Of Punk And Petulance: REPO CHICK And Alex Cox’s Sad Career Casualty
Alex Cox was blacklisted by Hollywood in 1988.
The year isn’t a typo, but the reasoning behind his banning does vary drastically, depending on whom you ask to tell this “director’s jail” tale. In his 2007 Guardian rant, “How to Kill a Film Star”, Cox claims his rebellious spirit landed him in hot water with the “studio cartels”:
Now the Hollywood studios are not famously kind to film directors, whom they view as a necessary evil. Play the game with them and you may get to direct a costly homage to the Hasbro Toy Company, or Marvel Comics. Fall out of favour with one of them and you will find they all operate as a cartel. When you are blacklisted by one studio, you are blacklisted by them all. Demand your back-end money and you're in even deeper trouble, as New Line's former favourite, Peter Jackson, is now discovering. (Full disclosure here: I was put on the same blacklist back in 1988, when I spent Universal's money on making a film in Nicaragua, in collaboration with the Sandinista government. But that's another story.)
The movie Cox parenthetically references is Walker, his hallucinatory, anachronistic Western. That film utilizes genre iconography as a jumping off point to both explore the life of self-appointed Nicaraguan President William Walker (played with characteristic intensity by Ed Harris), and to propagate an anti-Contra/anti-American intervention message – one that Harris saw as potentially a cinematic means to stop further bloodshed within the nation. In the above statement, Cox alludes to there being more to “the story” than the movie simply costing a shitload of money and earning practically zero at the box office (to put the failure in perspective, the recalcitrant artist spent $6 million and made $257,043). When combined with his taking work during the ’88 WGA Strike, this catastrophe led to the director toiling away in Mexico on Japanese funding for most of the 90s before returning to his native UK, all whilst getting fired from projects like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
It’s somewhat difficult to feel bad for the guy, as Cox certainly made his own bed when it came to pissing off the business of Hollywood (even his earliest picture generated bupkis upon initial release, only to become contextualized as a classic). Though on the flip side, it’s easy to understand why Cox has a spoiled brat’s view of how cinema is produced and sold in America. Upon graduating from UCLA, Cox formed Edge City Productions (named after his 40-minute surreal student film, Edge City/Sleep is For Sissies), and wrote a screenplay he hoped to produce for a mere $70,000. Somehow, Cox was able to convince former Monkee Michael Nesmith and Universal Studios to give him $1 million to make one of the oddest, uninhibited studio films in the history of the medium.
The picture in question, Repo Man, is not only endlessly entertaining (and on this author’s personal Desert Island List**); it effortlessly encapsulates an entire music scene’s driving ethos. Sporting a “fuck the world” philosophy from the Iggy Pop-penned theme on, Repo Man is working in a brazen punk rock mode that really doesn’t care whether or not you’re along for the ride. Cox’s vision of Los Angeles as a wasteland of burnt-out youth and slimy con men is a work of disarming insanity. The artist barely maintains control of his aesthetic, peppering in icons from a scene (like Richard Hell of Hell and the Voidoids) he was unquestionably an admirer of. It’s rough and weird and never slows down for a second, jetting off into a neon green future as it huffs radioactive glue and blasts the Circle Jerks.
Often lost in the conversation surrounding Repo Man is just how beautiful the movie is. In the same year he would shoot another masterpiece featuring Harry Dean Stanton (Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas), Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller proved that his vision of America was one of boundless scorched earth. For Müller, the desert holds many mysteries; an arid ocean in which one can reclaim their soul or try and outrun faceless government officials out to seize an alien force in the trunk of a Chevy Malibu. Müller’s eye doesn’t just capture the landscape, it sees beyond the sand, rocks and cacti. The skies are often polychrome and otherworldly, hanging over Los Angeles homes and shopping depots sporting shelves stocked with generic white cans labeled BEER and FOOD. This world is not our own, and the only ones who can survive are the hardened repo men, taking back what others can’t pay for any longer.
