In fairness, I should probably check out more Alex Cox’s later works. Before I consign him to the status of one who never made good on the potential of his early success. But the bits and pieces I’ve seen don’t hold much sway. I pretty much gave up on him after Walker. It seemed as if the accessibility of Repo Man was a happy accident, and he was subsequently content to drift further and further down his own post-modern punk rabbit hole, as if affronted by the “THE MOST ASTONISHING FEATURE FILM DEBUT SINCE STEVEN SPIELBERG’S DUEL” accolade splashed over the movie’s posters (I know, I have a copy; see below).
This wilfully non-mainstream sensibility is, I suspect, a reason for Cox fighting his corner with sometimes ill-advised gobshite-ing. There’s his accusation that Terry Gilliam (never one to hold back on the opinions side, so they’re well-matched on that score) plundered his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas script (Cox fell off the project, but I’m just surprised he managed to progress it as far as he did). Then there’s his perceived negativity towards his Repo Man star Emilio Estevez.
This does sound a little like a storm in a teacup; Cox wanted to get a semi-sequel off the ground, Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday. Emilio wasn’t terribly interested. The director subsequently came out with vaguely belittling comments about Estevez’s career. One wonders if Cox thinks he’s protected from similar critiques behind a “Well, I never wanted to be a success” shield of pride. There’s nary a comment on Estevez on the film’s DVD/Blu-ray talk track, except to note that he wasn’t the director’s first choice (that was Dick Rude, who plays Duke; in contrast, Napoleon Dynamite look-a-like Zander Schloss appears as ultra-nerd Kevin in a role earmarked for Chris Penn) and Schloss’ insight that the young buck was given to romping about in his skivvies. Maybe Estevez was a pain in the arse (although, by the sound of it, Harry Dean Stanton was the biggest culprit there) but it seems churlish not to acknowledge the easy charisma he brings to the role of Otto. Or maybe the actor’s reticence over reliving past glories (he has steered clear of Repo-reunions) sits awkwardly with Cox, who must surely resign himself to it being the best thing he ever did or will do. Perhaps Estevez made the movie a bit too attractive, too accessible, for Cox’s perversely self-sabotaging tastes (and perhaps the prize of Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke subconsciously gave him pause when he was gearing up for Fear and Loathing; what if he accidentally steered a path towards acclaim?) Would anyone be talking about Repo Man 30 years later if Rude had starred? Dramatically fewer people, I don’t doubt.
Which isn’t to belittle Cox’s achievement, far from it. Rather, it’s to note that movie alchemy doesn’t necessarily take place when things play out exactly as the director had in mind (and Cox is quite open about how the screenplay morphed due to Tracey Walter and Sy Richardson, how the final act was rewritten to involve the expansive dimensions of Miller’s savant insights).
Whatever the state of Cox’s blinkered creative faculties, he’s a highly entertaining guy, and his crooked delivery and fascinating face is one of the reasons Moviedrome attained such an instant niche status on BBC. Cox is an instant cult figure; but as is often the case with cults, the overriding criteria of joining the club isn’t quality, it’s personality. It isn’t that Cox has lost his faculties, it’s that he has been unable or unwilling to synthesise his strange fascinations and anecdotes into something as singularly clever, insightful and witty since. To hear him talk (and he is a fine raconteur), much of Repo Man came about from such spontaneity and synchronicity. It’s a shame to see him recycle his one classic (Repo Chick) or needlessly revisit past (not especially good) glories (Straight to Hell). Perhaps the cosmic unconsciousness permits some to hit the bull’s eye just the once (I wouldn’t compare Cox to Orson Welles, but they both peaked straight out of the gates).
Break it down to its bare bones, and the plot of Repo Man is simplicity itself; chase the MacGuffin. Which just happens to be a glowing radioactive car with the remains of a space alien in the boot. Cox’s film is the missing link between Kiss Me Deadly and Pulp Fiction, although Tarantino is arguably much less inventive in his referencing. Others have cited Repo Man as a likely influence on the uber film nerd; the fast talking, pop culture environment of Cox’s movie gets the drop on the indie squad about 10 years early. But, not to belittle Tarantino, Cox isn’t really interested in pure film referencing. Repo Man is chock full of “of the moment” material, but the director has his an abundance of his own ideas to discuss too; he’s a political animal, which Tarantino very much is not (indeed, Tarantino has nothing to say about anything, and says as much repeatedly). As he progressed, this would prove to be the director’s Achilles Heel. But here he transumtes his ideas and views into keen satire, taking in everything from conspiracy theories to the disintegration of the nuclear family. Like Tarantino, he populates his world with hardened cynics, but unlike Tarantino that isn’t the gag.
