Studio:The Criterion Collection Year: 1975 Cast: Taylor Mead, Arnold Johnson, Elsie Downey, Robert Downey Sr. Director: Robert Downey Sr. Release Date: May 22, 2012 Rating: Not Rated for (nudity, adult language, adult themes) Run Time: 05h:03m:00s Genre(s): experimental, underground, comedy
"We have a laboratory in New Jersey that does nothing but take clothes on and off animals all day long." - Alan Abel
Experimental and subversive, but more than that...funny. Robert Downey, Sr.'s output in the 60s and 70s makes for some of the best underground filmmaking of the era.
Movie Grade: B+
DVD Grade: B+
Beginning in the early 1960s, Robert Downey Sr. created a series of short-ish underground films which are often among the best-regarded experimental works of an era in which there was no shortage of experimentation. These films are often crude, sly, cheap, and funny in equal measures, but each has a completely untethered energy. This Criterion box set includes five of Downey's best.
First up is 1964’s Babo 73, probably the roughest of the bunch, shot here and there well before Downey became a cult favorite. Like almost all of these movies, it’s tough to pull enough threads out of the film to describe a plot. In this one, the ineffectual, mush-mouthed, and pointless President (of the United Status of America) rules from the beach (which, in Downey’s universe, is enough of a set as anyone would ever need). President Sudsbury is played by the entirely game Taylor Mead, subject that same year of the Andy Warhol film Taylor Mead’s Ass (I haven’t seen it, but the IMDb plot description helpfully explains that “Taylor Mead bares his ass.”) That’s the experimental era that we’re in, here: the technology was such in the 60s that filmmakers like Warhol and Downey could make their own films outside of the Hollywood studios, but had not reached the point as to make any of it easy. Babo 73 is loaded with comic ideas. Some of them stick, many of them don’t, but the unpretentious energy is infectious.
Chafed Elbows is a very New York-centric film following Walter Dinsmore (George Morgan) and the latest of his nervous breakdowns, told largely as a series of still photographs. Elsie Downey, Downey’s wife at the time, and mother of Robert Downey Jr., is the absolute chameleon who appears throughout this box set as a series of distinct characters--here she plays Walter’s mother and lover. Walter eventually finds himself pregnant and palling about with sock-smell fetishist Baby Jane Shrimpton, among other comic adventures. It’s gleefully vulgar and shamelessly over the top, and makes for a surprisingly solid parody of modern American life.
No More Excuses, from 1968, is my favorite of this bunch, including as it does just enough of a framework for the shenanigans. Originally conceived as a news segment about the singles scene for New York news, the footage is mashed with further repurposed footage involving a Civil War time traveller (Downey himself) wandering contemporary Manhattan. New to the film are sketches about Charles Guiteau's attempts to assassinate a ludicrously fey President Garfield; the sex lives of two frisky New Yorkers and a chimpanzee interloper; and the public service announcements of the leadership of the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, whose sole goal is to ensure that animals are no longer forced to wander around naked. Like all of Downey's films (with the possible exception of Putney Swope, the most narrative of this set), there's only so much sense to be made of the constituent bits and bobs. There's a preoccupation with sex throughout Downey's work, so that even a series of only tangentially related sketches work well together. Even forty years later, the parody of sexual morality is still pretty funny, and the nonsensical ramblings of animal-decency advocate Alan Abel are absolutely spot-on--some things never change.
The next film, Putney Swope is certainly the director's most popular and well-known (as much as those categories apply to an outsider like Downey Sr.) It's also his most accessible, which sometimes feels like a bit of a compromise given the unharnessed abandon that came before. The titular Swope (Arnold Johnson, dubbed by Downey) is the token black board member at a powerful Madison Avenue ad agency who becomes chairman of the board following the death of the previous chair and a voting mix-up. What follows is almost a Black Power fantasy, as Swope fires all but a token white man and refuses to do ads for cigarettes, booze, or war toys (shades of Louis CK's underrated Pootie Tang, influenced by this film). Swope renames the firm Truth & Soul, and a series of hit-or-miss gags ensue, including some genuinely hilarious mock ads created by the newly coveted firm. Downey brilliantly goes a step further, however, and reminds that no one is safe from the corrupting influence of power and money. Putney Swope and Truth & Soul along with him wind up not so much better than what came before.
Finally, the set goes from Downey's most narrative film to his least. 1975's Two Tons of Turquoise to Taho Tonight (originally titled Moment to Moment and since edited to its present, shorter, length) is a tone poem in tribute to a culture with no defining narrative of its own. It’s a return to the freewheeling style of his earliest films, and while the comedy remains unrestrained and untethered, there’s a sadness here. Again, we have a series of vignettes: a coke-addled cowboy, old people fighting, gunslingers and baseball players...to try to wrap your head around any of it too much is beside the point. It’s a trip. If there’s a unifying force, it’s Elsie Downey, who once again plays every female role and makes each one memorable. The complete lack of narrative can be frustrating, but this last one is also likely the purest example of Downey’s skill and style, and it remains a favorite among many, including Downey Jr.
Criterion has packaged these films as part of its Eclipse series, meaning that the movies don’t quite get the full, deluxe treatment--but they are restored and presented with a quality that’s far better what anyone would have expected for these low-budget, decades-old underground passion projects. There’s plenty of brilliant experimental filmmaking from the 60s and 70s, but so much of it comes with grand artistic pretense and all-too-obvious artistry. Downey’s films stand out for seeming almost effortless, as though Downey was making them for himself as much as for an audience. It’s almost perverse that Downey’s counter-culture experiments are now curated as a part of Criterion’s assortment of classy and important films. After all these years, Downey’s films had one last joke to make.