Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Gonzo Mad Men, Please Meet Soul Strangelove

There's a scene early on in Robert Downey Sr.'s 1969 satirical underground offering Putney Swope that I think the late Neil Postman would have appreciated re: information overload. The stuttering, soon-to-be-deceased chairman of the board of an advertising firm comes into the office to pontificate about the "small box in the head" of every consumer and that when the box is overloaded with information, the target of such material doesn't end up remembering anything. However, if "creative foreplay before penetrating" is used...well, we never find out what happens because the CEO drops dead. Postman would have smiled. (Regarding the info remark... not someone dying.)

Perhaps this was Downey's way of warning the viewer of what was to come....which is lots of everything. Putney Swope hurls a plethora of images, jokes, and observations into its 84 minute running time. When it's all said and done, you feel like you're standing in a kitchen where a food fight broke out and left the premises in a mess - some foods have conspicuously stuck to the walls, others have slid off without notice but, as messy as the remnants are, you still feel the fight itself was a lot of fun.

The plot (we may as well call it that) continues with the vote for a new chairman among the board members. Since no one is allowed to elect themselves, each casts a ballot for whoever seems to be least likely to win - and that just happens to be our title character, the token black executive in the firm. With the freedom to implement policies he's always favored, Putney's brings in hardcore brothers and sisters (with one "token" Caucasian) and changes the name of the firm to Truth and Soul Inc. Tobacco, alcohol and war toys advertising is out but mousetraps that chemically cremate the rodent, "ethereal cereal" and window cleaners disguised as soybean soft drinks for consumption in the ghetto get green lit.  Remarkably, the firm flourishes despite Putney's propensity for firing the employees who come up with the best ideas. In spite of his attitude, staff and clients alike cower to the boss, although he meets some resistance from the President of the United States - a dwarf who goes to bed wearing head gear. And so on...

There's quite a bit in Putney Swope that works, outnumbering (IMHO) the misfires. The funniest parts of the politically incorrect mayhem are definitely found in the mock commercials (especially the priceless Face Off acme spot - watch for it in the YouTube video below). Strangely, one of the most effective elements in the film came by accident. The story goes that lead actor Arnold Johnson was having trouble with so many of his lines that Downey decided to dub over all of his dialogue - this, along with the surrounding absurdity, helps to give the film a further surrealist dimension that I found made the it even more interesting.

Sure, the approach will seem dated to many and the shock factors in the presentations won't be what they were back in it's day. Nonetheless, I still really enjoyed Putney Swope. In an age where a pretty dog-gone good show called Mad Men has brought attention to the ad boys of the sixties, it's rewarding to find a film directly from that era that took a low-budget Dr. Strangelove kind of look on that milieu. And the bottom line is that I found this movie to be a more-than-ok-time-waster for bizzare, free-for-all diversion.

That's me - interestingly, as you'll hear Downey state himself in the clip below, the director doesn't believe his movie has aged as well as he would have liked. He talks about how he started getting involved with film, the incident that inspired the creation of Putney Swope (which he recreated in the movie itself) and the strange steps involved in eventually getting the film released, with a little promo help from Jane Fonda. He also goes over his less-than-fun adventurers in Hollywood, a predictable waste of time for a dude like this.

(And that leads to another reason I selected this clip - listen to what Downey has to say right at the beginning about people using digital technology to make films meant to be calling cards to Hollywood, rather than means to their own ends. With all respect to the stuff I see flying around on Indie-Go-Go/Kickstarter campaigns, I wish wannabe filmmakers would heed advice like Downey's more often.)

I say this film tastes - WICKED.


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