Repo Man Forum: punk, consumerism, identity, and L.A.

Keith: Repo Man is a punk movie: It’s set in the middle of the L.A. punk scene of the 1980s, and it features punk music and characters who profess to be, and dress the part of, punks. But it’s also about the punk ethos, and it questions whether there really is a punk ethos by showing character after character falling short of it, just as they violate the Repo Code that Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) lays out. Repo Man is deeply concerned with selling out—and in this film, everyone sells out. Often cheaply and easily. The disgust Otto (Emilio Estevez) expresses at the thought of working as a repo man disappears when he’s handed a stack of bills for his efforts. His appearance gets a little more conservative with each subsequent scene. He’s still punk enough, at least in his mind, to get turned off when the Circle Jerks show up to do an easy-on-the-ears version of “When The Shit Hits The Fan,” but not self-conscious enough to recognize they’re both working for The Man now.
Then again, who isn’t? In one early scene, Otto wanders through a group of L.A. punks. Though they’re in what appears to be the heart of the punk scene, they just look like a bunch of knuckleheads acting aggressively without any cause. One wears a Sid Vicious T-shirt, a perfect example of how, to paraphrase the Clash, rebellion gets turned into money. (Director Alex Cox went on to co-write and direct the Vicious biopic Sid And Nancy.) Otto’s friends turn to crime driven by greed: They have the look, but they’re closer to the “punk” criminals who terrorize city streets in cheap movies and beat ’em up videogamesthan those drawn to the scene out of a love for its music or professed politics. Does punk mean anything to them? When Otto loses his girlfriend and wanders the streets in dejection, he recites the words to Black Flag’s “TV Party” as mindlessly as his friend spouts the 7-Up jingle in an earlier scene. The movie doesn’t necessarily answer the question, but continually questioning what punk means makes it feel pretty punk to me.
Tasha: There’s so much amused contempt in Otto’s voice when Duke—the leader of those criminal friends—tries to blame his life of “doing crimes” on society, and Otto calls him on it: “That’s bullshit. You’re a white suburban punk, just like me.” Just being from the same scene, Otto is pointing out, didn’t lead them in the same direction. But Otto sold out harder, whereas with Duke and his friends, their posturing, their increasingly extreme dress throughout the film, and their apparent delight in mayhem makes me think you’re selling them short when you say they’re motivated by greed, Keith. I think they’re more motivated by their own ideals of punk as something outside, and therefore above, society. When Duke falls back on dine-and-ditch sushi as a criminal strike against The Man, it suggests that he really is too suburban to be the hardcore punk he wants to be, but he does have an image he’s trying to live up to, even if it is cartoony and as shallow as Otto’s convictions.
Nathan: Within the context of Repo Man and elsewhere, punk is a sensibility, an attitude, a musical genre, a scene, and a subculture, but it’s also fundamentally a tribe that gives the film’s directionless protagonist an initial sense of identity. In some ways, though, the repo men are more punk than Otto’s old friends will ever be. They’re outlaws who break into cars, take too much speed, inhabit a shadowy underworld unknown to straight society, and as Bud boasts in one of his big speeches, rush into the kind of tense conflicts civilians spend their lives avoiding. Yet at the same time, they’re outlaws for The Man, capitalism-enforcers who make money by making life harder for the desperate, poor, and strapped. Beneath their swagger, they’re cogs in a giant capitalist machine.
Keith: One of the most striking features of Repo Man is the way it uses generic packaging for its consumer items. In the opening scene, Otto stocks items in a grocery store filled with blue-and-white cans and boxes labeled only “yellow cling sliced peaches” and “corn flakes.” Later, Otto eats from a can labeled “food.” That one was made for the film, but most of the packages, including the cans labeled “beer,” came straight from the California supermarket chain Ralphs. (A couple of years later, Public Image Ltd revived the gag for the 1986 LP known, in various formats, as AlbumCassette, and Compact Disc.) It makes me laugh every time, but the joke serves another purpose: By stripping consumer objects down to their essence, Repo Man foregrounds how much of our surroundings is product. It’s possible to have warm feelings about, say, the Snuggle Bear, but a bottle reading simply “fabric softener” is another story. It made me think about how much the film is about packaging and selling happiness, whether it’s the cars consumers are losing because they couldn’t make the payments, the televangelist who takes Otto’s parents for their money, or the Scientology-inspired tomeDioretix. Cox is at heart a smash-the-system type, so it’s no coincidence that the televangelists at least are in league with the government agents trying to reclaim the Chevy Malibu. It’s all part of the same system of control.