Perhaps the clearest example is the choice of music. Cox is fond of the anecdote that it was the soundtrack that really got the film released. Universal had no interest in the picture, but the music division noted the LP was selling healthily. To release the film would make sense, almost as a reverse tie-in. That soundtrack is made up of contemporary US punk rock bands. Cox refers to Easy Rider as a yardstick for zeitgeist sounds, and it’s very different from the nostalgic plundering Quentin engages in. Perhaps the most obvious thing Cox’s film and Pulp Fiction have in common is an ear for quotable dialogue. Repo Man must rank up there with Withnail & I (drug movies often do end up being overly referenced by consumers, although it must be pointed out that this never happened to Less Than Zero) as one of the ‘80s’ most referenced movies. Barely a line goes by that doesn’t have an after life. And Sy Richardson’s character makes Samuel L Jackson seem hopelessly unhip; Jackson can’t boast a spoken word track on a Tarantino album, unlike Richardson on the Repo album (Juicy Bananas’ Bad Man).
Cox’s movie features abundant commentary but, like a great wit, he never allows speechifying to overpower the plot. It’s so perfectly balanced in that regard, one half wonders how he ever made himself an outsider (the answer, he is not his films). But to have him tell the story, it seems Universal perceived Repo Man as outspoken enough that he was suspected of being a damn commie. Perhaps one of the reasons the movie has aged so well (the only area that stands out now is one that stood out then; it’s cheapness; flying Chevy Malibus on a budget have nothing on the following year’s Delorean) is the resounding tone of disaffectedness. One might accuse it of nihilism, but the movie is too spirited and vital for that. Pervasive cynicism might be a better label. Cox infuses it with a contemporaneity that taps into the aggressive anarchism of punk but finds its characters of all ages in a lost environment. The ‘60s generation has just given up (or made a lot of money); Otto’s parents sit on the couch getting stoned, transfixed by Reverend Larry (“We’re sending Bibles to El Salvador”). Otto is angry, but not out of a desire to change the world. He has no aspirations whatsoever, personally or philosophically.
Cox takes swipes at the modern age of distraction, consumption, and credulism at every opportunity. His characters’ disenchantment doesn’t allow them insight or self-awareness. Only Tracey Walter’s savant Miller, who has no interest in how he appears to others (he has risen above ego) is implied to understand what goes on (and in the evolving of Cox’s screenplay it is he that proves central to the final act, rather than Harry Dean Stanton’s initial mentor). On his commentary track, Cox notes the number of firsts his movie achieved. Some of these are amusingly minor details (the released airbags in the car of two agents, suffusing forth like the Rovers in The Prisoner; the mace spray directed at Otto, following his delivery of a dead rat to a “client”).
Others find him in the post-Von Daniken, pre X-Files wilderness, plugging the gap between the undercurrents of a paranoid fascination with a possibly arcane pre-history and the much mocked but ever-intriguing idea of extra-terrestrial visitors. So Cox is referencing Roswell with his boot of aliens, and knowingly prefiguring accusations that it’s all a big hoax (“Looks like sausage”). Leila (Olivia Barasch) works for the United Fruitcake Outlet (much to Otto’s amusement). But, for all Cox’s pranksterishness, his governmental agents are designated as very much a nefarious force, spreading disinformation (“It happens sometimes. People just explode”), pervading surveillance (“I can’t hear you, I’m using a scrambler”) and threats of violence. Leila, passionate for her cause, shows how few scruples she has when she joins forces with the government (“I’d torture someone in a second if it was up to me”). If there can be any doubt about the attitude of our trusted democratically elected apparatus, Edward Snowden would surely acknowledge the presiding sentiments they express as accurate.
Agent Rogerz: No one is innocent.
