“Putney Swope” (1969)
In “Putney Swope”, a Madison Avenue advertising agency is subject to an unexpected power shift when a new Chairman of the Board is hastily chosen, after his predecessor collapses during a company meeting. That the new Chairman is announced as having been elected by mistake (each of the board members voted for him thinking no one else would) is a convenient comedy set-up, but more importantly (to the film’s purpose), the fellow is the only black man in the company, Putney Swope. From this premise, director Robert Downey, Sr. offers a satire of advertising, capitalism, racism, sexism and probably a dozen more -isms, all of which are presented with the indelicate touch of a wrecking ball.
In Downey’s universe, everyone is depicted as either a one-dimensional stereotype or a freakish buffoon (often both), a misanthropic view which he is unable to quantify as a legitimate comic perspective, but which he obviously finds hysterical. Subtlety doesn’t rate a qualifying seat at his satiric table, which would be irrelevant if the film delivered on a certain level of humor, but, though the film is sated with what are presented as sharp observations, they miss the mark with a consistency of failure that is embarrassing to watch. The jokes are unfunny enough, but it is the crude execution of every scene which makes the material feel doubly desperate, every line is forced, bluntly italicized to be admired for what Downey clearly feels is militant bravura, but the film fails (actually, does not even attempt) to establishing any coherent point-of-view. The movie feels unfinished, as if any material that would bring any coherence to film is still laying on the editing floor. For a filmmaker like Downey, whose kamikazee approach to humor is wielded as a counterculture truncheon, the success of the comedy is in the cultural bullying of the audience. Films such as “Putney Swope” announce their comic truth to the audience with the force of a slap to the face, but it is a supremely arrogant pose (the movie dares you to not like it, lest you be identified as an Establishment lackey); one that is reflected in every frame of the film. It professes anger and outrage, but without a cause. It is social activism as an empty temper tantrum.
Swope’s takeover of the agency marks an occasion promising sweeping changes and an adherence to a higher moral standard (he refuses to advertise war toys, cigarettes and alcohol), yet the film is immediately muddled with obscure and contradictory gestures (he vilifies the corrupt work of Madison Avenue and then blithely suggests a tweaking of a glass cleaner to be sold as a soft drink for the ghetto communities) that suggest a social consciousness in the throes of a mental disorder. Given Downey’s all-gloves-are-off hubris, one would expect to be witness to scathing (or, at least, inventive) parodies of high concept advertising (working within the confines of mainstream commercial cinema, David Swift’s big business satires had far more bite and knowing wit than anything calling attention to itself here), but Downey’s sense of humor (if indeed it exists) fails him at every turn, believing that a character smoking a joint or turning the racial tables on a domestic servant is a demonstration of an explosively caustic irreverence worthy of celebration. Neither does the filmmaker indulge in what should be the natural destination of his conception: advertising that cuts through the necessary dishonesty of marketing; a subject which would require far more ingenuity than the director-writer is willing to bring to the table. (“Truth” is an abstract that filmmakers with meager ability assert when their material is obscure and ill-conceived) Downey certainly seems to think his film is dangerous, when in fact it’s simply dull.
So just what are Swope and his Truth and Soul, Inc. intended to represent? That he is a windbag charlatan and a misanthropic capitalist is evident, though Downey presents him, without a trace of irony, as an admirable iconoclastic nonconformist who is given to fluctuate between the image of a surly business executive and a surly Fidel Castro revolutionary. Given the sweeping venom cast upon every member of the rest of the cast (in the opening scene, a marketing consultant arrives in a helicopter decorated with a Confederate flag, dressed as a biker, his jacket emblazoned with the word MENSA, as if Downey can’t contain himself at throwing bricks at every possible unearned target), it becomes clear that Swope is meant as a surrogate proselytizer (Downey even provides the voice of the character, dubbing over actor Arnold Johnson) of all-inclusive antiestablishment dissatisfaction. The problem is, from the evidence of the film, both Swope and Downey are averse to everything. However, even in the context of a subversive underground film’s call for militant action against the Establishment, the film feels oddly out of touch with the problems of the time and certainly offers no tangible solutions, nor suggests that any may be possible. One can’t help notice that the venom expressed by Downey is nothing but a shallow hipster pose, swinging imaginary swords (while courageously hiding behind and disgracing the hem of his black crusader surrogate), while nothing in the film remotely approaches the authentic fire of outrage seething under the surface that a filmmaker like Melvin Van Peebles brings to “The Story of a Three-Day Pass”.
“What’s Up, Tiger Lily?” is an unwatchable, ungodly mess of a film that is the product of dishonesty and arrogance, with an added dash of the disposable cinema’s greatest ally: postproduction studio interference.
The film is the product of a literal hijacking of a Japanese spy film (two actually) by Woody Allen in which the original plot has been jettisoned by way of a reedit and the insertion of a newly recorded English language dubbing track which converts the original espionage narrative into one involving the theft of a prized egg salad recipe. The newly installed plot is clearly meant to have a comedic purpose, but to what end? Since the presence of a genuinely funny (or clever) line of dialogue becomes as rare as chateaubriand at Burger King, this exercise in pop cultural superiority leaves only the bitter taste of confusion rather than amusement. (The scorn for the original participants of the material is most telling when a credit dismissively announces the film as “Starring a No Star Cast”, an unwarranted slur toward Tatsuya Mihashi, Mie Hama and Akiko Wakabayashi.)