Tasha: Alex Cox has often said he used those products because he got them free, but it’s still so easy to read a larger message into how they’re foregrounded throughout the film. It reads as rebellious compared to modern films’ product placement and brand saturation. None of the characters are trying to create an image by using a specific product, or associating what they eat or drink or use with a lifestyle they want. Did anyone else get a sense that everyone using the same unlabeled products tends to highlight the lack of class distinction or identity distinction between, for instance, Otto and the repo men he’s looking to for a new identity?
Noel: It doesn’t just level out the class distinctions, Tasha; it also obliterates much of the sense of ownership that comes with purchasing a specific brand. And given that this is a movie about people who ride around and take back other people’s cars, ownership is a major driver ofRepo Man’s plot and theme. The characters differentiate themselves by what they wear, drive, and listen to, but the beer and corn flakes? Those are practically communal. “Let’s go get sushi and not pay” is one of the movie’s funniest and most-quoted lines, but without getting too pretentious about it, it’s also a joke about people choosing to help themselves to something a little fancier than generic peaches.
Matt: The generic packaging looks particularly striking when viewed alongside this summer’s crop of blockbusters and their grossly excessive product placement, from Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson playing sidekicks to Google in The Internship to Superman fighting for truth, justice, and IHOP’s Rooty Tooty Fresh ’N Fruity Breakfast in Man Of Steel. In that context, “food,” “drink,” and the rest feel like a sharp jab at the future of brand integration, which had just begun to pick up steam in the wake of E.T. and his unquenchable thirst for Reese’s Pieces. As Tasha notes, the decision to use generic packaging was born of economic necessity, but it also functions as a defiant rebuke to the early days of product placement—a very punk gesture, indeed.
Nathan: Product placement is all about creating favorable distinctions between products that are pretty much the same. But the emphasis on making everything generic in Repo Man makes all products seem equally shitty and flawed, just as the film reveals pretty much all belief systems and subcultures to be shitty and flawed, so there’s a furtive philosophical component to this running gag as well.
Tasha: A good half of Repo Man is devoted to aimless, Richard Linklater-esque conversations that feel like woozy middle-of-the-night philosophizing, even when the scenes take place in broad daylight. And they’re all about self-identification—particularly, where the repo men are concerned, about the meaning of macho. All the guys have their own personal versions of manliness, from Bud with his “dress like a detective” advice and his “Repo Code” (a silly reworking of Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws Of Robotics) to Lite (Sy Richardson), who fearlessly responds to gunfire by whipping out his own gun and acting like a bulletproof hero in a gritty blaxploitation movie. Everyone has lectures and lessons for Otto, and he sucks these lessons up like a sponge. “This is intense!” he gasps early on to Bud, who tells him the life of a repo man is always intense—and the movie ends by calling back to it. He also sneers that he’s seen men stabbed, he’s confronted people with guns, and it “doesn’t mean shit,” and that he hates “ordinary fucking people,” whom he considers himself above. That’s what Otto wants, and why he’s so quick to sell out to the repo crew even after telling them off: They self-identify as a bunch of elite outlaws who live a manly life of adventure, and he wants in.
One of the funniest things about Repo Man, though, is the way their reality doesn’t live up to their posturing. They’re all a bunch of poor, badly dressed schlubs making a living by sneaking around and boosting people’s unpaid cars, then boasting about it to make themselves feel important. But the film is still, on a petty level, a voyage of macho self-discovery for Otto. He starts the film cuckolded and embarrassed, as his girlfriend orders him to fetch beer, then gets naked with another guy as soon as he leaves the room; he ends it by telling his latest girlfriend to fuck off when she whines about their relationship. It’s a small, petty victory, but he’s at least learned the 1980s scrub version of self-respect and outlaw identity.
