Reviews

Irreverence and Zaniness Abound in 'Eclipse Series 33: Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr.'

Putney Swope (1969)

Eclipse Series 33: Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr. features five films directed by the absurdist filmmaker between 1964 and 1975, all of which have only one common denominator: utter and complete madness.


Putney Swope

Director: Robert Downey Sr.
Cast: Taylor Mead, Elsie Downey, Robert Downey Sr., Arnold Johnson
Distributor: Criterion
Rated: NR
Release date: 2012-05-22

In a series of conversations recorded by The Criterion Collection between Robert Downey Sr. and Paul Thomas Anderson, the younger director sums up the essence of his idol and friend’s work by bluntly asking, “What the fuck is going on?” The elder filmmaker replies just as eloquently by exclaiming “[more importantly] How the fuck did I do it?”.

The truth is that Robert Downey Sr. has never held tradition or rules in high esteem. At a time when the world was preoccupied with the nuclear age and civil rights, he found a way to filter these topics through pure cinematic anarchy in a series of films now compiled by Criterion under their, endlessly surprising, Eclipse Series.

Eclipse Series 33: Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr. features five films directed by the absurdist filmmaker between 1964 and 1975, all of which have only one common denominator: utter and complete madness. In 1961 the director released Babo 73, an acidic political satire in which actor Taylor Mead plays the President of the United Status, a messed up government trying to battle the “Red Siamese”, while holding important cabinet meetings at an abandoned beach and reconvening in their own version of the White House: an abandoned Victorian mansion on the verge of collapse.

If the film’s settings and “production design” suggest a political environment that was similarly on the edge of chaos (the film was released during the 1964 election), it might be only by chance, given that Downey himself confesses how the budgetary constraints and lack of permits to film in locations, forced his tiny crew to shoot guerrilla style. What remains undeniably brilliant is the zany dialogues the director gives his actors, some of which make no real sense but are delivered with Marxian (Groucho not Karl) gusto.

Babo 73 was followed by the even more irreverent Chafed Elbows, a film that opens with its hero, Walter Dinsmore (George Morgan) lying in post-coital bliss with a woman who turns out to be his mother (she is played by Elsie Downey, the director’s wife, who played over a dozen characters in the film). After this shocking revelation, we follow Walter as he goes through his annual breakdown. Like a (more) twisted Frank Abagnale Jr., he goes through a series of odd jobs and adventures, all of which require him to pretend he’s something he’s not.

Taylor Mead in Babo '73 (1973)

The film is composed mostly of photographs which are then played in sequence (think La Jetee without any romanticism), alternated with a few live action sequences. All of the dialogues were dubbed and to Downey’s surprise, the film turned out to be a commercial success, in spite of its very humble origins (post-production and development credits going partially to Walgreen’s).

What Downey achieved with Chafed Elbows, was nothing if not, the revelation that madcap cinema had its place next to the massive productions being released by the studios, at the time of its release, The Sound of Music was winding down its box office run as the most popular movie of all time...

After Chafed Elbows came No More Excuses, a quasi-documentary in which Downey captures the swinging '60s sex scene by interviewing couples involved in all sorts of sexual practices. The couples’ responses are intercut with scenes of Downey’s first short film, in which he played a Civil War veteran who finds himself in modern day New York City, leading to a hilarious scene where he walks into a baseball game. “A weirdo dressed in Union Army uniform wandered out of the right field [and inquired] ‘where are those damyankees’?” read the newspaper the following day. For those keeping track of “firsts”, with No More Excuses Downey predated the neurotic single scene of Sex and the City and the anachronistic insanity of Borat by a good four decades.

Putney Swope (1969) might just be the director’s most famous film. A satire dealing with the politics of Madison Avenue and the corruption of the white power structure, this one has its title character (played by Arnold Johnson) become chairman of his ad agency, when his predecessor unexpectedly dies and his colleagues chose him merely so their enemies won’t win. Their plan backfires when Swope turns the agency into an institution dedicated to black power and refuses to make business with tobacco and alcohol companies, to the point which he is deemed a national security threat by the government. What Swope lacks in budget, it more than makes up for in pure wit.

The last film featured in the set is Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight which has been heralded as a dadaist work ahead of its time, but in all honesty is the least pleasurable entry in this otherwise exciting collection. Considering that as a young man Downey ignored the traditional path and instead played semi-pro baseball, served in the army and worked in off-Broadway plays, his early oeuvre marvelously represents his zany personality.

Decades later he would add the “Sr” to his name, after his firstborn son became a movie star. Whatever there is to be said there about the role of patriarchal values becomes obsolete when you realize that Sr. once made Jr. play a puppy in one of his films. His eventual “passing of the crown” perhaps an apology to his son, for all the fun his friends would make at his expense in years to come.

7

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
5
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image