Rob Harmon’s Recommendations 07/16/13

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksRepo Man (dir. Alex Cox, 1984)

Best Video, as you well know, is a rental business, which means that customers rent our property—DVDs, Blu-Rays, and, yes, even VHS tapes—and then return them. Or, at least, that is the idea; when the contract is broken and an item is not returned we, first, benignly attempt to retrieve it (some of you *ahem* are familiar with our “courtesy” phone calls about overdue movies) and then, if that fails, we seek restitution in order to replace it. Generally, the system works well: either people get their rented items back on time or, even better, they bring it back late and pay us a fee.

Of course, things do not always run smoothly. Recently, for example, we recovered a VHS tape from a scofflaw (who shall remain nameless) that was 3,325 days—or 9 years, 1 month, and 10 days (excluding two leap days)—overdue! This particular item had been at the top of our late list for as long as I have worked at Best Video and, among staff, it was regarded as the Holy Grail—nay, the Saddam Hussein/ace of spades—of all overdue movies and I, for one, did not think that I would ever see it returned.

This incident got me to thinking about our system of free market capitalism and how much in it relies upon credit… which, of course, eventually led me to that great satire on the subject, Alex Cox’s REPO MAN, which was, incidentally, recently re-released in a gorgeous new edition by the Criterion Collection.

“Credit is a sacred trust. It’s what our free society is founded on,” proudly states veteran repo man Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), in a movie whose DNA is wound up with the unwritten laws of frontier justice and property.  In Repo Man, released in 1984 at the height of Reaganomics, a bunch of hard-bitten Los Angeles repossession agents—somewhat like your friendly Best Video staff—are in pursuit of a rarefied object of great worth, a sort of “great whatsit,” which, in this case, is a 1964 Chevy Malibu carrying a spectacular bounty for whoever manages to bring it in.

I have seen Repo Man at least a dozen times in my life but I still cannot quite tell you what it is about.  Here is an attempt at a summary: Otto (Emilio Estevez), a self-centered young punk with a massive chip on his shoulder, is one day tricked by Bud into helping him “repossess”—or steal—a car, whose owner has defaulted on payments. In desperate need of money in order to gain some separation from his dead-end existence Otto overcomes his initial revulsion and follows Bud into this vaguely unsavory line of work. Besides the characters who populate the repo company’s office, there also the Rodriguez brothers, a persistent thorn-in-the-side for Otto and his cohorts, constantly stealing, as they do, some of the best cars on the street; some punks with guns, former friends of Otto’s, who spend most of the movie holding up stores; Otto’s girlfriend Leila (Olivia Barash) who works for an agency dedicated to revealing the existence of extraterrestrials; some mysterious government agents, including one with a metal hand, snooping around in the background; and, of course, there is the aforementioned ’64 Chevy Malibu, which has recently arrived in town from Area 51 with a mysterious, glowing something-or-other in the trunk, driven by a half-mad atomic scientist.

If all of this sounds a little wacky to you it is certainly forgivable since Repo Man is a burlesque of the highest order: the “story” here is like some sort of a slippery, anarchic mash-up of countless ideas, narratives, and genres—pureed in a blender to a hilariously disconnected (Molotov) cocktail, flung out at the height of the Reagan years (an imposingly apocalyptic moment if ever there was one!). Yet the film is less an angry howl and more of an absurdly deadpan disintegration of filmic form: the film somehow manages the almost-impossible feat of being all things at the same time, both sweet-natured, 80’s-style coming-of-age comedy and scathing satire of American capitalism, both a buddy picture, social-commentary, acerbic attack on conformity, sensitive evocation of teen angst, work-place comedy, action movie, police procedural, punk rock music video, Western, and a send-up of new-age-y, sci-fi-style transcendentalism!

What more can be said about this film?  It has been said, correctly, that Repo Man is a cult film par excellence, that almost its entirety is “quotable” to an extreme, with off-the-wall dialogue and sequences galore.  But what is missing from our discussion of the film? It is perhaps this, that it is time we freed Repo Man from the basement designation of “cult movie” and recognized it for what it is: inspired madness of the highest order; a comedic balancing act which is well-acted, -written, -directed, -edited, etc.; and exactly the kind of silly, razor-sharp satire which our topsy-turvy American way of life both demands and deserves. Though the film may have its shabby edges and may have stumbled at the box office, initially – only to be later saved by word-of-mouth as well as sales of its soundtrack – it is no fluke or accident but, in fact, a great film.

So, remember this, and we would appreciate it if you got your movies back to us on time….