An Homage to “Repo Man” 30 Years On
You know the way everybody's into weirdness right now? Books in all the supermarkets about Bermuda triangles, UFOs, how the Mayans invented television? Well, they’re into celebrating anniversaries, too. Aging soldiers were trotted out to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day and Baby Boomers got all gooey about marking 50 years since the Beatles first came to America. Anniversaries help us reflect on where we’ve been and how those events have shaped us. That’s why I find it somewhat unfathomable that another great cultural anniversary went uncommented on by the media: this past March marked 30 years since the release of the movie, “Repo Man”.
I was 21 when it was released and it came at a formative time when I was trying to figure things out; you know, finding an identity and a path worth pursuing, blah, blah, blah. Not that the movie helped me find a vocation. Repossessing cars from dildos who don’t pay their bills didn’t sound like an attractive career. And despite a burgeoning music scene in early 80s Columbus, I was not a white suburban punk and would never have dreamed of getting sushi and not paying for it. But the movie opened my eyes in other ways by introducing me to genres of music and humor that might not have otherwise reached the Westside of Columbus.
Everyone has a movie they can quote ad nauseam: “Caddyshack,” “Slap Shot,” “Fletch.” For me, it’s “Repo Man.” Like Pavlov’s dog, I can’t see a pine tree air freshener dangling from a rearview mirror without commenting, “You find one in every car. You’ll see.” Or reciting the soliloquy regarding John Wayne’s sexual preferences whenever the Duke’s name is mentioned. It’s some form of “Repo” Tourette’s, I’m sure.
“Repo Man” contains the perfect blend of wackiness and youthful ennui, and it sucked me right in. There are hardcore punks, car chases through the concrete riverbeds of Los Angeles, a ’64 Chevy Malibu with dead aliens in the trunk, and a deranged inventor of the neutron bomb attempting to keep the two hemispheres of his brain from exploding. Not to mention gun play and people getting vaporized. It’s intense! But as we learn from the film, the life of a repo man is always intense.
The characters are memorable: Emilio Estevez in his finest role as punk turned repo man, Otto Maddox; curmudgeonly Harry Dean Stanton as the fatherly Bud; Tracey Walter as the wise car-yard philosopher, Miller; and all the other beer-monikered cast members and offbeat extras.
The movie isn’t for everyone. Commies won’t like it, nor Christians, nor ordinary fucking people. It might be a gender thing, too. The film does seem geared toward guys. Punk is a testosterone-driven art form and all the repo men are, well, men. My wife is not a big fan. But then she doesn’t like shrimp either. Or plate. Or plate o’ shrimp. She loves Monty Python, so it’s not as if she doesn’t appreciate silly or absurdist humor. Maybe she just needs to watch it another ten to twenty times. Like me.
Multiple viewings reveal layer upon layer of pop culture references that eventually enmesh the movie in a lattice of satirical coincidence, if you will. Scientology gets a poke in the eye when government agents are found reading Diuretics: The Science of Matter over Mind, and a term paper is waiting to be written comparing Bud’s “Repo Code” (“I shall not cause harm to any vehicle nor the personal contents thereof, nor through inaction let the personal contents thereof come to harm.”) to Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. (“A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”)
The movie is obviously peculiar, but it’s effectively peculiar. It not only entertains, it blows the mind, making our brains receptive to new and original ideas. The cerebral cortex can always use a good scrubbing.
But what is the movie about? Punk rock? Aliens? Time travel? Nuclear war? How the fuck should I know? The only certainties are that it is funny and it has a killer soundtrack. From Iggy Pop’s title track to the teen angst anthem of Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized” (“How can you say what my best interest is?/ What are you trying to say, I'm crazy?/When I went to your schools/ I went to your churches/ I went to your institutional learning facilities?!/ So how can you say I'm crazy?”), it’s cool and it rocks and it’s infused with humor. There’s Black Flag’s “TV Party” (“We've got nothing better to do/ Than watch T.V. and have a couple of brews”) and Burning Sensations cover of Jonathan Richman’s “Pablo Picasso” (“Some people try to pick up girls, get called an asshole / This never happened to Pablo Picasso”). And for some hip cache, there’s the Latino punk band, The Plugz, singing a Spanish version of Johnny Rivers’s “Secret Agent Man,” or “Hombre Secreto” as they say in the barrio. In the early 80s, punk rock was ripping the seams off the bloated music that came before it. And for a Midwestern boy raised on Top 40 and Album Oriented Rock, it kicked open doors of scary cubbyholes I might not have otherwise peered inside.
Thirty years on, does the film hold up? Does one run the risk of seeing it again with mature eyes and concluding, as Otto does when watching a familiar band in a nightclub, “I can’t believe I used to like these guys.” In my humble opinion, “Repo Man” continues to entertain. The Criterion Collection released an enhanced 2-DVD set last year, so someone else must think so, too. (It contains the expected director’s and actors’ commentaries, but what makes it especially coveted is the rare TV-edit of the movie where “melonfarmers” replaces “motherfuckers”!)
No doubt if you pulled a core sample from the film, the plug would show ample evidence of the 1980s. There are people using phone booths (how quaint); Otto’s a cappella version of “TV Party” includes “Dallas” and “The Jeffersons”; and there’s the running gag of generic “Food” and “Beer” packaging, funny as well as nostalgic for those of us who remember those blue and white unbrands.
I’m fond of saying “Repo Man” contains the meaning of life, but, of course, that’s hyperbole. For the vigilant viewer, however, there are enough meaningful aphorisms to fill a Mitch Albom book. For example, we learn food is more enjoyable if eaten off a plate; there is room to move as a fry cook; the more you drive, the less intelligent you are; and, while getting by however we can, we all gotta duck when the shit hits the fan.
So, what’s the meaning of it all? There isn’t any! That’s what makes it so much fun. (Kind of like life?) Just sit back and enjoy the ride, as if cruising through the night sky of southern California in a glowing Chevy Malibu that is really…yeah, you got it…a time machine! It’s all part of the cosmic unconsciousness.