Repo Man

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

4 February

Radium synthesised, 1936

The element radium had been discovered by Marie Sklodowska-Curie and her husband Pierre in 1898. They had taken a ton of pitchblende and from it separated out a tenth of a gram of radium chloride. From that, by 1910, Marie Curie had managed to isolate pure radium, along the way coining the word “radioactivity”. Sources for this useful metal (it was what made luminous watch faces and instrument dials glow) were scarce and when the Austrian government banned further export of silver-mine tailings, the search was on to find other radioactive elements, and to produce radium synthetically. Radium is not a stable element and exists (if that’s the word) in a variety of isotopes, the most common and most long lived being 226Ra, which occurs as Uranium (238U) decays. It was on this day that something like that natural process was first replicated in the laboratory, when Dr John Jacob Livingood’s experiments into the bombardment of elements, most notably bismuth, with 5-MeV deuterons (the nucleus of deuterium, aka heavy hydrogen, abundant in the oceans) produced Radium E. However, it was already realised that radium was dangerous – the United States Radium Company was already being sued by several of its workers, whose terminal illnesses they claimed, rightly, were caused by radium poisoning – though its use in quack toothpastes, mineral waters and bath salts continued for decades.

Repo Man (1984, dir: Alex Cox)

Alex Cox’s feature debut is one of the most cult items of the 1980s. It is the perfect star vehicle for Harry Dean Stanton, playing Bud, the repossession man of the title, and hands a nice early role to Emilio Estevez, who was a year off having his Breakfast Club moment. Mixing genres – noir, nukes, a bit of gang stuff, aliens from outer space – British born Cox also brings an outsider’s eye to LA, where the film is largely set. There’s not much of a plot – a 1964 Chevy Malibu is heading for LA, with something a bit special in its boot. Meanwhile, seemingly unconnectedly, Bud is scudding about at the bottom of the pile in the city of broken dreams, repossessing cars, turning a fast buck out of other people’s misery, where he meets punkass Otto (Estevez) who has soon joined the one-man outfit as a general fixer/rookie and focus for Bud’s observations on the city they’re operating in. Which is really the focus of the film, and the reason for its popularity. Turning a beady satirical eye on a place that’s constantly remodelling itself, Cox undercuts the optimism of the neon lights with a worldview typical of a generation that’s expecting the apocalypse sometime soon. It’s riding towards the city in the back of a sleek beast of car, in fact. And realising no one particularly wants to sit through 90 minutes of “we’re doomed, doomed” Cox couches the whole thing in black humour – Harry Dean Stanton’s bitter monologues, visual gags in the malls of LA, cops who knit, scientists who have lost their minds. A thriller… with jokes. Not many people can pull it off. Cox does here. It’s one of the most visually and tonally distinctive films of the 1980s and its dry, dirty influence is incalculable.

Why Watch?

  • Cox’s debut, and his best movie
  • This is the Harry Dean Stanton movie
  • Robby Müller’s appropriately crisp cinematography
  • So many sly little jokes it can be watched repeatedly

Repo Man – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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