“I’m not gonna rock the boat. Rockin’ the boat’s a drag. What you do is sink the boat!” – Putney Swope
I took several pages of notes while staying “Up All Night” with these five films by Robert Downey (a prince), and I’ve already managed to lose them. It’s probably for the best. Heck, I’m not even sure some of these movies should be on DVD. The earliest films by Downey (who swapped his “prince” credit for a Sr. once his baby boy made it big) were made with friends, and strictly for friends; he probably never imagined they would show anywhere outside of Greenwich Village where they played like documentaries to anyone who was with the scene.
Downey’s (princely) goal was mostly to have fun, but he also relished flouting convention; casting a chimpanzee in a three-way was one of his most family-friendly choices. But it would have been a waste of time simply to epater la bourgeosie because, let’s face it man, the squares were never going to see these movies. You could only really celebrate the counter-culture by also making fun of it, and if Downey wanted us to take anything specific out of these movies, it’s that every scene is kinda jive if you take yourself too seriously. Or maybe not, but, hey, who cares what that turkey wanted? They’re our movies now!
There are no rules in the Downey-verse, only fetishes, running the gamut from sock-sniffing church-goers to full-time mother fuckers, and the only true pervert of the lot is the president. In “Babo ’73” (1964, 56 min.), underground icon Taylor Mead (just starting his career as Andy Warhol’s favorite ass) plays Sandy Studsbury, the President of the United Status (not a typo) in the futuristic era of 1973. The president conducts cabinet meetings on folding chairs planted on a deserted beach, flanked by his dueling advisors, one the “fascist gun in the west,” the other his “left-hand man.” Mead only appears intermittently coherent which makes him a perfect match for the story, such as it is, which involves the shooting of a pushy Luxembourg ambassador and a looming war with Albania. President Studsbury (who has a degree in hotel management) operates out of the White House, which looks suspiciously like a dilapidated Victorian, but Downey gets some great guerilla footage of Mead fumbling around the Capitol steps and lurking around the edges of a military parade. Studsbury seems to be a mellow dude, but he’s willing to bomb the hell out of everyone when things get confusing (and he’s easily confused), so don’t go thinking the world will be a better place when the freaks take over.
But then things get weird in “Chafed Elbows”(1966, 58 min.) When we first meet the barefoot Walter Dinsmore (George Morgan), he greets the morning by easing out of bed and tenderly kissing his lover good-bye. “I love you, Walter,” she says. He answers, “I love you too, mother.” Mother flashes a snaggle-toothed freeze-framed smile at the camera, and whacky hijinks ensue. Mother is played by the director’s wife, Elsie Downey, who plays a host of other female roles in the film, including a cousin that Walter also happens to be sleeping with. Once he finds out she’s pregnant, he realizes the only solution is to drop her out of a hotel window. She’s probably dead, but it’s hard to tell since lots of characters stubbornly refuse to stay dead, including Walter himself who gets unceremoniously kicked out of heaven by Jesus because he hasn’t “died enough” yet. The film is shot mostly in still photo montages with some live action sequences mixed in, and the stream of semi-consciousness story follows Walter’s “annual January breakdown” as he gets involved with some avant-garde filmmakers (i.e. porn), gives birth to $1,890 by C-section, and kills his mother before making an honest woman out of her. It’s all good clean fun, of course. I can’t believe Disney hasn’t remade it yet; maybe in the “Avengers” sequel.
“Babo ’73” had its boosters and “Chafed Elbows” played to sold-out theaters for months in the Village. Though they were never destined for wide release, the films turned Downey into a cult figure and also a relatively bankable commodity. Naturally, he decided to spend his newfound funds on his least marketable film yet. Now I wish I had my notes. What the hell was “No More Excuses” (1968, 46 min.) again? Here’s what I recall: a Civil War soldier (played by Downey) who wakes up from a battlefield wound in modern-day Central Park, a man who runs a society that advocates the clothing of all domestic animals, James Garfields’ adventures with his hapless assassin, a rapist priest, and a reporter who keeps pestering singles at a TGI Friday’s about their sex lives. And that chimpanzee too. That society that wanted to put clothes on animals (the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals) was a real one, by the way, or at least it was a real fake one run by real-life prankster Alan Abel, and their slogan “A nude horse is a rude horse” earned plenty of very real donations from folks who didn’t quite get the joke. That’s my way of observing that it’s irrelevant to call this movie or the people in it “weird” because, well, just look at the rest of the world. Also, the chimp is really cute.
