Stiff-Legged Film Festival Series Presents:
The Films of Robert Downey (A Prince)
October 6 & 7, 2012
The schedule: no-frills list version
Saturday, October 6:
2:00 A Touch of Greatness
Sunday, October 7:
12:00 Up The Academy
Follow us on Twitter, too! (Attendees, if live-tweeting the films, add #downeyfest to your tweets.)
Think for a moment about an actor. A perennial, one who has been around for decades, but seems to be hitting his stride now, in the third or fourth act of his life. A sex symbol well into his 40s. A leading man after several setbacks and rehab visits that would have ended less tenacious actors' careers. Think about the fact that, even though his name is worldwide famous, you would never think to call him by it without adding his generational distinction. Junior.
You might well wonder: who the hell is Robert Downey, Sr., and why should I care?
For 21 hours and 14 films, the Stiff-Legged Film Festival (now celebrating its 10th year) will try to prove the primacy of the paterfamilias of the Downey clan*. While Downey Jr. has managed to redefine the Hollywood leading man for the past three decades, his father was a driving force in the counterculture film movement of the late '60s and early '70s. Alongside Easy Rider and El Topo, Putney Swope (to name just the most famous example) forms the third pillar of a style that baffled Hollywood brass, but gave the kids a lot to chew on. Not coincidentally, those three, along with Pink Flamingos and Rocky Horror, were mainstays of what would become codified as "Midnight Movies."
Of the other filmmakers listed, Downey was less consciously hip than the Nicholson/Rafelson's BBS Studios, more rooted in jokes than Jodorowsky, and more likely to elicit groans for ideas than actions than John Waters. His earliest films are an object lesson in filming on the cheap -- Chafed Elbows was reportedly filmed for a paltry $12,000 by filming (and crudely animating) still photos. Through even the darkest days of financial backers' indifference, Downey was a born raconteur, a storyteller who'll charm the sawbucks right out of your wallet. When a rich benefactor who wanted to bankroll Greaser's Palace asked him, "you think we're gonna make money?" Downey replied, straight-faced, "I doubt it." "He's charming," replied the man to his wife, "I think I'm gonna give him the money."
Through a quirk of timing, Saturday will contain all of Downey's explicitly counterculture films, his most radical ideas and his undistilled vision. Sunday drifts into more conventional territory, but even bawdy romps like Up The Academy still have that special Downey something.
Make no mistake: this festival comes with caveats. Unlike previous subjects, who were master craftsmen and often working with budgets and crew orders of magnitude larger than Downey's, the films you will see might seem a bit down at the heels. Betraying his days as an off-off-Broadway playwright, Downey's use of language is often dramatic, and usually absurdist. He doesn't always build a bridge to you, or if he does, he makes sure to seed it with banana peels.
But through it all, these films still give off a unique aura and atmosphere that's never been repeated. Paul Thomas Anderson will tell anybody who will listen that Downey Sr. is a huge inspiration (he lifted the firecracker scene in Boogie Nights from Putney Swope), but there really aren't any fans of Downey's films that look or sound anything like them. Only the best and boldest can successfully resist being plundered by their acolytes.
Though only two days long and 14 movies wide, we'll travel to the old west, a claustrophobic dog pound, a New York ad agency, the steps of the White House, a failing NYC cable TV station, a military academy, and 44 pools in LA. You'll be glad you came along.
* It's also worth noting that, in addition to his kid, Downey Sr. also has a legendary brother, veteran SNL writer Jim Downey, who has been on the writing staff since 1977, working on 27 of the past 32 seasons!
ALL START TIMES ARE RIGID!
Unless we're running late (unlikely!), the start time listed is the exact time we start. No whining, no "wait wait, I'm just circling the block looking for a parking space," no excuses. 5-7 minutes is all you're given on average between films; just enough time to queue up for the bathroom.
If all goes well, we'll try the two-room setup again. It worked pretty well for Hackmanfest -- there was a little ground-wire hum on TV #2, but nothing insurmountable. I just need to remember how I did it the first time. Would've made sense to draw myself a diagram, but nooooo. I have to learn everything two or three times.
