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Intense experiences in the lattice of coincidence
A review of the Masters of Cinema UK Blu-ray of REPO MAN, by Slarek
 
  "I shall not cause harm to any vehicle nor the personal contents thereof, nor through inaction let the personal contents thereof come to harm."
 
The Repo Code
  "Ordinary fucking people, I hate 'em. See, an ordinary person spends his life avoiding tense situations. Repo Man spends his life getting into tense situations."
 
Bud defines the world of the Repo Man

 

There's something rock 'n' roll about exciting early features from hot new young directors. Like that breakthrough single that launches a great new indie band, these are films born of passion and a determination to break into an industry that is still largely controlled by studios and moguls. The establishment may produce the made-to-order hits, but it's the fresh-faced young upstarts who make the most interesting songs. If there's a down side to this it's that their music rarely seems quite as fresh or innovative again. You can only be the hot new thing once, it would seem. Like their musical counterparts, these new filmmakers may go on to do other fine work, films that are more commercially and critically successful, but there's still something about the invigorating energy and low-budget inventiveness that gives their early work its unique appeal. Hell, maybe it's just me. After all, Peter Bogdanovich may have really made his mark with Paper Moon and The Last Picture Show, both excellent films, but I'll take his electrifying low budget debut Targets over either any day. Darren Aronofsky may have scored across the board with The Wrestler, but if I'm going to fall in love with an Aronofsky film then it's going to be Pi or Requiem for a Dream. And when it comes to the redoubtable Martin Scorsese, no-one is ever going to convince me that The Aviator or The Departed are anywhere near as thrilling as Who's That Knocking at My Door? or Mean Streets. And what of British cinephile and indie director Alex Cox? Well although he may have made some damned good films since (I have a particular fondness for Revenger's Tragedy), I can think of few debut features from the past thirty years that were as loaded with seductive promise as his 1984 Repo Man.

'Repo Man' is one of those rare North American terms that I'm happy to admit is cooler than any UK British equivalent, only second on my list of favourites to 'Skip Tracer', a name given to those who hunt down absent debtors and that has also been used as the title of a film. A good one as it happens. Repo Men, or at least the Repo Men in this movie, are in the business repossessing cars from those who have defaulted on payments, vehicles their owners are rarely prepared to hand over willingly. Soon to find himself a part of this world is suburban punk Otto (Emilio Estevez, here displaying far more charisma than his famously temperamental brother), who in quick succession gets fired from his dead-end supermarket job and finds his girlfriend in bed with his former best friend Duke (played by regular Cox collaborator Dick Rude). Hoodwinked into assisting with a car repossession, Otto is offered a job at the grandly named Helping Hands Assistance Agency, one his current employment prospects prompt him to reluctantly accept.

Straightforward enough? You don't know the half of it. Careering across country to who knows where is half-mad nuclear physicist J. Frank Parnell (Fox Harris), driving a 1962 Chevy Malibu in whose trunk sits something that glows white when opened and vaporises the curious. Hot on its tail is Agent Rogersz (Susan Barnes), a stoic government agent with a metallic left hand who dresses like she writes for a fashion magazine. Also looking for the car is pretty young firebrand Leila, who carries a photo that she claims are of four aliens that are slowly decaying in the Malibu's trunk. She wants Otto's help to locate the car, further incentive for which is provided by the $20,000 bounty being offered for its recovery. Just about the only ones not actively pursuing the vehicle are the angry punk trio of Duke, Debbie and Archie, former compadres of Otto whose cross-town crime spree repeatedly almost brings them into contact with their former friend.

Otto's new workmates prove an equally offbeat bunch. There's cynical veteran Bud (the lovely Harry Dean Stanton), who introduces the new boy to the repo code and shares with him the importance of snorting speed on the job. There's the more laid-back Lite (Sy Richardson), who insists Otto complete a job even while under fire and is not above intimidating uncooperative clients with a blank-loaded gun. And there's attractive receptionist Marlene (Vonetta McGee), who's a dab hand at kung-fu, and macho security guard Plettschner (Richard Foronjy), who is loudly intolerant of verbal disrespect and knits in his spare time.

