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WEIRDO FLICKS: 'Putney Swope'

by Eli Kroes

You might not be familiar with the term 'Z-Movie,' but if you grew up in the 90's, chances are you've seen one. They're the beyond-low-budget monstrosities that teased you from the walls of the mom-and-pop video store. Usually, the films themselves could never live up to the pictures on the videotape boxes (because this was way before your fancy 'Digital Video Discs' and 'Blu-Rays') but occasionally you'd find something truly unique. 'WEIRDO FLICKS' will clue you into some movies which 'unique' doesn't even begin to describe... 

'Putney Swope' - 1969, Directed by Robert Downey Sr.

Yep, you read that correctly. This is a film by Robert Downey Jr.'s dad. If you ever wondered how the younger Downey ended up such a coked-out mess, look no further. I'm not going to get into all the rumors surrounding Downey the elder's parenting skills, but suffice to say they were probably lax. That being said, you should forget all that when watching this film. 

Made in 1969, at the peak of hippie-ness, Downey was working as a director of television ads, and wanted to make a film depicting the hypocrisy of such a job for someone like himself. What he came up with is probably one of the funniest surrealist comedies ever made, and definitely one of the weirdest.

The titular character Mr. Swope works for a wealthy ad firm. The president suddenly dies, and a vote needs to be had to find a new one. The catch, however, is that none of the other execs can vote for themselves. Instead, they all vote for Swope, the 'token black guy.' As president, he turns the company into 'Truth and Soul, Inc.' and puts out a series of bizarre advertisements filled with sex and cursing. It should be noted that, though the film is black and white, these sections are color, which makes them all the more surreal.

The resulting success, however, goes to Swope's head, and things get way out of hand. I've seen this film often described as a 'dark comedy,' but it's really not all that disturbing. Just demented. One of the best scenes involves the President of the US, a German heroin-shooting pot-smoking dwarf, and his equally small wife. 

Almost all the dialog is bizarre and disconnected--especially Swope's lines, which were actually voiced over by Downey himself when the actor kept messing them up. Oh yeah, it's a drug film for sure. But a riotous, often-poignant one. I don't think 'Up in Smoke' could claim anything like that.

Unlike most of the films I review, it's readily available,  so see it already!

VHS photo by Toby Hudson.