Tag Archives: Robert Downey Sr.

CAPSULE: TWO TONS OF TURQUOISE TO TAOS TONIGHT (1975)

AKA Moment to Moment; Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos; Jive

BewareWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Elsie Downey

PLOT: None, although certain strands (such as the idea that someone has been hired to convey

Still from Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight (1975)

two tons of turquoise to Taos tonight) recur throughout this series of brief sketches.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s actually too far out, man; it’s almost an hour of nonsense, but too randomly assembled to be any fun. The individual sketches aren’t carefully composed beforehand and they aren’t allowed to play out to their full potential, resulting in comedy that’s juvenile and ridiculous rather than cleverly absurd.

COMMENTS: If Robert Downey Sr. were James Joyce, then Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight would be his Finnegan’s Wake; the point where he took what had been fertile boundary-pushing experimentation beyond the limits of the audience’s tolerance, and ended up producing something so obscure and esoteric that it was of interest only to the author himself. It’s clear enough what he intended to do: make a movie with no beginning or end, one that existed only “moment to moment” (the film’s original title). The problem is that the individual moments aren’t very good and don’t link up to anything universal; there are too many sections of the film that are just montages of Elsie Downey wearing different outfits, or Downey family home movies that have been spliced into the film at random points. As for the individual bits, there are far too many moments when the actors look like they’re improvising while high as a kite, working without a plan and assuming everything they’re doing is hilarious. An example is the frankfurter scene, where a man and woman are sleeping on a park bench and the fella asks her to fetch him a frankfurter. He repeats the request over and over until she finally leaves the bench, then a couple of youngsters walk over—one of whom can’t say anything but “ri-ight…”—and strike up a nonsense conversation with the bum. The woman comes back sans hot dog and the man asks where his food is; the woman answers, “you’re lucky I got up at all.” Hilarious, right? Well, if you don’t like that one, at least there will be another gag in thirty seconds; the problem is it’s not likely to be any more amusing or interesting than the last bit. There are a few brief moments that shine through the general avant-garde dreck: a game of baseball played by men on horseback, a woman who donates her panties to a hungry man, and conventionally funny exchanges like the man who proclaims “I have a brain tumor,” to which his companion responds “It’s all in your head.” But, after watching a scene where a woman with an eyepatch and a cowboy snort cocaine and giggle inanely at each other’s babbling monologues, you might assume that large parts of this mess are just too autobiographical for comfort. Downey Sr.’s best work came when he had a clearly stated central theme (advertising in Putney Swope, religion in Greaser’s Palace) which he could play off of with his improvisatory absurdist riffs. Set him loose without any sort of structure and he’s like a bebop musician who just assumes that if he ignores the melody he can play the greatest, most out-there free jazz you ever heard. The result may be beautiful to his ears, but most folks will only hear a noise that sounds like a cat with a kazoo taped over his mouth and his tail caught in a blender.

Some of the dozens of investors who put up money to fund Downey’s mad vision and may have later regretted it included Hal Ashby, Norman Lear and Jack Nicholson. Taos was, essentially, Downey’s last experimental film venture; in the 1980s and 90s he would sell out, only to direct some horrible Hollywood flops (like the Mad magazine financed fiasco Up the Academy). Despite the fact that his wife Elsie Downey is featured in almost every scene, and the film basically plays like a love letter to her, the couple divorced the year this was released. Taos was screened at underground venues but understandably never got any real distribution; Downey has continued to tinker with the editing through the years. The version offered on Eclipse’s “Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr.” disc is a recent re-edit that cuts 20 minutes off the running time (it’s still too long).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…taps the same welcomed vein of indulgent weirdo gags found in Soderbergh’s ‘Schizopolis’ or Rafelson’s ‘Head’…”–Aaron Hillis, IFC (DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: PUTNEY SWOPE (1969)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Arnold Johnson, Robert Downey, Sr. (voice), , Antonio Fargas

PLOT: Putney Swope, the token African American on the board of a Madison Avenue

Still from Putney Swope (1969)

advertising firm, is accidentally elected Chairman of the Board on a secret ballot; he renames the agency “Truth and Soul Advertising,” fires most of the whites and replaces them with Black Panthers, and catapults the firm into a major force in American life.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Putney Swope retains a razor-like satirical focus while simultaneously dealing in jokes that, for the most part, are so nonsensical that Monty Python would have rejected them for being too oblique and absurd.

