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.
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.
September 26–October 2
Brooklyn filmmaker Matt Wolf’s feature debut isn’t just “A Portrait of Arthur Russell,” but a vibrant and affecting resurrection of the New York cellist, vocalist, and avant-disco composer—an eccentric pioneer of the ’70s and ’80s downtown fringe who inspired today’s dance-punk scene and deserved canonization long before he died of AIDS in 1992. Aided by Russell’s fragile music and live video recordings—plus commentary from his parents, longtime partner Tom Lee, and collaborators like Philip Glass and former Modern Lover Ernie Brooks—the film admirably tries, unlike most rock-doc hagiographies, to understand its subject within the context of his peers. IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue, 212-924-7771.
Haiti Comes to Harlem
September 29–October 5
Summertime saw the opening of Central Harlem’s cozy new Maysles Cinema, a nonprofit theater founded by vérité legend Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens) to foster socially progressive principles. Marking the anniversary of the first coup d’état (in September 1991) against three-time former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, filmmaker KK Kean curates a week of evening screenings—including two of her own works, Haiti: Killing the Dream and Rezistans—that explore various facets of the country’s history, society, and politics. Highlights include Gillo Pontecorvo’s fiery Burn! (1969), starring Marlon Brando as a mercenary soldier and professional insurrectonist; Raoul Peck’s underrated 1993 drama, The Man by the Shore; and last year’s damning plantation doc, The Price of Sugar. Maysles Cinema, 343 Lenox Avenue and Malcolm X Boulevard, 212-582-6050.
Given that Schroeder produced such seminal nouvelle vague films as Céline and Julie Go Boating and Claire’s Knee before dabbling in Hollywood studio gigs, there’s no question that the French filmmaker and sometime actor’s eclectic career would be ripe for a collective cult resurrection. Get high on his heroin-trippy debut, More; get loaded on his Bukowski bender, Barfly; and get crazy on the accordion for his disturbingly funny “self-portrait,” Général Idi Amin Dada. At least a dozen titles are confirmed, and the series launches with a week-long run of Paris vu par . . . , a 1965 Schroeder-produced omnibus with segments by Chabrol, Rohmer, and Godard. BAM, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-636-4100.
After his exquisite The Earrings of Madame de . . ., Max Ophüls’s swan song and only work in color bombed when it premiered to Parisian audiences in 1955 and was brutally re-edited by the producers into a more conventional chronological timeline. Working closely with filmmaker Marcel Ophüls (Max’s son), the Cinémathèque Française has meticulously restored the soundtrack and each frame to return the stunning CinemaScope film—which tells the story of a 19th-century courtesan’s life—to Ophüls’s original vision. It’s no masterpiece, but the roving camerawork, sets, and costumes are all magnificent. Screen seductress Martine Carol plays the title role, the infamous lover of composer Franz Liszt and Bavarian king Louis I, first seen slumming in the circus for Peter Ustinov’s seedy ringmaster. Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, 212-727-8110.
A key figure in post–World War II European cinema, the incisively allegorical Polish filmmaker and honorary Oscar winner has certainly earned this half-century retrospective. Best known for his antiwar trilogy, which includes 1957’s Warsaw Uprising chronicle Kanal and 1958’s V-E Day drama Ashes and Diamonds, Wajda is still a tireless force in exploring Polish cultural identity—last year’s Katyn, about the Soviet massacre of Poland’s intellectual elite, will be screening, as will his 1981 Palme d’Or winner Man of Iron. In conjunction with the program, Anthology Film Archives will be showing Wajda’s theatrical adaptations for Polish TV from October 24 to 28. The Film Society of Lincoln Center, West 65th Street and Broadway, 212-496-3809.
Synecdoche, New York
The directorial debut by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman unfortunately reveals that his ingenuity isn’t as a visual artist—his deeply despairing, post-meta opus might’ve been better balanced by the eccentric splendors of a Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry. Still, ambitions this tricky shouldn’t be dismissed. Deteriorating in every way imaginable, a frazzled theater director (Philip Seymour Hoffman, heading a superb, female-centric ensemble) spends years staging a living replica of NYC within a warehouse on an impossible one-to-one scale, his professional and romantic labors forcing him to confront mortal decay, love’s evanescence, and the anxieties of both creation and creationism. Sony Pictures Classics, in limited release.
Speaking of creating, if the Swiss-born artist had stopped after his 1958 photography book The Americans and never gone into film and video, he’d still be a visionary today. Passionately comprehensive at 20-plus works, the “Mapping a Journey” series hits most every landmark: Frank’s self-mocking 1959 debut, Pull My Daisy (written and narrated by Jack Kerouac); his doc-fiction hybrid, Me and My Brother; the rambling road movie Candy Mountain (with Tom Waits, Joe Strummer, and Dr. John); and on through 2004. No sign yet of that underground holy grail Cocksucker Blues, however, which by Rolling Stones–sanctioned court order may only be shown once a year and with Frank in attendance. Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue, 212-505-5181.
A Christmas Tale.
We probably know the clichés of the holiday-reunion melodrama better than we know our own dysfunctional families, but French writer-director Arnaud Desplechin (Kings and Queen) has fashioned the subgenre into an engrossing, novelistic feast of sparkling wit, raw emotions, and idiosyncratic visuals (direct-camera narration, clips from classic films, a noir-ish montage, and shadow puppets!). Catherine Deneuve, Chiara Mastroianni, Melvil Poupaud, and soon-to-be 007 villain Mathieu Amalric are among the talents in this crowded ensemble, all loving and bickering and boozing their way into critics’ hearts—or at least their Best of 2008 lists. IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue, 212-924-7771.