The Thin Blue Line: A Radical Classic By Charles Musser
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Repo Man, released in early 1984, was the first feature film by a twenty- nine-year-old British UCLA film school graduate named Alex Cox. Even now, the film’s existence seems implausible. It is an apocalypse tale with no doomsday, a punk movie with no concert, a science fiction story with less than ten seconds of aliens. Most of its now classic music was on the far, far edge of American society in 1984. It mines a world of drugs, crime, and capitalist peril for absurdist yuks (when Cox showed the film to his contacts in the real world of Los Angeles auto repossession, they found it to be a diluted version of their much more terrifying jobs). The project, originally envisioned at one-tenth of its final budget, was picked up by Universal Studios. That backing launched the green director into the unfamiliar universe of teamsters and lawyers and the watchful eyes of a studio that could smoosh the project with one phone call.
How a major studio allowed such a vehemently odd movie to exist really is a mystery. Its outlandishness isn’t forced; it’s forceful. This is a film that expands a singular style of humor into an entire worldview, a physics as vast as the Force in Star Wars. But part of the mystery is also that Cox could gather so much talent in one place. Granted full autonomy in his casting, he somehow assembled a flawless ensemble. Emilio Estevez’s Otto is a pitch-perfect mix of blank ambition and obliviousness. Matching this is the world-weary exhaustion—dubbed “the Old West/cadaver look” by a friend of Cox’s—of Harry Dean Stanton’s Bud. Otto is a baby-faced punker initiated into a secretive trade by Bud, who listens to obsolete music, dresses square, and dreams small. Their worldviews collide in the new terrain of early eighties America, an era of subtle but rapid change from the Me Decade to the Greed Decade.
The casting is so impeccable that it is hard to ponder the film in any of its almost-were incarnations. Dick Rude, so brilliant as the steely-eyed ex-con Duke, was originally slated for Otto. Lance Henriksen auditioned for the role of the fictitious neutron bomb inventor J. Frank Parnell, ultimately played with leering gusto by Fox Harris. Bud was nearly portrayed by Dennis Hopper (Stanton’s own agent had, inexplicably, pushed for Mick Jagger). Most difficult to contemplate differently is the role of Otto’s hapless pal Kevin, portrayed with such geeky authenticity by the newcomer Zander Schloss; those scenes were reshot after Chris Penn tried the role as a teen- comedy goofball.
Universal treated the completed Repo Man with puzzled indifference, pulling the film from theaters after one week of underperformance in February 1984. For most movies, that would have been that. Fortunately, MCA Records had made a deal to release the soundtrack on its new, “edgy” subsidiary, San Andreas Records. Opening with Iggy Pop’s glorious theme song (with backing by the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones and two members of Blondie), the album is a masterful mix of essential L.A. hardcore and the spooky Chicano- surf scoring of the Plugz. Six months after the film’s ignominious opening, its soundtrack sales topped fifty thousand. Universal reassessed its property, and the film was relaunched to critical acclaim and (modest) commercial success.
Repo Man thrived largely because of its music. The soundtrack not only resurrected the theatrical run, it also stoked interest in the video release. The film had the wonderful serendipity to enter the VHS market during the golden age of video stores. In the mideighties, “cult film” was both an aesthetic and a status facilitated by scarcity. Video connoisseurs of the pre-Internet world foraged through shelves and bins, propelled by word of mouth and employee picks. Even if you managed to catch the infamously edited television version of Repo Man (with “flip you” and “melon farmer” dubbed over saltier insults), you would have had to own a VCR to share the experience with friends. The film bloomed as a phenomenon not just because it had to be sought out but because it delivered on expectations when finally found.