Some food and drink will be served, but bringing some to share is never a bad idea. If you want to run out and grab dinner somewhere nearby, I have a handful of suggestions of places that are a five minute walk away. And of course, carryout is plentiful and acommodating.
This is technically the first movie where Downey is credited in imdb as a director, though he's really more of a cameraman here. His colleague, teacher Albert Cullum, enlists him to film his classroom, an open, ultra-creative place of learning that emphasizes deep appreciation of literature, theater, and the power of overwhelming obsession. Nine year olds doing Shakespeare and Sophocles and the like. The picture below of the girl with the bear head on bodes well.
I've been looking for a copy of Babo 73 for nearly a decade now. This insanely rare film, the first Downey-directed film to approach a "full-length" movie (his debut short, Balls Bluff, was shot in 1961 is is less than 25 minutes. It's also impossibly rare and likely destroyed or permanently lost). Back around 2004, a site called superhappyfun tried to launch the equivalent of what we'd now call a Kickstarter fund to bring Babo 73 out of exile. Someone found out that reel-to-reel copies of Babo were available for commerical screenings at the hefty price of $400. He reasoned that if a bunch of us could each kick in $25, we'd be able to rent the film, have it taken to a guy who could convert 16mm to DVD, and then we could all have a copy. At the time the plug was finally pulled, I think the crowd managed to source about 60 bucks for the righteous cause. Bye-bye Babo. Finally, Criterion brought this and several other early Downey films out in one of their Eclipse boxsets, which was ultimately the catalyst for this festival.
Babo 73 tells the story of the beleagured President Sandy Sudsbury, played by Walhol satellite and underground film icon Taylor Meade [The Flower Thief]. He seems unwilling or unable to take a firm stand on anything, and his takes endless council from his two assistants, one liberal and the other conservative (though by the end, the two pull a Persona-like reversal of ideologies). The need to keep the production moving means the President has his meetings everywhere; in bathroom stalls, on the steps of the White House, on a sandy beach, in a rotting Victorian cottage. The effect is a Coconino County-like instability of location. The voices are all dubbed onto silent film, the great tradition of so many counterculture films of the time, and, as is common for films of this vintage, there's some fairly dicey images trotted out (not altogether successfully) in the interest of shock value. There's also loads of Downey's stick-and-move one liner style, and a few truly amazing time-specific images captured via his street camerawork, including Meade "directing" a truck delivering a missile, and some covert camera shots of some generals interacting with Meade as part of a parade. As mercilessly low-rent productions goes, this still holds up a hell of a lot better than Mondo Trasho.
To celebrate the release of the Criterion Eclipse boxset Up All Night With Robert Downey Sr., Criterion filmed four conversations between Downey and his greatest admirer, Paul Thomas Anderson. Here's Downey and Anderson chattin' it up about Babo 73:
"I ain't got no paper/I can't wipe my ass/but give me one little dollar/I'll show you how to make it last," rapped the Dungeon Family on the song "Crooked Booty." One way to make it last is to make a whole movie almost entirely out of still photos, a la Ken Burns. Downey filmed this movie (which conains less than 10 minutes of live B&W footage and a mere minute of color) for somewhere $12,000. Even still, the film took years as he scraped up the funds, and he's reported that he, his wife Elsie (who plays all the female characters here), and his young son lived without electricity for six months, and without a phone for over a year. But don't think this is some sort of self-flagellating, Dogme 96 treatise on contrived austerity. Chafed Elbows is a damn hoot from end to end, stuffed like a puff pastry with pithy one-liners and willfully absurdist situations that stick to the canvas far more often than in Babo. We also start to see some of Downey's stock actors appearing, like George Morgan, Larry Wolf, and again, the lovely and talented Elsie Downey. Her combination of strange characters and intense physical comedy comes at you like Gilda Radner in Twyla Tharp's body. She really is that good. Morgan, the quiet, stoic, slightly batty lead plays Walter Dinsmore, a layabout who is having an affair with his mother, and is "in the middle of my 14th nervous breakdown." His adventures are captured in still photos with narration, jumping and bopping around with a hippie-era fond-of-my-own-invention goofiness that is contagious. Chafed Elbows was a huge hit on the arthouse film circuit, and it built Downey an audience who would follow him anywhere he wanted to take them.
