Call it coincidence or kismet, but sometimes life gives you what you need. Sometimes what you need is a job repossessing cars to break you out of your teenage ennui, and sometimes what you need is a mysterious Chevy Malibu with a trunk full of God knows what. More likely, what you need is a code to live by; not many people have a code anymore. Which is all a roundabout way of saying that at one hard time in my life, what I needed — and what the universe provided, through the agency of my possibly psychotic roommate — was a battered VHS copy of Repo Man that made everything all right.
At 22 years old, I was in the middle of a nasty divorce, lost and angry and vindictive and, if we’re being honest, really fucking dumb and a little dangerous. I was on probation for a fight that got way, way out of hand, and I spent my days getting high and plotting revenge on all the people who'd wronged me — the ex, her new boyfriend, and so on. I felt betrayed and broken and put upon by forces beyond my control and beyond my understanding. I was a whiny, self-absorbed little shit, in other words. Into that cesspool of self-pity and misdirected anger came Repo Man, a film made of equal parts angry, put-upon dudes and outrageous nonsense. It was bleak, bordering on nihilistic, but it was also shot through with a loopy mysticism and an undeniable sense of humor. It also had a pretty great soundtrack, which didn’t hurt.
For those somehow unfamiliar with the film, a brief recap. It follows Otto, a disaffected and angry young punk with no ambition, no prospects and no patience for society’s bullshit — or anything else, for that matter. Naturally, I identified. Otto gets suckered into becoming a repo man — taking back people’s cars when they’re behind on payments — and in so doing finds something like a purpose. Or, if not a purpose, something that engages him enough to break through his lack of motivation. After all, the life of a repo man is always intense. In the course of repo-manning, he becomes aware of a car worth a bundle: Someone is offering $20k for its repossession, despite its being an old, kind of shitty car. The reasons have to do with something mysterious in the trunk — aliens, maybe, or a shitload of nuclear material; it’s never precisely clear — but the pursuit of the car gives him, and every other repo man on the planet, something to strive for. Along the way, many wacky and perverse misadventures occur, and the ending is…weird.
I loved it. The cynical, almost nihilistic worldview of all the major players fit my state of mind, and somehow, so did the goofy alien nonsense and rambling mysticism of Miller, the deranged junkyard attendant. At the time, I was generally unemployed, and my tendency to get fired or quit every job I did get suggested I might be unemployable, so I had a lot of time on my hands. And I had this VHS of what seemed like the coolest movie I’d ever seen. The combination meant that I watched Repo Man quite a number of times. And at some point, I realized that one particular scene spoke to me.
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Near the end of the movie, Otto and Bud, his repo-man mentor, run into Duke and Debbi, his friends who’ve turned to a life of crime. In fact, they’re robbing the store where Otto and Bud are looking to buy some beer, and in the process, there’s a lot of shooting, and Duke takes enough hits to kill him. As he’s dying, he gives a cheesy little speech essentially blaming society for forcing him into a life of crime. It could play poignant, but this is Repo Man — poignant is not in its vocabulary in any meaningful way — and Otto dismisses his former pal’s little self-serving soliloquy by pointing out the obvious: “That's bullshit. You're a white suburban punk, just like me.”
It’s not a particularly important scene in terms of the plot, just a funny little throwaway, but after a few dozen viewings, I had a sort of “come to Jesus” moment in response. I realized I was not the victim in my life — I hadn’t been betrayed, or subjected to forces beyond my control. The reason I was a shiftless loser with an ex-wife I couldn’t stand and a lot of resentment and self-loathing was because, in essence, I, too, was just a white suburban punk. I’d made a lot of dumb decisions — not on the scale of robbing-liquor-stores-for-kicks dumb, but dumb enough — and those decisions had led me to where I was. I could lie on the floor, feeling sorry for myself while I bled out (metaphorically speaking), or I could get off my sorry ass, start making better — or at least different — decisions, and make a better life for myself. Maybe I’d end up a repo man, flying into space, or maybe I’d just end up living the same kind of life as the ordinary people I fucking hated, but at the very least, I’d stop blaming them for who and what I was and take responsibility for my life.