Vintage Cable Box: Repo Man, 1984

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“The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.”

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Repo Man, 1984 (Emilio Estevez), MCA/Universal

A state trooper pulls over a ’64 Chevy Malibu, and asks the bizarre driver what’s in the trunk.  The driver tells him, “You don’t wanna know.”  The trooper opens the trunk and is instantly disintegrated, and all that is left is a pair of smoking boots.  This opening bit sets the tone for what is to come.  The dystopic contemporary depiction of a Los Angeles in the grip of poverty, writer-director Alex Cox’s Repo Man is a landscape of smashed windows and busted televisions, of manipulative evangelists, and UFO nuts.  Emilio Estevez is not quite a punk. more of a poser (the kind of person who admires the lifestyle, but really wants a house in the sticks with a 2-car garage – I know many people like this), because he holds down a steady job (until he loses his cool) in a supermarket, and while he joins his friends for nightly “mosh” sessions, he has more on his mind than getting wasted.

One day, he hooks up with Harry Dean Stanton (always a joy to watch in any film), who asks him to hot-wire a car for $10 because he “lost the keys, and his sister is pregnant.”  Estevez agrees, but wonders why a Mexican man is trying to stop him as he does it.  He drives off with the car, and Stanton leads him to a junkyard, where the car is impounded.  Estevez’s Otto isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he comes to the conclusion he just repossessed a vehicle.  Stanton offers him a job; good money and benefits, but Estevez hates these people, and I can understand why.  They repossess cars (a kind of legal version of theft) when the owners don’t make their payments, or for other reasons (say they’re late on house payments or utilities).  To Otto, they contribute to the downfall of a schizophrenic economy and the cultural wasteland.

When Otto discovers his parents have given his college money (See? Not a real punk!) away to a televangelist, he reluctantly takes up Stanton on his offer, and soon he’s lifting cars at an impressive rate.  He gets to know and bond with the denizens of the Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation.  He listens to crazy theories about alien spacecraft and time travel, life and money, and, inexplicably John Wayne’s sexual orientation.  Otto’s life is turning around, and a schism develops between him and his punk friends (one of them bears a striking resemblance to my buddy, Noah).  He gets a kooky girlfriend, who is obsessed with the UFO culture, and he finds he’s been cased by spooks and weird chicks with mohawks.

The Malibu is making the rounds and a bounty goes out on the vehicle.  $20,000 to the person (or persons) who can repossess the vehicle.  It makes sense the vehicle would be hot (figuratively as well as literally), and Stanton is locked in a battle of wits with the Rodriguez Brothers, the only other hacks in the game as bad-ass as Stanton’s Helping Hand cronies.  You have an unusual convergence of like-minded nitwits in skid-row: car repossessers, alien abduction nuts, Feds, and religious fanatics all coming together to unlock the power of this vehicle.  In the mish-mash of social commentary littered about the grounds of Cox’s narrative, what we see are emerging trends.  Cox’s worldview is not unlike that of a punk.  There are forces out to control you, and none to liberate you.  That makes a whole Hell-of-a-lot of sense if you consider yourself disenfranchised.

The Malibu changes drivers a few times when the Rodriguez Brothers lift the car, which is then stolen by a couple of Otto’s friends.  The original, crazed driver taunts them into opening the trunk, and they get zapped.  He takes back possession of the car, picks up Otto hitchhiking, and promptly dies behind the wheel, after confessing to him that he had a partial lobotomy in order to negotiate the heavy stress of driving this beast.  As government agents, priest, rabbis, and UFO enthusiasts swarm on the vehicle, it emits lightning and fire, and only Otto and his co-worker, Miller (who told him earlier he refuses to drive and does all his thinking on a bus), can get behind the wheel.  The Malibu ascends into the air and flies into space.  We never really settle on what is inside the trunk.  The crazy driver tells Otto it’s a neutron bomb.  Otto’s girlfriend tell him it’s the corpses of two aliens that emanate dangerous radiation.  I’m guessing it’s a MacGuffin, merely to keep up our interest in the movie, but it doesn’t matter.  This is such an interesting and entertaining film populated with incredible characters that it doesn’t need this device (or vehicle, as the case the may be) to tell the story.

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For this movie to come out when it did, March of 1984, in the middle of the sex comedy and slasher film explosion, and the beginnings of the opening weekend mindset of Hollywood, Repo Man initiated a major smack-in-the-face to the conventions of filmmaking.  Similar in style to something like Jim Sheridan’s Breathless, but with a story and characters we give a crap for, Repo Man is a cultural send-up of science fiction, crime-drama, and tales of government paranoia.  It shows a side of Los Angeles we aren’t used to seeing.  An extraordinarily bold and gifted filmmaker, Alex Cox would follow-up Repo Man with Sid & Nancy, and the much-maligned (although I liked it) Straight To Hell.