One constant in the Downey story is to follow up a hit with something more difficult, not because he wants to self-sabotage, but because that's all he can do. Sure, Chafed Elbows is an unconventional way to tell a story, but at least it is a story. No More Excuses basically slices, dices, and scrambles pieces of several short films and half-completed projects into a Godardian (by the director's own admission) collage of ideas and bits that have only a tenuous link to each other. Most historically noteworthy is the footage from Downey's very first film, 1961's Balls Bluff, in which a Civil War soldier travels forward in time and lands in New York. The soldier (played by Downey in a Civil War uniform) walks into Yankee Stadium during a game and announces to the catcher that, "I'm looking for those damn Yankees." (He went back in the next day and faked being led off the field). Among other topics are the "swingin' singles" scene of '64, and the strange scene below, in which a woman leaves her boyfriend for a chimp (to the tune of "Hey Hey, We're The Monkees.").
For more on this film, check out this conversation between Downey and Paul Thomas Anderson:
If my own rapturous endorsement of this film isn't enough to get you out of your Saturday afternoon lethargy and onto the lethargy of my couch, then listen to the words of no less than comedy's current keeper of the flame, Louis C.K., who said that discovering a copy of Putney Swope in the bargain bin of his local Blockbuster gave him the inspiration to make his first feature film, Pootie Tang, and by extension, all the skills he's brought to his TV show. "I saw this film, and I couldn't believe it," he told Marc Maron on the WTF podcast. "It made me realize that, not only didn't you need a lot of money to make a film, but a film could be about anything."
Putney takes place in an ad agency. When the owner of the ad firm drops dead on the long, hard boardroom table (there's no way The Hudsucker Proxy didn't lift from this scene), the other board members try to scheme their way into being the new chairman. Due to the bylaws, nobody can vote for himself, so in the interest of sabotaging their colleagues, everybody "throws his vote away" by casting a vote for the token black guy on the board, the enigmatically named Putney Swope. As a result, Putney becomes the new chairman of the board. Wasting no time, he renames the company Truth & Soul Advertising and hires a cadre of era-specific soul-brothers and sisters. They won't advertise booze, cigarettes, or war toys, but their outrageous comercials spark a revolution in advertising. But of course, power and money always corrupt in the end.
Like all Downey, this isn't an acquired taste; it's a litmus test. I've had friends tell me this was one of the funniest movies they've ever seen. I had another tell me, ten minutes in, "Shut this off. I can't watch this." With a Guggenheim grant and a much larger roster of actors, Putney Swope is Downey's best looking film yet, and the ads they create (the only parts of the film that are in color) are a hoot. This film has quotable lines for days ("I don't want to rock the boat...rockin' the boat's a drag. What you do is SINK the boat!"), and is the fullest flowering of Downey's genius yet. If you haven't seen this film, you'd be a fool not to be here for this, at the very least. Great soundtrack, too.
More from PT and Bob on the making of what is probably my favorite film of all time:
After nearly every studio turned down Putney, and it became a raging underground hit, there was finally some interest from United Artists, who distributed Pound, easily the strangest film of the entire festival. When you hear the elevator pitch -- the story of a bunch of dogs in a dog pound, attempting to escape their fate -- you might think the same thing the execs did...oh, it's an animated film. Turns out it wasn't; Downey's usual cast of characters play dogs, their breeds represented by their outfits and appearances. Larry Wolf, alopecia sufferer, plays a Mexican Hairless, while Antonio Fargas (yes, Huggy Bear from Starsky & Hutch) wears a silk robe and taped hands and plays, yes, a Boxer. Betraying Downey's past work as a playwright (this is based on his 1961 play The Comeuppance), Pound has the feel of a drawing-room theater piece; the characters pace the room, circling each other, only stopping long enough to scream out of fear, desperation, horniness, or just good ol' doggie enthusiasm. Lotta screaming in this one. Those of you who remember the hilarious but pitched intensity of Kurosawa's The Lower Depths know to bring earplugs. Interspersed in the story are multiple dream sequences, in which the dogs imagine their lives as humans, as well as brief views of the outside world, including a b-plot involving "The Honkey Killer," a white man who shoots white people while calling the police using a black dialect to taunt them. By turns raw-nerved, hilarious, and deeply sweet, all the emotions are played at maximum volume. If you don't get a little teary at the end, I pity your stony soul. I like to watch Putney more, but I willingly admit that this is probably Downey's best film. And, as above, Charly Cuva turns in an awesome soundtrack, with several funky tunes turning into show-stopping musical numbers, such as the one below.
