New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, in one of his signature recurring gags, wrote that Mad Max: Fury Road was rated R because it featured “A ruthless critique of everything existing.” The same might be said of Putney Swope, Robert Downey, Sr.’s oddball satire from 1969. The original poster expresses the film’s thesis succinctly: a hand flipping the bird with the middle finger replaced by a woman; above her, the tagline “Up Madison Ave.”
Putney Swope is both influential and obscure. Most people haven’t heard of Putney Swope, though it’s available through The Criterion Collection’s Eclipse series. Yet the film’s fingerprints are everywhere. Louis CK in particular cites the film as one of his early influences. Some of Putney Swope‘s other big boosters include Paul Thomas Anderson, Chris Rock, Dave Chapelle, and the Coen Brothers. Watch Putney Swope and then watch the work of these people–it’s like you found a seat with a better view.
Aside from its cult status bona fides, I think Putney Swope belongs somewhere alongside Sidney Lumet’s 1976 classic Network in calling BS on the establishment and corporate culture. Downey’s film is a great example of a movie being an artifact of its time and place, oddly timeless, and even timely.
[The Cult Club is where Flixist’s writers expound the virtues of their favourite underground classics, spanning all nations and genres. It is a monthly series of articles looking at what made those films stand out from the pack, as well as their enduring legacy.]
Some people come up to me and say, ‘You the guy that made Putney Swope?’ And I’ll say, ‘Yeah.’ [And they say], ‘Well, you really changed my life!’ And my answer is, ‘I’m sorry. You might have been better off without it.’ — Robert Downey, Sr., 2008 Reelblack interview
The surreal anarchism of Putney Swope is established in the first minute, with contradictions played for laughs and all things intentionally off-balance, free-floating, a potential set-up for a punchline or a punchline per se. The film opens on a vertiginous, spiraling aerial shot of New York City interrupted by a dissonant piano chord. We see an older biker in a helicopter descend. A Jolly Roger and a Confederate Battle Flag flap in the wind. The chopper lands at a pier, and the biker steps out with a suitcase secured with a length of chain. On the back of his denim vest, “MENSA.” The music is impending and sinister as he approaches a stooped-over square in a suit. They slap each other five and on comes a triumphant 60s groove, as if to say, “Yeah, we cool.”
In the board room scene that sets the plot in motion, the chairman of an ad agency dies while delivering a spiel, stuttering on his last word. The execs treat it like a game of charades. The nasaliest of boardroom weasels asks constantly, even after the chairman’s clearly dead, “How many syllables, Mario?!” The other execs pick the corpse’s pockets–ugly capitalist vultures.
With the corpse on the table, the board votes for a new leader. The only stipulation is that they’re not allowed to vote for themselves. And so they accidentally elect the one person they figured no one else would vote for: the company’s token black guy, Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson). (Downey dubbed in his own voice for Swope’s since Johnson purportedly kept forgetting his lines.)
That’s just the first 12 minutes. Revolution and selling out ensues.
There’s a gritty DIY-ness to Putney Swope that’s in service to its irreverence and popular revolutionary vibe. It’s at once a kind of guerrilla filmmaking and guerrilla sketch comedy. Anything is possible in the weird world of the film–a midget in a hard hat is POTUS, and bags of money are passed and hookshot off the backboard into an open-top case. Louis CK said he was inspired by Putney Swope‘s confident nonsense when he hosted a screening of the film in LA late last year. (Excerpts from the event and Q&A with Downey, Sr. can be read here on The Moveable Fest). CK had just moved to New York and bought a VCR, and he found a copy of Putney Swope at the videostore. According to the WTF podcast, Marc Maron was there with him when it happened. CK’s early short films such as Hello There and Hijacker have Swope written all over them, as do the stranger segments of his show Louie.
The jokes of Putney Swope come in various forms and with different targets. Downey delivers visual gags, verbal gags, quick gags, long-form gags, slapstick, and gallows humor. There are the one-liners, which seem like the stuff of the Marx Brothers and even A Hard Day’s Night. I also can’t help but hear shades of Dr. Strangelove‘s “You can’t fight here–this is the War Room” in Swope‘s oft-repeated “Brothers in the black room” line. The zany, all-over-the-place approach is like those early Woody Allen movies as well, or perhaps those edgier 90s sketch shows like The Kids in the Hall and Mr. Show. The sex humor is gleefully vulgar (if The Guardian is correct, this is the first movie to use the word “jism”). The race jokes, sexuality jokes, and gender jokes are built on stereotypes being broken down, reaffirmed, or forced into an uneasy dance of doing both. The grittiness of the picture plays into the film’s gritty, unwashed brand of comedy.
