Wednesday 12 April 2017

On a Thousand Walls #7: Repo Man (1984)

(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.)
So I'm the sort of person who shows movies to friends. Inevitably I'll get round to showing them my favourite films. Because you do.

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?
Me: Um. Was I joining in with the dialogue?
Thanat: A bit.
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.
Repo Man's always intense. Let's go get a drink.
I think the thing about a film that you love and watch over and over across the space of years is that you tell yourself that every time you watch it, you find something new; but the truth is, that's only true to a point, and in fact it's more that you find the same details over and over and wear them smooth and comfortable in the way that you turn the film over and over in your hands. These details become new things for you. It becomes hard to watch these films critically again. And maybe we should. Never pretending that we stopped loving them, never falling out of love with them, but perhaps looking on them honestly. So I thought I would.

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.
I first saw Repo Man when I was 16; I taped it off the TV. It was on late on a Saturday night, and I think I recorded it because my copy of the Cyberpunk RPG had it listed as inspirational material (nerds of a certain age will be able to tell you which edition that was) and because the TV listings said the director was Alex Cox, the chap who presented Moviedrome, which was where I had caught most of the best films I'd ever seen up to that point.

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?
Parnell isn't the protagonist. he's just the McGuffin. Our antihero is a white suburban Californian punk called Otto Maddox (Emilio Estevez). Out of work, out of cash, and out a relationship, Otto is approached by Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), who asks Otto if he wants to earn ten bucks and suckers the kid into repossessing a car. Otto takes the money but issues a kneejerk fuck you to the idea he might want a job.
Just for that, you're not in the gang anymore, Archie.
But when there's nothing for him in the future, Otto's a repo man before you know it. Bud takes him under his wing, and instructs Otto in the Repo Code.
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.
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.
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).
Aren't you going to torture me? Because I would.
And that's really it. Except that isn't really it at all because Otto's meandering path through the underworld of Los Angeles crosses a whole load of other characters' lives: his former punk pals Archie, Duke and Debbie (Cox regulars Miguel Sandoval, Dick Rude and Jennifer Balgobin) who rob every store that Bud and Otto buy beer in; Leila the UFO nut (Olivia Barash) who exists in a paranoid world of spies, but would join the CIA like a shot if it means she gets to torture people; Kevin the nerd (punk legend Zander Schloss), who has the world's worst luck with jobs; Agent Rogersz (Susan Barnes), a sinister secret agent with a cyborg hand and an army of blonde Men in Black; and the Rodriguez Brothers (Eddie Velez and Del Zamora), a pair of rival repo men.
DUNduduh DADAH dunduduh DADAH dunduduh DADAH
And in the middle of it all is J. Frank Parnell and his deadly Chevy Malibu, which now has a bounty of $20,000 for the first person to find it. With all these car thieves it should come as no surprise that the car changes hands several times; what plot Repo Man has depends upon a network (or a lattice) of unlikely coincidences. The film knows this. It makes a virtue of it.
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 deadly car crosses the paths of most of the characters before they even know it's there; characters meet in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways. And the landscape of Los Angeles itself, a run-down wasteland of cans and concrete and rusted wire fences, seems to exist in a sort of circuit, in patterns (I think it's not a coincidence that the opening credits of the film display a series of maps of the American South West).

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.
An apocalypse waits just outside the edges of the plot. Parnell says that he worked on the neutron bomb (lest we forget, the project of Jimmy Carter), and it was detrimental enough to his mental health that he ended up being lobotomised. And then stealing something horribly dangerous and driving off with it in the boot of his Chevy. And what the McGuffin does to people who open the trunk is not a million miles away from what the neutron bomb was designed to do; Parnell, meanwhile, is clearly suffering from radiation poisoning as the film goes on.

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.
It's rarer than you think to find a film set in a world that is bigger than the fiction. And I don't mean like for example in Marvel movies where the Marvel films share a world that extends beyond any one of the films and into the others, because the shared world still doesn't actually extend outside of the totality of the fiction.

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?
Repo Man is a messy film, but it's intentionally messy; it's full of these surreal little indications that you're watching something that's a signifier of reality rather than something supposed to be a version of reality, which is what most films go for. So they deliberately picked this no frills brand for all the food items you see so everything is labelled in plain white with basic wording like "beer", "popcorn", "potato chips" which lends it a weird distance, even bearing in mind these are (mostly) real products. All the repo men are named after brands of beer: Miller, Lite, Bud(weiser) and Oly(mpia).

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 substitutes, the best and most enduring of which surely must be "melonfarmer". Cox couldn't even bowdlerise it without making a laugh of it.
You think it's too late to get romantically involved?
Repo Man is scabrously funny anyway, even without the melonfarmers, and that's important because Otto is a selfish, callous and irredeemable jerk who doesn't find any real redemption, but he wins out in the end for two reasons: first, Otto, unlike most of the other characters in the film knows exactly what he is and doesn't allow himself any illusions; second, he finds all the absurdity he falls into to be tremendously amusing. It's all a colossal lark for Otto, and his healthy sense of humour, his glee at getting into car chases and being told there's a car with aliens in the boot, makes him more sympathetic than pretty much anyone else.

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.
There are parallels you could draw between Repo Man and After Hours, the former being the nearest thing to the blue-collar West Coast version of the latter; but Repo Man points to bigger, darker things. Sometime soon I'm going to write about Possession, which deals with the notional city of the apocalypse in a very different way, but for now it's enough to have Repo Man, where the end of the world is a real possibility (and apparently in the first version of the script would have happened onscreen) but life goes on anyway, in all its inexplicable glory. It's a glorious frayed bundle of loose ends deliberately untied, and I met this film at the precise moment where I realised life didn't have neat endings, and as a result there isn't a film I love more.

Alex Cox is a genius.