Capitalism’s Self-Corrections: ‘Repo Man’

“This city’s killing me,

I want, I want everything.

This city’s killing me—

In the heat of Los Angeles”

— Sugarcult, “Los Angeles”

Few cities are as ubiquitous in American storytelling as Los Angeles. As the city perpetually evolves and morphs into a gargantuan metropolis that continually incorporates more and more surrounding communities, the stories that document its sordid tales will likewise change. These include the kaleidoscopic (James Frey’s masterful novel Bright Shiny Morning), the sensational (James Ellroy’s novel L.A. Confidential), to the sympathetic (the music of Warren Zevon), and no matter how cynically, mythically, or sentimentally these works of art depict the city, there’s an undeniable love for it that lies underneath.

A city with as strong a grasp on the artistic mind as Los Angeles has is going to engender a love-hate relationship. Such is the case with the punkish, sci-fi dystopia of Repo Man, Alex Cox’s 1984 cult classic film. It’s the kind of movie that is content to show every ugly aspect of this behemoth of a city—Cox keeps the camera solely fixed on its teeming underworld—while simultaneously finding joy in its dregs. Now released in a sterling Criterion Collection re-issue, Repo Man is a rebellious work that’s as much a love letter to the city of Los Angeles as it is a razor-sharp critique of its excesses.

The events of the film, however, begin not in its seedy underbelly, but instead with the extraterrestrial. J. Frank Parnell (Fox Harris), a nervous, twitchy thing of a man, who drives on the outskirts of the city in an ordinary Chevy Malibu—or so it seems. As he swerves wildly around the empty road, a police officer pulls him over, asking him to open his trunk. The officer, not sure how to read Parnell’s mannerisms, opens the trunk for himself, upon which he is promptly vaporized. Parnell drives away, no worse for the wear.

Cut then to Otto (Emilio Estevez), a disinterested yet rebellious young man who is bored by his rote job at a grocery store. The products that line the shelves are all standardized—any beer drunk in this movie simply reads “Beer” on the can, and at one point Otto eats from a can labeled “Food”—and though the work is simple, he hates it passionately. In a fit he curses his boss, throws a fellow employee into a stack of cans, and leaves. Ennui unfortunately does not escape him, though, as his arrival home reminds him of the state of his vegetable-like parents, who are entranced by a fire-and-brimstone televangelist that they have given almost all of their money to. Otto is a punk in a world of stasis.

The next day, he’s called to as he walks along the street by a (self-professedly) square man named Bud (Harry Dean Stanton). “Wanna make ten bucks?” he asks him. Otto at first stares off into the distance, not really paying attention—his default pose—but after some haggling, he helps Bud out. As it turns out, however, Bud is not just an average joe looking for help from a street-rat; he’s a repo man who collects cars from unpaid debtors for a living. Though initially repulsed by Bud’s line of work (which has the “official” company name of “Helping Hands Acceptance Corporation”), Otto becomes entranced by the mysterious world of repossession, eventually agreeing to offer his “Helping Hands” to those reneging on their debts.

From that point on, Otto is drawn into a bizarre lifestyle, one where a bounty on a particular Chevy Malibu—as well as its elusive contents—can lead to a massive extra-terrestrial discovery. (Suffice it to say that to go any more in-depth with the plot would remove much of the film’s mystique.)

Repo Man is perhaps most well known for its ‘80s punk and hardcore extravaganza of a soundtrack, fronted by names as big as Iggy Pop and the Circle Jerks, the latter of whom feature in an amusing cameo as an acoustic nightclub band. Yet for as much of a “punk film” as Repo Man is, the message it sends about Reagan-era capitalism is one that is surprisingly un-punk. “They ain’t scumbags,” Lite (Sy Richardson) tells Otto after a nasty encounter he and Bud have with the Rodriguez Brothers, a rival of the Helping Hands. “They’re car thieves, just like us.”

Ostensibly, the repo man—for all the negative connotations his job title sends off—is just doing what’s fair. If someone doesn’t pay up, he ought to have to throw in some collateral, even if he doesn’t choose to do so. But as Lite points out, the repo man just picks up where the dog-eat-dog exchanges of capitalism leave off. Some of the funniest scenes in Repo Man involve liquor store hold-ups by masked gunmen, which are then followed by Otto and one of the Helping Hands crew walking into the store to purchase something. Two sides, one coin. At their core, Otto’s attempts to rail against “the system” themselves correct for the system’s own failures.

This mentality is an unsurprising one to espouse given the presidency of the time. Reagan’s legacy is a controversial one, but one thing he instilled in the public mind is a sense of self-reliance, a non-hipster DIY attitude that necessitates capitalism as its metanarrative. This, of course, means that when a person fails to line the pockets of the creditor, no sympathy is given: it’s pay up or die.

Indeed, throughout Repo Man, Bud tosses out some very Reagan-esque quips, a sign that even those most disenfranchised by the system are still enraptured with its give-and-take.This Sisyphean cycle casts a light upon the punk spirit that’s both romantic and jaded. The city of Los Angeles is a perfect setting for Cox’s bleak narrative; the endlessly growing street network, lined block-to-block by business, surround Otto and his not-so-merry band of repossessors, perpetually reminding them that they’ll never need to fear: there will always be people forced into debt. There will always be table scraps for the picking.

To appraise Milton Friedman’s famed quotation, “We’re all capitalists now.” Even the punks.

With past issues like The Blob, the Criterion label has shown immense love for the cult classic film, a fact amply demonstrated by the incredible packaging treatment Repo Man has received. The cover art — a reappraised version of a King Archie concert poster with a map of Los Angeles superimposed over the skull—is a tiny hint at the comic book-inspired art within the packaging of the DVD itself, including a thorough booklet containing an essay by the film critic Sam McPheeters, a collection of production notes by Cox, and a rather insightful interview with a real-life repo man, conducted by Cox himself.

No expense was spared in the bonus features on the discs either, with extensive commentaries, interviews (both new and old), and deleted scenes providing a great deal to get invested in. Also, perhaps just to humor those still reeling from the “monkey-fighting snakes on this Monday-to-Friday plane” TV censor incident, the “cleaned-up” version of the movie is included, with phrases like “melon farmer” replacing the less-than-decent insults of these Angelinos.

RATING 7 / 10