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Posts Tagged ‘Social Satire’

Roberty Downey Sr.’s Pound (1970)

Sunday, May 3rd, 2015

Robert Downey Sr. (center) with cast members on the set of his film Pound.

As readers of this blog know, I’m a friend and fan of the work of Robert Downey Sr., whose best known film after all these years is Putney Swope. I first met Bob back in 1969, right after the success of Putney, when he was editing Pound in a cutting room in the West 50s in Manhattan. We hit it off, and remain friends to this day, but although I’ve written about a lot of his other work, I’ve never really tacked Pound, which is simultaneously one of his most disturbing and ambitious films, and was – at least in my mind – a highly unlikely follow-up to Putney Swope. But at this point in his career, Bob could write his own ticket, and the result is one of the darkest, most unsettling visions of humanity in crisis that ever hit the screen – yet to this day, Pound is almost impossible to see.

As Rich Drees noted in a 2006 article on Pound, the plot of the film is simple: “set in a New York City dog pound, 18 dogs, played by human actors, wait to be adopted. Part existential comedy, part allegory, the dogs include a punch drunk Boxer (Stan Gottlieb), a hyperactive Mexican Hairless (a scene stealing Lawrence Wolf) and a sleek Greyhound (Antonio Fargas). Meanwhile, the city is being terrorized by a serial killer dubbed The Honky Killer (James Green). Pound also features the debut of performance of Downey’s son Robert Jr. as a puppy temporarily held at the pound.”

But that’s just the set-up. Hovering over all the characters is the continual threat of death from “the needle” – they’re not so much waiting to be adopted, as waiting to be executed. A terrier advises that they should revolt against their captors and escape, while an airedale argues that their deaths are not imminent, and a pardon is forthcoming. Throughout the film, there a number of mournful musical numbers which verge on nihilistic vaudeville, interspersed with a series of philosophical diatribes on the nature of existence, the transience of life, and the ways in which we’re all in a prison of one sort or another, whether we wish to admit it or not.

The end of the film is terrifying, as all of their ranting against the caprices of fate comes to naught. Without warning, a guard peremptorily pulls a switch that sends poisonous gas into the holding chamber, and one by one, the animals die an agonizing death, with each “dog” given a last, wistful closeup as they expire. Downey then cuts to a final sequence on a train to nowhere, as the “dogs” sit in their seats, bound for who knows where – heaven? hell? limbo? – and a candy barker walks through the aisle with a megaphone singing the 1930s song “Just One More Chance,” the lyrics of which, in part, lament that “we spend our lives in groping for happiness / I found it once and tossed it aside / I paid for it with hours of loneliness / I’ve nothing to hide.” And on this unresolved note, the film ends.

Not surprisingly, Pound was summarily rejected by the sponsoring studio, MGM, who for some reason, Downey told me, thought that the film would be an animated cartoon. When they saw the finished result, MGM dumped it on the bottom half of a double bill with Federico Fellini’s Satryicon, to Downey’s delight. Yet not surprisingly, given the film’s incredibly bleak outlook on life, Pound has never had a VHS or DVD release, although it was available as a streaming download on Netflix for a time, but has now been withdrawn.

Indeed, as Drees notes, it’s a miracle that the film exists at all, since “the only print of the film that Downey could locate was found in his ‘cameraman’s ex-wife’s closet . . . a 35mm print that was dead.’ Although the print itself was deemed unprojectable, it was able to be digitally scanned and restored. ‘So they put the color back in,’ says Downey. ‘They cleaned up the sound a bit too. Technology is great, it’s just the movies aren’t getting any better. It’s only because of digital technology that some of this stuff can be saved, because most of the colors just go. Most of my stuff in color other than Greasers Palace (1972), I hate the color. I love black and white.’”

Based on a play Downey wrote very early in his career, The Comeuppance, which was produced Off-Off Broadway in 1961, Pound betrays its theatrical origins, and has strong links to Sartre’s play No Exit, as well as to Downey’s even earlier efforts, such as his first play about two nuclear missiles in a silo, waiting go off, talking to each other about the destruction they will inevitably inflict on humankind. Pound can certainly be seen as an extension of that, and it’s no wonder that it was so roundly rejected by the general public, and got an NC-17 rating – it’s a real warning that the only one you can really trust in life is yourself.

There are bootlegs of the film, of course, drifting around on the web, and today, the film’s major curiosity draw seems to be the brief appearance of Bob Downey Jr. in a small role as a puppy – but the film is much more than that. It’s certainly not a masterpiece, and Downey himself has expressed definite reservations about Pound, but all in all, it’s one hell of a scary vision of life, and a real outlier in film history – the work of someone chasing not success, but his own vision, consequences be damned. As Downey said of his work as a filmmaker, “after being thrown out of the house, four schools and the United States Army, I discovered that I was on the right track.”

“I just think he’s one of our great American directors” — Paul Thomas Anderson

The Crazy Family (1984)

Friday, January 25th, 2013

Sogo Ishii’s The Crazy Family (1984) is one of the best Japanese films you’ve never seen.

As Steven Puchalski wrote – in part – of the film in 1994, ten years after the film’s release, “not many people caught this pitch-black comedy when it was released in the United States — no surprise since its New York City engagement consisted of a one-week run at an upscale arthouse theatre, and a sparse, thoroughly confused audience of blue-haired Upper West Siders. Though still unavailable on video, I’d like to give it my vote as one of the most genuinely demented movies to ever emerge from Japan. Directed by Sogo Ishii [who subsequently changed his name to Gakuryu Ishii] this was his first feature film to be picked up by an American distributor [New Yorker Films, who subsequently went out of business, leaving the film in limbo].

