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Saturday, 7 November 2009

Putney Swope (1969)

Director: Robert Downey
Stars: Arnold Johnson and Laura Greene
Dr Alvin Weesley arrives in a helicopter, dressed like an overage biker with a Mensa Chapter backpatch on his jacket and a confederate flag and Jolly Roger flying from the window. He walks off the helipad and into an unnamed advertising agency with a suitcase chained to his wrist. It's a big agency given the size of the table in the conference room and one on the skids since they're now earning less than a million dollars a day. They're paying $28,000 for his advice, which turns out to be that beer is for men and it tastes like pee pee dicky. He's one of the most respected motivational researchers in the country and this is Putney Swope, one of the most respected underground movies of the sixties.

Putney Swope is a person, the token black guy on the board of this agency and through a quirk of circumstances he ends up in charge of the whole show. The chairman collapses on the conference room table and dies during a stuttering speech so the board get to democratically elect a replacement. Because everyone is entirely selfish but nobody is allowed to vote for themself, they all vote for Swope because he's the last person anyone else would vote for. So Swope is in and as he quickly points out, he doesn't want to rock the boat, he wants to sink it. Suddenly the board ceases to be populated with corrupt old white men and begins to be populated with what looks like the Black Panther society. Now they're called Truth and Soul Inc.

This is a startling and bizarre film to watch. There's really no plot, just a collection of themes, the most obvious of which is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Swope would appear to be the fresh face who's going to pull the ultimate coup, bringing truth to advertising, only to end up with precisely what he started with, merely with the colours reversed. Instead of being the token black guy in a corrupt white society, there's a token white guy in his corrupt black society. It's anarchic, socially biting and full of surrealism, but it remains something of a slap in the face to the viewer. It's magnetic but I have precisely no idea what to write about in a review. Perhaps that's precisely the point, but it still feels like a copout.

I could talk about the people in the film. Swope is Arnold Johnson, in his film debut. He'd follow up with Shaft and Rocky and then disappear into television or obscure film roles. He looks precisely right for this part, iconic and emphatic, whether in a business suit or dressed up like Fidel Castro. We don't hear him though because writer/director Robert Downey dubbed all his lines because apparently he kept flubbing them. Vincent Hamill is the epitome of cool as a black man in a white suit, always hidden behind black shades. Mel Brooks and Allan Arbus have small parts. Antonio Fargas steals much of the show as a fast talking Arab Muslim, who apparently has no function except to disagree with Swope.
Blaxploitation hadn't happened yet but you can see where it would come from.

I could talk about the attempts to offend, but I saw Poultrygeist last night and so anything is going to seem tame in comparison. It was still stunning to realise that this was 1969 and yet we get scenes like the one with Mimeo, the midget President of the United States, being fed jokes banal enough to offend his companion, a bald German, who breaks the ice with 'It's cold in here, throw another Jew on the fire,' and everyone descends into laughter except the joker who somehow keeps a straight face throughout. That may be the most surreal thing in a film that thrives on its surreality.

Obviously I could talk about the commercials, which are highlighted by being shot in colour even though Putney Swope is otherwise entirely in black and white, appropriately of course given the subject matter. Swope wants to tell the truth above all else, in an attempt to keep it real. So we get a black man eating his breakfast and being told about the ingredients only to end the commercial with 'No shit!' We get an old man hobbling down the steps outside a building with limbs missing advertising Worth It Life Insurance: 'They charge an arm and a leg but it's Worth It.'

Most blatant is the Lucky Airlines commercial that reminds of the ultimate commercial Bill Hicks used to talk about. It's a long piece containing nothing but scantily clad bouncing stewardesses losing their tops, eventually bringing in a Lucky passenger to be molested by them. Hicks suggested that the ultimate advert had the camera pan down a beautiful woman who we eventually discover is entirely naked and masturbating to the screen. The caption would merely read, 'Drink Coke'. While I'm sure many worked out something similar many decades ago, advertising being built on sex, it's still startling to see Downey put something so blatant into his film in 1969.

Perhaps the date is the most important thing here. In 1969 America was in social and cultural revolution, everything being turned on its head. I was just getting round to being a glimmer in an entirely different country, so I can't really imagine what it must have felt like to be there as it happened. I've read about it of course and absorbed the culture of the time in many different ways but it isn't the same. Somehow Putney Swope highlights that. While it's enjoyable in its very twisted way and it's certainly magnetic, it screams that you had to be there at the time to understand everything that it's saying. The sheer deluge of reference points makes this very American story as alien as watching a documentary on life in a pygmy village. It's less a film and more of an immersive experience.

I've wanted to see Putney Swope for years, as it's a title that crops up a lot when reading about film, especially cult or underground cinema. Like many cult films that don't come from the horror/scifi genres, it isn't that easy to find and is completely unique, but those two factors are generally the only commonality. How else could you tie together Putney Swope with The World's Greatest Sinner, The Loved One and Killer of Sheep, for instance, let alone Grey Gardens or Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story? The writer and director is Robert Downey, but that's Sr not Jr. As Robert Downey Jr has become something of the stereotypical Hollywood movie star, playing superheroes in big budget blockbusters that are outadvertised only by his offscreen exploits with drugs and prison, his father, Robert Downey Sr, was an underground icon.

Downey thrived in the cinematic world of the seventies, where the Production Code was dead and the medium had been returned, at least temporarily, to the artists. The truest worked the underground, making films that most people have never heard of and less have seen, but which all sound fascinating when reading about them. Of course like many great ideas, many of them are better as ideas than actual films, but we can't judge until we actually see them, something that isn't that easy to do. Putney Swope was his biggest film, but others like Greaser's Palace, Pound and Moment to Moment seem to have found devout audiences also. Having seen this I can imagine that any of his films could do so and I'm fascinated to find out.

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