Some movies don’t age well. You see them 20, 30 years after they were made, and they feel dated. The plot doesn’t work, the characters aren’t relevant, and because whomever was making the film was so conscious of being hip and cool, everything sounds and looks out of date. In fact, that’s what usually happens when the mainstream tries to capture the underground or outsider subculture on camera. They make something based on trends and fashion and don’t bother to go beneath the surface. However, when a movie is made where those involved understand what’s happening in the world they are attempting to recreate on the screen and do their best to bring that to life, you end up with something enduring. It’s not a good ’80s film or a good punk film, its just a good movie.
A great example of a movie made during the early part of the 1980s that was part of a particular sub-culture and has stood the test of time is Repo Man. Just re-released in a brand new remastered edition as part of The Criterion Collection in a two disc special edition DVD set, the movie sparks with a life and creative anarchy you don’t often see in a mainstream movie. It’s a reminder of how there was a time when the words independent film meant small budget and experimental, not Hollywood patting themselves on the back at Sundance.
Directed by Alex Cox Repo Man is set in Los Angles of the early 1980s. Not the glamourous L.A., nor even the fake seediness of Sunset Strip, but the down and out of the dispossessed and directionless. The story follows a young punk, Otto (Emilio Estevez), as he stumbles through life failing at work and romance. A chance meeting with Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) draws him into the world of repossession men. Bud takes Otto under his wing and teaches him the basics on how to survive in a job where they basically steal people’s cars. If you miss more than three car payments chances are you’ll wake up one morning to find your car has been repossessed by these erstwhile agents of finance companies.
Into this world comes a mysterious Chevy Malibu. With a reward of $20,000 going to whomever manages to repossess the car it quickly becomes the focus of everyone’s attention. Both the guys who work with Bud and a couple of mysterious dudes named the Rodriguez Brothers are after it for the reward. There’s also a bunch of really obvious government agents, led by a female agent with a metal hand, who are going to stop at nothing in order to get their hands on it. When Otto meets a young UFO enthusiast, who is somehow mixed up with the car, she tells him it is carrying the remains of four aliens a scientist has snuck out of a secret American base. However, it quickly becomes apparent what’s in the car’s trunk is a little more lethal than dead alien corpses.
In a normal movie, the car and its contents would quickly take over as the central focus. Either it would become some sort of race to save L.A. from whatever is in the car or about a couple of brave people trying to prevent the government from covering up some big secret or other. What we have is the Chevy Malibu careening its way haphazardly in and out of the action and only staying on our lead’s radar because of the money its worth. For Bud, it represents his ticket to independence and becoming his own boss. For Otto, well, we’re never quite sure if it means anything to him. He likes the rush of stealing cars legally and doesn’t seem to be thinking beyond that.
The movie depicts an America where all that matters is you make your payment on time. Credit is the glue holding society together, Bud intones with great seriousness to his pupil Otto. To him its a sure sign of how badly America has stumbled when people run out on the money they owe. Driving past a street filled with down and outs, drunks and the homeless, he wonders aloud how much money they owe, and accuses them of running away from their responsibilities. “Most of them don’t even use their Social Security numbers,” he says to Otto. Of course he’s ignoring the fact these people have fallen so far through the cracks it’s doubtful they’re ever going to be worrying about their credit rating ever again.
Ironically, while the movie is obviously set in a specific era, the message about the dangers of what happens when a society is encouraged to live beyond its means is perhaps even more resonant with audiences today then when it was originally released. With America still recovering from the fallout of overextended banks calling in loans and ruining thousands of people who were living far beyond their means, the picture painted of economic hopelessness is way too familiar. The music, the clothes and the hair styles may be close to 30 years old, but nothing much else has changed.
While previous editions of Repo Man, even those digitally remastered, haven’t always been of the best quality that’s not the case here. The movie lives up to Criterion’s claims of having hand cleaned an original negative of the film prior to digitally to cleaning it up digitally in order to give viewers the highest quality images possible. Not only does it look great played through a home theatre system, it sounds great as well. The balance between soundtrack and dialogue is perfect as everything comes through crystal clear through a 5.1 surround sound system.
The soundtrack itself is great. With the inestimable Iggy Pop having written the movie’s theme song and bands like Black Flag and the Circle Jerks contributing numbers, its probably one of the most accurate representations of the LA punk rock scene of the early 1980s you’ll hear on screen. The music also reflects the general anarchic nature of the film and helps propel listeners along for the ride.
The two-disc package the folks at Criterion have put together for this release is much better than the usual special features accompanying films these days. Along with the newly remastered version of the film, disc one contains interviews done in 2012 with cast members and Iggy Pop talking about their memories of working on the film. Iggy Pop is his usual candid self, talking about how grateful he was to director Cox for giving him the gig considering the shape his career was in at the time.
The second disc features Cox and his two producers talking about the process involved just trying to have the picture made and an interview with Harry Dean Stanton. Both of these were recorded in 2005 and included on an earlier reissue of the movie. The second disc also includes a version of the movie Cox cut for television. I guess that’s there for the morbidly curious, but to be honest I can’t see the attraction. I guess the only fun in watching it would be seeing how inventive they were able to be in finding replacements for dialogue not permitted on regular television.
The real treat among the extras is the booklet included with the set. Put together like the underground comics which flourished during the 1980s, it contains all sorts of goodies. One of my favourites is the couple of pages of Repo Man the comic book written and drawn by Cox. He claims to have given up on that project as it was easier to make a film than go to all the painstaking work involved with drawing a comic. The booklet is filled with anecdotes about the making of the moving, the actors and the musicians and is almost worth the price of the set on its own.
It’s hard to believe watching Repo Man that it was made by Universal Studios. Not only does it feel more like an independent movie than most of the so called independent movies being made today, it epitomizes the spirit of free wheeling anarchic artistic creation I’ve always associated with punk rock. It’s this latter detail which makes the movie as interesting to watch today as it was when it was first released. In spite of it being set in a very specific time and place there’s nothing dated or antique about this film. So, kick back and get ready to enjoy the wild and weird ride and remember: “A repo man’s life is always intense”.