Since the nature of the film is more action oriented (with many conversational connections conveniently appearing to be missing in the reedit) with the opportunities for aural alteration annoying limited; one gets the opinion that the appropriators (one can hardly refer to those involved in this filmic evisceration as “filmmakers”) deliberately chose a film in which their efforts would require the least amount of creative inspiration. (As if there weren’t already a sufficient glut of spy spoofs available from every corner of the globe to pave the way.) On far too many occasions, the soundtrack is bereft of actual dialogue, filled instead with animalistic gruntings and howlings, as if the clearing of a throat would automatically result in uproarious laughter from the audience. Compounding the obscurity of the film is the truly appalling voice work in which no one participant seems concerned that one character could be distinguished from another.
Could Allen really have developed such contempt for his audience at such an early stage of his career? An introductory segment features a smug Woody Allen taking premature bows for the creative impotence to come while his unidentified interviewer admirably asserts, “this never been done before”, as if borrowing from the unruly audience tradition of making sarcastic cracks at bad movies were some sort of cultural touchstone. Foreign film imports, regardless of their artistic merit, have traditionally fallen victim to calculatedly callous truncations, redubbing and editorial alterations for the supposed “benefit” of the American marketplace (Ingmar Bergman’s “Sommaren med Monika” became “Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl” with a similar lack of discretionary pruning as evidenced in “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?”- a full one-third of the original running time shorn by the pruning shears of exploitation distributor Kroger Babb -and lurid promotional material seducing an unsuspecting audience into what was marketed as a sex film rather than an eviscerated artful drama); fulfilling the American film industry’s condescension of an easily mollified populist mentality it has striven so mightily to instill in its audience.
Much of the incongruity of coherent plotting (not to mention the unexplainable presence of The Lovin’ Spoonful clumsily inserted on both the musical track and onscreen in several sequences which threaten to veer an already untenable project over the cliff) is bound to be attributable to rumored interference by American International executives, though Allen’s reported discontent with said intrusive studio alteration makes for a rather cosmic case of irony in which the young comic demonstrates little concern for his own unraveling of the integrity of another’s work. Sometimes karma’s a ….
“What’s Up, Tiger Lily?” (1966)
“Take the Money and Run” (1969)
“Take the Money and Run”, Woody Allen’s directorial debut, is a parody of the crime profile documentary, and as such is not a particularly challenging nor original vehicle for a fledgling director, but within its own limited aspirations it is often amusing with moments of genuine inventiveness that manage to surprise the viewer as to just how silly many of the conventions of the gangster films actually are when the visceral immediacy of heightened melodrama is removed. That being said, much of the material may be familiar to those conversant with Allen’s stand-up comedy, but the recycled jokes are not provided with sufficiently clever visual embellishment that might compensate for the loss of what was most valuable in their initial incarnation: Woody Allen’s voice, that dryly risible whininess affecting an absurdist self-mockery. Unfortunately, in “Take the Money and Run”, Allen’s line readings come across as heavy handed, with his comedian’s skill in tone and rhythm undone by the supplanting of his own persona to that of a fictional personality who is not particularly well developed, a rather serious flaw in a film in which the entire point is an insightful biographical profile (albeit a humorous one) of his character.
The film follows the life and criminal career of Virgil Starkwell (Allen) who, by virtue of having no appreciable skills or ambitions, quite easily slips into a life of crime, with the predictable result that he is equally inept at his newly chosen profession. The film is a rather pedestrian chronology of a petty criminal whose own lack of ability to at his chosen craft is in direct contradiction to his astonishing ability to evade law enforcement, despite the fact that they are generally not portrayed as incompetent. Allen falls prey to his choice of parody as the lack of a predominant narrative affords no context in which scenarists Allen and Mickey Rose might attach comedic conceptions that are organic to the unfolding of a story rather than, what emerges, as a random slapdash string of jokes. With its lack of narrative structure, the film never generates a tangible momentum, nor does it reach a satisfying conclusion, but merely stops; suggesting that the film’s running time is determined, not by the demands of any story, but by the continued availability of one liners.
The fledgling director often fails to resist heavy handed italization, especially in letting too many of the gags to run on far beyond their point of freshness (An early gag with Starkwell attempting to play cello in a marching band is extended to the point where the humor fades and only the poor staging of the scene is left to contemplate), while his ability to translate his humor into visual terms is painfully primitive, with little evidence, at this point, of Allen’s demonstrating skill at neither directing himself nor others in the art of physical comedy, nor in assembling a cast who show the slightest ability to perform above the level of third-rate revue sketch comedy (the exception would be the winsome Janet Margolin, who is nevertheless wasted in the undeveloped role of Starkwell’s girl and later wife). Finally, there is also repetitive nature of Allen’s brand of humor and its heavy reliance on the outlandish non sequitur which at a certain point becomes predictable (deadly for comedy) and strained. The kindest thing to be said of the score by Marvin Hamlisch is that it, indeed, contains far too much pork