Musically as well, it’s hard to think of another nondocumentary film with the preposterously marvelous timing of Repo Man—Cox had the most vibrant and diverse punk scene in America to work with. And certainly no other film used such good fortune to such novel effect. Consider the cameo by the Circle Jerks. That scene shows one of the mightiest lineups in the first wave of American hardcore—Keith Morris, Greg Hetson, Earl Liberty of Saccharine Trust, and the celebrated drummer Chuck Biscuits—in that incarnation of the band’s only recorded performance, as a drum-machine-backed lounge act. '
Over the years, Cox has downplayed his involvement in the punk world, yet he was familiar enough with the early Los Angeles hardcore scene to place Otto among the ranks of aimless suburban punks from Huntington Beach. And the four repo men of the Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation may have been named after beers, but their characters were loosely based on the members of the band Fear, who had also been considered as actors and/ or composers. In the early eighties, punks weren’t rarities in Hollywood films (Estevez’s previous one, 1983’s Nightmares, had him playing a rebellious fan of Fear and Black Flag), but their portrayals were almost always caricatures. In Repo Man, Archie, Debbi, and Duke are caricatures of caricatures, meant to be laughed with, not at. No other film paid punks this much goofy regard.
In that sense, Penelope Spheeris’s Suburbia (1983) presents a perfect counterpoint to Repo Man. In that film, we see the same city in the same year, the same punks,the same freeways and well-armed citizenry and flashes of first-term Reagan on television sets. But Suburbia’s version of Los Angeles is a zero-opportunity wasteland plagued by poverty and danger. In contrast, Repo Man, despite its darkness, presents a world brimming with professional possibilities. Kevin’s quip that there’s “room to move as a fry cook” is pitiful, but it’s also more of an opportunity than is offered to most punks in eighties films. Even for criminals and countercultural misfits, the world of Repo Man is one of elbow grease and upward mobility.
It’s an odd irony that the film’s punk cachet masks its merit as an eye-level snapshot of Los Angeles. The Bunker Hill neighborhood had already been obliterated by 1983, but its sleek skyscraper replacements— corporate headstones—were still works in progress. The iconic U.S. Bank Tower, 777 Tower, and Two California Plaza, customary establishing shots in modern L.A. films, are all conspicuously absent from the skyline. Instead, Repo Man, shot in downtown, East L.A., San Pedro, Vernon, and Watts, shows Los Angeles almost entirely from its less glamorous side. As casting director Victoria Thomas has said, “You’d think that L.A. didn’t exist west of Broadway.”
Besides a few brief desert scenes, the film makes only one foray outside the great sprawl of urban Los Angeles, and then only into the even greater sprawl of suburban Los Angeles. When Otto gets off the Edge City bus, he finds his parents at home, stalled halfway through their transformation into pod people. His mom informs him, while sparking up a joint, that they’ve spent their money sending Bibles to El Salvador. It’s a perfect mix of the religious and political crosscurrents buffeting Southern California at that time: cult meets megachurch, hippie melts into conservative (later, the film makes almost definitely the earliest Dianetics jokes in cinema history).
Like Billy Wilder and so many others, Cox saw Los Angeles through the eyes of a foreigner. Perhaps this perspective helped him gauge the weight of the city’s car culture. There is a boxy, sinister element to all the key autos: Bud’s Chevy Impala, Otto’s heisted AMC Matador, the Chevy Malibu that really did get stolen during filming. Actors auditioned in cars. The film’s only glamorous ride, the Rodriguez brothers’ 1964 Ford Falcon convertible, felt the wrath of Stanton’s baseball bat— during an on-set argument over his right to wield a real baseball bat in place of a prop one. And as a car film, Repo Man faithfully captures the terrors of its era. In Grease—a movie with a similar magic-chariot finale— the paved L.A. River is a private racetrack for gleaming hot rods. Here, it’s Bud’s doomsday escape route.
