11 February 2009 | Quinoa1984
smart, sharp, cutting edge, and a big middle finger to the establishment, now as then
When someone refers to the independent cinema realm in the United States it's often inferred that it means the filmmaker or people behind the project had much more creative freedom and did what they wanted. This, today, is not really always the case unless someone is a solid "auteur" and creative freedom still comes with the caveat that one has to find distribution with one of the independent divisions of major studios or by getting picked up somehow for some kind of low-level deal at a worthwhile film festival. But Putney Swope, Robert Downey Sr's film about a tough-as-nails African-American accidentally promoted to head advertising guru at a production company, *is* independent cinema, the kind of work that went right along with the likes or Romero's Night of the Living Dead and Cassavetes Faces at the same time of getting no real typical studio distribution but causing waves, kicking ass and taking names in the cinema world. For all its moments that are rough and crude, it's unforgettable.
It's also a film that is funny, very and excruciatingly funny. Sometimes the sense of humor is just so ridiculous it's nearly impossible not to laugh, from the mere appearance of the President Mimeo with his wife to lines of dialog from the advertisements Swope's team puts together like "I can't eat an air conditioner" in a real "soul" voice. It is as smart as the audience it is aiming at, which is anyone with two brain cells to put together who can see that this work isn't offensive or *too* shocking because it's meant to rattle the cage, and it does this pretty well in the first five minutes. Once that's past Downey Sr goes on his blitz of sorts as far as being a filmmaker with nothing to lose: his protagonist is part Fidel Castro, part Isaac Hayes circa 1972 (and yes it's 1969 in the film) and part hard-assed ad exec with a firing streak to make Mr. Spacely on the Jetsons look kind. And don't forget those side characters, dear God.
There's so many memorable lines and moments that it's hard to keep track. From maybe the most hilarious botched assassination attempt in any movie to the one ad for "Face-Off" skin cream that includes lines that would give South Park a run for its dirty-mouth money, to just little asides with the one guy from Jack Hill's movies playing the Muslim who keeps giving lip to Swope and that one boy with the the nun who curses up a storm and impresses Swope in a swift stroke. It's a pretty direct message about media and advertising, but there's also a lot of powerful moments where it just hits the nail on the head about racism in America, sometimes without having to do more than a gesture and sometimes with doing something HUGE like having black panther types going this way and that around Swope's advertising regime. And for a low-budget production (I mean super low, hence the comparison to Night of the Living Dead and Faces) Downey got some really good actors, all non-union, and it's hard to imagine that some of them might have had their first time on camera here.
It should be mentioned that Downey's style doesn't make it perfect: it is crude and sometimes too crazy and dated for its own good, and I'm sure I didn't get some of the underlying humor of a couple of the ads since I'm from a full generation after these ads were aired (albeit the "Miss Redneck Jersey" was definitely not lost on me). In general though this is one of the finest of its time period, a satire that stings and a feature with a predominantly black cast that is all too knowing of what comes from an excess of power, regardless of skin color. It is, as someone might say, "good s***."