Repo Man (1984)

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*. Maybe the place to start is to say that punk was a joke. The music was a joke. The look was a joke. The rebelliousness was a joke. Everything about it was a joke. So a successful punk movie will, hopefully, be a joke too, which Repo Man is. And what helps a joke work, more than anything, is when the people telling it really believe in it.
*. It’s a cult movie, and part of being a cult movie is that same authenticity. I think it helps a great deal that Alex Cox believed in punk (and, for all I can tell, perhaps still does). And it’s a big plus to have Harry Dean Stanton along for the ride. If we are to trust Stanton (in a 2005 interview that’s included on the Criterion DVD) he wasn’t acting at all. If anything he may have had to tone things down a bit for the part of Bud. The real H.D.S. sounds more like Tracey Walter’s Miller than any of the other repo men.

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*. Was punk political? I didn’t think so at the time, and looking back on it I’m even less inclined to give it that much credit. Nevertheless this movie is invariably described as political, as somehow being a reaction against or satire of the despised “Reagan ’80s.” Asked during a roundtable discussion with his two producers if he thinks such a movie could be made today (this was in 2005), Cox replies that you couldn’t make a film “so political, you’d have to take out all the political references.”
*. Huh? What political references? A brief television clip of something going on in Central America? Some scenes of inner city decay? The mention of a neutron bomb? That’s political?
*. I think Cox is a politically-minded guy (he did make Walker). And I think it’s possible he thinks this is a political movie that has something to say about Reagan. But it’s not and it doesn’t.

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*. I don’t mean to suggest by any of this that Repo Man is a bad movie. In fact, I think it’s very good: funny, original, and very light on its feet. It struck a note that would set off a resounding echo, most notably in the work of Quentin Tarantino.
*. What makes me say Tarantino? The script, mainly. There’s a lot of talk. There’s a lot of talk that’s lifted from other sources. It’s no coincidence that we’re introduced to Kevin singing a 7-Up jingle, or that later that night Otto gets drunk and can only scream out the names of ’80s television shows.

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*. It’s also like a Tarantino script in being built around a bunch of odd, highly quotable, “cool” lines: non sequiturs that pose as a kind of dark wisdom. And there’s also the structure: a bunch of parallel plot lines that intersect on a “lattice of coincidence.” Then of course there are the more obvious cues, like the foregrounding of the car’s trunk and the way Sy Richardson’s Lite clearly prefigures Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules.

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*. But if this movie led to Tarantino, what led to this movie? Did it come out of nowhere?
*. Nothing comes of nothing, and there are clear borrowings. The glowing secret in the trunk comes from Kiss Me Deadly, the smoking boots from a movie called Timerider, and (though this isn’t mentioned on the commentary) the flying car, while it has several antecedents, probably comes from the opening of Heavy Metal (1982).

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*. As far as genre is concerned, it’s a road movie. The opening credits even appear over a road map, and I can’t think of another movie that has so many conversations taking place inside cars. What makes the fact that it’s a road picture especially interesting is that it’s almost entirely set in Los Angeles, and “the road” is really the freeway system. Nevertheless, the freeway becomes the thread that holds everything together, with the different plot lines cutting into each other’s lanes.

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*. I’ve seen arguments over what’s actually in the Malibu’s trunk, which tend to run along the same lines as asking what’s in the briefcase in Kiss Me Deadly. I guess it doesn’t really make a difference. And perhaps this is what Pauline Kael meant when she criticized it as a film without a center. There’s nothing there.

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*. I was particularly impressed by how deftly little touches of serendipity were worked in. Some of these are so subtle I didn’t even notice them the first few times through. Among other things there’s the plate o’ shrimp sign on the window at the diner that seems to fulfil Miller’s thoughts on synchronicity, the derelict who points to the Malibu while wearing a Repo Man baseball hat, and the doctor in the hospital who is wearing a smiley face button before Otto steals his coat.
*. It’s fitting that so much of this seems to have been accidental. The derelict was wearing some promo swag that had been handed out to the extras and was pointing to the Malibu because he knew it had some relation to the film. The Christmas tree air fresheners were among the only products given to the filmmakers to use and they had hundreds of them so they stuck them everywhere. I suspect the happy face button was put on the doctor’s coat because they knew it was going to be worn by Otto later (thus making it a kind of continuity error). But in a conspiracy film there are no coincidences, and we’re left to wonder if maybe the doctor is really in with the UFO cult.

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*. There are obvious mistakes as well. I was particularly bothered by the way the glowing Malibu’s license plate is reversed at the end. How did that get through? Someone must have noticed.
*. After thirty years it’s a movie that still holds up pretty well, with the punk stuff dating the worst. But it’s not cool any more. Sometime in the twenty-first century cool became ironic, and then became hip. This movie is now hip, and was certainly well ahead of the curve in this regard. But the wheel turns. Things don’t stay hip forever. I suspect that before too long we’ll be describing this movie as cute, which seems a decent final resting place.

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