Repo Man is perhaps the least justifiable entry on my list of pop music films. While punk rockers feature in only so many of its scenes, it nonetheless captures the spirit of early 80s So-Cal punk, a spirit of cheerful nihilism. Besides, its plot is almost incidental. Sure, there’s some yarn about radioactive alien-parts stuffed in the trunk of a ’64 Chevy Malibu, CIA agents in pursuit, and a humble shop of repossession men (repo men are the guys who return your car, often with the help of hot-wiring skills, to the bank if you’ve failed to make payments). But all this is just an excuse for a romp of a film, through the industrial wastelands and deserted night-time streets of Los Angeles.
Otto, a punk rocker from lower-middle-class suburbia disillusioned with his hoody punk friends, gets recruited to join the repossession business by the archetypal repo man, Harry Dean Stanton’s character Bud. Otto is initially resistent, regarding repo men the way Galileans did tax collectors. But he comes to like their action-packed life: as the Stanton character explains, whereas “regular people,” whom he hates, “spend their lives avoiding tense situations, repo man spends his life getting into tense situations!”
That’s one of the film’s classic lines that people just love to quote. It has scores of these—probably the funniest ones come from the immortal “plate of shrimp” monologue by Miller, an acid casualty character who employs syllogistic reasoning to prove that flying saucers and time machines are really the same thing.
Repo Man’s cult-film twin would seem to logically be The Big Lebowski, similarly set in LA-loserdom. But whereas I recall at least two plausible discussions of “nihilism in The Big Lebowski” here, you could not get far doing that sort of thing with Repo Man. There’s actual dialogue about nihilism in Lebowski, and you can connect this to other Coen Brothers films. And while Lebowski’s apparent pointlessness does conceal a real narrative arc, Repo Man “concludes” by flying Otto off into outer space. Contrast that with the way The Dude has to wake up in the morning and continue dealing, in his misfit way, with the real world. Otto’s becoming a repo man turns out to be a way of dealing with society’s absurdity by escaping into absurdist fantasy.
Repo Man does comment on society, circa 1983—it takes swipes at easy targets like commercialism, televangelists, and stoned hippies, but also shows us the fickle comradeship of the punk scene and its wanna-be flirtation with criminality. So “regular” society is seen as contemptibly hopeless, as is the present rock “rebellion” against it, punk. If being a punk can only drag you down into petty criminality, a better bet is the position of a repo man, who is pretty much a licensed car thief—he gets to legally live the wild/tense life that the punks crave, and without any pretense of being some kind of victim of social forces.
The Stanton character gives this life a libertarian edge, and while the film often makes fun of this–he brags about a spotless credit record, despises people who owe money, and makes a speech about everyone “needing to have a code” right before sniffing a line of coke–it also celebrates it, giving him a motto-like line declaring his equal contempt for commies and Christians.
You’ll laugh at that line even if you are a Christian. I didn’t say it was a healthy film, did I? Just as in a Marx Brothers film you find yourself cheering the often quite cruel antics of Harpo and Groucho, this films gets you cheering the selfishness of the main characters—take, for example, the scene where Otto refuses to pick up some trash-cans his car has hit, and his bemusement at being told to do so by a plucky old woman.
We might say the cynicism of Stanton’s repo man, which involves an existentialist embrace of the repo man “code,” is presented as a higher cynicism that Otto is being initiated into, but again, that’s where the fantasy takes over, and almost all the consequences of what it would mean to embrace such a life for life are ignored. In any case, the film can’t bring itself to pretend that this higher cynicism gives Otto more than an iota of depth—he’s not quite as blinkered as his old punk friends, but he remains at heart a “white suburban punk” with a vocabulary wed to expressions like “intense.”
So if this screwball film has any lesson, it teaches us to say, “It’s all B.S.,” and to be ever on the look-out for some repo-man-like smart rebellion that allows us, fleetingly or even in a fantasy-sense, to rise above it all. It celebrates a certain punk-rock attitude, while warning against getting bogged down in punk rock itself.
And by “certain punk-rock attitude,” I have in mind one displayed by a number of early 80s punk bands, especially in California, that was much more humorous than the typical punk stance coming out of Britain. There was plenty of earnestness in many of the California bands—that of The Avengers and T.S.O.L. comes to mind—but the outright radicalism you got with English bands like Crass—besides making horrible music, they lived in some kind of urban vegetarian commune, and espoused some very specific flavor of anarchist philosophy–just didn’t go over in sunny California.
So the So-Cal punks spent less time protesting against the system and such, and more time making cynical comments about their own lives. Clueless parents, but also their own selfish youth cultures, were what typically came in for criticism, often in a pretty funny way. Perhaps the most archetypal of such songs is the one that takes pride of place on the Repo Man soundtrack, “Institutionalized” by Suicidal Tendencies. It is a blame-the-parents-and-society-for-my-dysfunctionality kind of song, but it ultimately can’t help also making fun of the teenage rebel’s shallowness: with high drama, the singer wails, All I wanted was a Pepsi, and she wouldn’t give it to me!
The funniest song in this mode, however, came from a non-punk band, the bohemian geniuses of Camper Van Beethoven, who spent most of their time crafting instrumentals that combined ska with various other world-musics, but occasionally penned little mockeries of early-80s punk/new-wave subcultures, as in “Where the Hell is Bill,” “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” and best of all, “Club Med Sucks.” Melded to the instro “Opie Rides Again,” (“Club” begins around 0:49), it is the ultimate exposition of how punk rock, despite its big-talk about anarchism as response to society’s corruption and such, might really be, or at least turn into, a specialized expression of spoiled-rotten privilege:
I don’t have to go to school for an entire week.
I just want to go down, to Newport Beach.
Mom and Dad wanna tell me where to go.
They wanna go to Club Med, San Carlos.
Club Med sucks!
I hate golf!
I don’t wanna play lacrosse!
The people there, they are so stupid.
They exploit the poor, and the weak.
I want no part of their death culture,
I just wanna go, to the beach.
So that is the particular California punk-rock spirit that writer/director Alex Cox captured with Repo Man, located somewhere between Camper Van’s outsider criticism of punk, and Suicidal Tendencies’ insider self-mockery. It’s cynical about everything, including itself. There’s not much you can say about that spirit, other than to note that it logically leads one in a selfishly “liberal-tarian” direction.
But don’t let such thoughts get you down…because for ninety minutes Cox found a way for it to cinematically lead to a whole lot of fun.