“Go West, young man, go West. There is health in the country, and room away from our crowds of idlers and imbeciles.” — Horace Greeley, 1833.
“There’s fuckin’ room to move as a fry cook. I could be manager in two years. King. God.” — Zander Schloss in Repo Man.
How Alex Cox, only 29 and fresh from UCLA film school, ever got Repo Man released and distributed by Universal Studios is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps they felt like there was enough spark left in the then-fading punk LA subculture to sustain a shoestring film shot on just $160,000, or at least to break even on such a gamble. It was, of course, the first big leading role for Emilio Estevez, whose Otto was the epitome of directionless, disenfranchised Reaganomics, and the polar opposite of the disappointing “humanistic jock” he became in the following year’s The Breakfast Club. The two films are worth comparing, not because of Estevez’s involvement, but because of how they embody different takes on teen narratives. Hughes could not avoid the maudlin. Characters must succumb to fits of melancholy introspection where they outline the pain and anguish of their young lives, ultimately highlighting the common bonds that draw them together in doing so. Repo Man was a different kind of teen film, showing the dreary, non-glamorous side of Los Angeles and roping in a pending apocalypse, alien subplots sans aliens, and Harry Dean Stanton. It was anarchy. And it sent a clear message to a cadre of young filmmakers, like Richard Linklater, that teary exposition and epiphany is not always the best path for youth in film. Sometimes its better to dish exposition on social mobility options within the fast food industry and leave it at that.
Today, Alex Cox is probably best known for 1986’s Sid & Nancy, the bio-pic on late Sex Pistols bass player Sid Vicious and his alleged murder of girlfriend Nancy Spungeon, which, like Estevez in Repo Man, would launch Gary Oldman’s Hollywood career. Sid & Nancy, although sparking debates within the underground music scene at the time of its release, has aged quite well; the issues that people had with it–primarily its gross inaccuracies and stereotypes of the London punk scene–are today moot points, as these histories have been documented dozens of times over the ensuing decades, by both participants and scholars. Cox’s films have always been connected, in varying degrees, with music subculture. Repo Man is a particularly striking example. It premiered to critical raves but due to overall public indifference and confusion closed within two weeks. The soundtrack, however, sparked just enough sales and charted just high enough for Universal to reconsider their decision. But it wasn’t the re-release that gave Repo Man its longevity; it was the nascent-but-exploding market of VHS that really circulated the film where it needed to go, that made it passable from friend to friend, either literally or word-of-mouth recommendations. It was one of the first films whose primary success rested on its VHS reputation alone. By the late 1980s, Repo Man would be acknowledged as the best indie film of the decade, its use of irony and pot shots at everything from dying California hippy culture to dead end jobs making it a clear forerunner to later (and lesser) films like Napoleon Dynamite.