IS ALEX COX’S REPO MAN A CULT FLICK, A FILM CLASSIC, OR BOTH?
“BEST GODDAMN CAR ON THE LOT”
For a few hours on a Saturday afternoon last summer, the streets of Los Angeles were crawling with repo men. Fifty vehicles prowled the desolate districts south of downtown L.A. in search of a luminous 1964 Chevy Malibu. But these weren’t your ordinary repo men: they were participants in a scavenger hunt organized by the Alamo Drafthouse, an offbeat Texas theater that had literally taken its show on the road by embarking on a 6,000-mile odyssey across America to show eleven classic movies on a giant forty-by-twenty-foot inflatable screen in the places where they were filmed. They screened Once upon a Time in the West in Monument Valley, Utah, and It Came from Outer Space in Roswell, New Mexico; but Englishman Alex Cox’s 1984 film Repo Man was an odd choice for a film to represent L.A. With a cheerless landscape of junkyards, industrial lots, and makeshift skid-row shelters—what Cult Flicks and Trash Pics describes as “a place that appears to be crumbling before the camera”—we’re a long way from Sunset Boulevard. Compared with the palm-studded, chlorine-bleached L.A. of Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), Repo Man feels like it was shot in another galaxy.
The search for an elusive gold 1964 Chevy Malibu drives Repo Man’s plot, so Alamo Drafthouse owner Tim League bought one off eBay for about $3,000 and offered it up as the grand prize. On one of the hottest days of the year I took the Harbor Freeway downtown and made my way south toward the graffiti-blasted concrete corridor that constitutes the L.A. River. I parked at the dusty lot at Third and Santa Fe where the film freaks were lined up at the registration tent two hundred deep, sweltering in the heat. Tim, a fair-skinned red-headed Texan, had the look of a man who spends all of his time in the dark enclosure of the projection booth and was slightly stunned to find himself in this shadowless place where the sunlight slanted crazily in the smog. He agreed to “embed” me with one of the fifty teams lined up to pay fifty bucks a pop for a chance at a forty-year-old Chevy.
What I didn’t tell Tim was that I am a Repo Man expert in my own right, and as a frequent visitor to Union Station, I know my way around the ass end of downtown better than most Angelenos. What’s more, I had a secret weapon up my sleeve and no intention of keeping my expertise to myself. Journalistic objectivity be damned, I was going to find that Malibu and bring it back to the Believer’s headquarters.
I waited in the shade of the registration tent with nothing to do but size up the entrants and eye the beer cooler. Eventually I was joined by Roberta Barash, the elderly mother of one of Repo Man’s cast members, Olivia Barash, who plays Leila, the love interest (sort of) of Otto Maddox (Emilio Estevez). Roberta was waiting for Olivia to show up so she could join her as one of the rally’s contestants. This struck me as unfair, but Roberta assured me that neither she nor her daughter knew where the Malibu was hidden.
When all fifty spots had been filled, Tim passed out instruction kits to the teams while those who’d been turned away looked on with glum dissatisfaction. Tim reminded the contestants that under no circumstances were they to open the envelope containing their driver’s licenses. An open envelope would signify that they’d been pulled over by the police and the team would be automatically disqualified. A shrewd move, but since I wasn’t a contestant per se, no one had asked for my license. Advantage: the Believer.
Tim made the announcement that a local journalist wanted to ride along with a team and the freaks descended on me.
“Ride with us,” a portly man sweating inside his black T-shirt said. “We’ve got a real repo man.”
Before I could answer, a dodgy-looking dude with long, scraggly hair asked me if I wanted to ride with one of the stars of the movie. This was the actor Del Zamora, who plays half of the Rodriguez Brothers, and he was referring to Jennifer Balgobin, the London-born actress who plays Debbi, the insanely hot punk rock chick with the mohawk, but I didn’t know any of this at the time.
Two young women in tank tops came to my rescue. “Pick us!” they shouted. “We’re fun!” They seemed bright, wholesome-looking, and, yes, fun. Best of all, they didn’t look like they worked in a comic book store or lived with their mothers. They looked like winners in the game of life. I decided to ride with Erin Fleckenstein, thirty-one, a graphic designer from Pasadena, Mary Ann Sullivan, thirty-two, a pixie-thin fourth-grade teacher from Glassell Park, and her husband, Blair Huizingh, who had turned thirty-four that very day.
Tim fired up the megaphone and told us the rally would begin Le Mans style. That is, the repo men would begin at the staging area, and when the signal was given we’d run to our cars.
“Please drive safely, especially when leaving the parking lot. It may be what we call in the industry a bit of a clusterfuck.”
Tim counted down backwards from five, and I was off, chugging across a dusty parking lot and jumping into the passenger seat of a rust-colored Honda Element with a bunch of strangers. Team Believer was ready to roll.
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