Judge Gordon Sullivan wishes Robert Downey Sr. had played Iron Man.
"Rockin' the boat's a drag. You gotta sink the boat!"—Putney Swope
Not long after the Occupy Wall Street movement brought some of our country's economic woes to the forefront, I saw an advertisement that read "Look like the 1% on a 99% budget" Though such a statement is ripe for the picking, it does establish one thing very clearly: our culture is a machine that needs fuel, and it's willing to take any fuel it can get, even opposition. Put another way, our culture feeds off of energy, and it doesn't matter whether that energy is positive or negative. Someone out there thought they could make a buck using the energy generated by OWS to sell something and they were probably right. It's totally immaterial that the spirit of the Occupy movement opposes such consumerism. There are those, however, who cannot be co-opted by the culture, forces so angry or passionate that nobody in the mainstream world tries to steal or sell them for fear of igniting intellectual dynamite. One of those figures is Robert Downey Sr. Though his son is famous for his brilliant acting (and infamous for his "little-addict-who-could comeback narrative), Downey Sr. is a director (and writer and actor) who has made a handful of interesting satires so vehement in their disregard for mainstream culture that no one from Hollywood is going to be trying to remake them any time soon. This kind of maverick status comes with a price; many of Robert Downey Sr.'s films are more talked about than seen, with only spotty home video distribution.
Now, fans can enjoy five of his features in the thirty-third Eclipse release, Up All Night With Robert Downey Sr., on two discs:
• Chafed Elbow—In this slightly longer (58 minutes!) feature, Downey takes on religion and incest as themes when Walter Dinsmore (George Morgan), a man who sleeps with both his mother and his cousin, finds himself before Jesus in Heaven.
• No More Excuses—Robert Downey Sr. plays a Civil War soldier who wakes up in 1968 (the year the film was shot) and walks around taking in the sights of New York City.
• Two Tons of Turquiose in Taos Tonight—The only film included that isn't from the 1960s, TTTTT is a surreal character piece that follows the director's wife around as she meets an odd cast of characters.
All five of the films featured here are underground, essentially experimental films. Most of them feature some kind of captured-on-the-fly scenes where Downey obviously set up some scenario (usually in New York City) and had his actors stay in character while the world happened around. It wasn't a new concept when Downey started making films (Godard's 1960 Breathless was the most famous example, if not the first). However, it was still a radical proposition. Unlike Godard, Downey wasn't staging a simple dialogue scene or a common genre moment. No, his scenarios were almost always more bizarre, more edgy, and satirical.
All these moments culminated in his masterpiece, Putney Swope. It's been over forty years since the film was made and there still aren't a lot of black CEOs or owners of Big Business. In fact, in our glorification of Mad Men, it seems we might even be yearning for a time when things were even worse for corporate equality. Even if we were living in a utopia where everyone was employed happily and a fair number of companies had African-Americans in charge, Putney Swope would lose none of its force. The setup—that an African-American guy gets elected to the chairman of an ad firm because nobody votes for themselves, thinking that he's the least likely to get voted for—is a brilliant comment on group thinking. Downey could have sailed off on that humorous ship and made a funny movie. Instead, he had his character grow and realize how difficult it is to maintain any sense of direction in a position of power. The plot thus gives the film's laughs a bite.
I focus on Putney Swope for a variety of reasons. The first is that it's by far the most accomplished (and most famous) of his films. More importantly (for me) is that it builds on all of the tricks he was learning in the previous films included in this set. The cabinet scenes in Babo 73 set the stage for the boardroom in Putney Swope. The outrageous satire of incest and Heaven showed Downey just how far he could go, and the racially charged idea of having a Civil War soldier in modern New York City helped pave the way for the racial concerns of Swope. In this light, Two Tons of Turquiose in Taos Tonight reads as a kind of coda to the rigorous satire of Swope.
Finally, I focus on Putney Swope because it's likely to be the most divisive part of this set. See, Putney Swope is the only film in this set that's already seen a release, and with a Downey commentary to boot. That commentary that isn't included in this Eclipse set (par for the course on these more budget-oriented sets). Fans who don't already own that disc will likely be disappointed that the commentary wasn't ported over. However, I have a solution. No, it won't restore the commentary to this set, but if it helps assuage anyone's hurt feelings, think of this as a release of Putney Swope, but instead of the commentary, you get four other Robert Downey Sr. films as a bonus.
Putney Swope also looks the best of the bunch. It's 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is sourced from a fairly clean and undamaged print and it boasts good contrast and solid black levels. The rest of the films are in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The earlier films are all sourced from 16mm elements and show some damage. However, the transfers themselves do a fine job rendering the elements, offering good detail and contrast (with excellent colors during their brief appearances). In contrast, Two Tons of Turquiose in Taos Tonight appears to be sourced from a video master; it's a bit fuzzier and less defined than the other transfers here. The audio tracks are all mono; dialogue is easy to discern and is pretty well-balanced given the technological limitations of the time.
The only extra here is a pair of booklets containing essays on the films. They're informative and well-written, but leave viewers wanting more.
Obviously Robert Downey Sr. films are not for everyone; he pulls no punches and leaves no sacred cows unslaughtered. If thoughts of satirical jabs using incest and religion give you terrors, this isn't the set for you.
Again, some might quibble about the fact that Putney Swope has extras out there that aren't here. I sympathize with those complaints, but chances are if this set is for you then you already have the previous DVD with commentary and interview.
I would buy a double-disc Criterion edition of Putney Swope, complete with commentaries, interviews, and numerous essays, in a heartbeat. Until then, though, I'm satisfied with Up All Night With Robert Downey Sr.. It's a good way to own Putney Swope and also puts four other hard-to-find Downey films into circulation.
For the creator's no-fear attitude towards satire, Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr. is not guilty.
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