Always Intense - Believer Magazine
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Always Intense

IS ALEX COX’S REPO MAN A CULT FLICK, A FILM CLASSIC, OR BOTH?
DISCUSSED
Parking Lots, Chevy Malibus, Geographic Riddles, Reagan’s America, Tracy Walter, Olivia Barash’s Mother, The Punk Rock Ethos, Tunnel Dwellers, Fetishism, The Circle Jerks, Generic Beer, Graffiti Palimpsests, Time Machines, Fossil Fuels, The Future

Always Intense

Jim Ruland
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“BEST GODDAMN CAR ON THE LOT”

For a few hours on a Saturday afternoon last summer, the streets of Los Angeles were crawling with repo men. Fifty vehicles prowled the desolate districts south of downtown L.A. in search of a luminous 1964 Chevy Malibu. But these weren’t your ordinary repo men: they were participants in a scavenger hunt organized by the Alamo Drafthouse, an offbeat Texas theater that had literally taken its show on the road by embarking on a 6,000-mile odyssey across America to show eleven classic movies on a giant forty-by-twenty-foot inflatable screen in the places where they were filmed. They screened Once upon a Time in the West in Monument Valley, Utah, and It Came from Outer Space in Roswell, New Mexico; but Englishman Alex Cox’s 1984 film Repo Man was an odd choice for a film to represent L.A. With a cheerless landscape of junkyards, industrial lots, and makeshift skid-row shelters—what Cult Flicks and Trash Pics describes as “a place that appears to be crumbling before the camera”—we’re a long way from Sunset Boulevard. Compared with the palm-studded, chlorine-bleached L.A. of Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), Repo Man feels like it was shot in another galaxy.

The search for an elusive gold 1964 Chevy Malibu drives Repo Man’s plot, so Alamo Drafthouse owner Tim League bought one off eBay for about $3,000 and offered it up as the grand prize. On one of the hottest days of the year I took the Harbor Freeway downtown and made my way south toward the graffiti-blasted concrete corridor that constitutes the L.A. River. I parked at the dusty lot at Third and Santa Fe where the film freaks were lined up at the registration tent two hundred deep, sweltering in the heat. Tim, a fair-skinned ­red-headed Texan, had the look of a man who spends all of his time in the dark enclosure of the projection booth and was slightly stunned to find himself in this shadowless place where the sunlight slanted crazily in the smog. He agreed to “embed” me with one of the fifty teams lined up to pay fifty bucks a pop for a chance at a forty-year-old Chevy.

What I didn’t tell Tim was that I am a Repo Man expert in my own right, and as a frequent visitor to Union Station, I know my way around the ass end of downtown better than most Angelenos. What’s more, I had a secret weapon up my sleeve and no intention of keeping my expertise to myself. Journalistic objectivity be damned, I was going to find that Malibu and bring it back to the Believer’s headquarters.

I waited in the shade of the registration tent with nothing to do but size up the entrants and eye the beer cooler. Eventually I was joined by Roberta Barash, the elderly mother of one of Repo Man’s cast members, Olivia Barash, who plays Leila, the love interest (sort of) of Otto Maddox (Emilio Estevez). Roberta was waiting for Olivia to show up so she could join her as one of the rally’s contestants. This struck me as unfair, but Roberta assured me that neither she nor her daughter knew where the Malibu was hidden.

When all fifty spots had been filled, Tim passed out instruction kits to the teams while those who’d been turned away looked on with glum dissatisfaction. Tim re­minded the contestants that under no circumstances were they to open the envelope containing their driver’s licenses. An open envelope would signify that they’d been pulled over by the police and the team would be automatically disqualified. A shrewd move, but since I wasn’t a contestant per se, no one had asked for my license. Advantage: the Believer.

Tim made the announcement that a local journalist wanted to ride along with a team and the freaks descended on me.

“Ride with us,” a portly man sweating inside his black T-shirt said. “We’ve got a real repo man.”