Of course, Universal had no idea what in the hell to do with Repo Man upon initial release, and pulled it from theaters after only a week long run. Cox had been given a gift horse and, in the eyes of the studio, took the beast around back and put two in its brain instead of riding the steed to glory. Thankfully, the movie’s soundtrack became something of a weirdo sensation, and the film saw a re-release in New York City, where it played for nearly eighteen months and, when combined with home video rentals and cable deals, earned $4 million. Cox distanced himself from Universal, but his fascination with punks continued, as the independently financed Sid & Nancy saw him tackling the murder of Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb) at the hands of Sex Pistol Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman). After that, he made Straight to Hell, a spaghetti Western ode co-starring Dick Rude and Joe Strummer. Cox was an artist obsessed with bringing the most in-your-face counterculture of the time to the mainstream, and became a critical darling while doing so.
Unfortunately, great reviews and punk cred don’t buy shit with the studios. Following his exile to Mexico and Liverpool (and a failed attempt at a Repo Man sequel, Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday, which was eventually adapted into a graphic novel), Cox began making micro budget features as a means to creatively rid himself of any kind of oversight. Dubbed Searchers 2.0 (but related in no way to the John Ford classic), his first was a road trip picture, following two actors out to exact vengeance on a screenwriter who did them wrong. The second was Repo Chick, a pseudo-sequel to his 1984 punk classic. Although ordered to cease and desist by Universal (who still owned the rights to the characters), Cox pressed forward and shot the entire film on a sound stage in ten days for less than $200,000 (the SGA-mandated minimum line). The result is possibly one of the most embarrassing motion pictures made by a once legitimately important filmmaker.
Repo Chick deals in artificiality. Gone completely is the organic, tangible nature of Cox and Müller’s LA’s experience, replaced by a green-screened hyper-staginess. Where the characters in Repo Man feel like they grew out of the movie’s alien arena, Repo Chick barely establishes a planet of origin outside of a parallel dimension take on America following a familiar financial collapse. Like Tony Scott’s Domino, the realm of Repo Chick is one of half-remembered tabloid stories and E! Hollywood scandals. At its center is Pixxi De La Chasse (Jaclyn Jonet), the celebutante heiress recently disowned by her parents (Xander Berkley and Karen Black); told to “get a real job” in order to earn back her inheritance. Like the original’s Otto (Emilio Estevez), Pixxi finds solace alongside tutoring “repo man” Arizona Gray (Miguel Sandoval). Because while the rest of the economy may be on the brink of oblivion, bottom feeders like Gray boom, snatching the rides of “ordinary fucking people” whose credit system has collapsed.
In this plastic Barbie mold of the United States, punk rock cannot exist. Accompanying the film’s hot pink opening credits is a Depression Era ragtime ditty (Hezekiah Jones’ “The Panic Is On”), letting us know that the repo man is coming to take our foreclosed homes. Cox is connecting this anti-reality to our own, the styles of an old collapse scoring the new demise of…wherever we are. Replacing primal howls and buzzsaw riffs are the blips and bleeps of Kid Carpet, a UK ‘shit-hip’ artist. Longtime Cox collaborator Dan Wool (Sid & Nancy, Searchers 2.0) may be working with Carpet on the soundtrack, but there are no surf rock replications to be found. In this sphere, a Paris Hilton understudy is our Otto; a rich girl standing up to the tyranny of what it feels like to be poor once the keys to her Bentley are taken away. She’s a self-described “rock star and record promoter”, looking to settle the score with those trying to drag her down from a Beverly Hills ivory tower. In short – money trumped the movement. The system won, and Pixxi is the closest thing we’ve got to a counterculture hero – her dim entourage closely documenting every move in order to produce a “documentary/reality show”.
