"What's going on?"
"You gotta draw the line somewhere."
In one of the selections via the Criterion collection's offshoot, the Eclipse series (I suspect I'll have other Eclipse titles this summer to view), Robert Downey Sr "UP ALL NIGHT", we get a selection of a handful of the iconoclast/provocateur/I-Don't-Know-What-the-Fuck-to-Call-Him's work. Putney Swope is the kind of major artistic release that has challenged and provoked many (to the point where Matt & Craig of Welcome to the Basement coined the phrase "Putney Swope Panic" when viewing films that perplexed them greatly) and influenced others (Paul Thomas Anderson, who would also have a character named 'Floyd Gondoli' taken from this film, Chafed Elbows, and Louis CK, were two).
But what about his other films? What about something like this, which at one point was such an underground-culty-of-the-moment piece of work that it was put on a double bill with SCORPIO RISING for those who ventured to the basements and rooftops of arteets buildings.
|Has there ever been anything more hipster?|
Chafed Elbows is all from the mind of Downey as being completely anti... well, what do you got in 1965? It's full of raunchy material - not much cursing though, and a couple of points nudity is blacked out in boxes) - and it's not unlike what one saw in John Waters' early films: totally anti-establishment, anti-censorship, anti-authority, and above all anti-taste and purity. And like Swope, this is a movie that thumbs its nose at establishments that, actually, would often come out to movies like 'Elbows' like snooty poet people out of The New School (that's a particularly memorable moment, where Dinsmore is asked if he's a poet and recites the one he's written, which is terrible of course), but also of course women who flock for people who may have the slightest bit of fame, and uh, well, other people.
The movie is all over the place though, to a point where it becomes a collection of moments with the really loose thread of Walter's attraction for his mother, which we hear in voiceover as 85% of the film is voice-over, and he also sleeps with one or two other women. At one point one such woman he describes sexing is more like he is driving a race-car in metaphorical speak. I suspect that the appropach visually, which is largely made up of still images strung together one after the other, was an intentional riff (or parody, though I didn't sense that so much) on Markers' La Jetee.
Is this necessarily a bad thing? Not exactly, but kind of. I think the moments where Downey has actual film to work with in a camera that allows for moving images - and it's about 15/20% of the movie so it's sprinkled enough in there - it works better, and there's one part where Walter joins a band(!) and sings in a rollicking rock group for a song that it flies in an off-the-wall, off-beat comical way (actually any time music is used creatively in the film it really connects and carries some energy and momentum). But more often than not Downey's intention is to shock, and this is a little over 50 years ago with material that, except for the wild incest parts, it's not as shocking any more. And what we're left with in stretches of this 58 minute, uh, featur(ette) is a lot of nonsense and madness strung together like an underground sketch comedy reel.
So some of it is dated. Some of it doesn't connect comedically. But some of it does, and certain lines and zingers had me rolling on my couch (one point Walter describes himself to one of the women he's about to fool around with as, "I'm just like an art film - I never fade, and I got a lot of special effects"), and Downey is more often than not clever with how he's approaching this: it's zany and silly, obscene and radical, goofy and sacrilegious (watch for a scene set in a church that feels like a drug trip for a couple of minutes), and ultimately I assume for Downey it's a, uh, 'love' story between a son and his mother in the midst of the son's breakdown. By design it's meant to make almost everyone uncomfortable. I found myself that way 40% of the time, while also laughing. Other times it's... tedious, over-the-top in an annoying way, and then Floyd Gondolli shows up to do a newscast.
So it goes.
PS: One more good line: "I'm listed in the Yellow Pages under Truth."