The original drafts of the Repo Man screenplay actually did end with atomic annihilation. Even with the sunnier conclusion that the film wound up with, it still fits snugly in the roster of politicized 1980s American sci-fi. Most science fiction made under Reagan—from the low-budget The Brother from Another Planet to Escape from New York, Robocop, They Live (a Cox favorite), and even the blockbuster bluster of The Terminator—couldn’t avoid engaging with political issues, providing the same kind of canvas for social commentary once offered by westerns. Nuclear apocalypse loomed, and Reaganomics turned downtowns into dystopian Bantustans; reality was rapidly catching up with fantasy. In this context, some of Cox’s gags have a deeper meaning. Repo Man’s streets aren’t just stages for comedic weirdness; they’re also part Calcutta, zones where a dead body can be left on a bench or a sidewalk without repercussion.
Some of the film’s oddness is borrowed. The smoldering boots of the patrolman were lifted from executive producer and ex-Monkee Michael Nesmith’s previous production, Timerider (1982). Cox’s student film Edge City (1980) first used the wonderful background burble of radio and television commentary. The Pik ’n Pay generic foods scattered throughout, Repo Man’s most enduring and original gag, were real, having been donated by Ralphs supermarket (only three generic products—“Food,” “Drink,” and “Butyl Nitrate”—had to be made as props). And Cox pays homage to the hissing “great whatsit” of 1955’s apocalyptic noir Kiss Me Deadly with his own glowing trunk MacGuffin.
Repo Man has another link with Kiss Me Deadly. That film’s protagonist, detective Mike Hammer, is a brutal, misogynist lunk with no patience for other humans. Otto shares this misanthropy, floating through the story as an upwardly mobile cipher, mimicking empathy when convenient, never rising to true brutality only because it would require too much effort. He’s not an antihero, just a beautiful jerk. As Cox has pointed out, Repo Man’s central character is a punk assimilated by a reactionary business with nearly zero resistance. All he has to do is swap his Suicidal Tendencies shirt for a suit and tie. He even gets to keep his haircut.
Otto’s lack of a center is compensated for by the film’s dual philosophical cores. Bud’s Repo Code, delivered to his protégé over lines of speed, spells out the profession’s internalized honor (in sharp distinction to the absurd, top-down rules of Otto’s supermarket career). Later, the repo man Miller explains to Otto that the world is overlaid with “a lattice of coincidence.” The first philosophy harks back to a lost chivalry that may never have existed in the first place. The second defines the physical laws that govern the universe.
Cox made three more films in the eighties, expanding facets of his debut feature and creating his own de facto repertory company. Sid & Nancy (1986) continued the punk trajectory in a (mostly) dramatic direction. Straight to Hell (1987) inverted this format by using punks, including members of the Circle Jerks and the Clash, as actors, drawing out the gloopy spaghetti western violence of Repo Man’s main firefight. Walker, shot in the summer of 1987, is Cox’s most overtly political work, a pointed satire that, along with such contemporaries of its as Missing, Romero, and Salvador, dared to depict the Grand Guignol of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. Walker suffered the same release fate as Repo Man, but without the lifeline of a hit soundtrack.
Repo Man would be a hard debut for any director to outshine. It’s a film with nearly zero body fat, in a league with Star Wars or the Monty Python movies in its abundance of quotable lines. Its countless little extras—Miller’s shaman dance, the clucking agents, the ubiquitous (and sponsored) air fresheners—reward repeat viewings.
I was lucky enough to see Repo Man in its first theatrical run. I was fifteen and just attempting the jump from the illicit grubbiness of sci-fi fandom to the illicit prestige of hardcore punk. The movie seemed perfectly targeted to my demographic. I remember my shock that someone in a position of any authority knew enough about this subculture to make such an uncondescending film, one that so gracefully captured the scene’s fluid silliness. The moment when the sheet is removed from Kevin in the hospital scene was a revelation; I simply didn’t know movies could work like that. Of course, I still don’t.
It’s been nearly three decades now, and I’m still waiting for the world to produce another Repo Man. Its legacy and influence are so diffuse and varied that they register as background noise, leaving it to stand not just as a great work of cinema but as a challenge. Why can’t more films be like this?
Sam McPheeters is the author of The Loom of Ruin. He lives in Pomona, California.