Miller’s account of the “lattice of coincidence”, or synchronicity, is straight out of Robert Anton Wilson, with just the right push into dementia (“How the Mayans invented television”) Miller’s wonderfully pragmatic Grandfather Paradox (since there had to be a time when there were no people, it begs the question of where they came from; obviously from the future, and how did they get to the past? In flying saucers, which are time machines) is proven correct at the end when the Chevy Malibu lifts off and accelerates (to the past). Whether Cox was riffing on some of the most creative alien theories (the Greys are actually humans from the future, returning to sequester vital DNA for the continuation of the species), he ensures it has just the right quotient of batty stoned-semi-seriousness (Otto asks Miller if he did a lot of acid back in the hippy days).
Elsewhere, Cox has a lot of fun with his swipes at more organised forms of religion. He gets in there first with his take on Scientology (Dioretix: The Science of Matter Over Mind) a copy of which ends up on a bonfire, another is seen being read by one of government agents. Then there is Reverend Larry (Bruce White), the mammon-loving TV evangelist (“They’re right. I do want your money, because God wants your money”) who finds himself in the right place at the right time come the climax; the Malibu stands in for Linda Blair when it causes Larry’s Bible to ignite (“Holy sheep shit!”)
This is a period where the “Greed is good” mentality is about to become a cultural byword. Cox is in there, with a plot motivator fired by capitalist tendencies (repo men thrive under Reaganism) that transpire in a very different form. The trade of his characters is wholly based on a society of credit; slavery to things we cannot afford, and which end up (literally) breaking the global bank. And the worst offenders are, of course, the super-rich. The ones who emerge unscathed from a financial meltdown (“Fucking millionaires. They never pay their bills”). In the end, Otto rises above the shit in his search for adventure and answers; except he isn’t really searching. He simply has nothing better to do. It’s the ‘80s flipside of Roy Neary’s dream-fulfilled at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Otto: That’s bullshit. You’re a white suburban punk just like me.
Duke: Yeah, but it still hurts.
This is also a generation that has become intellectualised to cod self-analysis and categorisation. As Duke lies bloodied and bleeding he rehearses a TV talk show (for this it would become) sound bite on how he is, in fact a victim. This is Cox at his most acutely postmodern. We adorn ourselves with signifiers that are superficial at best; the false religion of psychology has disintegrated almost as soon as it was established.
Notional superiority over the unwashed masses takes many forms. The artistic community will often hold forth on how they never had a normal job (or just the one), as if such status is proof positive that their hallowed status is deserved. Who knows, perhaps it is. Kevin nurses the prospect of getting on by becoming a fry cook, and he is consequently ridiculed for such a square outlook. Bud holds onto the idea that he is a rebel and an outsider; it’s this mentality that finds him mentoring Otto. He genuinely sees a younger self he can nurture, but Otto rejects Bud’s “normality” for a higher truth. And it’s Miller sublimely who slaps down any suggestion that the characters we have spent the entire film with have any understanding of what the hell is going on. Everyone we see has been doing little else but driving for throughout the movie; their careers are behind the wheel.
This being the ‘80s, the Cold War and spectre of nuclear Armageddon (however imminent that may or may not have been, it was most definitely worth its weight in gold as propaganda) makes its presence felt. This was the same year that The Terminator envisaged a world where civilisation ended at the behest of the machines we built to make life simpler. Bud talks of “Bad shit coming down”, the way every generation down has since the atom was split, but this is the first time that a sense of resignation has taken over. There’s nothing that can be done about it all, at all. And nothing would be done when Chernobyl happened three years later. Nor when Fukushima started (and continues to) to leak radiation 17 years hence. J Frank Parnell (Fox Harris) would be proud, of course.
I have to admit, the reason that the dead aliens are radioactive escapes me, other than it establishes a readily identifiable visual reference to Kiss Me Deadly. Harris’ character is probably the most bat shit hilarious of any in the cast (and that’s saying something). His Looney Tunes singsong delivery is delicious, and there can be little doubt where Cox is coming from; the boffin who claims everything is all right in the nuclear world (“Do you ever feel as if your mind had started to erode?”) is shown to be off his rocker.
Otto: A lobotomy. Isn’t that for loonies?
Parnell: Not –at –all.