Before I could answer, a dodgy-looking dude with long, scraggly hair asked me if I wanted to ride with one of the stars of the movie. This was the actor Del Za­mora, who plays half of the Rodriguez Brothers, and he was re­ferring to Jennifer Balgobin, the London-born actress who plays Debbi, the insanely hot punk rock chick with the mohawk, but I ­didn’t know any of this at the time.

Two young women in tank tops came to my rescue. “Pick us!” they shouted. “We’re fun!” They seemed bright, ­wholesome-looking, and, yes, fun. Best of all, they didn’t look like they worked in a comic book store or lived with their mothers. They looked like winners in the game of life. I decided to ride with Erin Fleckenstein, thirty-one, a graphic designer from Pasadena, Mary Ann Sullivan, thirty-two, a pixie-thin fourth-grade teacher from Glassell Park, and her husband, Blair Huizingh, who had turned thirty-four that very day.

Tim fired up the megaphone and told us the rally would begin Le Mans style. That is, the repo men would begin at the staging area, and when the signal was given we’d run to our cars.

“Please drive safely, especially when leaving the parking lot. It may be what we call in the in­dustry a bit of a clusterfuck.”

Tim counted down backwards from five, and I was off, chugging across a dusty parking lot and jumping into the passenger seat of a rust-colored Honda Element with a bunch of strangers. Team Believer was ready to roll.

 

IT’S 1984, DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOUR PLOT IS?

Repo Man tells the story of a disaffected young punk rocker who has fallen on hard times in Ronald Reagan’s America. Otto is on-screen for all of thirty seconds before he tells his boss to fuck off and seeks solace in a circle pit where he slams into his old friend, Duke (Dick Rude), who promptly runs off with Otto’s girlfriend, Debbi (Jennifer Bal­gobin). Otto limps home to “Edge City” with his tail between his legs, but when he asks his pothead parents for a loan he’s told they’ve given all their money to send Bibles to El Salvador.

Enter Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), a master of vehicle repossession, who tricks Otto into helping him repossess a car. Otto is drawn in by Bud’s charismatic intensity and soon finds himself immersed in the hard-boiled shenanigans of the crew at the Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation. The first act is disarmingly straightforward, but things get weird in a hurry.

Otto gets mixed up with Leila (Olivia Barash), an advocate for a conspiracy-minded group operating under the moniker United Fruitcake Outlet, who uses him to help locate a 1964 Chevy Malibu with a trunk full of dead aliens. Hot on Leila’s heels is an army of renegade government agents dres­sed in black suits and run by a woman with a metal hand. The search for the Malibu is compli­cated by Bud’s nemeses—a rival repo outfit run by the Rodriguez Brothers—and Otto’s friends Debbi and Duke, who are responsible for a rash of hilarious hold-ups and robberies.

The Chevy is recovered and lost again by all concerned parties, but it ultimately ends up in the hands of Miller (Tracey Walter), the enigmatic groundskeeper at Helping Hand who, despite his in­ability to drive, takes off in the glowing and dangerously radioactive Malibu. Once he gets behind the wheel, the Malibu ascends into the heavens and blasts off into outer space or, if you’ve been paying attention, the past.

So what is Repo Man? ­Comedy? Sci-fi? Action movie? The Internet Movie Database hedges its bets and lists all three. It’s tempting to call it a spoof, but a spoof of what? Paranoid sci-fi flicks? Punk rock poseurs? Capitalism? Plot summaries pay lip service to Repo Man as a modern punk fable, but this is misleading and has more to do with the success of Cox’s second film, Sid and Nancy (1986), which details the tragic downfall of the most obnoxiously notorious member of the Sex Pistols. Those who look back on Repo Man with nostalgic fondness are quick to point out its essential place in punk rock movies, but by 1984 punk rock was in full retreat. This is not the place to pinpoint the time and place of punk rock’s alleged demise, but the Knack had already knocked off new wave five years earlier, and the best hardcore bands had broken up or were meta­stasizing into metal bands.

