SEAWEEDHEAD GREASER: Coo Coo. I wish I could put my arms around each and every one of them, and let them know that everything is going to be okay.
COO COO: Why don’t you, Sea?
SEAWEEDHEAD GREASER: I’m not bizarre enough.
COO COO: Who is?
–dialogue from Greaser’s Palace
DIRECTED BY: Robert Downey Sr.
FEATURING: Alan Arbus, Albert Henderson, Michael Sullivan, Hervé Villechaize
PLOT: Perpetually constipated Seaweedhead Greaser and his gang of hired guns run a small Western village in the middle of the desert. One day Jessy, a mild-mannered hispter in a zoot suit, parachutes into the nearby countryside. Jessy, who is traveling to Jerusalem to become an actor/singer, stops in town to walk on water, repeatedly resurrect Greaser’s son Lamy Homo after Greaser has him killed, and do a boogie-woogie song and dance number before winding up crucified.
- Director Robert Downey began his filmmaking career in the early 1960s with a series of low-budget, absurdist short films that gained him a devoted following. His 1969 advertising/race relations satire Putney Swope brought him the adoration of the hippie counterculture. Greaser’s Palace is his only big-budget production, made with $1,000,000 invested by an independently wealthy Broadway producer.
- Downey’s son is the now-famous actor Robert Downey Jr.; the younger Downey appears, uncredited, as a child in this movie.
- The credits to this film begin to scroll before the movie starts instead of afterward, and many of them are illegible.
- The topless, mute Indian girl is none other than Toni Basil, who later went on to fame with her gratingly catchy 1982 pop single “Mickey.”
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Jessy, still in his striped suit and white gloves and shoes, crucified, with his pink and lavender hat perched atop the cross.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Set in a barren town in the old West, Greaser’s Palace is a series of bizarre sketches which run a gamut from arid comedy to hints of disturbing perversion. These absurd anecdotes hang off a storyline that loosely and enigmatically follows the outline of the New Testament. In a movie where the Holy Ghost appears as a cigar-smoking man wearing a bedsheet with eyeholes cut in it and a black stetson, whether the movie is weird or not is the last question you’re likely to be asking yourself.
Clip from Greaser’s Palace
COMMENTS: A man leaning on a crutch waits for the “messiah” to come and heal him. Muttering the magical incantation “if you feel, you heal,” the zoot-suited savior taps him on the shoulder. The man drops his crutch, takes two or three halting steps, and falls to the ground. Unperturbed, he crawls a few steps, then cries out, “I can crawl! I can crawl again!”
In isolation, this scene wouldn’t be out of place in Life of Brian, but that kind of laugh-out-loud gag isn’t typical of Greaser’s Palace‘s absurdist yuks. More typical, and typically surrealist, is a joke where a jester tries to entertain his boss with the old “pick a card” card trick. He fails to guess the card, but he keeps trying, asking “is this your card? is this your card?” The sequence is continued for a ridiculous length of time, and that extension in itself is the joke. For the most part, the comedy in Greaser’s Palace is as dry as the New Mexico desert in which the movie was filmed. It’s the concepts that amuse, the way in which writer/director Downey doesn’t back down from any ridiculous notion that enters his noggin, but plays it out to its absurd conclusion.
Nearly every event in Greaser’s Palace arrives unexpectedly and unannounced; there are few movies as totally unpredictable as this one. Jesus appears as a song-and-dance man, and has an agent. Characters get shot unexpectedly and repeatedly, and return from the dead with psychedelic stories about the afterlife. A dwarf and a transvestite live together in a prairie homestead as man and wife. A man tries to rape a wooden Indian. Mariachi music is used as an instrument of torture.
The weirdness of this world is underplayed; none of the characters, with an important exception, acknowledge or even notice that anything is even the slightest bit off. This attitude makes some of the events come off even funnier, but it also makes the proposed comedy impure and tainted. Downey never signals to us whether he’s making a joke or not, and so we’re never sure whether we’re supposed to laugh or not. A town assembles, quietly listening to a woman sing a song about the virtue of chastity. Suddenly, a man starts screaming in pain because a man dressed as a Halloween ghost burns him with a lit cigar. He is dragged by a gang of cowboys out into a dirt road and shot by his father for interrupting the festivities. Is this funny, or disturbing? Who can say? We don’t have a stock emotional response to that kind of scene; we have to make up our reaction on the fly.