Noel: “Ordinary fuckin’ people, I hate ’em.” Tasha, you’ve just cited the one line from Repo Man that I quote more than any other—usually as a half-joking punctuation to some rant about an annoying encounter I had in a checkout line, or in traffic. That line is central to Repo Man’s pull, because it gets at why Otto’s drawn into this world. There’s an inherent appeal to secret knowledge, especially when delivered by a dude brimming with quiet self-confidence. Otto wants into that club, because he wants to know what its members know. But he also doesn’t want to be lumped in with the idiots Bud loathes, those dweebs with unexamined lives. Tasha, you say it’s funny how Otto’s idols are pathetic; for me, it’s even funnier that Otto never fully wins them over. They accept him into the fold and tell him what they know, but I’m not so sure they wouldn’t have done the same for Kevin or Duke or Archie. They’re self-mythologizing; they crave an audience more than a legacy.
Nathan: A lot of Otto’s search for identity is endemic to being a teenager, and consequently being a blank slate for other people to imprint. It’s telling that Emilio Estevez’s next big role was as a jock inThe Breakfast Club, which explores the concept of adolescent tribes from a much different, more mainstream, less angry perspective. In his youth, Estevez was a beautiful blank: Give him an earring and a sneer and he’s a punk; put him in wrestling garb and he’s a jock. Repo Man has such a presence in the culture that it felt like a career-defining role for Estevez, but it’s wasn’t, maybe because he’s so consistently, deliberately overshadowed by everything around him, especially Stanton and Tracey Walter, who plays Miller. Ultimately, Otto is just seeking a surrogate family, because his own family are zonked-out sheep who ceded their free will, agency, and money to a televangelist and the TV. 
One of the film’s key moments in exploring identity comes when Miller says John Wayne was a “fag”—or at least a transvestite, based on his own personal interaction with the man—and the other repo men are enraged. For all their macho swagger, they’re so insecure that they see an attack on his heterosexuality as an attack on their own fragile masculinity. They’re playing at being badasses, but in the end, they’re all pretenders.
Noel: Scott’s essay yesterday talked about Repo Man’s depiction of Los Angeles as a vast underclass wasteland. That drew me to the movie the first time I saw it, as a Nashville teen who’d never been to L.A. but enjoyed seeing it savaged, since it made me feel like I wasn’t missing anything. I’ve actually still never been to Los Angeles, though I went to San Diego for the first time last year and was impressed by how much of that stretch of Southern California looks like a movie: gorgeous scenery broken up by the kind of seedy motels where fugitive gun molls stay, and divided by deep ravines that look perfect for hiding bodies. This pivots some off the “punk” discussion, but part of what made the Los Angeles wing of American hardcore so potent was that it was a rejection of the “sun, sand, surf” image of L.A. that the 1960s rockers sold, and that the 1970s soft-rockers also traded on. In the punk scene, Los Angeles was dangerously empty, an arena for decadence and violence. Repo Manplays up that generational divide, suggesting that the beach-party L.A. had long since been vacated, left to the ravaging hordes.
Keith: It’s also notable for the amount of diversity onscreen.  There’ssome ethnic diversity to the punks in Repo Man, but even more on the soundtrack and in the broader cast. This was the look and sound of a different city—the musical landscape of 1970s L.A. was dominated by white folkies and country rockers—one that wasn’t necessarily riding high in the Reagan era, and was okay letting the world know they weren’t so happy about it.
Nathan: For me, much of what makes Repo Man a quintessential Los Angeles movie is its emphasis on cars, highways, and urban sprawl. But this isn’t the breezy, sun-and-fun car culture of the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean. It’s a grubby realm of sweaty men in beat-up cars. It’s another look at the downside of life in sunny but dispiriting Southern California.
Tasha: When this topic was introduced, my first thought was “Wait, it takes place in Los Angeles?” Apart from the map of L.A. on the wall at Repo HQ, I would have guessed Detroit, or even Flint, Michigan. Going back and looking for city signifiers, I didn’t see many—there are distant glimpses of the city lights in a few scenes, but most of the film takes place amid anonymous warehouses, run-down or boarded-up storefronts, and grubby houses. It makes me wonder whether avoiding any of the usual California signifiers, or any early establishing shots, was a budgetary move on Cox’s part, or he was deliberately creating a gray, impoverished landscape as anonymous—and as relatable—as his ultra-generic beer cans and chip bags.
