Lost And Found 18:Rockin’ The Boat’s A Drag. You Gotta Sink The Boat!

Art & Culture

It’s time to shake things up a little bit, and what better decade to pick a film from than the sixties to do so. The film we will be looking at in this chapter is Putney Swope. It has a little bit of everything that we look for here at Lost and Found. Hardly known, original, great music, risky and even a good amount of controversy to top things off. It also boasts a nice varied collective of filmmakers. Similar to the last chapter discussing Spike Lee’s School Daze, Putney Swope takes a serious topic and turns it on its head by poking fun at it while always upholding a serious standpoint on the effect it can have.

Film: Putney Swope

Cast: Arnold Johnson, Stan Gottlieb, Antonio Fargas, Allen Garfield and Allan Arbus

Director: Robert Downey, Sr.

Writer: Robert Downey, Sr.

At the helm of Putney Swope is Robert Downey Sr. Yes you read that right, Robert Downey Jr’s dad was a underground filmmaker pushing boundaries as far as he could in the sixties as he refused to abide by studio rules, and opted instead to explore the forbidden for the smallest budget possible. After writing and directing some short films word started to spread that he was the one to watch. Unfortunately most producers were not willing to invest or believed in in his surreal, taboo style he was known for on the underground circuit as it was seen as too much of a risk and not likely to make their money back. Downey luckily managed to strike gold and an investor decided he would take a risk on Putney Swope. Most of the cast members were relatively unknown at the time but Downey had a vision. For example during production, his lead Arnold Johnson looked the part yet he did not sound like it or even have the experience of a leading actor so he continuously flubbed his lines. Downey decided to redub Johnson’s character with his own voice, which actually adds to the absurdity of the film. Ultimately Downey got to make his movie and everybody else waited to see if he could deliver.

The story goes Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson) is the only black man on the board of an advertising company. The founder dies mid-sentence during his speech at a meeting one morning and the remaining members decide to vote then and there on who should replace him. They all vote for Swope thinking everyone else wouldn’t dare choose for him. Swope is named CEO of the company, renames it Truth and Soul, Inc.’, fires all the white executives except one and then hires politically charged black staff members.  He rejects any company that sells liquor, cigarettes or war toys and becomes a hero to many. However, his radical actions alert government officials and unwanted attention from the press. Swope soon starts to lose focus and what he set out to achieve and starts to battle himself, corrupted public figures and America itself.

It had been several years since I watched Putney Swope which was first brought to my attention while listening to the delightful director’s commentary on Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece Boogie Nights (Downey Sr. actually makes a memorable appearance as an impatient studio manager, Cheadle’s character is called Buck Swope and the is a similar scene involving firecrackers) in which he references the film as a major influence, and it is easy to see why. Swope may have dated slightly but it is still groundbreaking in many aspects, very relevant today and feels very original with a key message at its dark yet funny heart. The film holds no punches and some may even be offended by some of the language used, although it should be noted that it is not for shock value but rather to reflect the advertising world  that the film takes place in.

The scenes feel loose with the narrative of the film just almost dangling in the air, but somehow Downey manages to get his point across. Swope feels like it is his duty to shine light on a part of America that most would probably prefer to forget not only regarding race but also class which is why he has no problem working with people that are down for the cause of bringing down the ‘corporate fat cats’ that are feeding off the poor all the while exploiting them. Johnson’s laid back performance fits the character of Swope perfectly as he struts around appearing almost oblivious to what is going on but is more than aware of the detrimental effect advertising can have on the general public when it comes to the portrayal of race. It is reflected in Downey’s acid-tongued script, the verbal equivalent of a kick to the stomach. When people beg Swope for a job he casually responds in his raspy gruff manner, ‘I can get anybody for nothing. Take a walk’ or when staff plead with him about reaching their full potential and wanting to be more creative he simply tells them to pick up their severance pay.

It eventually becomes evident that the aforementioned loose narrative, free flowing vibe of the film is not a drawback but rather a highlight. Downey’s ‘go for it’ attitude seeps through the screen and everyone involved forms as some sort of band all bouncing off each other’s energy, creating a cinematic equivalent of a jamming session. It comes as no surprise that the Coen Brothers, Louis C.K. and others sing the praises of Putney Swope and how much it influenced their own work. It is evident just how much this film has inspired modern cinema with films like Boogie Nights where one doesn’t feel like they are merely just watching a film but rather spending time with friends. Whereas the amateurish acting from some obvious non-actors would usually hurt the overall picture here it feels truthful and organic due to the nature of the film. Downey doesn’t want to pull the wool over the viewer’s eyes and hide all the occasionally smug mystique of cinema but reveals some tricks here and there to show the audience the truth which is the heart and soul of the film.  

There are some missteps which are just simply hard to comprehend. A dwarf plays the President of the United States and so is the First Lady, who strangely enough are played by brother and sister Pepi and Ruth Hermine. To put it simply, it just doesn’t feel right and that decision seems just doesn’t make sense no matter how much one tries to make sense out of it. These faults are overshadowed by the standout aspects of the film. Downey’s biting type of satire has a different set of teeth willing to take a chunk out of what the viewer believes to be reality and spit it out into a world that feels strange and bizarre due to its natural decision of accepting what is forbidden and taboo. This is reflected in the commercials Putney’s company makes which are shown in colour, while the rest of the film is in black and white, and act as intermissions between segments of the film. Like Downey, Swope doesn’t do convention.

This is the true definition of a 'you have to see it to believe it' type of film. There is no question that this goes into the found section although it should not have been lost in the first place. Swope you got my vote!