'Repo Man'’s Class Anger Still Seethes Almost 30 Years Later

This month, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York rolls out a fashion exhibit devoted to punk, an honor that at once elevates the movement and diminishes it. After all, for all the art that punk created and inspired, it was on one level anti-art, or at least anti-artfulness. And the affluent swells who festoon museum boards are of the class meant to feel its scorn.

Without putting too much weight or importance behind what a bunch of now-elderly former youths once wanted to express, one of the key things that keeps the spirit of punk alive, or at least on life support, is class anger. And class anger is one of the key things that animates writer/director Alex Cox’s 1984 Repo Man (out now in a new Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray edition), even when so many of its liberty-spikes-and-bleached-jeans brethren now seem as hopelessly naïve as bondage pants on a mannequin.

Its hero, Otto (Emilio Estevez), is anti at best—a somewhat dim and inchoate young man who, you suspect, latched on to punk rock largely because there was nothing else handy. After losing his menial job and losing his girlfriend to fellow punk Duke (Dick Rude), who is far more committed to pointless violence than he is, Otto is tricked into helping repossess a car. In repo man Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), a hangdog older schlub in a rumpled suit with a store of cynical wisdom, grudging Otto has found a mentor.

What people often seem to love about Repo Man is its absurdity and extra dry wit (all food and beer consumed by the characters comes in generic packaging labeled “food” and “beer”—an early-’80s in-joke) and its cosmic-joke qualities (often via the musings of a trash-barrel-fireside philosopher played by character-actor royalty Tracey Walter). But what jumps out about Repo Man now is its pervasive anger, and how clearly it links the disgust of suburban punks like Otto to the resentment of working stiffs like Bud and his fellow repo men Miller, Lite, and Oly (all the names of lawnmower beers, in case you missed it). Otto looks down on the repo men as scuzzballs at first, but devoid of better options and drawn in by Bud’s authoritative rap and often-espoused personal code, he finds a place to fit in down at the bottom of the ladder.

Repo Man also impresses by how many plates it keeps spinning, from the prescient subplot about a wandering scientist with a trunk full of dead aliens, to a rivalry between Bud’s crew and a pair of repo-men brothers, to Bud’s romantic travails, to the ongoing exploits of Duke’s crew of anarchists/criminals. In fact, the film’s third act winds up sapping a lot of its fun—far too many people running around with guns to little end other than tying up cockamamie plot points. But few pieces of punk-era art are so wised-up on the Reagan-era dispossession of the underclass and so funny at the same time. This is one cult film that deserves to keep and build its cult.

It’s taking a segue too far to call writer/director Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights “punk,” but her 2012 adaptation of the Emily Bronte classic courses with an undeniable upstart energy. The film begins with a light-skinned black man (James Howson) in a high-collared suit throwing himself against a paint-patched wall in a broken-down room until his forehead bleeds. There’s no romantic swelling of strings—nothing but the huff and thump of his effort on the soundtrack, and rather than capturing melodramatic lighting, the camera’s focus settles on motes of dust wafting toward where he lies on the floor in sere daylight. You are not watching a literary figure hitting his marks and speaking his lines; you’re in a room with a person at the end of his wits.

The man is Heathcliff, the poor adopted son of the master of the titular bleak Yorkshire estate. Bronte described Heathcliff as having a dark “gypsy”-like aspect, no doubt to underline his unsuitability as a suitor for Catherine Earnshaw (Kaya Scodelario), the daughter of Wuthering Heights’ owner. Making Heathcliff’s “other”-ness in this context fully manifest paradoxically allows the story to sidestep period coyness and literary self-consciousness, making it feel even more real, less bound to the typical conventions of the period film.

Not that it needs much help on that front. Though shot on 35mm, Arnold’s Wuthering Heights (Oscilloscope DVD and streaming) often has an immediate, video-like feel, thanks to hand-held shots and intimate camera angles. As with the director’s previous films, Red Road and Fish Tank, there’s a notable lack of gloss and sweetening. The Yorkshire moors are bleak and forever windswept, and the Earnshaws’ lives come off blatantly cold and rough—finding privacy for a conjugal tryst may require a quick clothed lie-down in the grass on an exposed hillside just outside the manor. As a result of this forbidding isolation, the bond between young Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) and young Catherine (Shannon Beer) feels intuitive and intense in way that more polite, romantic versions must force. As their lives and courses diverge and the plot unfolds, Howson isn’t quite screen presence enough to pull off the full gravity of the final scenes, but alongside films such as Cary Fukunaga’s 2011 Jane Eyre, Arnold’s latest promises an era of rampant new cinematic life for dusty classics.

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