Greaser’s Palace continues like that, for scene after scene, mixing comedy with images of pain and cruelty that should be hard to take, and we continue to not know how to react to it. Each individual scene is a self-contained sequence that builds to some sort of demented punchline. Seaweedhead Greaser suddenly takes his retinue and start purposefully striding out somewhere; a joke, unrelated to their journey, occurs, and we’re never told where they were all going with such determined faces in the first place. It all seems random, but there is a discipline hiding in the chaos. Three things keep the movie from falling apart into incoherence. First, the characters are clearly drawn and manage to retain their essential character no matter what insanity rages around them: Seaweedhead is always an imperious, constipated jerk, and Jessy is always soft-spoken, bewildered, and decent. Second, to assure us that this world does indeed have some kind of logic to it, however twisted, old jokes and motifs are repeated. The lame man who was “healed” continues to crawl through scenes as an extra in the background, there’s an old codger whose response to any new arrival in town is invariably “tie a rope around the sonuvabitch!” Third, once we suss out (early on) that Jessy is a Christ figure, we have an idea that, no matter how weird and illogical things might get, we understand the general direction the story is headed, and know how it’s going to end.
It’s that third factor, that distorted adaptation of the New Testament, that turns the movie from something silly and random into something enigmatic and mysterious. Downey appropriates the Christ story, which lends his own tale an aura of myth and majesty, but is he saying anything important about faith or religion to justify hijacking sacred scriptures? Or is he just free-riding, borrowing Christianity’s weight and spirituality for his theme in the same arbitrary way he borrows the Western’s six-shooters and ten-gallon hats for scenery?
On the surface, depicting Christ as a vaudevillian wannabe looks like mockery. When a dedicated Christian sees the image of a savior hanging on a cross in an clownish outfit, he’s liable to reflexively take offense. That is the surface impression; but Alan Arbus’ portrayal of Jessy is always dignified, even when he finds himself in daffy situations, and his demeanor is never impious. Jessy is easily the most likable character in the movie. He’s also the only one who recognizes that a world exists outside of Greaser‘s incestuous oasis: traveling to Jerusalem to make it big on stage, he’s the only person with ambitions lying outside the tumbleweed town. He’s the only character who could be called compassionate; Seaweedhead, who seems trapped inside his own cruelty, has twinges of compassion but lacks the strength to act on them (because he’s “not bizarre enough”). Jessy is also the sanest character: while the townsfolk accept the absurdity of Greaser’s Palace at face value, Jessy is the only one who questions the insane established order, and he’s the only one with the self-consciousness to pierce the film’s fog of absurdity and wonder “Who am I?,” “Where am I?,” and “What am I doing here?” This makes him the character we identify with, our unlikely surrogate.
Jessy is also misunderstood, which is the key to his character and to Downey’s purpose. After leaving Greaser’s town and wandering in the wilderness, encountering dwarfs and transvestites while searching for his purpose, he has an unseen epiphany and returns to town. Preaching to the assembled townsfolk, he announces the existence of a boogeyman, ominously named Bingo Gas Station Motel Cheeseburger With A Side Of Aircraft Noise And You’ll Be Gary Indiana, who wants to destroy the townspeople. That dire warning is not the essence of his message, however, or the reason he bypassed Jerusalem and potential stage fame to return to Greaser’s backwater. Instead, he delivers a message any long-haired Jesus-freak would endorse:
I believe in you people. I believe you can do the job. I believe you can help each other. I believe you can make this world a better place to live.
The response he gets from the French-accented priest who oversees the spiritual lives of the townsfolk is, “This is fine for what you call liberals; but tell us whether there is life after death or not?”
