An American Original (and the films he made long before “underground” became a marketing come-on)

Robert Downey Sr., NYC, 5/11/16

Robert Downey Sr., NYC, 5/11/16

I saw director Robert Downey Sr.’s “Putney Swope” and “Greaser’s Palace” at a local duoplex.  I was in my mid-teens and went with my best friend and a tall boy I liked. None of us was old enough to be admitted according to the then movie rating system but the suburban theater wasn’t exactly packing them in—-maybe that’s why the woman at the box office who gave us an uneasy once-over took our money without asking for ID.

Of course I remember the films’ basic plots and some hilarious specifics but what has really stayed with me was how they blew my mind (to use antique slang I never used), the giant effect the films had on me. (Adam says it shows.) I’d never seen films anything like them. And I still haven’t.

Today, in advance of Film Forum’s retrospective of Downey’s work, I watched “Chafed Elbows.” And had the same blown away reaction I had decades ago in Hartsdale. The film, misadventures of handsome, 27-year-old New Yorker, Walter Dinsmore (George Morgan), combines b&w stills and footage and is a picaresque river of consciousness, with humor whiplashing through the absurd, political, punning, visual, satirical and Borscht Beltian.

Our nearly affectless young hero, spends his days slogging through his bi-annual walking nervous breakdown, while hanging out with underground filmmakers, an artist (who signs his initials–A.W.–on Walter’s raincoat), a faux therapist (Lawrence Wolf, who also did voices for 34 other characters), a pregnant cousin, a record producer, the Virgin Mary (during a brief trip to heaven), beat cops, Rhoda Dendron (met at a bar mitzvah in Mineola) and his mother/lover (Elsie Downey, who played “all the girls”).

“Chafed Elbows” (1966), made for $12,000, is great (even the opening and end credits are funny) and played continuously in New York for over a year.

“Robert Downey (The Original),” a one-week retrospective, will open Friday, May 20 at Film Forum. Robert Downey Sr. (a prince) will appear in person following Friday’s 8:20 pm show of “Putney Swope” for an interview with Film Forum’s Bruce Goldstein and audience Q&A. He will also appear at the 3:00 pm show of “Chafed Elbows” on Sunday, May 22 and on Wednesday, May 25 at the 8:20 pm show of “Putney Swope.”

Recently I’ve had discussions with two other photographers, trying to determine when using black and white in a digital world can be more than a filter-clicking, attention-getting trick. I loved shooting TXP 120 (rated at 250) with my Hasselblad 500 C/M (and miss doing it) but arbitrarily converting files made with either my Canon 5Ds or Phase One back on the Hasselblad seems pretentious.

After we figured out time and place details, Bob asked me if I’d shoot black and white, adding, “I hope so.” So I had the excuse I needed. I would do what Bob preferred. But then he arrived at the studio and his eyes were nearly Paul Newman blue. He was ok with the change of plan.

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