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A Question of Aesthetics

Thoughts on a film: Repo Chick (2009)

It's been ten years since the release of Repo Chick (2009); writer and director Alex Cox's self-proclaimed "non-sequel" to his earlier but still very much enduring cult-classic, Repo Man (1984). At the time I'd intended to post something about the look and stylisation of the film, which struck me (and still does) as incredibly intelligent, even satirical; however, a combination of laziness and procrastination meant I never got around to it. Having recently read and blogged about Cox's great and very self-deprecating 2008 book, "X Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker", I'm once again drawn to discussing the director's work and feeling compelled to come to the defence of this particular film, which seems misunderstood.

A cursory glance at the YouTube comments for the film's trailer, or indeed the user reviews posted on Letterboxd and the IMDb, give an immediate impression as to why Repo Chick was so mocked and derided. The general consensus is that the film looks cheap (it was, comparatively speaking: the final production budget was $200,000) and that the imagery is flat, fake and bordering on the amateurish. Two of these criticisms seem fair. The imagery is flat - it's frequently composed in a presentational, tableau-vivant style, which restricts the natural movement of the actors within the frame - and it isfake. All scenes were shot with the actors positioned in front of a green-screen, with the backdrops - created through a combination of miniatures, old toys and CGI - added in later. But is it amateurish? I'm not so sure.

Repo Chick [Alex Cox, 2009]:

Given the context of Cox's film, its emphasis on a superficial character - a kind of post-Paris Hilton/pre-Kim Kardashian trust-fund millennial forced to work and engage with the seamier side of life following the 2008 financial crash - it would be fair to say that the film is meant to reflect the point of view of its title character and her background of sheltered privilege. If the world looks fake - and it does - then it's probably because the character is fake. The presentation of the world here is seemingly superficial, made childish and immature in order to reflect the character's sense of arrested development. The artificiality of it, the flatness, the plasticity, are all intentional, and suggest the life of a character imprisoned by circumstances and a culture devoid of authenticity.

In terms of its context and conception, the stylisation of the film, with its posed artificiality, its falseness, the almost Barbie™ doll diorama of it all, is incredibly important to the film's wider socio-political subtext. The character becomes a toy, controlled and manipulated by unseen forces. Through this, Cox is creating a dual commentary: on one hand  illustrating how people, especially young people, are controlled and manipulated by the culture, the media and marketing, by parents and peers, while on the other hand illustrating something of a self-reflexive commentary on the nature of cinema and storytelling, where actors are moved around a play-set facsimile of the world and given thoughts, actions and opinions by some omnipotent, controlling force.

While stylised to look intentionally cheap and kitsch, the filmmaking is in fact incredibly clever and works to suggest subtleties and nuances in the text and sub-text of the film. If audiences found this style dismissible, or refused to engage with it on the academic, post-modern level at which it was clearly aimed, then it's probably because the "form" stands in direct contrast to their perceptions of what a film should be; or more specifically, what an Alex Cox film should be in the context of the earlier Repo Man and its particular "brand."

Repo Man [Alex Cox, 1984]:

Contrast and compare with the imagery from the earlier Repo Man, with its gritty Los Angeles noir and nods to atomic-age B-movies recalling the apparently more authentic and conventional influences of The Driver (1978) by Walter Hill or Kiss Me Deadly (1955) by Robert Aldrich.

What critics and audiences were really reacting against in their dismissal of Repo Chick and its particular visual aesthetic was that the film didn't conform to their expectations of what an Alex Cox film should be. Even though the film is true to the same spirit of post-modernist deconstruction, socialist politics, genre play and subverting expectations consistent throughout the filmmakers career, the markedly different approach to the stylisation - which looks nothing like the earlier Repo Man or Sid & Nancy (1986) - saw Repo Chick dismissed as a failed experiment.

