Friday, June 29, 2012

"Repo Man" (1984) Harry Dean Stanton, Emilio Estavez. Directed by Alex Cox.

  • "Ra-di-a-tion. Yes, indeed. You hear the most outrageous lies about it. Half-baked goggle-box do-gooders telling everybody it's bad for you. Pernicious nonsense! Everybody could stand a hundred chest X-rays a year! They oughta have 'em, too."-- rogue atomic scientist J. Frank Parnell, assuring Otto, his young hitch-hiking friend, that atomic energy is actually quite safe. From "Repo Man"  

When one talks about counter-culture films of the 1980's, it;s not really a long list. But somewhere near the top has to be this film.  "Repo Man" came out smack dab in the middle of Reagan's America: much of the nation was trying to recapture a  pre- Vietnam War America, devoid of doubt for those who could find a comfortable current to float down the Mainstream with. 


By 1984, I was 24 and I knew this  America of my early youth was long, long  gone. It was replaced by a light bulb salesman  with is finger on the nucear trigger and a bunch of smug suburbanites waiting for the folks in the wastelands of  inner-city America to kill each other with drugs and guns. Thinking people maintained a healthy distrust of authority, and expected less then did the peace niks and the Woodstock generation.   That culture fight was over and in America and the conservatives were very sore winners.  


 The Underground was now in charge in defining the zeitgeist of places like east Los Angeles, where most of this film is set. The sense of confidence once held dear is now only a mirage outside of the campaign slogans and mass market sods pop jingles on television. You could smell the paranoia coming out of the pores of a lot of people, and nobody was immune in my experience. 


This movie captures a lot of that feeling.  We used to say among my friends that if somebody didn't "get"  the angst-driven humor of "Repo Man", they were either lucky or stupid.  Both perhaps.  


The film follows an aimless young man named Otto (Emilio Estavez) who is walking  into the minefield of young adulthood.  His parents (television-addled burn- outs)  are barely aware he exists. They have taken the money they saved to send him to college to give to a television Evangelist to send Bibles to the already Catholic and war-torn people of El Salvador. 

  Otto leaves his dead-end job in a grocery store and hooks up with a "Repo Man" named Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) who lives by a  a cynical philosophy of life. Frank is an equal opportunity nihilist who will allow neither Communists nor Christians to be his partner in his "repo" work.  Here Bud explains the code to Otto.   (Warning: this clip contains foul language.)



  He's a throwback to "The Man Who Knows Indians" from the older Western genre, a loner out to do a dirty job who relies on himself and will take in a partner to keep his personal ethos going after he's gone.  It also makes it easier for him to repossess cars to have a partner.


The streets in "Repo Man" are unremitting slums; the gritty underworld of criminals, street punks who seem lost in old "Dead End Kids" movie but with cooler hair, angry ex-car owners,  a girlfriend who is in to defining her "relationship" with Otto even after she inadvertently tortures him in a lab test gone  VERY wrong, and a renegade atomic scientist from Los Alamos who is driving a ' 64 Chevy Malibu into the heart of L.A....with something wicked in the trunk.   

"Repo Man" is about the emptiness of American commercial society and also the end of American idealism.  The jarring sounds of Punk Rock have replaced the romantic (or at least idealistic) tempos of rock and folk tunes. 


 The 60's are truly dead and the future is no longer anything but a vacuum waiting to be filled by who knows what? 


All in all "Repo Man" is both outrageous and honest, a movie that tells the truth about a lot of people's daily lives and makes it's points with a dark humor and wit.           





  1. Hi Doug, thanks for the trip down memory lane... I can remember going to see Repo Man in an arthouse cinema in Newcastle, when I was at Uni in the North East in the mid 80s. Mental!

  2. It was very similar experience for me in a way, Ian. I first saw it with a couple friends and a very appreciative crowd for a evening show at the Shattuck Theater in Berkeley.

    By sheer luck, I spoke briefly to the director of "Repo Man" at a book fair here at Southern Oregon University last weekend.

    He has recently provided the illustrations for a book called "3 Dead Princes: An Anarchist Fairy Tale". (The book, "a fairy tale for adults of all ages" is quite entertaining.) I found Alex Cox was a very nice fellow to those who stopped by to chat with him about the book. He's a very good illustrator.

  3. I dont ever remember watching this movie....but watching the trailer looks interesting.

  4. It's very off-the-wall funny, Marty. Also very much of its time as well. A lot of the satire holds up nicely.

  5. It is a wonderful scene, Stephen--nuclear physics and old-style brain readjustment treatments combining to create a Man For The Times!

    Professor Parnell had a very eccentric taste in eyewear I just noticed. :-)