In fact, Otto’s story details how he turns his back on punk rock. He spends the entire movie chasing a car: the perfect symbol for our consumer culture. He sheds his punk rock “gear” (what exactly is that tied to his leg?) and starts to dress like a square. In fact, Otto’s arc, such as it is, can be seen as a rejection of punk rock ethos and attitudes as he strives to find a foothold in a culture rooted in ma­terialism. As a punk rocker, Estevez is absurd and better suited for the role he plays in The Breakfast Club (1985). When I asked director Alex Cox, “Why Emilio Estevez?” he told me the studio was uneasy about handing over the reins to a first-time director and a rookie producer1 without a “star” in the lead, and refused to let Cox cast Rude, the Cagney-esque leader of the outlaw punks, as Otto.

While Otto is undeniably the movie’s main character and the lens through which the audience interprets the film, his role be­comes less and less prominent as the movie progresses. This is large­ly due to the strength of Harry Dean Stanton’s per­for­mance as Otto’s mentor, but even Bud loses his hold on the movie. The third act is a protracted series of chase scenes involving the “hot” Chevy driven by J. Frank Parnell (Fox Harris), a lobotomized nuclear physicist who help­ed de­velop the neutron bomb. In the end, you can make the argument that the main character—obscure object of desire, source of con­flict, and container of the film’s greatest mystery—is the elusive ’64 Chevy Malibu.

 

“YOU EVER FEEL AS IF YOUR MIND HAD STARTED TO ERODE?”

The scavenger hunt in­volved intimate knowledge of both the film and the nether regions of Los Angeles. The search immersed contestants in the film’s conceits, making it the ultimate in participatory film watching. But inside the Honda Element, the situation was getting hectic. In the backseat, Erin and Mary Ann ripped through the rules. As Blair raced out of the parking lot, he reached down between the seats and plopped a Thomas Guide in my lap.

“You get to navigate.”

Mary Ann skimmed through our instruction packet: “How It Works, How to Win, Rules of the Road, Repo Code, Repossession Order #1. Omigosh, they’re like puzzles. Erin, you’re the smartest, you take No. 1!”

While Erin went to work on the first puzzle, Mary Ann doped out the rules. All we’d been told prior to the rally was that we’d need a map of L.A., the local yellow pages, a digital camera, a cell phone, and a couple of bucks, but it was immediately obvious that the scavenger hunt was going to be super freaking hard. Each packet included five Repo Orders, which were to be solved in sequence. If we solved an order correctly, it would take us to a lime green Malibu, which we’d “repo” by taking a photograph of it. Then we’d use the clues at the site to solve the cipher at the bottom of the order. Once we’d “repoed” four lime green cars and cracked the code, it would lead us to the ’64 Chevy Malibu.

However, each Repo Order took at least three steps to solve. A clue would lead to a location, which contained more clues that led to more locations.

“Wow,” Mary Ann said, “this is going to take more brainwork than I thought.”

“What’s our first clue?” Blair asked.

On Santa Fe Street at the gas station designated by Island director. Add up the pump numbers you see on the first row of pumps. Add one and divide by ten.”

Hunh?

Blair figured out that “Island director” could only mean Michael Bay, and sure enough there was a gas station where Santa Fe intersects with Bay Street. Erin added up the numbers on the pumps, added one, and divided by ten to get three.

Our next instruction was to buy something sweet from the smiley man you’ll find… and we com­pleted the clue by selecting option number three: in the shadow of the toy tower, past the frighteningly cheap Chinese food.

I knew that we were in the toy district, a relatively small area south of downtown between the flower and garment districts, but I didn’t know where the tower was and neither did my teammates. Repo Man is rife with those bright yellow happy faces you used to see on buttons and T-shirts all the time. I knew I’d know the “smiley man” when I saw him, but where was the tower? We drove around for ten minutes until I spotted it in the distance, a big blue water tower, as ob­vious as a water tower can be. Once we located the tower, I quickly identified our contact: a woman sitting at the bus stop with a happy face on a paper plate hanging around her neck.

“Yes!” Mary Ann exclaimed, “You rock!”

Blair was not so enthusiastic.

“We’re back on Santa Fe.”

“Back where we started,” I said with a laugh.

“That’s not funny. It’s tragic.”

