by Steve Dollar
Something like the Dead Sea Scrolls of 1960s (and '70s) underground comedies, the five films assembled in the new Criterion Collection Eclipse set Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr.
have been out of sight for so long that their release this week marks a major rediscovery. Deliriously imaginative and madly subversive, black-and-white romps like Babo 73
and Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight
deploy manic pacing and counter-cultural absurdity to critique Mad Men
-era America while inhaling deeply on their own stoned grooviness. "I've paid my dues," exclaims one of Downey
's impish observers, played by actor friends or maybe someone he met at a phone booth, "why should I pay my debts?"
The best-known feature, Putney Swope
, achieved cult status for its outrageous satire of Madison Avenue, proposing what happens when a white, patrician agency is taken over by a black militant who renames it "Truth and Soul Inc." But they're all winners, whether showcasing the mercurial Elsie Downey (the filmmaker's first wife and collaborator) in dozens of roles in Turquoise
, or riffing on beatnik reveries in Chafed Elbows
, where an insatiable deadbeat chases a shy sexpot (Mrs. Downey as "Rhoda... Rhoda Dendron") across a Manhattan rooftop, telling her: "You put a heavy tremor on my ticker-roo-roo."
Downey, loquacious and leonine at 75, sat down recently in a Criterion conference room to talk about the films, getting tossed out of Yankee Stadiumâtwiceâin order to shoot a scene, his abbreviated pitching career and giving some kid named Robert Downey Jr. his first shot at stardom.
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