Ah the ’80s. It seems you can’t throw a rock these days without hitting a compilation package or a radio station that’s cashing in on people’s nostalgia for those fun-loving days. Funny hair, exaggerated retro-’50s-styled clothes, and British synthesiser bands made up of people with posh accents, are the features of every Tuesday “’80s Night” at clubs across North America.
You’ll never hear any mention of neutron bombs, Ronald Reagan, Contras, or Oliver North at one of those gatherings. The truth and nostalgia don’t share the same room very well. No one talks about Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands Islands. You don’t hear anything about the hopelessness and cynicism that was so pervasive among punks who really believed they had “No Future”
If any of the kids dancing to Culture Club, The Human League, or Flock of Seagulls today knows what the word nihilism means, they’re sure doing a good job of disguising it. Thankfully, for those of us who actually lived through the period, more than just bad dance music has survived.
Focus Features, a division of Universal Films, has just re-released an antidote to the saccharine sounds sugar coating the decade in the form of the cult classic Repo Man. Starring Harry Dean Stanton and Emilio Estevez, the movie captures the undercurrents of anxiety and paranoia that were omnipresent among the punk/new wave counter culture.
Estevez plays Otto, a young directionless punk who’s drifting through a series of dead-end jobs and relationships. Drifting into repossession work after a chance encounter with Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) earns him some quick cash, he quickly becomes enamoured of the lifestyle.
He discovers there’s not much difference between repossessing cars and his previous lifestyle except now most of it’s legal. Stealing, high-speed chases, and the potential for violence are just what the doctor ordered for this guy. He’s found a place where he fits in and a certain level of job satisfaction. What more could a young man ask for?
As Bud, Otto’s mentor and entrée into the world of repossession, Harry Dean Stanton offers up a depiction of the American Dream perverted brought to life. He glories in making his living off the people who can’t afford to live the life advertised by Reagan and his cronies but think they’re entitled too.
Fueled on speed, cheap booze, and cigarettes he dreams of earning enough money on the backs of other people’s failure to open his own repossession yard. His Repo-Man’s Code of conduct — never break into a vehicle, never damage a vehicle, and never allow a vehicle to be damaged through neglect — is reflective of the high value the times placed on material goods as opposed to people.
If the insanity of the late night car heists, and high-speed chases through the viaducts of Los Angeles wasn’t enough to make this movie a little over the edge, there’s the matter of a Chevy Malibu driving around with a neutron bomb in its trunk. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this weapon it’s quite simple really. It was a nuclear device developed for use on the battlefield, as it would only kill people and not structures.
Instead of creating a huge explosion, it would spread intense fields of radiation causing those who came within its field of fire to either die instantly or shortly after from the effects of radiation poisoning. Along with the Strategic Defence Initiative (S.D.I. or Star Wars as it was popularly known because it referred to weapons in space) this project was one of the Reagan administration’s favourite weapons.
You could use it to wipe out whole populations but leave the buildings standing. Twenty years latter when the radiation had dropped to levels safe for humans, you could then move in and occupy the territory. Sort of sounds like the Repo-Man Code: property more valuable then life.
In an effort to recover the Malibu, a government agency has put out a repossession ticket on it for $20,000. There seems to be a slight problem with the car though, as the bomb may be active. Every time somebody opens the trunk to look inside they tend to disintegrate. Even close contact with the vehicle for any length of time makes people physically sick.
Repo Man is a black comedy that looks at the seamier side of life in the ’80s. Nobody in this movie goes to clubs to dance to music. The punks that Otto hangs out with in the beginning of the movie dance to music in a parking lot, in what looks more like a street fight than dancing. They’re bored suburban white kids with nothing to do but look for escape through random violence and the cheap thrills of bad drugs.
When Otto drifts into the life of a Repo Man, his old buddies start ripping off convenience stores. A running joke in the movie is how Otto and Bud just keep missing Otto’s old friends when they go into a store. They’re either hiding behind the cash holding guns to the storeowner, or they’ve just fled the scene of the crime.
Repo Man has its share of running jokes, but the best one by far is its product labeling. Every single item from beer to pop is generically labeled and named. There are cans of “Food”, “Drink” and “Beer”. Everything on every store shelf has the same white-with-blue-strip label with a one-word description of its contents. Product is product and it’s all the same thing in this world.
This new release DVD has two special features that on their own would make this disc worth the purchase price. First there is an interview with Harry Dean Stanton. I’m not going to try to describe it for you, save to say he is as offbeat, if not more so, than the character he plays. He is a genuinely fascinating man. In a world of Hollywood starlets and vacuous leading men he is a breath of fresh air.
The second special feature that makes this disc so interesting is the manner in which they’ve chosen to show the deleted scenes. Instead of just providing a menu for you to select which ones you want to watch, they’ve incorporated them into an interview with the inventor of the neutron bomb. Not only is he an extraordinarily intelligent man, he also has a great sense of humour, and looks to be thoroughly enjoying the whole situation. It’s an absolutely brilliant piece of absurdity that fits into the dark humour of the movie itself.
If you are like me and never recognise any of the music they play during ’80s retro nights and can’t figure out where you were during that time since none of clothes look familiar, then Repo Man is for you. It captures all the black humour, cynicism and anger of the times. It was a great movie twenty-two years ago, and it’s just as good now.