Best of the bunch is spaced-out philosopher Miller, who refuses to drive and who, as played by the wonderful Tracey Walter, is one of the film's loveliest creations. Much of his dialogue has found its way into the cult hall of fame, from his ruminations on how life is controlled by a fabric of coincidence (a theory that film itself seems determined to validate) to the priceless delivery of his "John Wayne was a fag" speech and his calm assurance to Otto that he'll find a Christmas tree air freshener in every car. And I can't be the only death-dodging cyclist who smiled at his proclamation that "the more your drive, the less intelligent you are." Amen, brother. But even Walter is outshone for glorious eccentricity by the extraordinary Fox Harris, who as the Malibu-driving scientist J. Frank Parnell delivers a performance as wild as anything you'll see all year, but one that never for a second feels overplayed or absurd. Every look and line Harris delivers is a small and precious joy, peaking in his final conversation with Otto and the proud revelation that he had a lobotomy. "Isn't that for loonies?" Otto asks him nervously, which prompts the upbeat response, "not...at...all...," an almost throwaway line that is joyfully transformed by its delicious delivery.

Just about everyone here makes their mark in some way, with even the smallest parts having been cast with care and given memorable things to do and say. Expectations forged by years of character stereotyping are repeatedly usurped, as with the old woman who complains loudly in an outraged English accent rather than the expected nasal bark of a clichéd Jewish mother, or the Secret Service agents who mock Otto and his crew with chicken cluck sounds when they surrender as ordered. Even the repo firm's biggest rivals, the Latino Rodriguez brothers, kick against the hot-blooded racial archetype by just watching on wearily and sipping their sodas as the Malibu is nabbed from under their noses. Probably the biggest surprise for anyone new to the film is Otto's nerdy former workmate Kevin (played by Zander Schloss, who subsequently joined the punk group The Circle Jerks, who are also in the film), who in retrospect plays like an exact blueprint for the geeky titular lead of the 2004 Napoleon Dynamite – honestly, if Napoleon wasn't directly based on Kevin, then I'd suggest Miller's lattice of coincidence has spread beyond the film and into the real world.

But this is no Weirdsville-style attempt to manufacture a cult work by randomly throwing in oddball components, but a film whose offbeat elements grow organically from characters who are only a few small steps to the left of reality. Much of this texturing has grown from Cox's own fascination with conspiracy theory and the more unconventional aspects of American life, plus stories told to him by real-life repo men, one of whom he shadowed when researching the film. This, coupled with the sometimes glorious delivery, has resulted a film with more fan-quoted dialogue than almost anything this side of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Reproducing it here will mean little to anyone not well versed in the film, dependant as it is on context and performance for its effect, but I'm going to do it anyway. I've already highlighted a few personal favourites above, but here's a scattering of others that fans should instantly recognise:

"Repo Man is always intense."

"Goddamn-dipshit-Rodriguez-gypsy-dildo-punks! I'll get your ass!"

"Come on Duke, let's go do those crimes."
"Yeah...yeah. Let's go get sushi... and not pay."

"You ever feel as if your mind had started to erode?"

"I don't want no commies in my car. No Christians either."

"Hermanos Rodriguez do not approve of drugs."
"Neither do I, but it's my birthday."

"Only an asshole gets killed for a car."

"It happens sometimes. People just explode. Natural causes."

Oh, I could keep going until the keyboard snapped.

What really hit me seeing the film again after a gap of a few years is how little it's dated and how well made it is. In one of the included extras Cox downplays his contribution as director and credits the look of film – and this film looks good – almost exclusively to master cinematographer Robby Müller and second unit photographer Robert Richardson. But as writer-director he deserves serious recognition here, for the economy of the storytelling (an early conversation started in one scene is continued in the next by a different character without a flicker of disruption), the consistency of the performances, the density of ideas, the credibility of the character development (Otto's entry into the world of the repo man is convincingly handled), the subtextual layering, and the pitch and spot-on timing of the character humour. The science fiction element is left teasingly unresolved, but everything else clicks in delicious harmony, driven along by a score by Steven Hufsteter and Humberto Larriva that is simultaneously cool and playful, and an album-selling collection of smart new wave tracks. Even the opening titles are superb, a high-energy animation by Robert Dawson cut to Iggy Pop's specifically composed kick-ass theme song that establishes the film's rock 'n' roll credentials from the very first frames.

