Posted by tcmunderground on October 15, 2010
Tonight (Friday 10/15) begins the fifth season of our late night cult movie franchise, “TCM Underground.” This feat is pretty near and dear to my heart, as I was put in charge of programming the show when it first started five years ago. As a fan of cult movies, it’s obviously a big dream come true to have the chance to program “Underground.” I’m happy that there is room for some of the strange, late-night fare amongst our other programming.
If there’s anything that makes the job difficult then, it’s that the term “cult” is very vague and can mean different things to different people. After all, there aren’t any hard and fast parameters set for what is “cult” and what isn’t. For example, if you pick up a copy of any of the highly influential “Cult Movies” books (a series written by film critic Danny Peary), he lists movie titles as far in range as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” to “Citizen Kane.” Recently, a writer over at Bright Lights Film Journal gave what’s probably the best attempt I’ve read at trying to define what “cult” is, even coming up with a “Checklist for Determining Cult Film Status” with eight different criteria.
Despite how reasonable and thought-out the checklist is, however, I still think people will eventually answer this question personally, either by themselves or with the consensus of their friends. And I’ve tried my best to understand that as I’ve programmed the franchise over the years. Certainly I have my own tastes, and that definitely influences me as a programmer, but our jobs here in the programming department are really about trying to run the gamut as best as possible. For “Underground,” I feel like we’ve done a fairly decent job over the years of trying to mix different styles — from zombies to obscure European art house, LSD movies to classroom scare films. Of course, hearing from smart, passionate TCM fans about the movies they’d like to see is incredibly helpful, and also very interesting in terms of seeing how far the programming gamut can run. For example, I’ve gotten feedback from some people who think the films we play can be a little unsettling at times, while simultaneously hearing from people who think Jodorowsky’s “The Holy Mountain” is a tame walk in the park.
Having said all this, I’m really excited to be kicking off our fifth season with Alex Cox’s 1984 classic “Repo Man” – a movie that even the most seasoned cult movie fans I know still consider highly inventive and bizarre. I’ve quickly described it as a “punk rock sci-fi film,” although it’s hilariously satirical and even has the tense, dark moments of a film noir at times. And, as is the story of most cult films, originally the movie went unnoticed upon its release. However, because the film was incredibly popular with the punk rock community, it slowly gained notoriety, and even had a decent theatrical run. The soundtrack was loaded with real L.A. bands including the Circle Jerks, Fear, Black Flag, and Suicidal Tendencies, with Cox being a punk enthusiast himself (he would continue to mix movies and musicians in later films such as “Straight to Hell” and the classic punk love story, “Sid & Nancy”). The film’s protagonist Otto (played by a fresh-faced Emilio Estevez) seemed to mirror the real experiences of the punk generation: alienated from mainstream society, holding contempt for suburbs, cars, consumerism, and other beacons of “normality,” obsessed with the notion of a nuclear holocaust (the film was made in the “glory days” of Reagan and Thatcher and the Cold War).
Dropping Otto into a depressing early ’80s L.A. landscape of junkyards and generic food packaging and pairing him with the hardened car-repossession veteran Bud (played by Harry Dean Stanton, whose performance in this film really moves him into National Treasure status), the cynicism is practically oozing from the screen. I love this scene when Bud starts showing Otto the repo ropes. I don’t know about you, but I always think it’s fascinating when I learn the rules of something in a movie:
As much of a weary-eyed cultural criticism “Repo Man” is, however, the movie is largely about the contents inside the back-end of a 1964 Chevy Malibu that virtually everyone in the film is trying to get their hands on…and eventually the ominous question of, What’s in the trunk? Cox himself has said the movie is really just about nuclear war, with the culture that was created under this threat being “the iceberg.” And there are some fantastic moments of supernatural surreal-ness in the movie (created with those wonderful early ’80s special effects that are hilarious to modern folk). When you first see the scene with the police officer, it’s almost as if you have no idea what kind of movie you’re watching. What a great juxtaposition to have this unknown, spooky, glowing mystery eviscerating anyone it comes into contact with, alongside the bleak, disheartening “real” scenery of the rest of the film.
Personally I think one of the things that give a cult film its status and longevity as such is that it’s almost timelessly unusual; that it will seem creative and iconoclastic today as it did when it was first made. “Repo Man” is definitely one of those movies for me. I hope you enjoy it, along with the other films in the new season of “TCM Underground”!
P.S. I invite you to also stick around for the second film we’re featuring tonight, Adrian Lyne’s 1980 jailbait classic, “Foxes.” Oddly enough, this film also takes place in L.A., also features a current soundtrack, and casts disaffected youth as the protagonists, even starring a punk musician (Cherie Currie of The Runaways). Makes you wonder if we had planned it that way!
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