BABO 73
B&W/Color, 1964, 56m.
Directed by Robert Downey
Starring Taylor Mead, James Antonio, James Greene, Tom Gaines

CHAFED ELBOWS
B&W/Color, 1966, 58m.
Directed by Robert Downey
Starring George Morgan, Elsie Downey

NO MORE EXCUSES
B&W, 1968, 46m.
Directed by Robert Downey
Starring Robert Downey, Alan Abel, Lawrence Wolf, Linda Disen

PUTNEY SWOPE
B&W/Color, 1969, 85m.
Directed by Robert Downey
Starring Arnold Johnson, Laura Greene, Allen Garfield, Buddy Butler, Antonio Fargas

TWO TONS OF TURQUOISE TO TAOS TONIGHT
B&W, 1975, 56m.
Directed by Robert Downey
Starring Elsie Downey
Criterion (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / Full Frame/WS (1.78:1) (16:9)


Thou Shalt Not Kill ExceptOne of the key underground filmmakers from the late '60s and early '70s and one of the very few to actually "make it big," Robert Downey (now knowns as Robert Downey Sr. thanks to his famous actor son) is a cinematic force still difficult to categorize. His raucous, often plotless satires of cultural attitudes about politics, race, sex, marketing, sports, Thou Shalt Not Kill Exceptand religion, among other topics, often play like random colletions of sketches ultimately painting a portrait of an unjust world where the haves and have-nots are constantly at war. His real golden period lasted from his first (sort of) feature, Babo 73, until the little-seen "work in progress" from 1975 that closes out this set; as such, this Eclipse collection is a valuable preservation of five key titles from this period that will delight and befuddle plenty of new viewers.

Clocking in at just under an hour, Babo 73 features Beat poet Taylor Mead (Lonesome Cowboys) as Sandy Studsbury, the newly-elected President of the United Status, who presides over an insane cabinet on the beach (including members with names like Chester Kittylitter) where they plot impromptu assassinations, perform slapstick sight gags, and even do a quick bit in front of the White House. Along the way you get a few nifty precursors of things to come like a vivid monologue about how every human being has a right to be a bigot -- while a black man shines the speaker's shoes without comment. They also spend time constructing toy battle scenes and rockets, with obvious real world parallels, Mainly this is Mead's show, and combined with Downey's helter skelter structure (including a bizarre color segment in a forest that must be seen to be believed), it ultimately becomes a perfect mid-'60s example of cultural satire filtered through the sensibility of the Marx Brothers.

Thou Shalt Not Kill ExceptDowney's next self-penned film, Chafed Elbows, is one of the key New York counterculture films, though oddly it's been much easier to read about than actually see for the past few decades. Downey's wife at the time, Elsie, plays all the female parts including the mother/lover of Walter Dismore (Morgan), a Greenwich Village resident who wanders throuThou Shalt Not Kill Exceptgh a motley crew of lunatics, briefly dies, gives birth to a wad of cash, and finds happiness in the strangest of places. Constructured in large part through still images intercut with random bits of live action and another bit of color footage for surreal effect, it's a witty and sometimes still-shocking film complete with some hilarious one-liners that will stick in your head long after viewing. Not for all tastes to be sure but pretty amazing if you're in the right frame of mind, this became one of the earliest significant counterculture films from the period alongside Andy Warhol's The Chelsea Girls the same year. This one's much shorter and definitel;y funnier.

The same status wasn't really in store for No More Excuses, a patchwork collection of outrages including a much-publicized bit with Downey himself in a Civil War uniform disrupting a game at Yankee Stadium. That's just part of the loose structure of the film's opening act, which began life in 1961 as his short film "Balls Bluff" (in which he plays a Union soldier tossed into the frenetic world of modern New York). Along the way Downey also integrates an unused news segment he shot with hip singles bar patrons interviewed about their sex lives, a rejected Preparation H ad Downey shot during his tenure with an ad firm, and a zany subplot with prankster Alan Abel (who also memorializes his infamous Society for Indenency to Naked Animals here); however, perhaps the weirdest moment involves a frustrated menage a tois involving a chubby semi-nude woman, and a chimpanzee, set to the theme song from The Monkees.

All three of the films are included on the first of this two-disc set and look about as you'd expect considering they were made for very little money on 16mm using sometimes aged film elements from previous sources. Chafed Elbows looks the best considering the nature of its creation, but all are fine and have that rough, loose texture you'd expect from underground productions of the time.

