Criterion release of Repo Man, which hits stores tomorrow, there is a quite enjoyable almost-but-not-quite-comic-strip retelling by writer-director Alex Cox of the path that led to this very unlikely 1984 film being made -- the turning point of it all was the very unlikely backing of former Monkee Mike Nesmith. Anyway, as I say, it's enjoyable -- sarcastic, self-deprecating, complimentary of at least some of his collaborators. He does take a shot at The Monkees, though, which strikes me as a bit ungrateful, given that their popularity essentially gave Cox his career, Repo Man being the film that kicked things off for him and everything. In the commentary track on the Criterion disc, Cox is as chatty and friendly and as excited to reminisce as anybody else in the room, which includes Nesmith, who, I'll grant you, even if he does know about the "they were terrible!" crack in the booklet, could probably not give less of a shit about it if he tried.
I bring up all this irrelevant stuff simply because I have in my mind a certain image of Alex Cox, exemplified by an anecdote he told somewhere or another about being approached by Steve Martin to direct Three Amigos. Martin pitched the idea, and Cox said something to the effect of "Obviously we'll have to put something in there about the American goverment's foul political history with South and Central America." This, Cox said, ended the interview, and his association with Three Amigos. From this I've taken two things, maybe more than that, and at least one of which I should maybe keep to myself, having to do with how much time I would want to spend around Alex Cox, should the opportunity to do so ever present itself, which it won't, and that's at least one of the reasons I feel like keeping it to myself. But from that anecdote I've mainly taken that Cox is far more happily married to the idea of film as a tool for social change than I, personally, am (I'm trying to be polite here), and Steve Martin, Lorne Michaels, and so forth apparently got as much out of Repo Man as I did. (Anyway, Cox evidently funnelled his exasperation over not getting the gig into Walker.)
The point of all this being that, having recently rewatched Repo Man for the first time since I was a kid, it is my unhappy, kind of, duty to inform you that I think it's just fine. There are few films that so clearly illustrate what a "cult movie" even is, and Repo Man is perhaps the clearest of all. Not so strange as to potentially separate itself, at least not aggressively, from any of the viewers who might wander by, as we can probably assume films like Eraserhead and El Topo have done, but certainly strange enough to inspire the kind of reaction from those who do see it that is the lifeblood of this kind of thing, that is to say it causes people to exclaim, not altogether unhappily, "What the hell is this??", Repo Man almost feels calculated, almost cynically so, to stake its ground with a certain kind of paying audience. None of which (even the cynicism, if its there, which I don't really think it is) I begrudge the film or Cox or anybody. God knows I begrudge Harry Dean Stanton nothing on this Earth. It's the story of a young punk named Otto (Emilio Estevez) who is sick not only of his whitebread suburban home life (of course) but also in the useless California punk subculture into which he's immersed himself, so sick of it all in fact that when he brushes shoulders with the world of automobile repossession, in the person of veteran repo man Bud (Stanton), he decides the money he needs to get out of town might as well come from there as anywhere else, particularly since it's highly improbably that it will come from anywhere else. So Repo Man is at first a comedy, almost a goofball comedy, about a kid growing up in this strange, dangerous, but real environment populated by the likes of Sy Richardson, Tracey Walter and others, with several snide potshots at the alternative "square" life delivered along the way.
Snide potshots aside, and more on those in a bit, this is Repo Man at its best, as far as I'm concerned. This is when the movie's funny, and even when it's not funny it's lively, and the performances -- especially by Stanton, but even by Estevez -- are all easy-going and lived in. The funniest line in the film comes from a scene where Tracey Walter, as a more-eccentric-than-usual member of the repo man circle, tells Otto everything about the true ways of the world, to do with space aliens and conspiracies and the like, and at one point he ends one particular line of nonsensical thinking with "...and UFOs are? You got it...time machines." I really love the way Walter's character is shown to believe that Otto is not only listening to what he's saying, but is buying into the logic. Along the way, though, Repo Man establishes its cult credentials as the plot takes over, said plot involving a mysterious Chevy Malibu that is pegged for repossession not just by Bud and his colleagues, but by the bumbling and villainous United States Government, too. It has something in the trunk that kills people when they open it -- the light and smoke and shriek that precedes the person being vaporized is a clear wink at Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, but here it's played for laughs, or rather for satire, which never guarantees laughs as far as I can tell. For satire to succeed, it is enough simply that you agree with it, so the reverence in which the form is held has always been easy for me to regard with some suspicion. This allows much, most, satire to be as thoughtless as an insult, and the satire of Repo Man is essentially no stronger than "The U. S. Government...what a bunch of squares. And squares? Don't even get me started!"
One of the most famous and most-quoted lines from the film is "Ordinary fuckin' people...how I hate 'em," and Cox convinced me, for all Repo Man's relative light-heartedness, even in the face of the violence that takes over the final stretch, that he does indeed hate what- or whoever he considers "ordinary people" to be. They don't like punk music though, probably, because that's all over the soundtrack, and inside the film itself (Zander Schloss of The Circle Jerks acts in the film), and if Cox thought for a second that "ordinary people" liked punk he'd move on to some other genre in a blink. Or so I'm guessing. All I know for sure is, Repo Man, as a film about repo men, is pretty good. Repo Man, as a film about What the 1980s Mean to Me, is tiresome.