The “smiley man” gave us our next piece of the puzzle and we determined that the lime green Malibu was in a tunnel under the Fourth Street Bridge—the very same tunnel that Bud plows through in the famous chase scene with the Rodriguez Brothers in the L.A. River—but where was the car?

Blair parked the Honda under the bridge and Mary Ann scampered down the tunnel to the river. She returned a few minutes later with news that there was no car at the end of the tunnel, only homeless people, who were getting awfully tired of answering questions about a Malibu.

“They kept shouting, Go away! This is our bridge!

This was decidedly not good. Not only did we feel bad about sending Mary Ann into a dark tunnel to confront homeless people by herself, the fact that others had al­ready been there told us we were lagging behind. We drove off and tried some of the other bridges, but no luck. We even tried the train yard, hoping we’d stumble upon the place where Otto, feeling sorry for himself, butchers Black Flag’s “TV Party.” What we needed was a GPS system. Why hadn’t I thought of this sooner?

We drove and drove and drove until we were back at the Fourth St. Bridge, only now there were a half-dozen cars strewn about the lot and Repo freaks with digital cameras roaming around like geek papa­razzi.

“It’s got to be in the tunnel,” Blair said as he rummaged around the back of his Honda until he found the flashlight he was looking for. Torch in hand, we returned to the tunnel like a group of lost spelunkers searching for clues in a palimpsest of graffiti. Halfway to the river we found it: a Day-Glo Chevy the size of a loaf of bread spray-painted on the wall. Alongside the car were some numbers that we’d need for the cipher.

“I can’t believe they tagged county property,” Blair complained.

“I can’t believe I ran right past it,” Mary Ann said.

“Twice.”

We took down the code next to the Malibu, doused the light, and ran like hell back to the car. No one felt good about our success. Mary Ann was particularly despondent. Her ex-boyfriend was also taking part in the rally, and it was crucial that we beat him. It had taken us nearly fifty minutes to solve the first Repo Order, and that ’64 Chevy felt far, far away.

 

“EVERYBODY’S INTO WEIRDNESS RIGHT NOW.”

It’s hard to put your finger on what makes Repo Man a great movie. It’s certainly not the story. The plot is clunky yet byz­antine in a It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World kind of way, but the way filmmakers have stolen from it lends credence to the assertion that Repo Man was years ahead of its time. Alex Cox will be the first to tell you that his movie borrows heavily from Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Robert Aldrich’s adaptation of the Mickey Spillane novel about stolen nuclear materials, but everything about the mysterious contents of Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase in Quentin Ta­rantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) is lifted from the trunk of the ’64 Chevy. What’s more, Chris Carter should be divvying up his residual checks with Cox because without Repo Man, there could be no X-Files.

While the story isn’t the strongest, everyone agrees that Repo Man has an excellent soundtrack. Even if you’re only dimly aware of the soundtrack, all it takes is a few bars of Iggy Pop’s opening sequence, a brilliant fusion of rumbling, bass-heavy rock and roll with distorted surf riffs, to get your feet tapping and your heart pumping. Southern California punk icons of the early ’80s, like Black Flag, ­Circle Jerks, Fear, and Suicidal Tendencies, also contribute to the sound­track, which lends the film some much-needed authenticity.

The cameos by punk rock performers are particularly amusing, especially that of the Circle Jerks,2 who play a lounge act version of “When the Shit Hits the Fan” that includes a hysterical “Shoobie-doo-wop! Say what? Yeah!” scat by Keith Morris that prompts Otto to say, “I can’t believe I used to like these guys.” It’s the flip side of Lite’s (Sy Richardson’s) remark to Otto after he pops in a funk tape: “I was into these dudes before anybody.” These are genuine reflections on how our musical preferences are tied to our identity, especially with respect to how we are perceived by those who may or may not share our values but traffic in the same cultural milieu that shapes them. One suspects these are some of the more autobiographical aspects of the film. When Cox was a student at UCLA he did repo work for a company that worked for General Motors, and it’s easy to imagine the lessons he learned from truculent men while riding shotgun in shitty cars.

