(This post is also #1 in I Blame Society, a new, occasional series where I'll write about things I have liked since I was a kid.)
And when you love a thing, you become a bit blind, a bit deaf. When a new batch of international students moved into my house in September last, I showed a couple of them Excalibur, and at the end there was an exchange with one of the lads went like this:
Thanat: Yeah, that was good. So, uh, you've seen that film a lot of times?And I don't know, there are some films I have just loved since I was a teenager and I've adored them so profoundly over the years that I am blind to their flaws.
Me: Um. Was I joining in with the dialogue?
Thanat: A bit.
|Repo Man's always intense. Let's go get a drink.|
Which brings me to Repo Man.
In the last few years, three separate people have said to me, entirely independently, after I have showed them my favourite movie, that watching Repo Man isn't nearly as much fun as watching Repo Man with me, or as watching me watch Repo Man and obviously they're wrong, because nothing is as much fun as watching Repo Man.
This probably proves their point.
|A lot of straight guys like to watch their buddies fuck.|
Repo Man begins with a highway patrolman reduced to a pair of smoking boots by the glowing contents of a 1967 Chevy Malibu's trunk. The car is driven by a man called J. Frank Parnell (Fox Harris), who is a scientist of dubious mental health, and the car boot might have aliens in it. It might not. Just, don't open the boot.
|Have you ever felt your mind was starting to erode?|
|Just for that, you're not in the gang anymore, Archie.|
Bud [passing a line of speed to Otto]: I never broke into a car or hotwired a car, kid. I never broke into a trunk. I shall not cause harm to any vehicle nor to the personal contents thereof, nor by inaction allow any vehicle or the personal contents thereof come to harm. It's what I call the Repo Code, kid. Don't forget it. Etch it in your brain. Not many people got a code to live by anymore. [he points to some people across the street] Look at those assholes over there. Ordinary fucking people. I hate 'em.Bud believes that being a repo man is a heroic enterprise, a noble profession that flies in the face of society's corruption. Otto never more than half-believes Bud, and unsurprisingly he gets very different stories from gnomic Miller (Tracey Walter) and badass Lite (frequent Cox collaborator Sy Richardson).
Otto: Me too.
Bud: What do you know? See, an ordinary person spends his life avoiding tense situations. Repo man spends his life getting in to tense situations.
|Aren't you going to torture me? Because I would.|
|DUNduduh DADAH dunduduh DADAH dunduduh DADAH|
Miller: A lot of people don't really know what's going on. They view life as a buncha... uncorrected incidents and things. They don't realise there's this, like, lattice of coincidence that lies on top o' everything. Give you an example. Show you what I mean. Suppose you're thinking about a plate o' shrimp. Suddenly somebody'll say like, "plate" or "shrimp" or "plate o' shrimp" outta the blue, no explanation. No point in lookin' for one, either. 'Sall part of a cosmic unconsciousness.
Otto: You do a lotta acid, Miller, back in the hippie days?
|I found it in a Maserati in Beverly Hills, you know what I'm saying?|
The city is a labyrinth (which is a theme Cox would return to some years later with Death and the Compass). The weirdness of the Los Angeleno landscape extends beyond the story: you see all this stuff that suggests stories and lives beyond the scope of Repo Man's already sprawling narrative. Men in hazmat suits work on a broken down van. Later, Otto walks past some of them lifting a dead body. A car contains a gift-wrapped package full of ready cash. Ice cubes rain from the sky.
On the TV in the background, refugee camps are reported bombed; the government "explains" that they're terrorist enclaves. A televangelist relays the information the secret rulers of the world want you to know. People hand around copies of Dioretix: the Science of Matter Over Mind and say it'll change your life (and I'm always going to enjoy a good Scientology joke).
|Do your job, white boy. Get in the car.|
The car contains the distilment of the world's main Tense Situation of the 80s: it's the fear of the apocalypse that we all shared if we grew up in the 80s.
Everyone in the film is trying to get past that Tense Situation, trying to find a way to live through it. Debbie, Archie and Duke are doing crimes for kicks; Otto's mum and dad watch televangelists on the couch, stoned out of their minds; Leila and the United Fruitcake Outlet want to tell the people the truth about the Big Conspiracy (but Leila really just wants in). But it's the repo man who spends the movie getting into tense situations, and in that sense, Bud is right, because the only way to come out on top is to be part of it. The key to surviving the tense situation is to accept you're in a tense situation and just go with it with a sense of humour, because life is absurd.
The absurdity and tension is perfectly captured, by the way, by a soundtrack which is half a snapshot of 80s LA hardcore, half Chicano surf guitar. Iggy Pop supplies a furious, driving theme song. It's one of the very few rock soundtrack albums worth buying on its own merits, and the album's popularity saved Repo Man from obscurity, securing it a wider release than it might otherwise have had.
|I'm carrying his limp torso to the trunk.|
But Repo Man exists in a world which isn't neatly contained within the borders we usually assign to fiction; it doesn't follow fiction's rules. Fictions, half-competent ones anyway, don't depend on coincidences, because that's normally not how fiction works. Except there are enough flags in Repo Man to suggest it's a semiotic model of the real world, rather than a contained fiction.
But there are aliens and comedy punks and men in hazmat suits lifting bodies and showers of ice cubes! But the world is weird, it is, and these inexplicable things are a metaphor for how inexplicable and messy the world is. The apocalypse doesn't happen in Repo Man: it happens around the film.
|You don't even know what's in the trunk?|
It goes a further level when you get to the TV version, which was the first version of the film I saw. In order for it to be shown on American television, the frankly salty language of the film had to be expurgated. With Repo Man, Alex Cox oversaw the new dubs. He got in the original cast, and replaced the original swears with inventive and hilarious replacements, the best and most enduring of which surely must be "melonfarmer". Alex Cox couldn't even bowdlerise it without making a laugh of it.
|You think it's too late to get romantically involved?|
There's a great exchange where Leila tells Otto that people might like him if he didn't take himself so seriously, and of course the joke there is that he absolutely doesn't, and people do like him because of that, even though he's a complete dick, and meanwhile Leila is a character completely bereft of humour and for all her high talk about Spreading the Truth, all she really wants is to be a spy and torture people.
|You don't even know how to drive, man.|
Alex Cox is a genius.