Indeed, Parnell has lost all sense of objectivity, suffering from the classic malaise of the clinical scientist; a lack of ethical grounding. He has his lobotomy for reasons of reparation of his fragile psyche (“It’s so immoral, working on the thing can drive you mad”). Cox has said the film is all about the insanity of nuclear war, and the crazed rhetoric of Reagan and Thatcher. But I think he has the nub of the movie’s longevity when he identifies as the initiator the “maniac culture” that elected them. Thirty years later we have the same maniac culture, steeped in lethargy, allowing our elected leaders to run riot in the name of the latest supposed demons (while the Soviet menace appears to be redefining itself as a force of diplomacy).
Parnell: You ever hear of the neutron bomb? Destroys people - leaves buildings standing. Fits in a suitcase. It's so small, no one knows it's there until - BLAMMO. Eyes melt, skin explodes, everybody dead.
Years later, Cox met one Sam Cohen, who informed the director he was father of the neutron bomb. He loved Repo Man (which, in an inspired opening credits kicks off with a map taking in locations including Los Alamos and Roswell), and was convinced that there was a nuclear bomb in the trunk (I guess we never know for definite). Cohen also saw the neutron bomb as a good Christian weapon. Well, you have to tell yourself lies, or working on the thing will drive you mad. Although, it sounds a bit as if Cohen was already there. And what is the end of the movie suggesting? That only through a Zen haze can we overcome the destructive forces of the modern world? If not, Miller and Otto won’t last very long.
By accident or design, Cox has also manufactured an incidentally effective attack on consumerism. One where Kevin sing adverts (“I’m feeling 7-Up”) rather than chart hits, and where products take on sinister overtones (“You’ll find one in every car. You’ll see” could apply to any number of items that we have been persuaded to invite into our lives, with potentially unintended health consequences). If that came about through a severe shortage of sponsorship (Ralph’s supermarkets donated the movie’s food, a chain that also memorably appears in The Big Lebowski; now there’s some cool cachet), it results in one of the most visually memorable sustained gags in the movie. All of the foodstuffs come with generic, bland labelling; from tins of “Food” to bottles of “Beer”. This even extends to drugs (the bottle of butyl nitrate that Duke and Debbie (the delectable Jennifer Balgobin) are consuming).
Bud: An ordinary person spends his life avoiding tense situations. A repo man spends his life getting to into tense situations.
It’s unclear if Cox has any comment to make about drugs themselves, other than noting their presence as a fact of life amongst a variety of groups, even those who abstain (“Hermanos Rodriguez do not approve of drugs”). Otto’s punk pals consume substances indiscriminately and invariably with excessive, destructive activities in mind; they’re punks, so they react against the failed peace and love vibes that went before them. There’s no need to comment on it, because the banality of reactive youth movements is commentary itself. Bud, given to pronouncements (well, everyone here is given to pronouncements of one kind or another; it’s emblematic of an Alex Cox film), favours speed; it sharpens the senses and repo men live intense lives. But Otto experiences all the rush he needs from a car chase with the Rodriguez brothers (“Wow. That was intense”); when they start snorting speed to excess, they are rendered a couple of boxed guys buying beer. There’s nothing very exotic about it. And appropriately, alcohol is the universal panacea, no matter what walk of life you’re from (“You guys want a beer?” comes the offer, as the repo men gather round to see the end show).
Miller: John Wayne was a fag.
In unison: The hell he was!
Miller: He was too, you boys. I installed two-way mirrors in his pad in Brentwood, and he come to the door in a dress.
Every character in Repo Man is a great character. It’s one of those films. The lines were the cast making the movie great and the dialogue making the cast great stops and ends is debatable, but from the sound of it Cox was very encouraging of an organic process. As noted, Walter and Richardson’s roles developed as the film did (“Somebody pissed on the floor again?”). As Lite, the latter’s street-smart wisdom (“Put your seatbelt on boy, it’s one of my rules”) forms a counterpoint to Bud’s Repo Code. He’s essentially spouting a stream of nonsense (“Managing a pop group is no job for a man”) but it’s immensely winning nonsense. We can’t get enough of Lite; neither could Cox, who added the glorious scene where Lite opens fire on a house whose occupant is taking pot-shots at Otto.
Then there’s the blithe flippancy of Duke and Debbie, lines like “Come on duke, lets go do those crimes”, which involve buying sushi and not paying. Or even the a tiny recurring role for Dorothy Bartlett as an old lady who gets irate when Otto drives into her dustbins (“Pick it up!”)