Oh hell, we're talking favourite films here and I just can't be objective and don't see why I should be. Repo Man is everything great cult cinema should be when the right people pull together on the same wavelength with strong material. It's also great outsider cinema, an independently minded film made within (or perhaps that should be on the fringes of) the studio system, one that its paymasters tried to bury but that rose to become of one the cult films of the 1980s. Best goddamn car in the yard. Abso-bloody-lutely.

sound and vision

Wow. OK, it's easy to forget that while Repo Man is every inch an American indie feature in its content, tone and sensibility, it was part-funded with studio money. And though we tend to associate such offbeat works with a low-budget aesthetic, it's also worth remembering that this particular film was shot by Wim Wenders regular Robby Müller on 35mm Technicolor stock in the California sunshine. But even with that in mind, I wasn't ready for just how good the film would look here. This is a glorious transfer that boasts a spankingly impressive level of detail that absolutely wipes the floor with any previous DVD release, beautiful rendition of the warm colour scheme (and what a pleasure it is to watch a film whose colour has not been pissed about with in digital post-production) and a contrast range that's as close to perfect as you could seriously hope for. Even at night the picture holds his integrity, with no serious increase in grain of loss of contrast. Some film grain is evident, but since this is part of the photochemical process, the sharper your transfer the more visible it will be.

The original mono soundtrack has been reproduced here as an uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track, and it's in blisteringly good shape, having the clarity, range and low frequency kick of a good many more recent surround mixes. The music and sound effects are particularly impressive, something even more evident in a separate music and effects only track, which is also DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. I'll confess to not really getting the appeal of such tracks, for while it's always good to hear the music uninterrupted by words and enjoy the crackle of a burning brazier fire, when they're as married to the visuals as they are here absence of dialogue feels like a key ingredient is missing. But it's there if you want it and the quality is once again high.

extra features

Commentary
Writer and director Alex Cox, executive producer (and former Monkees guitarist) Michael Nesmith, casting director Victoria Thomas and actors Sy Richardson, Zander Scloss and Del Zamora provide a lively and largely scene-specific commentary, with plenty of asides involving recollections of how the project came together and discussions on the funding, research, casting, the shoot itself, the alternative endings, and a lot more. They're clearly all good friends and just occasionally stop commenting on the film to watch and laugh at it, a practice that's cut short when Cox observes how redundant this might be for anyone listening in. This is actually a port over from the US Special Edition DVD released back in 2000 by Anchor Bay, but I'm not complaining. An excellent extra.

Alex Cox introduction (10.35)
An even more mannered and carefully spoken than usual Cox, framed for some reason in a monochrome strip in an otherwise colour screen, looks back at how Universal helped fund and then later crapped on the film, and how strong sales of the soundtrack album prompted a quick about-turn on their part. According to Cox, the studio now even claims to have ownership of the word 'Repo', as he discovered when he completed his 2009 Repo Chick.

TV Version (1:36:34)
Flip you, melon farmer! A version for prepared for American television by Cox and regular collaborator Dick Rude in which anything involving drugs or offensive gestures has been removed and swear words slickly replaced by the likes of "flip" for "fuck", "hokum" for "bullshit", and the ever-popular "melon farmer" for "motherfucker". At its most frantic (the storm drain confrontation with the Rodriguez brothers is a good example) I was irresistibly reminded of the Harry Enfield sketch in which Martin Scorsese's 'Badfellas' has been "specially ruined for television."* But quite of bit of deleted material has also been restored, which adds a couple of enjoyable scenes (an angry Bud taking a sledgehammer to a public telephone; the po-faced hoodwinking of a man whose daughter's car is being repossessed) and intriguingly extends others. The Maysles Brothers' Salesman is subtly referenced when Agent Rogersz takes a call from "The Gipper", and there's more stuff involving J. Frank Parnell, which is always a good thing. What seems to have escaped the attention of presumably cloth-eared TV execs is that Otto's advice to Kevin to "drop dead you fuckin' jerk" after their perusal of job ads has been left unmolested. The framing is the then TV standard of 1.33:1 and looks to be open matte rather than cropped at the sides. The transfer itself has been sourced from a DigiBeta tape master and though OK quality, it really shows how good the main feature looks.

