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Monday, 9 November 2009

Greaser's Palace (1972)

Director: Robert Downey
Stars: Albert Henderson and Allan Arbus
Having finally got to see Putney Swope, I'm intrigued to find any other Robert Downey films out there. That's Robert Downey Sr, father of Jr, who was an underground maverick, making low budget independent films to much acclaim from a small audience, given the little distribution they received. Then again, even had they got better distribution they would have still struggled to find an audience because they were hardly mainstream films. Putney Swope had to do with the token black board member being made chairman of an advertising agency and deciding to tell the truth. Pound was about a dog pound but with all the dogs played by actors. From what I read, Chafed Elbows is a satire of everything, told Monty Python style. And Greaser's Palace is the story of Jesus told in the style of a spaghetti western.

It opens with the singing of Luana Anders being interrupted by a man in a sheet putting out his cigar on another man' chest. And yes, I mean a man in a sheet, more like a ghost outfit than a Klan kostume, because he's the Holy Ghost. The victim is Lamy 'Homo' Greaser and he's promptly taken out and shot, presumably by his dad who is the man in charge, Seaweedhead Greaser by name. He's so important that he has a toilet on the roof and a mariachi band locked up behind bars to play for him while he uses it. Everyone brings him tribute and if he doesn't like them he shoots them dead. He's played by Albert Henderson, who looks somewhat like Kenny Rogers.

Meanwhile out of the sky parachutes Allan Arbus in his purple hat and zoot suit. He's Jessy and he's on his way to Jerusalem to become an actor/singer/dancer. The ghost brings him the body of Lamy sprawled across the back of a mule, so Jessy brings him back to life and elicits his help. He gets to do it again too when he hits town because Seaweedhead promptly stabs Lamy to death. This time the miracle is in front of a wide audience, so the local bald headed monk asks him what message he has brought them all. Incidentally that monk is played by Downey regular Lawrence Wolf, Mr Borman Six from Putney Swope, who for some reason has two pages on IMDb, featuring as both Larry Wolf and Lawrence Wolf. They are the same person.

Jessy doesn't seem to have a message, though he has plenty of tricks up his sleeve to demonstrate to his followers. He takes them down to the river so he can walk on water in front of them. He heals the sick, though some of the absurdity comes across as very Python-esque, one man proudly proclaiming, 'I can crawl again!' He manages to ditch them in the end, having left them with a hum that some of them continue to keep alive throughout the film, and continues his strange wanderings through the desert. And strange they certainly are, though not as obviously symbolic as something like El Topo. Not everything here has meaning, some of it is just surreal, wacky, drugged out or all the above.

For instance, an Indian girl played by Toni Basil brings him to her tribe where he heals one of them through chiropracty. She spends much of her part topless, much longer than she did in Easy Rider. I really shouldn't highlight that but then I first encountered her singing Mickey, so she owes me. He even stops somewhere for food only to be sexually harrassed by Hervé Villechaize, the midget from Fantasy Island, and his wife, who is Stan Gottlieb in drag. He finds a burro out in the desert because a man believes it's better to give than to receive. He's out there with a man holding da Vinci's The Last Supper and who shouts something incoherent repeatedly. Even two films into Robert Downey's directorial career, I'm seeing recurring themes and stylistic marks and that's one of them. People repeat things a lot, usually not for any apparent reason.

And I'm still wondering about the apparent reason. As the story of Jesus, this is hardly traditional, even discounting the setting. Therefore while it often reminds of the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky and some scenes are obviously dripping with symbolism, it isn't anywhere near as consistent and really can't be seen as a serious film in the same sort of light as something El Topo or The Holy Mountain. Some things are obvious but most are either deliberately obscure or just thrown in there because it seemed like a good idea at the time. Why Don Calfa gets to wander around in platform boots and an astronaut's helmet I really have no idea. I don't think things like that are even meant to make sense, so the picture ends up less Jodorowsky and more Monty Python meets Mel Brooks, albeit occasionally far more profane. Of course, that's hardly a bad thing. It's an experience, that's for sure.

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