Monday, August 14, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #172 - Putney Swope (1969, dir. Robert Downey Sr.)

Years ago, I was working as a bartender at a music venue in my hometown of Dubuque, Iowa. One of my regular barflies, Paul, and I ended up striking up an acquaintance over time due to our similar tastes. When the bar was slow, we would sit for hours getting shitfaced and discussing music, books, films and many other things. During one of these conversations, it was discovered that I had never seen Robert Downey Sr.’s breakthrough film Putney Swope. In fact, I didn’t know anything about it. I mean, I had heard of it. I knew that some of my heroes, Louis C.K. and the Coen Brothers, had cited the film as hugely influential. But I had never gotten around to seeing it or even really hearing much about it. Paul made it his mission to make sure I saw this movie. He brought me a flash drive containing a bad transfer of the film and I watched it the same night. And then I watched it again. Since then, the film has become one of my all-time favorites and I can’t believe it took me until well into my thirties to see it.

The film centers on a New York advertising agency whose chairman unexpectedly drops dead in the middle of a board meeting. While his body lay lifeless on the table, the remaining board members take a vote on who should become the new chairman. Each board member, prohibited from voting for themselves, accidentally (and by an overwhelming majority) vote in the sole black man on the board, Putney Swope. Swope immediately fires nearly the entire staff (save for one “token” white man) and hires an idealistic and politically militant all-black staff, renaming the agency Truth & Soul, Inc. Swope and his staff’s new business approach is actual TRUTH in advertising, their new motto “rockin’ the boat’s a drag, you gotta SINK the boat.” They only accept cash as payment and they refuse to take on clients who sell alcohol, tobacco or war-related toys. Almost immediately, their approach becomes so popular that companies start paying a million dollars per campaign just to become clients. The agency becomes such a success that they catch the attention of the diminutive President Mimeo and his administration. Eventually, the entire agency falls to corruption, including Swope himself.

And beyond the plot, which doesn’t necessarily sound that outrageous in and of itself, it’s hard to specify exactly the best way to describe Putney Swope. It is equal parts farce, satire, exploitation, black comedy (no pun intended) and cult masterpiece. It’s predominantly filmed in black and white, with the occasional colorized fake commercial for pimple cream, breakfast cereal and other products from the Truth & Soul client roster. The commercials are hysterical and came nearly a full decade before sketch comedy shows like Saturday Night Live and SCTV set the standard for commercial parodies.

The titular character, Putney Swope, is played flawlessly by Arnold Johnson, who would go on to play many bit parts in sitcoms like The Jeffersons, Roc and Sanford and Son. The most surreal thing about his performance, however, is that the voice provided for Swope was not that of Johnson’s, but of Downey’s himself. This led to some speculation that Downey was a racist or somehow unfair toward Johnson on the set. Quite to the contrary, Johnson, evidently, had difficulty remembering and delivering his lines. Out of desperation (and rightly not wanting to re-cast the role) Downey voiced in the lines later. Watching the film, this fact could not be more obvious and glaring but it actually adds another layer of quirkiness to the already eccentric nature of the film. Antonio Fargas (future Car Wash and Starsky & Hutch star) plays The Arab, a sort of second-in-command at Truth & Soul, who butts heads with Swope for nearly the entire film. This dynamic helps to somewhat keep Swope’s new position from going to his head (or at least slow it down). The president and first lady are played by dwarf actors, who engage in a threesome with a photographer who intermittently shows up to show his credentials. An awkward courier (who just happens to be a dead ringer for Mark David Chapman) keeps showing up at the agency, only to constantly be cast off to the “freight elevator” by Swope and his associates. Swope starts dressing like Fidel Castro at some point for no rhyme or reason... there really is a lot going on in the 85-minute runtime of the film and not a whole lot of it makes sense. Still, one can’t help but be drawn in by the film, either by its sheer ridiculousness or by its hipper-than-thou vibe.

Putney Swope’s legacy lives on in its vast cult following and through the work of other filmmakers (Paul Thomas Anderson, for example, directly referenced the film three times in his own cult classic film Boogie Nights) yet it remains a highly underappreciated gem. If you haven’t already seen it, now is your chance to do like I did and right this wrong now. And by the way, thank you Paul for being such a chatty drinking buddy.

-         Jonathan Eagle

1 comment:

humanic said...

I watched it 2 nights ago with my new roommate!!! Still as good as ever!