Anthology Film Archives Revives the Public Mischief of Robert Downey Sr.

Anarchically whimsical and countercultural with a capital C, the early underground comedies of Robert Downey Sr. (Putney Swope) will no longer be rarities now that Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation has restored his Babo 73 (1964), Chafed Elbows (1966), and the most uproarious of the bunch, No More Excuses (1968). Starting September 12, Anthology Film Archives will screen all three, along with the newly recovered Moment to Moment (1975). I called Downey at his Manhattan home for some playful reminiscing.

All four films credit you parenthetically as "a prince." Where'd the nickname come from? We were just kidding around one day in the editing room, and I said: "I think I'll call myself a prince." Later on, I was on the Johnny Carson show with Putney Swope, and he said: "Why do you call yourself a prince?" I said: "I'm too young to be a king, and too committed to be a queen." Now I'm too old to be anything!

Do you see similarities between Dubya and Taylor Mead's oblivious U.S. president in Babo 73? You could say that about almost every administration [laughs]. At least Taylor Mead is absurd; this other guy isn't funny at all. We shot around the White House because Kennedy was in Europe and the security was lax, so we had Taylor run around a bit outside there. If you notice, he's in with a parade of real generals. We'd say: "Look, you're the president. Go talk to your military." Taylor would wander over, and, of course, they'd ignore him. That was the point.

Robert Downey Sr. as proto Borat: 1968's No More Excuses
Courtesy Robert Downey and Anthology Film Archives
Robert Downey Sr. as proto Borat: 1968's No More Excuses

How did the NYPD earn a "Special Hindrance" credit in Chafed Elbows? We'd always have to explain ourselves. They'd say: "What are you doing out here?" I'd say, "We're making a film," and the cop says, "But the camera's tiny." I used a still camera. Those stills were taken to the drugstore to be developed, and then I'd put them on an animation stand and make them into something. I'm basically an experimental filmmaker who went wrong and started making narrative films.

In No More Excuses, you crash Yankee Stadium and a crowded subway car in a Union Army uniform, predating Borat's public mischief by almost 40 years. That's funny—I never thought of that. The guy I originally wanted to play that part refused to jump on the field at Yankee Stadium, so I said: "Fuck it, I'll do it." It was much easier than getting some actor to do this. It was in the paper the next day, so we went back and filmed [the article] being pulled out of the garbage.

Moment to Moment—sometimes known as Jive, Compliments to the World, and even Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight—took years to make. Why? It was hard to raise money for a film that didn't really have a plot. I remember telling a guy once, "There's a scene where we're going to have 18 guys playing baseball on horseback," which is in there. He looked at me like: "Are you out of your fucking mind?" Nicholson put money in, and Hal Ashby and Norman Lear, these pals of mine from back then. It's my kids' favorite film out of all of them.

Did revisiting this work for the first time in years spark any new revelations? I just finished a new screenplay, and seeing them made me think about having more fun and less concern for structure. I've got to go back to the spirit of those films and merge that with a narrative. The only thing I've learned about screenwriting in the years I've been doing this is, if you're going to have a leading character—and usually I don't, but if you do—make sure they're in a hurry. And listen, in my new one, if I don't have Iron Man in it, I'm not going to get financed.

"Robert Downey: A Prince," September 12–18, Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue, 212-505-5181.

Hollywood on the Hudson

September 17–October 19Not long after the dawn of American cinema, land and labor costs forced filmmakers away from the city to eventually plop H'wood down in Southern California, but during the '20s and '30s, a forward-thinking studio system still existed in the boroughs. Based on Richard Koszarski's comprehensive book of the same name, MOMA's series traces the independents and luminaries (Griffith, Lubitsch, Micheaux, Gloria Swanson, the Marx Brothers) representin' the East Coast between the two world wars, featuring silent pictures with live musical accompaniment and groundbreaking sound films shot at Astoria's Paramount Studios. MOMA, 11 West 53rd Street, 212-708-9400.

46th New York Film Festival

September 26–October 12

Gotham's most exalted fest treats those of us who didn't get to the Croissette this year with a mighty Cannes-do lineup, including competition champs like Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah, Steve McQueen's Hunger, and Benicio Del Toro's guerrilla guise in Soderbergh's double-length Che. Palme d'Or winner The Class opens at the majestic Ziegfeld Theatre, with a who's who of beloved auteurs—Mike Leigh, Olivier Assayas, Hong Sang-soo, Lucrecia Martel—in the 28-film fold. A sidebar program will honor the rebellious career of Japanese new waver Nagisa Oshima. The Film Society of Lincoln Center, West 65th Street and Broadway, 212-496-3809.
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