A funny note about how this hellaciously rare film arrived into our hands -- the distributor, needless to say, was UNENTHUSED with what they got, and vowed that it would never be shown or released again after its initial run. Thing is, this film has a minor milestone in it. It's the first filmed appearance of the man who made Robert Downey a Sr., Mr. Robert Downey, Jr. At just 5-years old, Jr. has one memorable line as a puppy that is sent to the pound. His line is, "Have any hair on your balls?" When some video magazine-type TV show wanted to do a retrospective of his life, they pulled Pound out of the vaults and made a copy for the clip show. Some enterprising editor ran a copy for himself (a time-coded vault print, no less) and sent it out into the gray market. (According to IMDB, Downey has since found a battered print of his own, and though it was too fragile to go through a projector, it has since been digitally preserved. So there's always hope.)
Here's the moment that gave us this fine, fine movie:
Did I say Pound was the strangest film in the Downey oeuvre? I'm sorry, I meant Greaser's Palace. A surreal western in the slim "tradition" of El Topo and Zachariah, this stars Allan Arbus (husband of Diane, and beloved character actor, best known as the infrequent "staff psychologist" on M*A*S*H) as Jesse, a song-n-dance man who parachutes from the sky into a rancid little southwestern town. It's a town where the mayor is terminally constipated (and has a mariachi band play during the act to help ease his suffering), his son is shot and resurrected several times, the town's sultry singer praises the virtues of abstinence and self-discipline, and a frontier family are systematically picked apart by cruel fate. Nihilistic, trenchant, rife with religious imagery (if not any real epiphanies or moral declaration), this is Downey at his freewheeling, nonsensical best, especially visually. Arbus is dynamite as Jesse, and Herve Villachez plays a homosexual bandit with hilarious aplomb. And watch out for Toni Basil's memorable (topless) appearance! The span from Swope to here gets my vote for best of the fest.
After three well-funded (relatively speaking), critically acclaimed, but ultimately uncommercial films, money dried up once again, and 1975's movie-of-many-names (depending on where it was released, it was alternately titled Jive, Moment To Moment, or Two Tons of Turquoise To Taos Tonight) is one of the most jumbled yet. Essentially a series of absurdist sketches and fragments (including a game of baseball played on horseback, as shown below) with no real plot, it's a depressingly scattershot retreat into earlier styles, and though it's got loads of great moments (especially by the divine Elsie Downey), it'll never break into the top 50% of Downey's films. Features a second-hand soundtrack by Jack Nitschze (who gave Downey his unused soundtrack fragments from another film he worked on) augmented by saxophone solos from...David Sanborn?!?! In short, if you stay and watch it with me, you're a superstar. If you ditch, you get no points deducted.
and Bob jaw it up over Jive:
The 1980s rise up before us with this strange entry, the first film officially authorized by Mad magazine, though they would later disown it. Essentially a zany teen romp that happens to take place in a military academy. Downey wanted to cast 10 to 12 year olds in the roles, but the studios laughed in his face, saying kids that young wouldn't pull this level of mayhem. A week later, he brought them a newspaper clipping where a 10 year old military school enrollee burned down the mess hall! Regardless, say the suits, it's gotta be 16 year olds, including a young Ralph Maccio. The Mad connection is loose at best, with Alfred E. Newman's grotesque humanoid face making appearances like the one below, almost as an afterthought. A thoroughly enjoyable romp, though the back and forth between Downey and Mad and the studios ensure that nobody's singular style or vision really shows through.
