by Spank the Monkey
In 1984, Alex Cox made Repo Man. It was about a suburban punk called Otto (Emilio Estevez), his induction into the repossession trade under the guidance of repo man Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), and the chaos caused by their attempts to find a vintage car with a lethal secret in its trunk. Its distributors considered it too weird for a proper release, and it spent months in limbo until the unexpected success of its soundtrack album gradually turned the film into a minor cult classic.
Twenty-five years later, Alex Cox made Repo Chick. It was about a spoilt rich girl called Pixxi (Jaclyn Jonet), her induction into the repossession trade under the guidance of repo man Arizona Gray (Miguel Sandoval), and the chaos caused by their attempts to find a vintage train with a lethal secret in its caboose. Its distributors considered it too weird for a proper release – and to give that judgement some perspective, this was a distribution company owned by David Lynch.
After nearly two years on the shelf, Repo Chick is finally creeping out on video without ever seeing the inside of a cinema. Does Cox have another minor cult classic on his hands? Comparisons are odious. Let’s make some.
Did I know Alex Cox was British when I first saw Repo Man back in the eighties? I don’t think I did: which means that on my first viewing, I wasn’t completely aware of the outsider perspective he brought to the story. Rewatching it now, it seems to me that the film’s all about that perspective. If Kill Bill was Tarantino’s love letter to Asian movies and culture, then Repo Man is Cox doing the same thing for America two decades earlier.
Part of that comes down to the basic archetypes that Cox built his story around – cars, rock ‘n’ roll, alien conspiracies, all the things we’ve come to associate with America. But it’s also in the details. The frantically busy sound mix, where virtually every scene has a TV or a radio running in the background – commercials, evangelists, LA punk rock are all battling it out with the dialogue. The use of generic supermarket packaging as a design motif, with cans labelled ‘beer’ and ‘food’ constantly visible. All of this comes together on screen as a consistent, fully-formed universe which acts as a model of what America looked like in Cox’s head after a few years of studying and working there.
But happily, he remembers to make a film out of that universe. Sure, it’s not the most coherently plotted of films, and all too often its narrative line is based around whoever has possession of the 1964 Chevy Malibu at the time. But it’s crammed with ultra-quotable lines, many of which are still funny as hell (the trailer blows a dozen or so of them, but the script’s got plenty to spare). And it looks terrific: Robby Muller’s cinematography gives the LA cityscapes a beauty that a film this daft doesn’t really deserve. Although for all its daftness, there’s a harder edge to some of the surrealism, as in the scene when mechanic/shaman Tracey Walter combines alien abduction theories with the mystery of the desaparecidos of South America.
Cox has always tried to sneak a political message into his movies, so you can see why he’s chosen now to return to the Repoverse – as the opening narration of Repo Chick tells us, we’re living in a time where repossession has become one of America’s few non-military growth industries. The world is tightening its belt, and Cox has been doing the same: for the last few years, he’s been working on what he calls ‘microfeatures’, films made on low-six-figure budgets and distributed by any means available. But how do you keep a movie under $100,000 when its third act consists of a train chase? The answer’s obvious: shoot your actors in front of a green screen, and add all the backgrounds in post-production using cheap-looking models. (It’s a shooting style which finds its perfect audio analogue in the use of songs by Kid Carpet, the Bristol musician notorious for mixing programmed beats and Fisher-Price noise toys in his tunes.)
Does it work? Watch the trailer, and you’ll probably say the answer is no. Curiously, though, when you watch the finished movie, it’s a look that grows on you over time. This isn’t a story that demands photorealism, and the cartoony lack of perspective helps remove your expectations of realism in other departments. It’s not always successful: the animation-heavy driving sequences, in particular, are too reminiscent of children’s TV for comfort. But there’s a certain charm in seeing people overacting wildly inside a Playmobil landscape, and by the time we hit that climactic train chase – credited to four separate Californian model railway societies – you’ve totally bought into the visual style.
Unfortunately, once the visuals stop being a distraction, you start noticing how utterly terrible the script is. The plot of Repo Man may have been rambling, but at least you sensed there was a coherent point of view behind the film. Repo Chick piles on subplots and minor characters by the ton, never letting any of them settle down for more than a few seconds before ditching them and moving on to something else. Cox has also completely lost his touch with dialogue – the low point might be the scene where repo man Gray offers to show Pixxi the ropes, and she asks him where the ropes are.
To be honest, though, that’s just a symptom of a much bigger problem: Cox doesn’t appear to like any of his characters any more. From Pixxi downwards, pretty much everyone in the film is stupid, because if they weren’t there wouldn’t be any jokes. Repo Man didn’t really have any stupid characters, just a lot of people who all thought very differently from us. In that film, everyone was enjoyable to watch, regardless of whether they were goodies or baddies. Repo Chick can’t be bothered with that.
Repo Chick doesn’t feel like it has a reason to exist at all, except as a demonstration by Cox of a new way of making movies – using technology to push budgets through the floor, and embracing the limitations that come out of that rather than trying to hide them. Which is fair enough: I can see what he’s doing there. But I’d suggest that when you’re making a film that’s trading on people’s memories of a funny, affectionate, charming cult favourite, a reaction like ‘I can see what he’s doing there’ isn’t good enough.
Spank the Monkey is the australopithecine proprietor of The Unpleasant Lair of Spank the Monkey.
“Repo Man” and “Repo Chick” are both available on DVD in the UK. Repo Chick is also available on Blu-Ray and on video-on-demand.