Sourced from a VHS tape recorded off the Independent Film Channel (IFC), extended play, circa 2002-2003.  This was back when IFC ran uninterrupted films with no commercials.  Also on the tape were Harmony Korine’s 1997 oddity, Gummo, and the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers starring Donald Sutherland, Leonard Nimoy, and Brooke Adams.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

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Vintage Cable Box: “The Star Chamber, 1983”

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“I’ve got five women shot through the head.  I got bodies piling up all around me.  I’m passing out the ammunition!”

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The Star Chamber, 1983 (Michael Douglas), 20th Century Fox

Test case: a couple of undercover cops are chasing a suspicious character who dumps his gun in a garbage can. They’re about to search the can when one officer informs the other the search would be illegal without a warrant. They arrive at the conclusion that they have to wait for the approaching dump truck to put the contents of the can into the truck (then it becomes city property) before they can execute the search. These are the little-known technicalities of law enforcement.

There are legal searches and illegal searches. Peter Hyams’ thrilling The Star Chamber operates on the presumption of a failed criminal justice system where peace officers are handcuffed by defense attorneys (and their clients) who cop pleas, use reverse logic and appeals to get off. Even when the cops do everything by-the-book, including a trace on the gun, searching the defendant’s home and finding damning evidence that places him at the scenes of several murders (as well as a confession from the accused), they are told the search was still construed as illegal because the garbage was not in the body of the truck.

The system deeply frustrates disillusioned young Judge Steven Hardin (Michael Douglas).  He commiserates with his mentor and friend Caulfield, played by an enigmatic Hal Holbrook, who tells him, in no uncertain terms, he “does something about it”.  The body of a 10-year-old boy is found, mutilated, raped, and murdered.  Soon after, two suspects (Don Calfa and Murphy Brown’s Joe Regalbuto) are apprehended because of a bloody shoe found in their van.  Despite all evidence implicating the two in the crime, and the words of the boy’s grieving father, Hardin has no choice but to release them on a technicality.  The boy’s father tries to shoot the suspects in court.  He injures a police officer and is sent to jail, where he kills himself.

Holbrook informs Douglas he presides in his own court (along with a few other veteran and highly respected judges); in his own words, “a court of last resort”, wherein they review cases of justice denied, and criminals escaping sentencing and punishment in exemplar the test cases I described. Once guilt is determined, they carry out sentencing (essentially a contract hit-man they retain for vigilante-style executions). This is sort-of like a Supreme Court with handguns and silencers. The Star Chamber derives it’s title from “… an English court of law which sat at the royal Palace of Westminster.” Penalties were swift and judgment was absolute. Due to the recent suicide of a celebrated judge (and a member of their chamber), a chair needs to be filled. Douglas takes the job, and his first order of business is to punish the two scumbags who walked.

Now we get to the tricky part. A car thief named Flowers (hilarious DeWayne Jessie) is apprehended, and in order to cop a plea, he provides information to obsessive Inspector Yaphet Kotto about the van Calfa and Regalbuto used. Apparently it was lent out to a trio of criminals for nefarious purposes, including solicitation, kidnapping, and child pornography. This tidbit exonerates the two scumbags from that particular crime. Unfortunately, the order has already gone down for their sentencing, and Michael Douglas is the only man willing and able to stop it. He appeals to the vigilante judges, but they tell him, essentially it’s out of their hands. The anonymity of the judges and their hit-man works both ways, so that neither party can admit culpability. Douglas doesn’t accept this, so he goes out on his own to warn the two before the hit-man can get to them first.

So The Star Chamber plays like a treatise of criminal justice and legal loopholes, but this is pure exploitation with regard to our fears (as taxpayers and unarmed civilians) about how this fragile yet powerful system can be manipulated by anybody with a set of law books. I’ve always enjoyed Peter Hyams’ work, from it’s silliest (Stay Tuned) to it’s scariest (Outland). Though he retained the services of Richard Hannah to shoot The Star Chamber, Hyams, a member of the A.S.C., generally shot most of his movies in addition to directing. There is some great handheld camera-work in this movie, and well-choreographed chase scenes. The Star Chamber starts clean and polished and ends up grimy and sweaty. This is a revenge fantasy in the Dirty Harry mold, replete with reactionary/conservative ideology (a revelatory scene later in the film has the judges informing Michael Douglas that Calfa and Regalbuto are scum and should be executed anyway). Nobody’s giving peace and love a chance in this film, and I love it!

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.