I've been sitting here for a while now, staring at the blinking cursor on my blank screen, trying to think of something to say about the collector's edition--out this week--of the 1984 Alex Cox film, Repo Man. What do you say about a film that is quoted, still to this very day and largely unknowingly, by young punk wannabes, suburban potheads, and 30-something film nerds, but probably would elicit a "what?" from this decade's stock of yawning teenagers? Let alone that Repo Man couldn't get made in this decade, or the next, or the next after that. It's too political, satirical, and absurd; it reaches way beyond any current measuring stick we have for political, satirical, absurdist films--beyond Mean Girls, beyond Election, beyond whatever's dubbed the newest "piercing look at today's youth." Bah. Piercing look my ass.
Maybe I'll use some kind of joke for an introduction, something political and absurd, you know, just to mirror what I feel about this film? How about this: "So, a British guy wearing a headband and the inventor of the neutron bomb are sitting around one afternoon watching clips from the film Repo Man..." That's the start of a pretty great joke, no? Except, right then when you were thinking, "Hey, great joke!" I was chuckling because what you don't know is that the British guy is director Alex Cox and the inventor of the neutron bomb is Sam Cohen, inventor of the neutron bomb, and yes, they really are sitting around watching Repo Man--in fact, they're part of a bonus featurette on the disc. Cohen is relaxing in a barcalounger, his feet up. He wonders aloud in a gravelly voice, "What's that Emilio Estevez--that is his name?--up to these days?" Alex Cox doesn't know. He thinks Emilio might be trying his hand at directing, but he's not sure.
That's so obviously punk rock, right? A winking put-on by Cox for the DVD release, the disheveled scientist an unwitting stand-in for The Man. You think, "Poor guy's gonna get eviscerated by this aging punk rocker!" But it turns out that Sam Cohen called Alex Cox--essentially invited himself over--because next to Dr. Strangelove, Repo Man is his favorite film. The opening scene of Repo Man looks like something out of Mad Max, with a scorching desert background and a man cruising down the highway in a Chevy Malibu. But then a motorcycle cop gets vaporized by a glowing white light from the trunk of the Malibu; only his tall leather boots remain. I think at that point you know it's going to be a slightly different kind of picture. Some of my notes while watching: "Otto quits his job, parties, fucks friend. 'Gypsy dildo punk!' Ha! Scooter gangs! Otto gets the crap beaten out of him by the Four Tops! Ha! Who's narrating while they pick up the dead wino? 'Please return the scalpel, Mr. Lee' - that's a cute quote. Hmm. The car is floating..."
Not exactly a Brat Pack picture.
Estevez plays Otto, a white suburban punk who's just quit his job at the local supermarket. His parents have been brainwashed by a greedy televangelist--"I do want your money, because God wants your money!"--and Otto must fend for himself. He meets grizzled, ornery repo man, Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), who inaugerates Otto into the profession over a plateful of speed. Otto is accepted into the fold, befriending Lite (Sy Richardson); Marlene (Vonetta McGee), the repo version of Jackie Brown; and Miller (Tracey Walter), a contemplative homeless man. The plot eventually settles around the recovery of a Chevy Malibu that loopy neutron bomb scientist J. Frank Parnell (Fox Harris) has stolen off of a secret government base in Los Alamos. The car is full of either aliens or weapons-grade plutonium, and has a tendency to vaporize whoever opens the trunk. Then there's Del Zamora and Eddie Velez as Los Bros. Rodriguez, rivals to Bud's gang of repo men; Kevin the nerd (Zander Schloss), without whom Napoleon Dynamite never could have been made; and sundry other characters who you can look up on IMDB.com for yourselves.
Can't you just picture it? It's 1984, Ronald Reagan is in office, mucking things up, and there's Sam Cohen, laughing his ass off while watching Cox's bizarre one-third cops n' robbers, one-third sci-fi, one-third spoof comedy film. The comedy is deadpan--take, for instance, the scene with the dead wino that I was musing over in my notes above. Two government men in white protective suits pick up a dead wino off of the sidewalk. One of the suited men, we don't know which, does a voice over in a poetic monotone: "I'm picking up the dead wino. My hands are on his body. I'm carrying his limp torso to the truck." All this while Otto walks solemnly past, not even noticing. It's not at all relevant to the story except that it continues the joke of the men in the white protective suits who appear here and there, fixing their broken down government truck, picking up dead bodies, setting other dead bodies on fire. Our focus should be on the emotional agony of Otto, who has just walked away from a tearful confrontation with Bud, but that's how things go in Repo Man: reality and normalcy are always on the verge of completely dissolving, but no one cares. Cox saturates the screen with seemingly minor detritus—the front page of a newspaper blowing by, a TV on in the background, the constant criss-crossing of people and events. The film exists in a vacuum of a fully-fleshed fictional, bizarre America, so that even as you're laughing you're thinking, "God, this is so true." A glowing car floats up into the sky but to Otto it's the most real thing he's seen in days, and it represents an escape from this screwy land of plenty and its inscrutable denizens. Fans of Leslie Nielson (The Naked Gun, Surf Ninjas) and Monty Python might love Repo Man, but revolutionaries will love it more.