I Saw A Film!
“New game: Cops and Demonstrators!”
Nothing is funnier than lampooning a marketing corporation (it’s an industry that has to both appeal and arouse and so often fails), the only hard part of this film is understanding when you’re looking at commercials as our modern idea of a fifteen or ten second advert is so slick and expensive that the old style of a thirty second film is just about impossible to imagine as anyone’s advertisement. But, once you kind of get your mind around the way the world used to be, you can watch The Monkees sending-up the same industry in Head, and you can watch Monty Python’s Flying Circus wildly harpoon network television and advertising, despite their bland gray-spaces and lack of graphics. But, it won’t reach a millennial’s expectations of representation. And proper representation of the world is altogether ultimately necessary for a satire (Spaceballs isn’t funny if you aren’t looking like Star Wars). What I’m saying is, we’re ripe for a remake of this excellent absurdist fun, originally directed and created by Robert Downey Sr. The fellow responsible for some fine absurdist films, and one of our all time favorite actors, Robert Downey the junior (maybe Ironman can be talked into it).
In Putney Swope we get some great seriousness around some overly ludicrous ad campaigns. Swope is accidentally put in charge of a struggling agency. He immediately sets about entirely revamping the place, renaming it Truth and Soul and hiring a mostly black staff including Antonio Fargas (forever Huggy Bear) as a faux Arab. There are amazing faces and fashions in this epic, and most of the humor comes from the way the players just look at one another. It had to be a total hoot to make this thing.
There are ethics, Swope won’t advertise booze, cigarettes or war toys! Even though the older ad agency blokes were sure that without the war toys boys would be gay. Soon enough Swope’s new agency is causing problems for the president of the United States (I won’t give this lovely bit away), and pressures from on high are mingling with his controversial success and refusal to service certain of the national interests money-makers (booze, war toys and smokes).
Soon enough Swope looks much like Castro and realizing his mission is both threatened and at least in part quite successful he tells his officers to distribute the money equally, except, none for the Arab. As any normal human being screwed out of a fair share would (I recently learned from Yale psychology experiments), The Arab burns the money!
Alan Arbus is in the film as “Mr. Bad News” popping out of a door a few times to break disappointing information to Swope. He’s well remembered by me from the old M.A.S.H. series, but had a long career in many films including Downey’s Greaser’s Palace reviewed recently here. IMDB says Mel Brooks was in it, but I missed him! There’s just too much going on! And lots of lovely ladies are quite distracting. Several of the sexier of the adverts would be impossible to air even today, sexually we’re still children.
The film is entirely in stark black and white except for the adverts which are shot in color. There is a sense of freedom in the film stemming from the power handed over to the minorities, who could probably do this job just as well fifty years later — not a lot has really changed in terms of the power of black people to surprise conservative whites just by being in unexpected places. The fantastic, but now twenty year old Comedy Central, Amy Sedaris vehicle Strangers With Candy also did this well. Having Mr. Blackman, the kooky and towering high school principal, in one race-charged episode, popping a furry mascot head off and shouting, “You didn’t expect that did you!”
This is Free on Prime and well worth your attention. I’m going to need to watch it again, it’s a style that we don’t have enough of in our age of cops and righteousness.