by Jon Bastian
Some relics of the ’60s are better left in the past…
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Oh, those wacky late 60’s. It was a time of protest and turmoil, a time when the morés of the 50’s were being turned on their heads as the baby boomers were coming of age. It was also a time when quite a lot of people were whacked out of their skulls on various psychoactive substances and, while I don’t object to such things, I also don’t think that said people should be given movie cameras and film. At least, certainly not if the end results are ever intended as anything more than Sunday afternoon entertainments for their equally stoned friends. Certainly, some competent and coherent art came out of this period — 2001: A Space Odyssey, the original Planet of the Apes and Easy Rider come to mind. And, hell, even some campy satire that worked did, q.v. Myra Breckenridge, although that film had a very literary source. But, sadly, a lot of the celluloid exposed to the light of day in this era can, at best, only function as a time capsule to remind us how truly screwed up our parents were or, at worst, can be dredged up as the most compelling pro-D.A.R.E. propaganda in existence. “Hey, kids, don’t do drugs, or you’ll make movies like this.”
It’s perhaps ironic that Robert Downey, Sr. — whose namesake has become synonymous with uncontrollable addiction — made a very typical example of celluloid de sustance controlleé when he was himself only slightly younger than Downey fils is now. Downey pére attributes the genesis of Putney Swope to a bit of prejudice he had witnessed in his own life, but that’s where the resemblance to anything in reality stops. It is one of those films on the long list of “movies anyone with an interest in film history should see,” but at this point, it really takes a certain masochistic and academic mindset to sit through this muddled mess. Observe it as a time capsule of an era in turmoil, a time when everything established was suspect, but shake your head in wonder that anybody working in film at the time made it out alive and had careers. Kubrick hit the high point of the decade with 2001. I would dare to say that Downey, Sr. hit the low point with Putney Swope, although it’s probably a given that there are many films from the 60s that are far worse.
The film takes its title from the token African American employee of a major Ad Agency (Arnold Johnson, Menace II Society), whose board is composed of a slew of old white men. When the Chairman drops dead at a meeting, corporate bylaws dictate that the new Chairman be freely elected, and that no board member may vote for himself. Out of the mistaken belief that no one else would dare vote for the black man, Putney wins, nine to two, and takes over, immediately changing the name of the place to the Truth & Soul Agency, sacking everyone who is melanin challenged (except for a token white man) and proceeding to crank out revolutionary ads, charging clients a million bucks up-front, in cash, with the money back guarantee that their sales will increase fifty per cent. On paper, it sounds hilarious and promising and, indeed, Spike Lee’s recent Bamboozled seems to owe at least some small nod to the concept. On the other hand, I think that Spike Lee could actually say something with this idea. I don’t think Downey, a white man after all, knew what he was saying. The end result is a film that is episodic and choppy, with absolutely no dramatic forward momentum. We hop from one vignette to the next, and I’m quite convinced that you could watch it on DVD by randomly hopping from one chapter to another with absolutely no detriment to the story arc of the film. It doesn’t help that none of the characters are real people. There’s no such thing as character development here and Putney himself is quite a bastard from the very beginning. We don’t get to see him corrupted by money and power. He’s corrupt from frame one, maybe. Or maybe it’s all been a put-on to find out who is corrupt. When all is said and done, there’s no way to tell. Everyone is a cardboard cut-out, signifying nothing much. We watch these characters from the outside, never stepping inside. Yes, the film tries to be sympathetic to the plight of the black man in America in the 1960s, but obviously the filmmakers, being white, really understand nothing. It’s as if someone in the antebellum south decided that it was a great step forward if they let an all-black cast perform the minstrel show, without having to use make-up. Pretty sad, really.
But that was an artistic hazard of the sixties — egalitarian empathy without the benefit of direct experience. So, we had straight, white men making what they thought were positive films about women, minorities and gay men, with often mixed results. The Gay Deceivers comes to mind, a film about two straight men who pretend to be a gay couple to avoid getting drafted and sent to Vietnam and end up learning something and becoming more tolerant in the process — but not before every flaming stereotype is paraded before our eyes. Putney Swope feels the same way. We have a bitter old black man, Swope, who talks like Rochester from The Jack Benny Show (director Downey dubbed the voice himself because Johnson couldn’t remember his lines) and is just as bigoted as all the white men; a born-again Muslim racing around in Arab head-dress; a freaky mama who has discovered equality; a menacing, spooky brother who speaks softly and carries a big gun; and on and on. It’s really a mixed bag. On the one hand, there weren’t many films being made at the time with mostly black casts. On the other hand… well, see above.
It also doesn’t help that many elements seem tossed in just because, without really serving the story, hence a subplot involving the President of the United States, Mimeo (Pepi Hermine, his only film role), a dwarf who bears quite a resemblance to Verne Troyer (Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me) and his Henry Kissingeresque aid, Mr. Six. I suppose, when you’re high (and Richard Nixon is in office), a dwarf president and his midget wife (Ruth Hermine) are funny. But that’s the only reason they’d be funny. To confuse matters even more, late in the game, Mimeo reveals that he wants Swope to advertise a very unsafe car, then unleashes radical agitators on his headquarters when Swope refuses. Why? Who knows. Who cares. Just don’t bogart that bong, it must have gotten a big laugh when they were rapping to come up with a plot, man.
The whole thing rambles along in its incoherent way and ends in total anarchy, with an arbitrary finale that may have seemed like a good idea at the time but which, in retrospect, was not. Again, if you’re compelled to study film history of the late 60s, then this is a must-see film. Otherwise, move along. Nothing to see here. Please disperse.
It all makes me wonder, perhaps, if Mr. Downey, Jr. didn’t develop his addictive proclivities solely in the effort to understand the films of Mr. Downey, Sr.
Jon Bastian is a film, TV and stage writer who is much too young to have lived the ’60s in the ’60s, so he did it in the ’80s instead, when it was much more ironic. He’s also tempted to do it again in the naughts, when it’s becoming necessary again.
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