The film critic for the New York Daily News in 1969 gave Putney Swope a negative-one-star review and wrote, “Vicious and vile. The most offensive picture I’ve ever seen.” Putney Swope isn’t just offensive. It’s also politically incorrect, though political incorrectness isn’t an end in itself, and nor should it be.
These days many jagoffs use political incorrectness as a self-congratulatory badge of honor for tastelessness, but they wear the badge without acknowledging that political incorrectness takes many forms. Context is key since not all political incorrectness is created equal. The healthy, beneficial, and most complicated strand of political incorrectness is the satirical kind. I don’t know if it’s necessarily about punching up or punching down because legitimate targets and topics for satire come from all levels of social strata, but maybe effective satire that’s politically incorrect is more about an awareness of what’s being punched and why it deserves to be.
Maybe that’s the point. Maybe humor has a higher function. In other words, the offensive joke that someone tells makes you laugh, and if your politics are progressive or you care about your fellow human, you reconsider why you laughed and whether or not you should have laughed, digging into the real cultural meaning of the gag and the mindset of the culture as a whole. The satirist telling the joke, similarly, isn’t just laughing at himself or herself. There’s more than self-amusement at stake. The joke isn’t just a bit of offensiveness–a fart in church that people will politely suffer through and forget–but a meaningful conversation with the culture, its makers, and its members.
There’s a predictive element about Putney Swope that seems especially important given its place in 60s counterculture. There’s an assassination attempt on Swope, which recalls the biggest political assassinations of the decade (JFK, RFK, Martin Luther King, Malcom X). Yet as Film Crit Hulk points out in his appreciation of Putney Swope, the person who tries to kill Swope bears an uncanny resemblance to Mark David Chapman, the man who would shoot and kill John Lennon in 1980. (In another bizarre coincidence, Downey joked in a LIFE Magazine profile published November 28, 1969 that the only book he’d ever read was J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Chapman, after shooting Lennon, sat down and read a copy of The Catcher in the Rye.)
The primary prediction by Putney Swope, however, is an eventual shift that the counterculture of the 1960s made, transforming from activists and political idealists into the members of the self-absorbed “Me generation.” The transition might have been expected, an inevitable comedown after the decade of love ended with such painful disillusionment. Sometimes it’s not about changing the world since that might be impossible. The heroes have been killed, the hippies have cannibalized themselves, and now the whole enterprise seems like bullshit. Sometimes it’s just about getting paid, and that’s the most you can hope for.
We see it in Putney’s own desire to not just rock the boat but sink it, which he hopes to do by refusing to advertise cigarettes, alcohol, and war toys. What else, though, is more quintessentially American than the Marlboro Man, Kentucky bourbon, and G.I. Joe (aka my first military-industrial complex)? Swope’s whole enterprise is doomed from the start–he’s an ideological terrorist armed with only truth and soul.
To use the words of Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty) from Network, “You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Swope.”
When he spoke about Putney Swope late last year, Louis CK said, “This was made in 1969–it’s that way a movie can be like a note in a bottle, this beautiful thing that just stays [the same].” The film captures its era, and yet I think it’s also timely because the primal forces of nature, those larger political systems and corporate systems, also stay the same, and will stay the same. The system can’t be dismantled, and the boat ain’t sinking. Hell, it can barely even get rocked. That sounds hopeless, I know, but the good thing, at least, is that Putney Swope and other satires help you find a better deck chair on this awful ship we’re on.
June 30th marks the DVD/Blu-ray release of Penelope Spheeris’ critically acclaimed Decline of Western Civilization trilogy, a landmark trio of documentaries on the Los Angeles punk scene, metal scene, and the plight of homeless youth. All three films are going to be available for the first time ever on DVD/Blu-ray.
To coincide with the release of The Decline of Western Civilization, we’re going to look at one of the seminal cult movies of the 80s that’s rooted in the ugly aggro-nihilism of the 80s LA punk scene.
Yup, we’re finally doing Alex Cox’s classic Repo Man (1984).
PREVIOUSLY SHOWING ON THE CULT CLUB
The Last Dragon (1985)
Tromeo and Juliet (1996)
Samurai Cop (1989)
El Mariachi (1992)