Later, Jessy’s passionate production number is met with indifference—until he falls to his knees in agony and removes his gloves to reveal bleeding stigmata on his palms. Suddenly enraptured, the audience goes wild, and Seaweedhead calls out, “It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen! Let’s talk!” In religion, as in journalism, if it bleeds, it leads.
The universe of Greaser’s Palace is inhabited by folk who are either indifferent or downright hostile to Jessy, unless he is healing them, entertaining them, or offering them “hope” in the form of assurances of immortality (which he never does). His ethical message to love one another has no effect on them (with the lone exception of Seaweedhead’s daughter Cholera, who experiences Jessy’s love as a series of multiple orgasms). The vision fits in with the counterculture’s view of religion in 1972; to them, it seemed establishment Christianity was pimping Jesus to people as a way to get into heaven, and ignoring Christ’s radical ethical teachings which might bring change to this world.
The absurd and perverse universe of Greaser’s Palace may be what our world would look like to a divine being parachuting in and trying to live among us. We might be unable to see that being for what he is; he might appear to be a two-bit prestidigitator, and we might be more concerned with what he can do for us with his magic than what he can teach us with his wisdom. If we accept that Jessy is not Downey’s image of Jesus, but his satirically exaggerated image of how he believes mainstream religion views Jesus, then the sacrilege objection dissolves. A lot of the apparent randomness of the movie dissolves, as well.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“I’ve made ‘Greaser’s Palace’ sound funnier than it ever is except in little bits and pieces, that is, in gags that have nothing to do with satire or with a send-up of Christian myth. Downey is no Bunüel. He’s not even an Alexandro Jodorowsky, although there are times when ‘Greaser’s Palace’ seems to want to be as intellectually ambitious as ‘El Topo.'”–Vincent Camby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“Approaching the life of Christ with a sensibility informed equally by Buñuel and Mad magazine… As a product of an unusually adventurous time in cinema history, Greaser’s Palace has perverse appeal. As a comedy, it’s virtually unwatchable.”–Nathan Rabin, The A.V. Club (DVD)
IMDB LINK: Greaser’s Palace (1972)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Greaser’s Palace (1972) at Turner Classic Movies – A good bit of information on the film, including an extensive plot synopsis
Greaser’s Palace B-Movie Review – Andrew Borntregger’s humorous review also offers a plausible allegorical reading of the film (he hit the probable identity of “The Pioneer Woman” on the head); also contains numerous stills, audio clips, and a short video clip, as well as a long discussion thread that’s worth reading
Greaser’s Palace: Subverting the Western – reprint of Chuck Kleinhans’ 1975 academic essay on Greaser’s Palace, originally appearing in “Jump Cut” magazine; be prepared to plow through jargon like “de-signified” and “distanciation”
DVD INFO: Greaser’s Palace is a movie whose underground reputation endures through the years despite mainstream indifference, and it is desperately deserving of a proper DVD (not to mention Blu-ray) release. The 2000 Image Entertainment DVD (search for used copies on Amazon) has been discontinued, and the movie has been unavailable for years. The Image release contained no special features, but it did restore three scenes not appearing in the theatrical version: the scene with Seaweedhead’s mother, the scene where Jessy heals the Indian chief, and the entire sequence involving Hervé Villechaize and his transvestite “wife.”
The good news is that Greaser’s Palace has recently shown up on Amazon’s video on demand service for purchase or rental. Not only does this give people a legitimate option to see the movie (rather than waiting around for one of the rare television broadcasts), it indicates that the copyright holder is still actively exploiting the movie. That means that a new video release might just be forthcoming someday soon.
UPDATE: Within a year of this article’s publication, Scorpion Entertainment released a Greaser’s Palace DVD (buy). The disc contains a single extra, an interview with Downey Sr. conducted by his friend, writer Rudy Wurlitzer. The DVD is wrapped in appreciative liner notes written by director Johnathan Demmme.
UPDATE 2: Greaser’s Palace is now available on Blu-ray, courtesy of Doppelganger Releasing (buy).
(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Mofo Rising.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)