By now Downey wasn’t just a marketable counter-cultural figure, but the counter-culture itself was the most marketable (exploitable) commodity around, and Downey found himself working on a series of advertising campaigns where he was ostensibly given free reign to be “creative” only to find his ideas almost universally rejected by his clients because they were too creative. The experience led him to his most famous film, the feature-length “Putney Swope” (1969). After the willful anarchy of his earlier films, Downey (still a prince) was courting disaster by making a film with a coherent, linear narrative, but fans had nothing to fear.
In the opening boardroom scene, the obnoxious chairman of an ad agency chokes to death in mid-rant (one board member mistakes the prolonged death rattle for a game of charades, repeatedly asking “How many syllables, Mario?”) With the still-warm corpse splayed on the table, the remaining board members quickly hold an election for a new chairman, with the proviso that nobody can vote for himself. Putney Swope (played by Arnold Johnson, voiced by Downey Sr.) wins in a landslide because nobody thought anyone else would vote for the token black guy.
Swope promises there will only be minimal changes, but in a single edit, the board members are replaced by black men and women, with a single token white man now in tow. Swope refuses to market toy guns, alcohol, or cigarettes and dubs the new company Truth and Soul, and his edgy campaigns (click a few of the buttons on our media slider above) make him so popular that he even gets a call from the president (played by Pepi Hermine, a dwarf who also appeared in Werner Herzog’s ‘Even Dwarfs Started Small”) who insists that he handle a crucial new account for a very important client: “Putney says the Borman Six Girl is got to have soul!”
Swope’s integrity is put to the test and generally found wanting, but it’s hard to tell how seriously we’re supposed to take his gradual corruption in the pileup of acerbic, absurdist humor and the general chaos. Downey’s strategy is the same as ever: throw everything on the wall and see what sticks… and make sure to film the stuff that doesn’t too. The president is a swinger, Allan Arbus show up from time to time to warn about a company exec who keeps getting arrested for exposing himself, and beer is pee-pee dickie. The commercials (shot in color with the rest of the film in black-and-white) are absolutely brilliant, and the sheer gonzo tenacity of the whole enterprise makes it all work, even the stuff that doesn’t work.
After a flirtation with (sort of) commercial cinema (“Pound” and “Greaser’s Palace”), Downey shot his most free-form project yet. Called “Moment to Moment” in 1975, the film starts… well, it doesn’t really start or end. It just comes into being at an indeterminate point. Call it the earliest episode of the “Tim and Eric Awesome Show” if you want to, but it’s less structured even than that. Senior citizens fight, men on horseback play baseball, a man feeds on the smell of freshly-worn panties. The unifying force in the film is the presence of Elsie Downey who once again plays most of the female roles, and my final impression of the movie is that it it’s a rather stirring love letter to its versatile and talented leading lady. A youngster billed as R.J. Downey also makes an appearance. Downey Sr. re-edited the film for this new release, now under the title “Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight” (1975, 56 min.)
“Putney Swope” is in 1.78:1, the other films are 1.33:1. The transfers vary in quality for obvious reasons. “No More Excuses” only endured as a single 16mm print and was already stitched together from disparate sources; it’s adequate but isn’t going to wow anyone in terms of detail or contrast. “Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight” also appears to be cobbled together and has the general quality of a video transfer. It’s a blotchy, darkly-lit mess, but it’s all still there and as I really got into the film, I wasn’t distracted at all by the poor video quality. “Putney Swope” is easily the best of the lot with only minimal damage evident, and generally strong contrast. The color sequences look a bit washed-out, but this is a very solid transfer overall. The transfers for the other two films are middling affairs, but certainly fall into the category of “good enough.”
The Dolby Digital Mono tracks also vary in quality. At their worst, they are warbly and very thin-sounding. This is a case where English-language films benefit tremendously from the excellent and thorough English subtitles provided. The jazz and pop music interspersed throughout the film suffers from the generally reedy quality of the audio, but it’s not too bad.
Eclipse is the no-frills line for Criterion, so it’s not a surprise that we don’t get any features besides the liner essays by Michael Koresky (superb, as always). However, seeing as “Putney Swope” was already released on DVD (now out of print) with a commentary track, the lack of any supplements seems a bit problematic. It’s fantastic that Criterion has released a set of underground films like this, but unfortunate that they were relegated to the Eclipse line; a Criterion deluxe release would have been welcome.
If these movies weren’t “dated” to some degree, they would be complete failures. Timely is just as good as timeless, and all of these films serve as a window onto the time and condition of their production. They’re also a window into the truly whacked-out imagination of Robert Downey Sr., now and forever a prince. I’m pretty square, but I still dug this set, and if you’ve got the right frame of mind, you probably will too.