Cox rightly credits the punk rock community’s enthusiasm for the soundtrack for Repo Man’s early success. The songs on the soundtrack constitute a tailor-made score that features a mix of iconic ’80s classics like Fear’s “Let’s Have a War” and Suicidal Tendencies’ “In­stitutionalized” and original music by Iggy Pop and Los Plugz that does the heavy lifting. Repo Man features a lot of driving, and the music changes depending on the driver. Bud’s driving music is a notch or two below the theme to Peter Gunn—surf songs for G-men. J. Frank Parnell’s score is ethereal and weird to suggest the otherworldly presence in the Chevy’s trunk. The Rodriguez Brothers’ theme music is a mixture of sounds one can imagine drifting out of barrio garages and the score from a spaghetti Western.3 The re­sult perfectly captures the sound of Southern California in the early ’80s when cowboy cops could beat up punks for no reason and get away with it.

Even though the first draft was written in just fourteen days, there’s no mystery behind Repo Man’s lasting appeal: memorable characters delivering memorable lines. It’s impossible to list the top five or even top ten lines without leaving out a hilarious quip or clever comeback, because every character has something to contribute. Take Kevin, for example, considering his next move as he reads the want ads. “There’s fuckin’ room to move as a fry cook, man. You know I could be manager in two years? King! God!” Repo Man isn’t a political movie, but it’s hard to find a more succinct summation of Reagan-era ambition with the dearth of economic options available to outsiders like Kevin.

Mad scientist J. Frank Parnell captures ’80s Cold War dread (“Eyes melt, skin explodes, everybody dead”) and then promptly dis­misses it with the most cynical of cover-ups. (“Radiation. You hear the most outrageous lies about it.”) What makes his monologue so com­pelling is that beneath the sci-fi kitsch that Cox is satirizing lies a cri­tique that deftly captures the zeit­­geist of the age. Cox does this again and again throughout the film, attacking the very things his movie claims to be about. No­where is this more evident than when Duke, a violent and stupid thug of a punk, replies to Debbi’s invitation to “do some crimes” with “let’s go eat sushi and not pay.” It’s a blistering dismissal of the late-for-the-party punk rock po­seurs who by 1984 had thoroughly in­fected the scene. This was Cox’s core audience, yet here he is taking the piss out of them.

But it’s Miller, the repo man lot lizard who can’t drive, who steals the show every time he opens his mouth. His “John Wayne was a fag” bit is timelessly funny and surpassed only by the “lattice of coincidence” monologue that defines Miller’s character. Incredibly, this scene wasn’t in the shooting script: it was written as an audition piece. In fact, Tracey Walter had to fight Cox to include it in the movie. He won the battle, but there was ­hardly any time left to shoot it as the light was quickly draining out of the sky. Walter nailed it in one take. Ironically, it’s the movie’s longest scene.

The line that people quote back to Walter with the greatest frequency flies in the face of the city’s nobody-walks-in-L.A. automotive fetish: “The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.”4

Team Believer could definitely relate.

 

“NO EXPLANATION. NO POINT IN LOOKING FOR ONE, EITHER.”

When Repo Man was released in 1984 I worked for the rental and leasing department of a car dealership. Ostensibly, my job was to wash the rental cars, but as my boss was a friend of the family’s, he entrusted me with other odd jobs, like going to the DMV and picking up his dry cleaning. My reward for these off-the-clock assignments was that he’d let me take a car home for the night so I wouldn’t have to rely on the bus, and it was not unusual for me to drive to school each morning in a different car. Sometimes he’d ask me to drive him so he could pick up a car for a lease client who was “out of the country” or wanted to “trade in his vehicle for a newer model.” Us­ually, he took me out to dinner afterward and asked me not to mention it to anyone at the dealership or, for that matter, my father. I didn’t put the pieces together right away, but eventually I figured it out: I was a teenage repo man.5

This was my secret, my competitive edge, but it wasn’t helping Team Believer. Driving around the desolate streets of Los Angeles felt more like being inside a movie than on a repo job. We passed the cold storage facility where Wes Anderson filmed the bungled heist sequence in Bottle Rocket, and in a desolate-looking lot a film crew was shooting a pair of actors em­broiled in an postapocalyptic confrontation next to a flaming car while bored safety workers in fire suits stood by with fire ex­tinguishers. In L.A. there is no getting away from the movies, nor is there any getting away from journalists reminding you that there is no getting away from the movies. Our amazing race was turning out not to be so amazing. If we didn’t pick up the pace, we weren’t going to win the Malibu.