Tasha: One thing we haven’t touched on is Alex Cox’s use of color inRepo Man. It’s a dingy movie much of the time, taking place in a world full of gray and brown buildings and plenty of black and gray tarmac. But so many of the shots still have at least one point of bright, vibrant color. The one that most caught my eye involves Otto and Duke talking in front of a warehouse in the rain, with Otto for some reason wearing a bright purple coolie hat. Often, the bright spots are the cherry-red tail lights of a car, or the gleam of its paint job. There’s almost always something to attract the eyes.
Matt: Noel’s comments about his most quoted Repo Man line—“Ordinary fuckin’ people, I hate ’em”—got me thinking about how many other cult films share that exact sentiment. Many of the greatest cult movies are about outsiders who can’t or won’t conform to society’s norms, including Freaks, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Pink Flamingos, Fight Club, The Warriors, Harold And Maude, Clerks, Office Space, and Donnie Darko, to name just a few of the most immediate, obvious examples. It’s not something I’d ever considered before, but it makes perfect sense that the movies rescued from obscurity by the pop-culture fringes would specifically extol the virtues of a life lived on society’s fringes. Cult movies like Repo Man validate the attitudes of their cults, insisting that ordinary fuckin’ people do suck, and that weirdoes of all shapes and sizes are beautiful. As Nathan notes, the punk-rock scene and later the repo-man life provide Otto with a tribe, a place where he belongs. Repo Man’s cult provided its fans with the exact same thing.
Nathan: Totally. Passionately and publicly embracing cult films are a way for fans to simultaneously join a tribe of like-minded souls and assert their individuality, just like becoming a Deadhead or a Juggalo. Cult-movie lovers are as much of a tribe as punk-rockers, and there’s considerable overlap between the two demographics. 
Rewatching Repo Man, I experienced a sort of double nostalgia for the film’s 1980s Los Angeles and the cinematic era it represents, but also for my own adolescence, when movies like Repo Men were cultural touchstones every alienated, artistically inclined teenager was expected to consume as part of his or her ongoing pop-culture education. This alternate canon of weird cult movies helped define who I was and how I saw the world, even if I was ultimately just trading in one form of conformity for another: Instead of seeing all the big hits and Oscar-anointed middlebrow fare considered important by the culture at large, I was seeing all the movies every cinephile was expected to see, and Repo Man was high on that list. Like many of my peers, I defined myself by seeking out movies about how ordinary people fucking sucked, as opposed to Ordinary People. 
Noel: Alex Cox has made some interesting movies since Repo Man, but none as confident or entertaining. I’m not sure whether Cox just became too overconfident in his ability to throw a bunch of crazy ideas together and turn them into a movie, or whether he ran out of ideas that were crazy enough. Whatever the reason, it’s a damned shame, because I don’t think anyone who fell in love with Repo Man in the 1980s expected that Cox would go on to be a non-factor in the indie-film revolution that followed. In a better world, he’d have been right there with Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch, and the Coen brothers, knocking out one weird classic after another.
Scott: The issue of the aliens and the contents of the trunk is one of the lingering mysteries of Repo Man for me. There’s something here about government secrets, of a nuclear and Area 51 kind, and Cox himself has talked about the film as being concerned with nuclear disaster, which would bring it closer to Kiss Me Deadly, a noir that suggests the apocalypse as Pandora’s Box. But the connections between Otto’s part of the story and the nuclear scientist’s part of the story are enigmatic, perhaps deliberately. It seems to be the license of self-styled cult movies like Repo Man to allow their eccentricities to linger, and I guess I’ll have to be comfortable resigning myself to the fact that I can’t put all the pieces together. 
Tasha: As the film’s resident philosopher-wacko says at one point, in talking about coincidental connections, “No explanation. No point in lookin’ for one, either. It’s all part of a cosmic unconsciousness.” This bit of don’t-ask-don’t-tell theater is reminiscent of the “Movies don’t make sense!” opening to Quentin Dupieux’s Rubber: It’s a direct warning that viewers shouldn’t expect all the pieces to come together neatly. It’s unclear how the alien corpses got into in J. Frank Parnell’s trunk, or what he’s planning on doing with them. All we know is that this kind of thing happens to repo men all the time, because that’s the intense kind of life they lead.
Our Movie Of The Week discussion began yesterday with the keynote essay on Repo Man’s ideas, and continues tomorrow with Noel Murray on the lure and lessons of Repo Man’s soundtrack.


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