.

That was something pointed out in The Dissolve’s forum discussion on Repo Man. Everyone in the movie makes some kind of compromise in the end. They sell-out or they sell their principles short, but they seem fine with that because they realize it’s all an act and it’s just part of getting through life. As Otto’s best friend dies, he wants to blame society for what he’s become, and wants to elevate his existence as a symbol for the world that’s done wrong. “That’s bullshit,” Otto says. “You’re a white suburban punk just like me.” His friend has been sufficiently kneecapped for his silly self-aggrandizement, yet he replies, “Yeah, but it still hurts.” The truth often does.

But even if it’s just a pose, being a shitty punk or a low-life repo man is still better than being normal. (One more time, with feeling: “Ordinary fuckin’ people—I hate ’em!”) The punks and the repo men know that the TV land version of normal life is bullshit, and that the normal folks buy into it without question. Some of the punks and the repo men know the lives they’re living are bullshit as well, but at least they’re aware, and they get a little further through the negation or subversion of the compliant normal. That’s something that might drive aspirations a little higher; somewhere above the bottom to the lower-middle, a place beyond “Kokomo.” Knowing is half the battle, even when you’re losing the war.

Next Month…

Because we were so late with this Cult Cult, we’re doing double duty this week.

Wet Hot American Summer: First Day at Camp comes out on Netflix later this week for your binge-watching enjoyment. Cult Club will look at the film that spawned the Netflix prequel, Wet Hot American Summer (2001).

We’ll also be doing a first here at Flixist, expanding beyond our traditional film coverage. Following our look at Wet Hot American Summer on The Cult Club, tune in next week for a review of Netflix’s original series Wet Hot American Summer: First Day at Camp.

PREVIOUSLY SHOWING ON THE CULT CLUB

Putney Swope (1969)

Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

The Last Dragon (1985)

Tromeo and Juliet (1996)

Samurai Cop (1989)