Thou Shalt Not Kill ExceptDisc two kicks off with Downey's big breakthrough film, Putney Swope, perhaps the weirdest title to find commercial success from the late '60s. Once again it's a goofy, ramshackle satire of social corruption and inequality, but this time there's a great hook to hold it all together. When the head of a Madison Avenue ad firm dies, the board members -- each thinking he's the only one who would cast a dissenting vote -- unwittingly elect their sole black board member, Putney Swope (Johnson, voiced hilariously by Downey himself), as their new leader. He proceeds to fire almost everyone and starts off with the best intentions, renaming the firm Truth and Soul Inc. and refusing any clients tied to cigarettes or theThou Shalt Not Kill Except war. However, the nature of capitalism proves more complicated than he could have imagined, and it becomes harder to keep body and soul together. Of course, the real claim to fame for this film is its outrageous commercial parodies, including a fantastic pimple cream ad (again in color and featuring two of the original Broadway cast members from Hair), along with such odd sights as Antonio Fargas (way before Foxy Brown and Starsky & Hutch) going anarchist in sheik garb. It's still amazing how much this film has been imitated over the years, from the silly sketches of Kentucky Fried Movie and The Groove Tube to today's improv-based sketch comedy, but no one else has ever come up with something quite like this.

This release actually marks the third time around for Putney Swope on DVD, following a full frame release from Rhino from a very dated VHS-era master (which also chucked out the potentially obscene original poster art) and a remastered 2006 version from Home Vision. I had the unique opportunity of doing a commentary wtih Downey for that one, and while it's always tricky doing those with someone unfamiliar with the commentary process, there's some good material in there that makes it worth seeking out if you're curious about how this film came about. The aspect ratio of this film is also something of a tricky issue; it was shot 1.33:1 and mostly left safe for masking up to 1.85:1, though the main titles have always been 1.33:1 on every version including this one. Otherwise both the Eclipse and Home Vision releases (which appear to be from the same source) play out slightly opened up to 1.78:1, which still looks a wee bit tight in some shots but plays out well enough for 95% of the film. Picture quality is excellent throughout.

Thou Shalt Not Kill ExceptAfter the success of Putney Swope, Downey went on to helm the terrific and still underappreciated Greaser's Palace and the bizarre human-as-canines satire Pound (which is sadly still being held hostage in the MGM vaults), along with the controversial and impossible to see Sticks and Stones for CBS. He wound up closing out the decade with a two-year project originally entitled Moment by Moment, included as the final title in this set in its final approved form as Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight. Funded with the aid of such disparate pals as Hal Ashby and Jack Nicholson, this was sort of an ongoing work in progress screened in a few venues with running times ranging anywhere from just under an hour to 85 minutes. The one here is on the shorter side, jettisoning a lengthy voiceover opening among other tangents, and it's easily the most challenging title in Downey's filmography. As with Chafed Elbows, Elsie Downey plays all the women -- but this time it's about 20 different roles scattered through a disorienting hodgepodge of blackout sketches, random jokes, incomplete vignettes, and other odds and ends. From a baseball game played on horseback to a weird gag in which she feeds her panties to a hungry admirer, it's definitely Downey at his most fragmented and unorthodox. Also noteworthy is the intriguing soundtrack featuring the likes of David Sanborn, Jack Nitzsche, and Arica. After this Downey's career became a series of "huh?" moments including such quasi-mainstream blips as the comedy Up the Academy, the frothy Rented Lips and Too Much Sun (with Downey Jr. in the biggest roles he ever played for his dad), the Alyssa Milano vehicle Hugo Pool, and the rather good documentary Rittenhouse Square.

Anyway, back to Two Tons of Turquoise. The film was ported over to video somewhere along the line where it was tweaked over the years, and that's the source used here by necessity. It's easily the weakest visual presentation here for obvious reasons, as the interlaced source and visible tape noise at the upper and lower edges of the screen make it a very retro, VHS-esque experience throughout. Given the rarity and the nature of the project, though, it's somewhat miraculous this thing has an official release in any form at all. All five films are included with no video extras, but each disc does have its own excellent set of liner notes by "MK" (presumably Michael Koresky, who often handles essay duties for them) including a valuable breakdown of Downey's various projects both unrealized and completed blended into each other.

Reviewed on May 14, 2012.