Reflections of a Rebel: Harry Dean Stanton in Repo Man
This is part two of a Harry Dean Stanton retrospective, in honor of one of our greatest living actors.
“I’m not really into religion.” - Harry Dean Stanton
A character actor akin to Harry Dean Stanton’s caliber fuels a question which, even as the man turned 91 this past July, continues to be asked: why doesn’t he receive more roles? Paris, Texas exemplified the freedom of a caged personality roaming the fields of a singular character study, and the result was astonishing. But as a Harry Dean showcase, Paris, Texas was an anomaly in that it was a crystal-clear focus pull to a performer mostly in the blurred edges, adding flavor and pronouncing little details. His efforts always threaten the very essence of an ensemble hierarchy, as if he’s about to command the screen for his own gain as soon as the supposed lead turns their back.
Repo Man, written and directed by Alex Cox, prides itself on Harry Dean Stanton stealing the show and running away with it in every conceivable moment. If he’s in the scene, you can bet your eyes are watching, following, and listening for any line of dialogue or perceptible hint of motion. Stanton's Bud is a side presence — a punk, nihilist mentor figure for Emilio Estevez’s Otto — yet the gravitation towards the character is undeniable. The film’s formal and narrative aesthetic provides a reason to how Stanton broke through his side-performer prison like a sheet of glass — the film does not give a fuck, a mentality defined in Stanton’s own brand of personal misery and existentialism. Opening with a mysterious 1950s sci-fi incident, the film continues to blend the horrors of Reaganism with similarly odd occurrences of cosmic sights and sounds, creating a ‘fuck off’ B-picture with a real sense inside its jangled, consumer-fed noggin.
The film is a work of art seemingly personified by its lead character, a young kid with no path in sight and an angry temper, but its heart lies in Bud, an individual who tricks Otto into initially repossessing a car by fabricating a personal story. Sympathy is fake, and money is the transactional gateway to artificial chaos, a state of mind Bud avoids by occupying himself inside intentional in-between lines of societal acceptance and understanding. His life is on the edge, collapsing off the fringes, and completely sure of its instability. “Look at those assholes, ordinary fucking people. I hate ‘em," is the pre-Fight Club mantra of the cinematic world; a line of dialogue uttered in total defiance of the systems which confine us. Stanton has mentioned his reliance on himself to create a performance, and in Repo Man, it is the flare-ups, the angry side-glances, and capitalistic outrages regarding institutionalized religion and governmental functions which build a framework of Bud’s ethos. Alex Cox just happened to find an actor capable of tuning into such indignation and allowing it to spread across an alien void.
Such a mashup is the key to Cox’s ultimate message — that societal constraints and expectations don’t matter in the face of eventual euphoria shaped by mortality. Its climax — too good to spoil — resides on the same plane as something out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Starman: transcendence beyond common interests and surface pleasures. The ultimate irony is Bud’s rejection from liberation, his anti-society mentality becoming an obsession of its own. Extremes are on both ends of the spectrum, and the damage is achingly similar. Bud’s fiery contradictions become an internal exploration, one which continues in the wandering of Paris, Texas, of both character and actor. His connection to the roles which he adopts is growth on an emotional scale.
It makes the aesthetic similarities between this and Paris, Texas even more poignant, pronouncing the inherent division between film to film with an actor. Robby Müller, cinematographer for Repo Man, also shot Paris, Texas, evoking similar American landscapes alongside the beam of neon, but you could never picture Travis stumbling into the world of Repo Man, and vice versa with Bud. Harry Dean Stanton’s roles are blueprints of refracting versions of himself; no matter how close they get to each other, they never collide. There’s a lot of beauty in discovering an actor who never attempts to reinvent himself, only the specifics of what the page offers. Harry Dean Stanton is no-bullshit. Why act like other people when he can be who he is?