Mixing sledgehammer social satire with rapid-fire cinematic dementia, this is an unforgettable excursion into the darkest recesses of his culture’s middle-class values, as well as a precursor to such ’90s cult hits as Tetsuo: The Iron Man. [Utterly] unrelenting, The Crazy Family focuses on the outwardly-sane Kobayashi family. They’re an Asian bourgeois [family unit], complete with a successful dad, a loving wife, and two well-adjusted children. To top it off, they’ve just moved into their suburban dream home. Sounds perfect? Not for long. Because soon their unwanted grandfather moves in, white ants are discovered feasting on the woodwork, tempers begin to percolate, and the family’s oft-mentioned “sickness” takes over, which sends our happy Nuclear Unit spinning headfirst into a series of comic obsessions.

Father begins digging up the floorboards and spreading toxic bug poison; the straight-laced mother does an impromptu striptease for her ever-more-paranoid hubbie; and the daughter practices for her unlikely pop star career. Meanwhile, the son crams for his Tokyo University entrance exams by turning his room into a high-tech nightmare, complete with electrodes, glowing pyramids, and a handy knife which he stabs himself with in order to stay awake.

The household hostilities escalate and soon the place becomes a full-scale battlefield — the family armed with mothballed World War II weapons, a chainsaw, even a baseball bat with the family dog strapped to it. [Grandfather] goes so far off the deep end that he takes his pre-pubescent granddaughter hostage. In between the various fires and explosions, Ishii makes scathingly hilarious points about life in modern-day Japan, where socially-programmed perfection and technological advances have taken their toll on a new generation. Imagine a movie that begins like [an episode of the 1950s Cold War television series] Father Knows Best, turns into a mass-hysteria mix of The Shining meets The Simpsons, edited like a Road Runner cartoon [. . .] and you have The Crazy Family.”

I was lucky enough to see this film in a theater when it first came out, and it absolutely amazed me; so much so that I went right back in and saw it again immediately, being sure that I’d probably never be able to see it again. As it turns out, I was — sadly — absolutely right. The clip above gives you some idea of the quirky power of the film; someone should sort out the rights to this lost jewel, and release it as soon as possible. It’s brilliant, brutal filmmaking, and deserves the widest possible audience. In addition, it has none of its’ power in the last twenty-five years; if anything it seems more modern than much of contemporary cinema.

Click here, or on the image above to see a clip from the film; this is a lost masterpiece.

Eclipse Series 33: Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr.

Monday, May 14th, 2012

At last! At last! At last!

Robert Downey Sr. has been a friend of mine since the late 1960s, and his films have been criminally neglected since then, and for years he’s been telling me about a box set of his movies coming out, and now, finally, it’s here from Criterion.

As Criterion’s notes point out, “rarely do landmark works of cinema seem so . . . wrong. Robert Downey Sr. emerged as one of the most irreverent filmmakers of the new American underground of the early sixties, taking no prisoners in his rough-and-tumble treatises on politics, race, and consumer culture. In his most famous, the midnight-movie mainstay Putney Swope, an advertising agency is turned on its head when a militant African American man takes charge. Like Swope, Downey held nothing sacred. This selection of five of his most raucous and outlandish films, dating from 1964 to 1975, offers a unique mix of the hilariously abrasive and the intensely experimental.

The set includes Babo 73 (1964), in which Warhol superstar Taylor Mead plays the president of the United Status, who conducts his top-secret international affairs on a deserted beach when he isn’t at the White House (a dilapidated Victorian), in Robert Downey Sr.’s political satire. Downey’s first feature is a rollicking, slapstick, ultra-low-budget 16 mm comedy experiment that introduced a twisted new voice to the American underground scene;

Chafed Elbows (1966), a breakthrough for Downey Sr., thanks to rave notices. Visualized largely in still 35 mm photographs, it follows a shiftless downtown Manhattanite having his “annual November breakdown,” wandering from one odd job to the next;

No More Excuses (1968), in which Downey takes his camera and microphone onto the streets for a close look at Manhattan’s swinging singles scene of the late sixties. Of course, that’s not all: No More Excuses cuts between this footage and the fragmented tale of a time-traveling Civil War soldier, a rant from the director of the fictional Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, and other assorted improprieties;

Putney Swope (1969), Downey’s most popular film, an oddball classic about the antics that ensue after Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson, his voice dubbed by a gravelly Downey), the token black man on the board of a Madison Avenue advertising agency, is inadvertently elected chairman. Putney summarily fires everyone else, replaces them with Black Power apostles, renames the company Truth and Soul, Inc., and proceeds to wreak politically incorrect havoc; and finally;

Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight
(1975), ‘a film without a beginning or an end,’ in Downey’s own words, this Dadaist thingamajig—a never-before-seen, newly reedited version of the director’s 1975 release Moment to Moment (also known as Jive)—is a cascade of curious sketches, scenes, and shots that takes on a rhythmic life. It stars Downey’s wife at the time, Elsie, in an endless succession of off-the-wall roles, from dancer to cocaine fiend.”

Downey Sr. is a one of a kind original, a brilliant satirist, and a take-no-prisoners filmmaker. Buy this set immediately; these films are essential documents of the 1960s, and some of the funniest films ever made, and I honestly never thought they’d see the light of day.

And now they’re out on Criterion, no less! Congratulations, Bob; long overdue!!

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

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