epo Man is the ultimate American indie film, which is all the more astonishing considering that it was made for Universal Pictures by an Englishman and thus is technically neither indie nor American. But with its punk aesthetic and willful weirdness, the movie virtually invented the attitude that we have come to call “indie”. Its English director, Alex Cox, is a devotee of the Western and what could be more American than a punk re-imagining of the genre as a quasi-road movie conflating nuclear holocaust with automobile repossession, the aliens at Roswell, televangelism, consumer culture and SoCal punk? If greatness is measured not only by aesthetic accomplishment but also cultural reach, Repo Man wins the prize.
I started thinking about the film’s significance when I was watching a recent episode of Veronica Mars. The eponymous heroine, a hard-boiled teen-girl detective, turns to one of her partners-in-crime and says, "Have you ever seen that movie Repo Man? Just call me Otto." And I started thinking about how I was Veronica Mars’s age when that movie came out twenty years ago. It was a marginal film that had a brief run in theaters when kids like me all across America bought the soundtrack, then the video, giving it a new life. More than a few of us spent inordinate amounts of time memorizing the dialogue and quoting it to each other as we drove aimlessly around our suburbs doing drugs, drinking beer and listening to the soundtrack on the tape player. Apparently there were a lot of us, because Repo Man keeps showing up in one form or another, an instant signifier of punk attitude and suburban disenfranchisement.
When a movie achieves iconic status it can be hard to separate your memory of the movie from the film itself. So I decided to rent Repo Man and see if it held up. Putting the DVD on, I braced myself for the inevitable disappointment. Most of the seminal movies of my teen years have not withstood the test of time; they feel dated and trivial, interesting for nostalgia only. But Repo Man is a different story. It is surprisingly contemporary and relevant. Shot after shot you find yourself saying, “Where have I seen that before?” and then realizing you saw it after, in somebody else’s movie.
Repo Man is the story of Otto (Emilio Estevez), a punk kid from Southern California with no job, no friends and no prospects. His parents are stoned couch potatoes who have given all their money to a televangelist. Walking home from a party one night Otto runs into an automobile repossessor named Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), who tricks him into helping steal a car, thus introducing him to the life of the Repo Man. At the same time, a mysterious Chevy Malibu is being driven from Roswell, New Mexico by a demented scientist with a trunk full of either aliens or nuclear
Repo Man is a road map for the next twenty years of indie culture.
weapons that vaporizes anyone looking in it. The Chevy Malibu is being sought by a shadowy government organization headed up by one Agent Rogersz, a woman with an iron hand. Also in pursuit of the Malibu is an alien-obsessed young lady named Leila who works for the United Fruitcake Outlet and subsequently becomes Otto’s girlfriend. At the same time Otto’s punk ex-friends are on a crime spree, and the repo men are in a turf war with their rivals, the Rodriguez brothers. All of these plots, subplots and characters are tied together seamlessly by what one of the Repo Men calls a “latticework of coincidence” or the “cosmic unconsciousness.”
Watching the film is like seeing a road map for the next twenty years of indie culture. Every ironist who has ever used the phrase “that is so punk rock,” got his attitude from Repo Man. From cool-dork Napoleon Dynamite to the irony-laden Daily Show to the pale punk imitations of Blink-182 — all of it stems from Repo Man. Today we acknowledge the knowing smirk as the only appropriate response to American popular culture. But before Repo Man, we were earnest.
In 1984, America was a weird place. The political and cultural efforts of the ’60s had been resoundingly defeated as the country swung hard to the right. The economy was bad but the Yuppies had emerged, kicking crass consumer culture into overdrive. For many young people with no meaningful way to engage in or criticize American culture, the only option was to be ironic and dismissive, to mockingly celebrate its banality and foolishness while acknowledging its pathos.
Whether by design or accident, director Alex Cox managed to capture that attitude on film and gave it a killer soundtrack. Every line of the script is an epigram, every character a novel. Even the throw-away moments are rich with dismissive irony. All of the Repo Men are named after beer: Bud, Lite, Miller, Oly. Every single car has a pine tree air freshener. In one scene Otto, Leila and Agent Rogersz are in a bar discussing the Chevy Malibu. In the background the Circle Jerks perform “When the Shit Hits the Fan” and lead singer Keith Morris nearly steals focus as he mocks lounge singers and society itself by singing, “doop-a-dee-doo-wop-wop-yeah” with bile and sarcasm.
From Otto’s first sneer we know we are in different territory than any previous movie anti-hero. Marlon Brando’s snarling biker in The Wild One, James Dean’s anguished Rebel Without a Cause, the existential hippies of Easy Rider and even Mel Gibson in the first Mad Max, were all troubled outsiders in search of truth, anti-heroes taking on society’s ills and hypocrisy. But then Otto came along and said, literally, “Fuck that.”
Some great films seem to lose their relevance over time. We acknowledge their importance but don’t necessarily see our lives reflected in them. But Repo Man, for better or worse, still resonates. The punk attitude is now so familiar that we hardly notice it anymore; it has become our lingua franca. And many of the social criticisms in the film and soundtrack remain relevant. In 1984 a Chevy Malibu driving around with a trunk full of radiation was a
It launched the era of indie as an attitude.
thinly veiled reference to the Soviet nuclear threat, but in 2005 it could just as easily be a terrorist’s dirty bomb. When Otto’s friend Kevin looks up from the help wanted ads and says, “There’s fuckin’ room to move as a fry cook. I could be manager in two years. King. God.” He could be any twenty-something trying to find a job in today’s economy. In 1984, Repo Man‘s recurring sight gag of generic products (a can of beer labeled “beer”, a can of food labeled “food”, a drink labeled “drink”) was a piss-take at consumer culture. In this age of branding and product placement, it rings even truer. When Fear sings “Let’s Have A War” in the background, the lyrics are still apt: “Let’s have a war!/Sell the rights to the networks!/Let’s have a war!/Let our wallets get fat like last time!” Sure, they were talking about Nicaragua or El Salvador, but they could be talking about Iraq or Afghanistan.
But maybe what really makes Repo Man the ultimate indie film is that it launched the era of indie as an attitude, it created the template for what a hip, hit, indie film looks like. Take aimless Caucasian youth at low-wage jobs (Clerks), add smart, self-conscious dialogue and a mysterious glowing substance with mystical overtones (Pulp Fiction), throw in a quirky older character actor as mentor (Rushmore), film them driving around Los Angeles (Swingers) and top it off with a compilation album soundtrack of obscure bands with street cred and you’re on your way.
Repo Man is like the blues musicians that the Rolling Stones ripped off. The attitude it launched has morphed into a fashion statement, and while there have been and will continue to be really fantastic indie-style films, Repo Man holds a special place as the first.
Duke: The lights are growing dim, Otto. I know a life of crime has led me to this sorry fate, and yet, I blame society. Society made me what I am.
Otto: That’s bullshit. You’re a white suburban punk just like me.
Duke: Yeah, but it still hurts. n°
|ABOUT THE AUTHOR:|
|Andy Horwitz is a writer and performer living in New York City. His monologues have been called everything from "high-octane, raucous comedy" to "inquisitive and insightful." His writing has appeared in Heeb, The Seattle Stranger and various anthologies. He edits the alternative performance blog Culturebot.org and in 2005 ran for Mayor of New York City, a performance project documented online at andyformayor.org.|