Changes were in order. We had been a little too disorganized, a little too energetic. Mary Ann took over the driving duties and Blair navigated from the backseat, freeing me up to look out the window, which I am really good at. Now that we knew what the cars looked like and understood that the rally hinged on solving closely linked puzzles as opposed to covering a lot of ground, we were determined to learn from our mistakes.

We solved the first half of Repo Order #2 in no time at all, and after singing a punk rock version of a Beach Boys song at a karaoke bar in Little Tokyo, we were on our way to Repo Order #3. The clues had us barging into bodegas, declaring “The life of a repo man is always intense!” to baffled proprietors and receiving clues inside the cellophane of pine tree air fresheners. We figured out that G Money and Les Nessman were references to Gless Street east of the river, and we found useful clues in ancient graf­fiti. As our frustration gave way to the thrill of discovery, we reveled in stymieing the efforts of others by blocking important landmarks as our competitors crept past or pretending to be befuddled while literally standing on top of clues.

While we knocked out the Repo Orders, Erin solved the cipher at the bottom of the page. She’d figured out that each code was a quote from the movie that ended with the name of the character who spoke the line. Mary Ann reasoned that if we could figure out one character, we could decode them all, and quickly cracked the code.

“Yes! I should be working for the FBI!”

The solution to Repo Order #5 was 152 Utah Street. Here we’d find the man with the keys to the ’64 Malibu.

“Omigosh!” Mary Ann exclaimed. “This is so exciting!”

And it was. It was like being in Vegas and holding a ticket for a parlay with a payout twice the size of your paycheck, two teams are in, and all the third team has to do is march down the field and score before time runs out on the clock. Shrewd handicapping and native in­telligence have taken you this far, but now it’s out of your hands. All we had to do was claim our prize, but were we in time?

Blair directed us to Utah Street, but we couldn’t find the ad­dress. There was no 152 Utah. In­side the Honda, pandemonium broke loose. We abandoned the ve­hicle and continued our search on foot. Blair took off running in one di­rection while the rest of the team went the other way. Parked on the street was a tattered-looking Winnebago with Texas plates.

This was it.

This was 152.

I was sure of it.

A gentleman emerged from the Winnebago, shook his head, told us we were too late. Eight other teams had been there before us. We finished the rally in three hours and thirty-two minutes. The winner clocked in at two hours and forty-nine minutes. Repo Order #1 had killed us after all.

We got back in the Honda and drove to a brewery where we ­toasted Blair’s birthday and told one another we’d done the best we could.

“At least we placed in the top ten,” Blair said.

“And we beat my ex,” Mary Ann added.

“And we did it without a GPS,” I said.

“And we’re retards,” said Erin, and no one had anything else to add.

 

“YOU’RE STILL ON THE JOB, WHITE BOY, GET IN THE CAR.”

My reward for running myself ragged through the streets of Los An­geles was a lawn chair and a cold beer tucked inside a cozy designed to look like the generic beer that the repo men drink throughout the film.6 Although Team Believer disbanded so that Blair could go celebrate his birthday in earnest, most of the road warriors stayed to watch the film in an empty lot be­tween an abandoned warehouse and a massive storage facility. The temperature had cooled, the beer was cold, and I took pleasure in identifying many of the spots I’d driven past just a few hours earlier, even that stupid blue water tower hovering over Otto’s shoulder like a flying saucer.

Watching the movie, I had to re­mind myself that I was viewing a Hollywood studio production. Repo Man benefited from the em­ergence of VCRs and was among the first wave of Hollywood films to find success on VHS7 that it ­hadn’t realized on the big screen. Repo Man is more than a cult mo­vie: it invented the formula by which cult movies of the modern age are made. Twenty years later, Repo Man is still relevant, which begs an interesting question: is Repo Man a cult flick or film classic?