It seems pertinent to point out that Alex Cox is a 9/11 Truther, incessantly insisting that Dick Cheney was the architect behind the World Trade Center attacks. Keeping that in mind, it makes sense that the world of Repo Chickis a post-apocalypse caused by the federal government. The mortgage corporations are the only booming industry in this predatory climate, outside of the military-industrial complex. Now the wealthy are eating their own. The system that made Pixxi rich collapsed, and she finds herself wandering this Ralph Steadman-esque ink-splattered wilderness, hoping to claw her way back to what’s hers. The film’s constant judgment of the girl’s lifestyle is where the movie takes on a slightly uncomfortable (and almost misogynistic) tone. Pixxi is a cartoon caricature, drawn by an angry old man who watched the grimy interiors he called home get disinfected until the “character” was gone. The affection Repo Mandisplayed for Otto and the other blue-collar misfits at the yard is completely absent, replaced by a bitter sarcasm that is wielded like a weapon, never letting the viewer forget for a second that the movie hates Pixxi to her core. The “repo code” Bud (Stanton) touted (and Cox certainly admired) is long dead, replaced by a lawlessness that empowers monolithic corporations to wage war on its citizens with no threat of repercussion.
In essence, the entirety of Repo Chick is a thematic reversal of Repo Man, which feels mean-spirited all by itself. Repo Man is about rejecting the system – any system – be it a government, musical scene, parental guidance, school, etc. You’re on your own, and can choose to be a “white suburban punk” or fly off into the next galaxy, leaving this oppressive globe behind. Repo Chick tells you that the original’s final outcome is impossible. Here, the symbol for change is a train that is stuck on the tracks and needs to be rerouted in order to avoid a drone strike. In turn, Pixxi is asked to reconcile with the very family she bankrupted in retaliation for taking away her multi-million dollar allowance. The rebel is redirected to embrace the vapid airheads who once ruled the country thanks to their enormous bank accounts. In the end, Pixxi sells out instead of blasting into another dimension – a schematic (her nuclear unit) once again acting as home.
The problem with punk is that it can easily turn into petulance. With Repo Chick, Cox isn't tackling a generation of lost, alienated youth. He's cherry picking low-hanging fruit, all while finger pointing like Alex Jones sporting a bright pink Mohawk. He thinks he's speaking some sort of truth to power, but he's really kicking and screaming about the same shit that bothers Suburban Joe Schmoe. What makes Repo Man continue to feel fresh thirty years on is that the film’s targets (consumer culture, conformity) are attacked in a fashion that makes the viewer feel like they’re getting a peek into a culture they could never be a part of, but are still nevertheless joining in a battle against orthodoxy. Otto is as much an avatar for rebellious youth as he is a classic 80s archetype. With Repo Chick, Cox is raving like a lunatic, to the point that it feels like he's pinning the blame on everyone but himself. It's exclusionary self-righteousness that gets tiresome REAL quick.
It’s sad to watch your punk idols fall, but Repo Chick is a rather excruciating reminder that all former rebels grow old and either enter the very systems they dissented against or bitterly grumble about the battle they’ve lost, all while forgetting the ingenuous recklessness in which they once reveled. Cox is now that bitter old geezer, scribbling comic books that only the Loose Change goofballs could adore. The anarchic prankster is now just an obnoxious street corner barker, hopelessly begging for you to throw more quarters into his hat. Your money will be used to buy fresh sandwich boards, on which he can scrawl the mottos of his hilariously awful belief structure. Don’t give it to him.
*10 Essential Films if Stranded on a Desert Island (Subject to Change at Author’s Whims):
1. Phantom of the Paradise (De Palma, ’74)
2. Blow Out (De Palma, ’81)
3. Videodrome (Cronenberg, ’83)
4. Repo Man (Cox, ’84)
5. Miami Vice [Theatrical Cut Only] (Mann, ’06)
6. Rolling Thunder (Flynn, ’77)
7. Streets of Fire (Hill, ’84)
8. Thief (Mann, ’81)
9. The Road Warrior (Miller, ’81)
10. All That Jazz (Fosse, ’79)