Notice the year. Compare it with the previous film. Downey has, at this point, started drifting into his Stanley Kubrick phase, as film funding becomes harder and harder to secure. Of the '80s and '90s films, this feels to me like it's closest to his earlier style, with the weird verbal repetitions and odd turns of phrase popping up throughout. The story concerns a small cable TV news station and its weird cast of characters. The plot points are a little sticky. A local plumber wins the lottery, the station's anchorman is in his 40s but still lives with his parents, the roving reporter screams all his reports, like Garrett Morris' "News For the Deaf," and near the end, Richard Belzer appears and does something between standup comedy and slam poetry. It also contains the immortal Downey line, "If words could speak, I still would have nothing to say," which he enjoyed so much, he put into another film we'll be seeing later today. Spot it and win a no-prize!
At this point, it's hard not to imagine Downey in a dark place. His films increasingly depend on the reputations of big-name actors (including his son) to get made, and the scripts begin to feel like a lot of hands have been stirring the ingredients around. This film stars Martin Mull as a dry-as-dust documentary filmmaker (one of his hits: "Aluminum: Our Shiny Friend") who is finally given the chance to make his dream documentary. The implausible catch: he must also direct a porn film at the same time! Features Jennifer Tilly, Robert Downey Jr. (sporting the awesome porn name of "Wolf Dangler"), and Dick Shawn, as well as other strange walk-ons like Shelly Berman. Memorable moment: the ditzy actor, looking up in the sky at the incoming German planes, screams, "Oh no, it's the approach of the terrible Lufthansa!" (No, no, dear, LUFTWAFFE. LOOOFTWAAAAFFEH.) Like America, this never made it to DVD, and is a pretty rare item these days.
Here's a weird one...filmed in 1990, starring Eric Idle of Monty Python and Andrea Martin of SCTV! They play a brother and sister, both homosexual, who are given an ultimatum by their rich father's priest...first one to sire a child gets the family fortune. Whaaa (reaction shot to the camera)? Also pretty rare and VHS-only.
Again, a painful seven year stretch between this film and its predecessor, and to date, Downey's last fiction film. (IMDB briefly showed a film in pre-production in 2002 called Forest Hills Bob, but the listing has long been pulled.) I don't need to tell you who stars in this one...just look at the poster! Alyssa Milano is Hugo Dugay, a pool cleaner in Los Angeles who is stuck with the seemingly impossible task of cleaning 44 pools in one day. But she won't do it alone, oh no. WIth the help (and sometimes hindrance) of a vast field of weirdly-cast characters, including Downey Jr., Patrick Dempsey, Malcolm McDowell, Cathy Moriarty, Sean Penn, Richard Lewis, and more, Hugo works, plays, jokes, and walks around in li'l shorty shorts through the heights and depths of LA pool culture. Probably Downey's most conventional plots, it sticks very close to a Hollywood structure: plucky young protagonist is given an impossible task, rolls up her sleeves, meets fascinating people along the way, falls in love a bit, learns about herself, nearly gives up, pushes through. The whole thing. Lotta laughs, too....some weird, implausible situations and just a sprinkling of Downey's funny way with language, but a lot of heart (and a bit of skin). As Wing Sony says in Putney Swope, "I dig it. I dig it! I dig it."
Ending as we began, Downey's most recent film is a documentary, this time a portrait of a public park in Philadelphia where all manner of kids, adults, seniors, artists, and eccentrics go to enjoy the weather and the trees. I haven't watched this yet, and frankly, I'm a bit trepidatious. It all looks so...wholesome. I mean, look at that kid on the cover! She's a virtuoso violinist who practices in the park. And look at that blurb! "A blissful rhapsody!" Yikes! Be still, my throbbing expectations. At the same time, I suppose this will make a nice cool-down after two days of willful absurdity and gleeful anarchism. We'll see how it goes.
Like John Waters, Robert Downey is one of those directors who, even though I love his movies and have watched them more times than just about anything else out there, I'd still give them all up in exchange to just sit and listen to him talk. Downey is a masterful storyteller, a ranconteur of type that don't make that often any more, like the uncle who just commands a room with his slightly off-color wisecracks and humor. I've got a few featurettes on the making of Putney Swope and Greaser's Palace that we can pop in, as well as a one-hour interview with Downey from 1986 that is just crammed full of great anecdotes, '60s counterculture film history, and just plain bullshittin'. If you're inclined to stay and drink or hang out, we'll throw that on. If not, then...
Now go home!