COMMENTS: After Putney Swope becomes chairman of a major advertising firm, he’s approached by Mark Focus, a freelance photographer looking for work. Focus shows Swope his portfolio; Swope says that he’s the best he’s ever seen and that he has a job for him, and asks how much he costs. Focus responds with a high figure, but Swope keeps talking him down: “it’s going in the New York Times, not an art gallery.” Finally, Focus agrees to do the job for free. “I can get anybody for nothing,” Swope says. “Take a walk.” The exchange is funny, but it’s not at all clear why. Did Putney just negotiate himself out of a deal by convincing himself that anyone willing to work for free was not worth hiring, despite the fact that he knew Focus was immensely talented? Or was the entire dialogue a set-up, a way for a bitter Swope to turn the tables and humiliate a white guy who’s at his mercy? Is Swope a genius, an idiot, or a just a shaggy dog? I’ll go with the last option. Consider the fact that Focus returns to the movie, this time while Swope is in bed with his fiancée, and delivers the exact same pitch; then, he shows up yet again and repeats the same spiel, only this time to the President of the United States (who, we should point out, is a pot-smoking German dwarf)! Neither Putney Swope, the character, or Putney Swope, the movie, ever makes too much sense. The movie makes its point about the absurdities of power structures—whether corporate, political, social or racial–by presenting their players as absolute lunatics out of touch with reality. Swope was a giant leap forward for Downey in terms of technical quality, but when it was released, critics panned it, expecting to see a conventional satire and nonplussed by Downey’s bizarre sense of humor. Still, Downey could do straightforward comedy when he wanted to: the ad parodies, the only parts of the film that are in color, are often classic, especially the ad for “Face Off” pimple cream. An interracial couple sing a sweet and slightly obscene love song as they stroll hand and hand through a park in autumn; they gaze into each others eyes and croon touching lines like “A pimple is simple, if you treat it right; my man uses Face Off, he’s really out of sight—and so are his pimples.” There is a vague plot, as the power Swope inherits threatens to corrupt him (he begins his career by promising not to pimp cigarettes, liquor or war toys, but he agrees to use a rhythm and blues singer to sell window cleaner as a soft drink in the ghetto). There’s also a Muslim brother who dresses like a sheik and plans to betray Swope, a President pressuring Putney to drop all his ad campaigns and push defective cars instead, and an assassination attempt, but none of these storylines are treated with much seriousness; the movie prefers to move from punchline to punchline rather than from plot point to plot point. Besides the unapologetically stereotyped racial humor, the one potentially divisive point is Downey’s decision to dub all of Arnold Johnson’s dialogue himself, so that Putney Swope speaks like a Brooklyn Jew while everyone around him is talking in Harlem soul brother jive. The effect is surreal, but I found it more distracting than funny. Although Downey claims he did it because Johnson couldn’t read his lines properly, the dubbing comes off as a narcissistic stunt (couldn’t a black actor who wasn’t also the director have dubbed Johnson?) Still, Putney Swope hits the funny bone more often than it misses—it may not be Downey’s weirdest movie, but it is his funniest and most beloved.

Perhaps the most interesting footnote to Putney Swope concerns the curious case of Pepi Hermine, the German dwarf actor who plays the President here. The First Lady is played by Ruth Hermine, Pepi’s sister, which gives their bedroom scenes together a little bit of incestuous spice. Pepi’s only other movie credit came the very next year, when he played the Director in Werner Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small. By retiring after making Swope and Dwarfs back to back, Hermine managed to keep his brief résumé 100% weird.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Director Robert Downey’s sense of the ridiculous is employed in a spotty, punchline kind of comic usage… less revealingly witty then merely clever.”–Variety (contemporaneous)

THE EARLY FILMS OF ROBERT DOWNEY, SR. (A PRINCE): BABO 73 (1964), CHAFED ELBOWS (1966) AND NO MORE EXCUSES (1968)

Looking at the ultra-conventional career of Sherlock Holmes/Iron Man Robert Downey, Jr., it’s hard to imagine that this talented but timid McMoviestar was sired by a disreputable ultracool beatnik hepcat. Indeed, if not for the implication of the “Jr.” designation and the genetic necessity of fatherhood, the average moviegoer would have no idea that a exists. But exist he does, and a strange life has he led. To those who know him at all, Downey is known as a director of obscure cult films and Hollywood flops (including his first Hollywood flop, the sacrilegious but Certified Weird vaudeville Jesus western Greasers’ Palace). But even before hitting the relative mainstream with his breakthrough film Putney Swope, a satire about a Black Power advocate who accidentally becomes head of a Madison Avenue advertising firm, the elder Downey had led a fascinating life. By age 29, Downey pere had lied about his age so he could enlist in the army, been court martialed, won a Golden Gloves amateur boxing championship, played semi-professional baseball, and written and directed his first underground movies, mostly shot in Manhattan without permits, guerrilla-style. “After being thrown out of the house, four schools, and the United States Army, I discovered that I was on the right track,” said Downey.

Still from Babo 73 (1964)To the extent you could say that Downey’s anarchic early films followed a pattern at all, that template was established in his first extended work, the 56-minute political satire Babo 73 (1964). The story follows Sandy Studsberry, the meek “President of the United Status” as he deals with an invasion from the Red Siamese and the antics of his own crazy cabinet, led by Chester Kitty-Litter. All the attributes of early Downey make their appearance here: absurd anything-can-happen plotting, amateur acting, dubbed audio, scenes filmed in public spaces, slapstick Continue reading THE EARLY FILMS OF ROBERT DOWNEY, SR. (A PRINCE): BABO 73 (1964), CHAFED ELBOWS (1966) AND NO MORE EXCUSES (1968)

44. GREASER’S PALACE (1972)

Recommended

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:

FEATURING: Alan Arbus, Albert Henderson, Michael Sullivan,

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.

Still from Greaser's Palace (1972)
BACKGROUND:

  • 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. Continue reading 44. GREASER’S PALACE (1972)