Repo Man

Emilio Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton in Repo Man

 

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

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Repo Man – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Bobby

Sharon Stone and Demi Moore in Bobby

 

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

 

 

20 November

 

 

Robert Kennedy born, 1925

On this day in 1925, Robert Kennedy was born. The seventh child and third son of Joseph Kennedy Sr – who had made a fortune out of brokering deals with Hollywood studios and then importing whisky into post-Prohibition America – Robert was, like his father, not particularly academic but, having been gifted a good education by his socially and politically ambitious father, made it to Harvard, then went on to law school.

Thanks to the manoeuvring of his father, Robert rose quickly, working first at the US Department of Justice, then for scourge-of-the-communists Joe McCarthy, pausing to help mastermind his brother John’s campaign to become a US senator.

His campaigns against union corruption and organised crime made his name, and in 1960 he was made Attorney General by his brother, now President, which was the sort of dynastic nepotism that the Kennedys were famous for. He was in many respects the power behind the JFK throne – no Attorney General since has had closer access to the president, or was consulted on so many aspects of policy – notably foreign policy crises in Berlin and Cuba.

He was an effective scourge of the mafia, sought to rein in the power of FBI boss J Edgar Hoover and continued his campaigns against union corruption. But he became best known for his championing of the civil rights movement, as represented by Martin Luther King Jr.

After his brother’s assassination and Lyndon Johnson’s surprise decision not to stand for re-election, Robert joined the presidential race in 1968. However he was assassinated while on the campaign trail, by Sirhan Sirhan, a Christian Palestinian who had become enraged by RFK’s support for Israel.

Thus a great campaigner for civil rights at home was laid low by his perceived stance against civil rights in a foreign land.

 

 

 

Bobby (2006, dir: Emilio Estevez)

Though the tagline – “He saw wrong and tried to right it. He saw suffering and tried to heal it…” etc etc – is bordering on the hagiographic, Emilio Estevez’s film is not in the business of canonising Robert Kennedy, or even of painting a picture of the man. Instead it’s a portrait of the times in which he lived, through the lives of the various people who are in the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, on the day he died in 1968.

Structured like 1932’s Grand Hotel, which assembled a starry cast headed by Greta Garbo and Lionel Barrymore, Bobby takes a similarly starry assembly and gives each member a neat vignette tailored to their strengths.

So Anthony Hopkins burbles, William H Macy winces, Laurence Fishburne intones, Heather Graham undresses, Ashton Kutcher dudes about. Only Lindsay Lohan seems to be actually doing any acting outside her comfort zone (but then Lohan has talent).

There is a lot to like, and if you don’t happen to like whoever is on screen, there’ll be another vignette, another set of actors along in a few minutes.

Revelations on the way include watching Demi Moore and Sharon Stone without the usual “years younger” make-up on – they look terrible but they are meant to look terrible. Moore plays a boozy old Liz Taylor-alike soak, and Stone is a slutty beautician and pulls a whole array of compost-heap faces – she is particularly fabulous.

Director Estevez has called in a lot of favours, in other words, including one from his father, Martin Sheen, who also turns up. Estevez’s brilliance consists in hiding, just, the fact that we’re watching little more than cameos – it’s the no-name actors who provide the actual dramatic heft.

Weaving through all those stories of star and non-star alike are Estevez’s themes: the collapse of the post-war liberal consensus, the death of progress, the arrival of identity politics, moral relativism, the personal as political – the postmodern world in other words.

And just when you’re beginning to wonder whether all these various strands, themes and people are just going to flap about on screen in an unconnected way, Estevez starts to pull them all together as he engineers us towards the pantry and the moment of RFK’s assassination. Suddenly the tension peaks, it all makes sense, it’s all rather sad, it’s all rather horrible. Bobby is a very impressive film.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Emilio Estevez’s best film as director, star, whatever
  • All-star casts don’t come much more all-star
  • William H Macy is wincing because Sharon Stone is actually cutting his hair
  • You wanna see Shia LaBeouf naked – ok, maybe not

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Bobby – at Amazon