Rather than look at the film for what it is, viewers approached it in the context of what it isn't. They wanted the real Los Angeles with its grit and grime, the car chases, the urban sprawl and decay, the disenfranchised Generation X mentality of drop-out nihilism, and they balked when they didn't get it. Rather than embrace Repo Chick as something different, something new or something alive with ideas and ideals, critics of the film merely turned to derivative efforts such as Drive (2011) and Nightcrawler (2014), finding their fix for alienated L.A. noir in those particular works instead.

Repo Chick [Alex Cox, 2009]:

It's worth mentioning that Cox doesn't categorise Repo Chick as an actual sequel to Repo Man; however, given both the title and its plot contrivances, as well as the obvious facts that both films are by the same writer and director, it's not unreasonable for people to drawn comparisons.

In the ten years since Repo Chick was released to mixed reviews and much bemusement across social media, the general language of the mainstream cinema has shifted. The rapid development of digital cinematography, CGI and green-screen technology, has meant that the cinema, post-Avatar (2009) by James Cameron, has become increasingly artificial, with the line between live-action and animation, especially in relation to recent Dinsey® remakes, such as The Lion King (2019), becoming increasingly blurred. If we're to still cling to the criticisms of Cox's film and its flat, artificial aesthetic, then how do we square that with recent films that have been acclaimed by audiences and critics as pinnacles of the modern cinema? Are the images from Repo Chick more or less fake-looking than this?

Black Panther [Ryan Coogler, 2018]:

The above images are of course taken from massively acclaimed, Oscar® nominated Marvel™ blockbuster, Black Panther (2018). While the imagery here has a gloss and a scale that the Cox film isn't able to compete with, it's still to all intents and purposes, flat and artificial. The images lack depth, scale and spatial authenticity, and yet despite all this they're not embracing artificiality as an aesthetic choice, but merely putting up with its lack of photo-realism because the convenience dictates.

The makers of Black Panther aren't satirising the falseness of a character or their arrested state-of-development. Images such as the ones seen here are meant to be believable and true to life. Is it also worth mentioning that the Marvel film in question had a production budget of $210million, enough to fund Cox's film countless times over, and yet the imagery - so acclaimed by modern critics - is scarcely "better" than that of Repo Chick, and certainly less distinctive.

No one would say that the imagery from Black Panther looks amateurish, but the fact remains that is doesn't look authentic, convincing or real. Like Repo Chick, the imagery looks flat and fake. And yet no one has levelled this as a criticism against Black Panther, or of other films in the same comic book sub-genre, such as Avengers 2: Age of Ultron (2015), or the more recent Aquaman (2019). All of these films were shot in the same manner as Cox's film, with the actors in front of a green screen, and the backdrops rendered later in post-production. And yet the deliberate stylisations of Repo Chick were seen as a deterrent to the film's success - while Black Panther can look like a 90s video game movie and still get nominated for "best cinematography" by members of the Film Critics Association Awards.

Black Panther [Ryan Coogler, 2018]:

Repo Chick [Alex Cox, 2009]:

In Repo Chick, the image has context. The style, no matter how contentious or derided, is a part of the content. There is no context for the garish imagery of films like Aquaman or the video-game-like flatness of Black Panther. These films are aesthetically deficient, not to create a point, but because they're manufactured products. Unlike the stylisation of Repo Chick, the additional films discussed here represent no unique vision, purpose or intent. They're simply examples of the corporate cinema, which unfortunately continues to triumph over the genuinely independent cinema that Cox is dedicated to.

Styling Repo Chick to look and feel identical, aesthetically, to the earlier Repo Man, might've served the kind of audiences and critics that don't go to the movies to be challenged or provoked. It may have even resulted in a return to cult-movie acclaim for its writer and director, who rejected the lure of Hollywood to make greater films like Walker (1987) and El Patrullero (1991). However, it would've been a mistake. By rejected nostalgic recreation and instead embracing the new, the independent, the handmade, Cox is remaining close to the spirit of post-punk anarchism that runs throughout his career. After all, there's nothing less radical than a middle-aged artist trying to play to the nostalgia crowd by becoming a tribute-act to their own past work. Just look at The Rolling Stones.


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