“Repo Man” (1984) seeks faith

9 August 2010

So I recently went on a little sentimental journey through my favorite cult film of my teen years, which I believe exemplifies its historical moment much better than all that John Hughes/Brat Pack pablum.  For all its great elements (the first awesome compilation soundtrack in film history that wasn’t 1950s/60s nostalgia, all those scenes of a lonely and crappy LA, eminently quotable lines throughout, those ugly and ungainly big American cars, Emilio Estevez at his most stupidly disaffected, that early shot of teenagers slamdancing — all of which would make for a pretty good film alone), I realized this time that its most trenchant satire is leveled at the scattershot quest for faith during the bitterest part of the Reagan years.  The whack-tastic script ricochets off every form of mysticism, faith, personal philosophy, and hucksterism it can find, and then farts on them.  It’s terrific.

No wonder we were willing to believe Ronald Reagan; hell, we pretty much believed everything in 1984.  Televangelism, Native American mysticism, aliens, Jungian synchronicity, the SoCal cult of the car, suburban punk rebellion, drugs, the ethic of hard work … Estevez’s Otto has those huge eyes and mouth-breathing stupor because he is us.  The film’s writer-director, Alex Cox, stabs a knife through the heart of every single one of these faiths; no wonder my Generation X was so uninspired for so long, so willing to opt for cynicism.  The ubiquitous televangelist Reverend Larry speaks to Otto’s stoned parents to say,  “Occasionally a viewer writes to us, ‘The only reason Reverend Larry is on TV is because he wants your money.’  You know what?  They’re right.  I do want your money, because God wants your money.”  Other characters reverently pass one another copies of the Scientology-like volume Dioretix: The Science of Matter over Mind, while Otto’s new repo men friends, Bud, Lite, and Miller (!), take turns telling him their raisons d’être.  Lite (Sy Richardson, my favorite, as he has his own song on the soundtrack) explains, “I don’t want no Commies in my car.  No Christians, either,” while Miller indulges in more mystical beliefs:

Miller, stonefaced:  “A lot o’ people don’t realize what’s really going on.  They view life as a bunch o’ unconnected incidents ‘n things.  They don’t realize that there’s this, like, lattice o’ coincidence that lays on top o’ everything.  Give you an example, show you what I mean:  suppose you’re thinkin’ about a plate o’ shrimp.  Suddenly someone’ll say, like, plate, or shrimp, or plate o’ shrimp out of the blue, no explanation.  No point in lookin’ for one, either.  It’s all part of a cosmic unconciousness.”
Otto, straightfaced:  “You eat a lot of acid, Miller, back in the hippie days?”

Not that becoming a rebel was any use, either.  When one suburban punk says to the other, “C’mon, Duke, let’s go do some crimes,” he responds, “Yeah, let’s go get sushi and not pay.”  And shortly thereafter, as Duke is dying from a gunshot wound in a quickie-mart, he says melo-comedically:  “I know a life of crime has led me to this sorry fate; and yet I blame society.  Society made me what I am.”  Otto fires back:  “That’s bullshit.  You’re a white suburban punk just like me.”  It’s this profound stupidity that gave the director license to find the very best American punk for the soundtrack, like Black Flag’s “TV Party,” so redolent of the Spïnal Täp line, “It’s a fine line between clever and stupid”:

It’s been ages since I watched this movie, despite having seen it so many times during the mid-80s — it was the “Rocky Horror” for my baby-bust generation.  You can’t help but be struck by its utter irreverence for all things related to faith, now that we’re all secretly afraid of the Christian right (for example, the 2004 satirical film “Saved!” loses most of its edge after about 30 minutes).  I have no idea how this movie would read to people much younger than me — alert reader Ethan, perhaps this is a job for you? — that is, to those who didn’t grow up in a post-Vietnam, nuclear-terror, bitterly disillusioned world in which being a suburban punk actually seemed like a viable option.  But maybe I’m wrong to overstate the differences between that world of 1984 and the current (cynical, crazy) one.  Maybe we’re all still looking for a job that’ll open up a new world for us, a world in which we can finally figure out who we are.

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