25 for 25 – Life of a Repo Man’s Always Intense

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Summer 2013 was quite a formative time for me. It was the first summer I ever spent completely alone, or at least where it felt like I was alone (I certainly had a few people I could and did hang out with whenever the chance popped up). It was certainly the quietest summer I ever had. Prior to that, I’d spend every summer break from college returning back to meet up with my friends in Miami and from there things would be extremely eventful. That summer, though, matters required that I limited that visit to only one week and I remained for the time at the desert of Tempe, AZ working for the most part without anything else to do between except read and watch movies. That doesn’t really stop me from exploring the city or anything, but when there isn’t much happening there’s a lot more silence around you and that honestly endeared me to the city a lot more. It felt relaxing, I didn’t have much to worry or stress about, it didn’t feel all that lonely. It just felt life stopped and I was rudderless, which was good in its freedom and bad in the utter lack of momentum in my life.

It also endeared me to a lot of 1980s movie gaps I decided to fill myself full of, many of which bad enough to invite a friend and eat some pizza with, some unironically fun. Only one that I think has proven to be something with a lasting impression with an image that I sincerely saw a lot of myself in early on. That of punk rocker Otto Maddox (Emilio Estevez) sitting on the floor of a dirty downtown Los Angeles railroad in the coming dusk doing absolutely nothing except throwing beer cans he just emptied shouting “TV Party” by Black Flag (which happens to be from one of my all-time favorite albums Damaged) to himself. An image that completely communicated everything about my feeling of having nothing but time and nowhere to go.

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Of course by this point into Alex Cox’s feature debut Repo Man, Otto has more of a reason to feel stuck in a rut than I did. He walked in on his ex-girlfriend Debbi (Jennifer Balgobin) cheating on him with his best friend Duke (the badassly name Dick Rude), something which also resonated with me in having just completely closed down a recent relationship to the point of helping her move out of the city (though my significant other hadn’t cheated on me). He just got fired at gunpoint from his entirely pathetic supermarket job with his friend Kevin (Zander Schloss shortly before joining the Circle Jerks, who appear in this movie). His fazed-out hippie parents (Jonathan Hugger and Sharon Gregg) used up all of his college fund, sending it to a televangelist. If my life was a dead end at that point (and it evidently was not, it just felt like one), Otto’s was a complete prison.

And yet Alex Cox’s script promised from the initial scene that eventfulness was about to come to Otto in the form of a radioactive Chevy Malibu ’64 that disintegrates any man who takes a look at what’s in the trunk, under the possession of insane one-eyed Dr. J. Frank Parnell (Fox Harris) driving it straight to L.A. But the first man to reach Otto is a weird old man (Harry Dean Stanton) insisting his wife’s pregnancy is rushing him to the hospital and he needs Otto to drive his car behind them. Otto takes the car to a repossession agency and realizes he was just helping Bud, the old man, repo that car without being killed. The agency is so satisfied with Otto’s work that they offer him a job and, after briefly rebuking them, he decides to take it up for the money.

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And this is the absolute reason where I love Repo Man more than I probably should, but Otto finds himself loving the job. What’s not to love? The pay is great, he steals cars and gets to drive them around, Bud and Lite (Sy Richardson) show him the tricks of the trade. Sure, he gets shot at a lot and sometimes he finds himself beat up by rival repossessors the Rodriguez brothers (Del Zamora & Eddie Velez), but in the meanwhile Kevin’s working at a fucking burger joint. Hell, sometimes the cars are so nice he can pick up girls walking down the sidewalk, as he does with the UFO conspiracy nut Leila (Olivia Barash) driving her down to her workplace where she introduces him to all of this evidence of extra-terrestrial life.

Repo Man worked as a complete escape for me from brief mundanity at a point where it was this close to putting me into a depression. It mirrored my boredom at the start – aided by my affinity to punk rock since high school, listening to the Clash and Black Flag and Misfits and all – and Cox revs it all up to drive, introducing all these different strands of punk rock robbers, repossession adventures and the Code espoused by Bud (who seems very much dedicated to crafting verbal manifestos are the principles of capitalism and credit lines in America, while appropriating angrily the methods of Marxist relovultionaries), aliens, and radioactive disintegration. There’s no artful way to mash all these things up and Cox embraces the artlessness of his script happily by using the punk rock aesthetic of unpristinity in visuals and locations and unclassical acting to sell it. “Shaggy” is an inadequate word to use about Repo Man, this movie is a total mess in its hodge-podge of genre attempts and its contradictory elements and yet it works so well I want to claim it’s calculated. That doesn’t fly when you realize the production problems Cox would have (and continue to have, leading to a similar amount of energy in his subsequent films like Walker and Straight to Hell and so on), including an emergency rewrite that leaves the third act lagging when it should be intensifying, but nevertheless the cast rides it all the way, especially Stanton when his appearances start to dwindle due to fighting with Cox during filming. Which is a shame, since Stanton is easily best in show with how tuned-in he is to Bud’s mindset. It’s amazing to me that the same year he provided his underplayed and meditative performance in the Palme d’Or winner Paris, Texas, he could give such a teeth-gritting self-righteous assault as Bud and both of them ending up my favorite performances of his very accomplished career.

If this seems like I’m not really approaching it objectively, it’s because I can’t. It’s not a perfect movie and anybody with eyes can see that. It has weaknesses, it has flaws that I’m having trouble articulating beyond “artless” and “mess” and I’m not sure I want to. Some movies come to you at the perfect time in your life, everybody has one and hits you right in the heart and starts you up and that is Repo Man to me in every way. It was my biggest point of sloppy and beloved escapism via a film to a punk rock soundtrack with lo-fi effects (an arm is wrapped in foil and passed off as a robot arm, the rotoscoping of the skeletons being incinerated from the trunk, a glowing car, man!) and I will have an easier time trying to be objective with my favorite two movies (which will, needless to say, be the last reviews in this 25 for 25 series) than I can possibly ever have with Repo Man, possibly the movie that changed my life most.

The night before my birthday in that very summer when I was turning 21, I borrowed a car and drove 3 1/2 hours all the way down to Rocky Point, Mexico and spent the night there by myself. The next morning, I drove back up to Tempe, Arizona to continue my quiet slice of life. I didn’t tell anybody (except my friend who lent me the car and two people who wanted to hang immediately after), I didn’t bring anybody with me, I didn’t even plan it, I just went because I needed the break. I can not imagine the Salim Garami before seeing Repo Man doing that, but the Salim Garami after seeing Repo Man just went with it. Make life intense one more time.

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