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The elusive Putney Swope finally arrives on DVD, and it's three times as weird as you've heard (though somehow it works).....
Criterion / 303 Minutes / 1964-1975 / Unrated / Street Date: May 22, 2012
Robert Downey, Sr.'s outrageous films have long been frozen in a kind of hidden elitist cinephile club. A handful of folks on the fringes of my social circles had called Putney Swope their favorite film, but throughout my film appreciation career, I have never been able to even find the damned thing, let alone experience it. Paul Thomas Anderson had sung its praises, scholars had labeled its subversive sensibilities as Catch-22 only with more liberal guilt - in short, Putney and other Robert Downey, Sr. works have been an unfulfilled dangling carrot for me for years.
I guess it comes as little surprise that after decades of build-up, Putney Swope (1968) is too slippery and tricky to be easily digested. As presented on this Up All Night With Robert Downey, Sr. Eclipse box set, the movie stands tall as Downey's signature achievement, but what gives the movie such irreverent punch is its devil-may-care hedonism, its almost manic desire to be both all over the place and singularly focused. I have no idea what to make of the thing, but I'm relatively sure it's something special.
As a box set, though, when we leave the cultural capsizing of Putney Swope, things get, well, weird. Babo 73 (1964), Chafed Elbows (1966), No More Excuses (1968), and Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight (1975) are impenetrably oblique pictures, films that seem to be hellbent on dumbfounding anybody who'd last through their opening credit sequences. There's a fascinating worldview and political perspective on hand with these works, but I hasten to call their staccato narrative panic profound in any distinct way.
But I'll also be the first to admit that this is the kind of Eclipse box set viewers will want to keep around for repeat viewings. I feel a bit off-put by this quintet upon initial experience, but even though I'm not exactly sure what to make of it, since I watched Putney Swope last week, I find my mind returning to it with relative frequency. It's an inelegant, fussy, wonky picture, but I wouldn't hesitate to call it one of a kind. Hell, at least now I know what people have been talking about all these years...