White Suburban Punk: REPO MAN and Real Rebellion

By: Victoria Large

Repo Man – 1983 – dir. Alex Cox

I don’t remember how I first heard of Repo Man, only that its reputation preceded it. As a teenager I actually picked up a used cassette of the film’s famous punk rock soundtrack at my local record store long before I was able to hunt down a copy of the movie itself, which for me only heightened its grungy cult flick allure. (For you youngsters, this was back when there were audiocassette tapes. And record stores. And suburban video stores with unpredictable inventories.) When I did finally see Repo Man, it lived up to my expectations simply by defying them. “…[T]he only real response to it is the perception of brilliance or the belief that it’s an utter piece of garbage,” writes Film Threat’s Brad Laidman. That’s pretty much the textbook definition of a cult classic.

Director Alex Cox took on a pair of rock icons when he directed Sid and Nancy, and gave us no less than a gunslinging Joe Strummer with Straight to Hell, but it’s Repo Man that feels innately punk.  Contradictory and contrary, Repo Man is by turns cynical, funny, loopy, sick, confounding, and at its conclusion, curiously transcendent. It’s as tough to pin down as punk itself, and for me, it’s become a touchstone – I’ve used it to discuss and understand everything from Dan O’Bannon’s parodic splatter flick Return of the Living Dead to Richard Kelly’s self-consciously arty Southland Tales. There’s only one Repo Man, and it’s atmosphere of youthful disaffection and urban decay feels as pointed now as ever.

The film offers a snapshot of mid-eighties malaise: economic downturn is invoked even in the film’s title, militarization is criticized and parodied in the person of J. Frank Parnell, the guilt-ridden, voluntarily lobotomized scientist who designed the neutron bomb. “Destroys people – leaves buildings standing,” Parnell says of his invention, and it makes for a short, neat bit of social criticism for a world where humanity seems secondary to power and progress. (James Merendino’s 1998 film SLC Punk!, set in the early eighties, invokes Ronald Reagan’s name and image as emblematic of the consumerism, conformity, and militarism of the era. Repo Man doesn’t have to.) But this isn’t just a film for the eighties. Repo Man’s urban wasteland (Los Angeles under the apt alias “Edge City”) – epitomized by a lingering shot of the film’s antihero, a scowling punk named Otto, strolling down a sidewalk, past the destitute and even the dead – is invoked by Kelly’s recent, post-apocalyptic comedy Southland Tales for a reason. Cox’s vision of a world on the edge is, sadly, still relevant.

But Repo Man does suggest a way out. “An ordinary person spends his life avoiding tense situations. A repo man spends his life getting into tense situations,” explains Bud, Otto’s rumpled, car repossessing mentor. And indeed, Otto’s pursuit of tense situations – his refusal to be ordinary, if you like – reflects the quality that endears him to a certain kind of moviegoer: he can’t resign himself to the complacency that seems to permeate every corner of his world. Otto’s ex-hippie parents have unquestioningly surrendered their son’s savings to a televangelist (“God wants your money!” cries the smiling preacher who has duped them.); and his friends dress as punks and act out with the requisite aggression, but they’re also blind to their own conformity (There’s something hollow about their rebellion – “Let’s go get sushi and not pay!” isn’t exactly “I wanna destroy passerby!”). Hilariously, Otto’s friend Duke eventually suggests to his girlfriend that they give up their anti-authoritarian life of crime for a house and family because, “Everybody does it. And it seems like the thing to do,” which has doubtlessly been the motivation behind his empty rebellion as well. Later, when Otto shrugs off Duke’s generic screed against the society that has sinned against him with the simple response, “You’re a white suburban punk, just like me,” it’s clear that he’s as critical of Duke’s lifestyle as that of his parents or the bomb-designing scientist, or indeed, even the repo men whose seemingly outré worldviews and lifestyles still come down to money. (And yes, there is something inherently punk rock about criticizing punk rock. I did say the film was contradictory, didn’t I?)

The film’s finale, in which Otto soars over the city in a Chevy Malibu that can fly, offers the possibility of escape for those who, like Otto, continue to quest and question. (It also may be the only scene that the Internet Movie Database lists as referencing both 2001: A Space Odyssey and…Grease.) While Cox’s Sid and Nancy ends with a cab ride into the ether that smacks of questionable romanticism, Otto’s escape into the unknown in the Malibu (Or is it a spaceship? Or a time machine? Or should we get hung up on details at all?) isn’t so much a break from the film’s cynicism as a confirmation of a little healthy cynicism’s worth. “This is intense,” Otto observes, his refusal to avoid tense situations richly, weirdly, ambiguously rewarded. It’s an ending that could mean nothing or everything. It’s intense. It’s perfect.