The lattice of coincidence
Every once in a while, a movie comes along that manages to contain almost every story element or scenario you love. I had that feeling recently, watching the new genre-defying comedy/horror film “The Cabin in the Woods.” It’s led me to a reminiscence about the 1984 cult fave/scruffy masterpiece “Repo Man.”
Acerbic and often hilarious director Alex Cox seems to have had no hesitation in throwing everything on his mind into the mix for his first feature (perhaps inspired by the comedy series “Elephant Parts,” produced by Michael Nesmith of The Monkees). The film contains, but is not limited to: aliens, a 1964 Chevy Malibu, L.A. noir, ultraviolent teens, mohawks, supermarkets, crazed scientists, slamdancing, aliens in cars, government conspiracies, rival repo teams, a phenomenal Harry Dean Stanton, generically labeled food and canned goods, illegal surveillance, burning corpses, hippie parents, televangelists, modern art, uptight security guards, hot coffee in the face, car wrecks, car chases, spontaneous evaporation/disintegration, an excellent Emilio Estevez (as the story’s reluctant hero Otto Maddox), and the amazing actor Tracey Walter’s legendary “plate of shrimp/lattice of coincidence” monologue.
Want more? As with other midnight favorites like “Liquid Sky” and “The Wall,” “Repo Man” is driven by its soundtrack. It became one of the great punk-rock compilation albums of the decade, and, for me, a kind of primer for many bands I didn’t know but wanted to. It managed to be chaotic enough to incorporate raging guitars, soul music and even a beautiful instrumental. I absolutely wore out the tape in my 1980 Corolla Wagon — so I was really stoked to stumble on a new copy recently.
The album opens with a hooky hell-riff delivered by guitarist Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, with Iggy Pop letting his ferocious intelligence run free in the lyrics:
I’m looking for the joke with a microscope / my muscle’s twitching on your words / if you’re on the streets you lose your nerves / divinity throws you a curve / sticks you and then you go berserk / abhorring no inspiration.
Nice start! Then we dive into punk classics like Black Flag’s “TV Party,” Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized,” Circle Jerks’ “Coup d’etat,” and Fear’s “Let’s Have a War.” We get a great version of Jonathan Richman’s hilarious “Pablo Picasso” from Burning Sensations, and the threatening funk of “Bad Man” by Juicy Bananas, featuring the epically cool repo-man Lite (played by Sy Richardson) listing his “rules” and other important life lessons.
There are great score moments from The Plugz, including a cover (in Spanish) of “Secret Agent Man,” and the Area 51-inspired epic “Reel Ten,” with its twangy desert guitar and triumphant Space Mountain keyboards.
The soundtrack was enough of a hit to help get the film screened in more venues, but it slowly reached its devoted cult audience largely in the new home video market. Despite the film’s meager budget and nearly non-existent marketing (it played in something like three cities upon its initial release), it really does get better with age and repeat viewings, much like “The Big Lebowski.” It was a midnight movie staple for many a night at the beloved Vogue Theater in St. Matthews (rest in peace), and it seemed perfectly made to fill that midnight movie slot we so desperately craved at 16 years old.
Director Alex Cox continued to make music central to his films, with “Straight to Hell” (with a cast including Joe Strummer and The Pogues) and the controversial critical hit “Sid & Nancy” (based on the life of Sid Vicious). After his next film, “Walker,” Cox became disillusioned with anything resembling Hollywood; in recent years, he’s resurfaced with “microcinema” projects — films made for under $200,000 and created without typical commercial pressures.
In 2009, he premiered “Repo Chick,” the semi-official sequel to “Repo Man.” The actors (an almost entirely new cast) were filmed entirely against a green screen, with exaggerated composite backgrounds added later. The trailer for “Repo Chick” has a ragged, brightly colored kid’s show quality, totally crazy and inventive. The new film recalls a little 1984 anarchy in its subversive refusal to remake the original.
Jason Noble is a Louisville musician who has performed with the bands Shipping News and Rachel’s, among others.