This is a film with Estevez ostensibly front-and-centre, and he is fucking hilarious during its first half. His trademark infectious laugh sets the tone for the lunacy and craziness he later encounters. As the movie progresses, Otto drifts into a more reactive role. He shifts allegiances, graduating from the failed mentorships of Bud (who goes out quoting Emiliano Zapata “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees”) and Lite to the warped inclusiveness of Miller. Cox intended for Otto to carry this empty page quality. To an extent he ends up occupying the anarchic flipside to the untroubled ease with which the ‘80s best known teen protagonist, Ferris Bueller, traverses all obstacles.
Cox has so many ideas, his movie overflows with tiny moments and references. There’s something almost Joe Dante-ish about this, a combination of cartoon slapstick and just throwing things in through spur of the moment inspiration. During the hospital climax, a tannoy announces “Mr Lee, please return the scalpel”. When Lite throws an unopened package from a car they have just jacked, we see that it contained bundles of cash. During the supermarket shootout, blood and ketchup fly as one (Cox claims this was an intentional means to bypass censorship, but it’s difficult to envisage this ever being rated more than an R). Cox’s government agents are given gems of commentary; as Otto ambles along a street where a suited clean-up crew is at work we hear one composing a flowery descriptive narrative of his activities (“I’m carrying his limp torso to the trunk. It feels like he’s only been dead for a little while, but…”) Later another, out of shot, is set upon by Delilah (Vonetta McGee). She raises a chair, and we hear him scream (“Not my face!”), only for her to drop it seconds later (“My face!”) Elsewhere, there are snippets of unfinished dialogue, or jokes without punch lines (“How come that pig’s got a wooden leg?”); the full joke is a good one, though.
Cox was surprised and delighted to score Robby Müller as his cinematographer; when asked whom he’d like to work on the movie he threw the name out there as a not-remotely-feasible suggestion. A regular collaborator with Wim Wenders, he’d also been wooed by cinephile Peter Bogdanovich and would go on to work with Jim Jarmusch. Paris, Texas, released the same year as Repo Man and also featuring Harry Dean Stanton, is perhaps Wenders’ best-known film. Repo Man is resplendent to behold, with a vivid nighttime cityscape of greens and blues setting off generally unseen-in-movies areas of L.A. It’s as memorable as Scorsese’s vision of New York in Taxi Driver (and later After Hours). Cox deferred to Muller’s stylistic preferences (medium shots, little camera movement; this is a very clean, unfussy picture, which ensures that the dialogue and actors have the opportunity to bounce out at you). It’s a treat to have the movie on Blu-ray, when for years all that was available was a crappy-looking video release.
If the photography is a distinctive character, so is the music. The Plugz provided the main score, a supremely catchy twang of unhurried space guitar that is impossible to divorce from the images. Likewise Iggy Pop’s Repo Man, sung over the opening credits; it has an urgency that The Plugz lack, effectively setting the scene. The soundtrack album comes highly recommended; I’m not the biggest of punk fans, but the variety on there makes it a must, from The Circle Jerks (whom Schloss joined) and When the Shit Hits the Fan (“Doobedy doo wop wop say what yeah”) to Burning Sensations’ Pablo Picasso and the aforementioned Juicy Bananas with Bad Man (“One way to tell if a woman really loves you…”). The other musical signature of note is that The Monkees’ Mike Nesmith co-produced the project, a career path that had recently seen success for George Harrison and some Pythons.
It isn’t easy to make a movie firmly embedded in one era and expect it to remain relevant. Just look at Easy Rider. Cox might have experienced beginner’s luck across the board. As I said, I should be fair to the guy and investigate more of his work. The problem is, when I realise I have unwittingly seen one of his (Death and the Compass) it doesn’t inspire me to seek out others. This is certainly Estevez’ best film too, so it’s entirely understandable that he doesn’t want to be reminded of the distant past. But Repo Man is exceptional, and its status can’t be lessened by name checks from Cox or Universal (2010’s Repo Men was a childish attempt to lay claim to the word “Repo” and encourage Cox to cease and desist from going ahead with Repo Chick). And maybe it’s all to the good. As Miller says, “A lot of people don’t realize what’s going on. They view life as a bunch o’ unconnected incidents ‘n things”. Repo Man will endure thanks to the lattice of coincidence that lies on top of everything.