Repossessed (25:27)
An engaging three-way conversation between writer-director Cox and producers Peter McCarthy and Jonathan Wacks that covers similar ground to the commentary and Cox's introduction, but with different emphasis and detail. All three recall the problems of getting the film off the ground, and a sound reason is provided for the use of generic products (which I always assumed was a planned gag). The influence on Napoleon Dynamite is briefly mentioned, and Cox suggests he wanted the film to look like a colour version of Kiss Me Deadly, a film whose influence can still be felt in the deadly glow in the Malibu's trunk. The chat is peppered with extracts from the film.

The Missing Scenes (25:05)
If watching the TV version right through is too much to handle then worry not, as all of its restored material and more is also present here. But rather than just edit the scenes together, Cox sits down to watch them with an ageing Sam Cohen, inventor of the neutron bomb and a big fan of the film (he's also real fond of Dr. Strangelove, as it happens), also discussing others with executive producer Michael Nesmith and engaging in some not-so-funny play-acting with an in-character Fox Harris as J. Frank Parnell. It all gets a bit creepy when Cohen justifies the neutron bomb by stating that it adheres to "Christian just war principles" (oxymoronic, surely?), but the deleted material itself is well worth a watch.

Harry Zen Stanton (21:18)
The lovely Harry Dean Stanton is interviewed in what we can presume is his own living room and proves an enigmatic if not fully cooperative interviewee. He's a little evasive when discussing his film work, though probably because he's been asked some of these questions a good many times before, and is a little more talkative about his philosophical beliefs (which he expresses then denies having), particularly the concept of the Noosphere** and his belief in pre-destiny. He even sings a round of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" with the unnamed interviewer.

Original Theatrical Trailer (1:44)
An attempt to sell the film as a wacky comedy. Hmm. The vaporising of the highway patrolman has a different special effect here.

Booklet
Oh joy. We're used to the booklets that accompany Masters of Cinema releases being of the highest order, but this is like no literary DVD accompaniment I've ever seen. It joyously relates the film's journey from cartoon strip to Hollywood production as a personal journal, using sketches, speech bubbles, description boxes, throwaway comments, and pages from the original cartoon strip, all hand-drawn by Alex Cox. Also included are full page scans of the original proposal, including a detailed budget breakdown for those looking to make their own low-budget feature. It may not be as packed with information and analysis as many other MoC booklets, but this is still a wonderful thing to behold and own. More than anything here, this makes this Blu-ray feel like the definitive home video release of the film.

summary

Oh what are you waiting for? Go buy this disc. You don't have a Blu-ray player? Go buy one of those so you can play this disc. If you can afford it then get the steelbook edition. There's nothing more on it but it looks the business. Being quirky cult cinema (and allowing for natural variances in taste) it will have its detractors, those who try to tell you that it is a third rate film trying too hard for cult status, which as far as I'm concerned is complete and utter bollocks. Repo Man is the real deal, a uniquely genre-melding one-off whose cult following has grown from the quality of Cox's writing and direction, some terrific performances, Müller's handsome cinematography, Dennis Dolan's sharp editing, and because it's funny, enthralling, and effortlessly cool. For fans of the film, this Masters of Cinema Blu-ray is a dream come true, and then some. Enthusiastically recommended.

 


* You can watch the sketch here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WmRTUNh1vPo

** You'll find more on that here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noosphere

Repo Man

USA 1984
92 mins
director
Alex Cox
producers
Peter McCarthy
Jonathan Wacks
screenplay
Alex Cox
cinematography
Robby Müller
editing
Dennis Dolan
music
Steven Hufsteter
Tito Larriva
art direction
Lynda Burbank
J. Rae Fox
starring
Harry Dean Stanton
Emilio Estevez
Tracey Walter
Olivia Barash
Sy Richardson
Susan Barnes
Fox Harris
Tom Finnegan
Del Zamora
Eddie Velez
Zander Schloss
Jennifer Balgobin
Dick Rude
Miguel Sandoval
Vonetta McGee
Richard Foronjy

disc details
region code unspecified
video
1.85:1
sound
DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono
languages
English / Spanish
subtitles
English for the hearing impaired
extras
Cast and crew commentary
Alex Cox introduction
TV version of the film
Music and effects track
Director and producer discussion
Deleted scenes
Harry Dean Stanton interview
Trailer
Booklet
distributor
Eureka: Masters of Cinema
release date
20 February 2012
review posted
19 February 2012

related review
Revenger's Tragedy

See all of Slarek's reviews