Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Anatomy of a Cult Classic: Repo Man (May Contain Spoilers)

Repo Man is the kind of film that persists through the annals of history because it's a great example of a film that captures a moment in time perfectly: by standing back and looking at just how fucking weird it really was. These days it's discovered by 20 somethings with a bag of weed and nothing better to do on a Friday night,

but in 1984, in the midst of Reaganomics, Thriller, the threat of nuclear war, Footloose, government conspiracies and the explosion of the California Punk Rock/Hardcore scene, Repo Man was more than just the stylized mind-fucker of a movie it's come to be known as today. If anything, it's a bold reminder of the social landscape of the time from the perspective of the bottom percentile.

The film takes place in an L.A. that is seen as a sort of post apocalyptic barren wasteland in which it's every man for themselves. It revolves around an angry young punk rocker named Otto (Emilo Esteves). The L.A. punk scene had begun to explode in the late 70s and by the mid 80s, with the emergence of the Hardcore movement, Punk was being seen as no more than an outlet for bored white kids to start gangs, cause violence and commit crimes.

Hey, it was the alternative to becoming this:

Otto, fed up with his shitty fucking job, where he takes flack from his shitty fucking manager for the way he stacks shitty fucking faceless products, made by shitty fucking money hungry corporations, for a shitty fucking wage, has had enough.

Restless and in need of something more, he goes to his stoned hippy parents for an advance on the graduation money they promised him in hopes of getting out of town. He's told: sorry son, we gave it all to a televised charity. Right on man.

With no aim, no purpose and no resources he is tricked by Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) into helping him repossess a car.

After some reluctance, Bud becomes a mentor to Otto in the repossession business. Bud is one of those career lifers who preaches the unsung and unwritten code of the Repo Man, as if it were some trade handed down by God himself. Really, Bud is just a another bum like the rest of them, out to make a quick buck in a dog-eat-dog world off of no discernible skills. This is the last pit stop before oblivion for guys like Bud.
Out somewhere in New Mexico is a car driven by a crazed man that has something sinister lurking in the trunk, which turns whoever comes into contact with it instantly into a skeleton, leaving no more than the boots they showed up in.
When said car comes across the repo men's radar with a $20,000 payout attached to it, Bud and every other rival repo man in L.A. is on the hunt for the big payout. It's the goldmine they dream of that will let them escape this shitty fucking existence. What ensues is a journey that brings Otto face-to-face with alien conspiracy theorists, Mexican repo men and punk rock criminals, all the while on the path to enlightenment, which he finally finds in a key scene involving a liquor store robbery.
So what does it all mean as Otto starts to see beyond Punk Rock and flies over L.A. in a glowing green alien car? At a certain point it ceases to matter; the value of finding enlightenment eclipsing that of knowing what to do with it. We have to crawl before we can walk.
Central to all of this is Miller (Tracey Walter); a byproduct of the 70s counter culture.  
In a way Miller is Otto's spiritual guide. Bud may lead Otto to a paycheck and a profession but Miller, who Otto initially dismisses as just having dropped too much acid, preaches looking at the big picture and seeing the forest for the trees. That kind of stuff.
And that's where the film ultimately finds it's emotional resonance. It begs to be looked at as a whole and not as a collection of individual pieces. As Otto looks beyond punk, which is simply the current generation's means to express their anger, frustration and alienation, he finds the only way to escape this current social climate is to give up punk facade, stand outside of it and look back in at what it all means. We become more powerful than something the minute we begin to understand it. This was, after all, the key value that lives on from Miller's generation.

And the film does the same thing (with wit, vision, panache and technical proficiency to boot from writer-director Alex Cox). It looks at a weird collection of things and people and sees them as the reflection of the social circumstances that govern their existence. It's therefore not only a contemplation of a time in American history but also a simultaneous deconstruction of it. It's also a lot of weird fun. Now that's enlightenment.
Repo Man will be available on April 16th through The Criterion Collection on DVD and Blu-Ray

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