Alex Cox ducked the question. “I wouldn’t judge it. I think others can say. I don’t know what it is.” So I asked Jennifer Balgobin, the ac­tress who inflamed my young punk rock heart as Debbi, the brains of the punk rock gang and the only one in the outfit who doesn’t get killed.

“I think it’s both, because it’s looked at by many people, which makes it cult, but it’s lasted all these years and passed on to different generations, which makes it a classic. So it covers both.”

Balgobin still has her accent, but she’s traded her mohawk for eye­glasses. She never gets recognized and was thrilled to be among so many cast members, mingling and taking pictures with fans. I wondered what might have been if I’d taken Del’s advice and chosen Team Debbi instead of Team Be­liever. Wistfully, I recalled Otto’s last words to Debbi, “Do you think it’s too late for us to get romantically involved?”

After the question-and-answer ses­sion was over and all the actors had left, I went to have a look at the ’64 Chevy Malibu, where the winners, Ben Benjamin and Pete Schnaitman, both thirty-five, were en­joying the last of their fifteen minutes and graciously invited me inside. I asked the question I’d been asking all night: Is Repo Man a cult or a classic?

“It lives in a funny place for a movie,” Ben said, “because it’s a major Hollywood movie. It kind of predates the whole ­Sundance-in­dependent-movie thing, but it’s also a cult film and a film classic. It’s easily my favorite movie.”

“Easily,” Pete added.

It quickly became apparent that Ben and Pete have known each other a long time. The secret to their success? Pete is a lawyer who works in downtown L.A. and is familiar with the area. Ben has seen the movie more than thirty times. Also, they listened to the soundtrack during the rally, which they told me put them in the right frame of mind to solve the clues. Pete and Ben struck me as earnest Repo Man fans, and I was glad the Malibu was going to such likable people. And they’re right: Repo Man does live in a funny place that’s hard to pin down. Its legion of fans will tell you the movie kicks ass, but you’d be hard pressed to find a critic who’d call it a great film. It’s too late for punk yet is years ahead of its time. If it truly is a cult movie, would we be sitting in the middle of an industrial wasteland in the armpit of Los Angeles, miles away from the couch?

At the end of Repo Man, Miller climbs into the Malibu and rockets into the cosmos with a beatific smile on his face. Miller, remember, is the only one who can ap­proach the vehicle with its deadly cargo in the trunk. Even though he can’t drive, he proves his worthiness through his intelligence. If his theories are correct, the Malibu is a time machine that will take him into the past, and it’s interesting to speculate where he might go—but Ben and Pete’s plans for the Malibu lie in the future. Ben has a baby daughter named Mika, and when she turns sixteen in 2021, this will be her Malibu—that is, if cars are still propelled by fossil fuels in the future.

There was one last thing I had to know.

“What’s in the trunk?”

“Oh,” Ben said with a sardonic smile, “you don’t want to look in there.”

1. Michael Nesmith, formerly of the Monkees.
2. Zander Schloss, the actor who plays Otto’s friend Kevin, the proto–Napoleon Dynamite if there ever was one, is currently the bass player for the Circle Jerks and the seminal L.A. punk band the Weirdos, and he still gets asked to sing the “7-Up song” at gigs. Coup d’etat, indeed.
3. Cox was so enamored of actress Vonetta McGee’s performance in Sergio Corbucci’s Il Grande Silenzio (The Great Silence, 1969) that fifteen years later he cast her as Marlene, the two-timing secretary at Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation who feeds hot tips to the Rodriguez Brothers.
4. The Missing Persons song “Walking in L.A.” was a hit in 1982.
5. A few years later, my boss was fired for embezzling. It seems he was funneling all kinds of shady lease deals through a nonexistent company called “Mirage.”
6. People wrongly assume that Cox is making a statement with all the generic labels for food and beverages that are consumed or destroyed during the course of the movie, but as incredible as it seems these were in fact actual store-brand items from Ralph’s. The only other beneficiary of product placement in Repo Man is the company that makes pine tree air fresheners. 7 It was also among the last films to have its soundtrack released on vinyl.
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