Notes From Underground

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:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0IzCyp-dwbs]

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!

16 Responses Notes From Underground
Posted By Wings : October 15, 2010 1:24 pm

Congrats on the start of a new season! Have found many great films here on TCM Underground, and hope to find many, many more! Keep ‘em coming!

Posted By Wings : October 15, 2010 1:24 pm

Congrats on the start of a new season! Have found many great films here on TCM Underground, and hope to find many, many more! Keep ‘em coming!

Posted By franko : October 15, 2010 2:31 pm

I loved Repo Man when I first saw it in 1984 and I love it as much today. Back then I didn’t know “cult” from a hole in the ground, it was just a cool flick. I still have a 26-year-old grainy tv-copied vhs tape of it that simply adds to the fun of watching it. One of my favorite scenes is the character Tracy’s story of meeting John Wayne – hilarious!

Posted By franko : October 15, 2010 2:31 pm

I loved Repo Man when I first saw it in 1984 and I love it as much today. Back then I didn’t know “cult” from a hole in the ground, it was just a cool flick. I still have a 26-year-old grainy tv-copied vhs tape of it that simply adds to the fun of watching it. One of my favorite scenes is the character Tracy’s story of meeting John Wayne – hilarious!

Posted By Kingrat : October 15, 2010 4:31 pm

I love REPO MAN. Isn’t Otto’s last name Maddoc (i.e., Automatic)? A friend loved the line about one of Otto’s friend’s idea of crime: “Let’s get sushi and not pay!”

Since I don’t like horror films, I don’t usually watch Underground, but campy or obscure films are another matter. In one of the programing challenges I proposed a double feature of Joan Crawford lip-synching in blackface (TORCH SONG) and Joan Collins as a nun (SEA WIFE). For an obscure cult film a little earlier than REPO MAN, how about Alan Rudolph’s WELCOME TO L.A.?
Some people hate it, some of us love it.

Posted By Kingrat : October 15, 2010 4:31 pm

I love REPO MAN. Isn’t Otto’s last name Maddoc (i.e., Automatic)? A friend loved the line about one of Otto’s friend’s idea of crime: “Let’s get sushi and not pay!”

Since I don’t like horror films, I don’t usually watch Underground, but campy or obscure films are another matter. In one of the programing challenges I proposed a double feature of Joan Crawford lip-synching in blackface (TORCH SONG) and Joan Collins as a nun (SEA WIFE). For an obscure cult film a little earlier than REPO MAN, how about Alan Rudolph’s WELCOME TO L.A.?
Some people hate it, some of us love it.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 15, 2010 5:52 pm

REPO MAN is great and it seems to get better with age. I’m looking forward to the next season of TCM Underground!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 15, 2010 5:52 pm

REPO MAN is great and it seems to get better with age. I’m looking forward to the next season of TCM Underground!

Posted By How Do You Define a Cult Film? Repo Man and Rockula » DVDs Worth Watching : October 15, 2010 7:24 pm

[...] found this piece via an article on MovieMorlocks.com, the official TCM blog. There, the programmer of the Friday night feature TCM Underground talks [...]

Posted By How Do You Define a Cult Film? Repo Man and Rockula » DVDs Worth Watching : October 15, 2010 7:24 pm

[...] found this piece via an article on MovieMorlocks.com, the official TCM blog. There, the programmer of the Friday night feature TCM Underground talks [...]

Posted By wilbur twinhorse : October 15, 2010 9:24 pm

thanks tcmunderground for all the late nite dvr recordings here on the east coast…may the dreadlocked red head keep a runnin’ down the la river/or is it studio city? I’ve enjoyed the choices you’ve made and I can imagine it isn’t easy.
Obscure little seen films are Cult, I think

Posted By wilbur twinhorse : October 15, 2010 9:24 pm

thanks tcmunderground for all the late nite dvr recordings here on the east coast…may the dreadlocked red head keep a runnin’ down the la river/or is it studio city? I’ve enjoyed the choices you’ve made and I can imagine it isn’t easy.
Obscure little seen films are Cult, I think

Posted By Chris Fitzpatrick : October 17, 2010 4:57 pm

Awesome seeing Repo Man on the Underground. Fantastic.

Posted By Chris Fitzpatrick : October 17, 2010 4:57 pm

Awesome seeing Repo Man on the Underground. Fantastic.

Posted By iluvcinema : October 17, 2010 10:58 pm

Congratulations on a fifth season! Cannot wait to see what you have in store for us :)

Keep up the good work!

Posted By iluvcinema : October 17, 2010 10:58 pm

Congratulations on a fifth season! Cannot wait to see what you have in store for us :)

Keep up the good work!

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