Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.
Today’s movie is one that I’m excited to jump right into, so I’m going to get down to it. Just a few notes before I do: first, Putney Swope sadly isn’t available on Hulu Plus, so you’re going to have to find the DVD the old fashioned way. Second, after you’re done reading this go and read the inesteemable Film Crit Hulk’s piece on the movie, too. It is undoubtedly better than mine, but considering he’s my film writing idol I’m okay with feeling inadequate this one time. And that’s it for housekeeping! Let’s get right to it.
Putney Swope (1969)
To try to give Putney Swope context would require books on American history, but to give it film context is easy. Coming from writer/director Robert Downey Sr. (yes, the sire of Tony Stark), this film slides right into the very sparse, anarchic world of independent film before it was really a thing. You have to understand, what we understand today as ‘independent’ is much more organized, a process that has its own rules and markets and history of process. More accurate to 1969 would be to conflate independent with amateur, not in the sense of technical skill but in the utter lack of the structures of studio oversight or traditional film making techniques.
What that means practically is that RDS’s movies are the definition of cinematic anarchy, not so much in the techniques—his movies are black and white, and while obviously on lesser film stock contain a directorial restraint that’s welcome now that low budget has become synonymous with woozy shaky-cam—but in the desire to drive his stories into places that more ‘legitimate’ films would never have dared to go. They embrace making statements to the point of alienating people or being difficult and messy, and while I love that that’s the case it’s also amazing how dangerous it all feels. There’s a sense, watching Putney Swope, that ‘people can’t DO this!’ because we’re all raised on a fairly monopolistic diet of films that are for-profit first and art second or tied. This is not those movies.
The movie itself stars Arnold Johnson as Putney Swope, the token black man on the executive board of a well-respected, stodgy (and white) advertising firm. When the chairman of the board dies unexpectedly all the other executives decide to instantly hold a vote to appoint the next bloated fat cat for the vultures to circle. Everyone wants the job, but are too prideful to vote for themselves, so in the blind ballot they take everyone votes for Swope. Figuring nobody else would dare vote for someone like Putney Swope, most of the board ends up throwing in behind him independently, and suddenly the company is put in the hands of the black man who spent his entire career on the sidelines.
What follows is the nightmare of every racist, bigot, or slightly queasy liberal guilt type in society, as Swope takes the reigns over the sudden protests of the people who put into power and proceeds to make sudden, sweeping changes. All of the board is fired. Everyone is replaced with black people, save one old guy kept around to be the yes man token white. Renaming the company Truth and Soul, Inc Swope puts into practice a whole array of progressive policies, including refusing to advertise booze, cigarettes, or violent toys. The argument that peddling vices keeps poor people poor and uneducated and/or violent wins him no friends, but he quickly becomes famous due to a series of revolutionary and absurdly weird ads that his company puts out.
This collects him an array of strange clients. The first, a Chinese businessman who is introduced standing in the lobby setting off firecrackers, joins up because of the idea of having something new and fresh. It’s also where the scene in Boogie Nights comes from, which is why I mention it because it’s worth knowing the cinematic history of movies like this, and who they influenced (Paul Thomas Anderson isn’t alone, as Louis C.K. has gone out of his way to say that Putney Swope is what inspired him to direct in the first place). And suddenly people are handing him sacks of money to do whatever he wants with their products, leading to more and more envelope-pushing ads.
The problem is this also incurs the ire of the President of the United States, who is being pressured by the military-industrial complex to push Swope into going to push toy guns and drugs because that’s what they want to sell to the American people to keep them dumb and ready to fight wars. In fact, he goes so far as to label Swope a ‘threat to national security’, something that seems far more plausible in 2012 than 1969, where national security has become our total catchall for anything that might go against the people in power. The threats even become explicit, as the POTUS gets increasingly hostile and warns against the possibility of lethal retaliation if Swope continues to refuse to change his standards. The oppression must flow!
The problem is that Swope is finding that supplanting The Man without becoming The Man is easier said than done. The marginalized can easily become just as corrupt as those in power when the balance changes, and Swope becomes something of a tyrant, bossing around employees to the point where they start pushing back. In fact, one messenger boy is forced to use the freight elevator (reeking of Jim Crow and ‘separate but equal’) and is treated so badly that he comes in one day with a gun and the intent to kill Swope to restore order and claim fame for taking out the most infamous man in America. That this guy looks eerily like Mark David Chapman is one of those strange echoes that looking back makes the whole thing feel even more chilling and awful, though thankfully Swope is better at ducking bullets than Lennon was.
But it only awakens him to the problem he’s facing: by becoming rich and powerful, he’s falling into the same us-vs-them power grabbing tyranny that he was sick of for the years it wasn’t him. The oppressed start hedging into being the oppressors, and while the people who are losing power are fighting it for wrong reasons, that doesn’t make what he’s doing right. So ultimately Putney Swope has a revelation: he has to return to purity of purpose, no matter the cost. The end of the film has him going around running his company dressed like Fidel Castro, shouting orders and mercilessly keeping his employees in line like they’re troops in a war. There are definitely references to the sort of armed militancy of the Black Panthers of the time, though Swope still runs his company on selling a more positive product to a country that needs morality more than violence.
It goes far enough that he ends up with one final test to prove that people can change, a tipping point on whether he’s actually contributing to something revolutionary or whether or not it’s just another group gaining power and misusing it. He decides to announce that he’s breaking his rule about selling cigarettes and guns, to test his employees. Some of them, a few of them, rebel; most of them sadly sign right up, swearing allegiance to him like some sort of cult leader more than a man who might be doing the wrong thing. Dejected, he leaves them with literally a giant pile of money that they made, setting the whole thing on fire and watching them scramble to save some for them as the whole legacy goes up in flames.
Putney Swope isn’t a safe comfortable movie, it’s a movie made in the middle of a turbulent racial time (aren’t they all, though?) from a white director saying something about the black experience. What’s interesting is how little it blinks from confronting the problems directly, though. Never does it fall into stereotype: in fact Swope himself fires someone for suggesting, even jokingly, that instead of coffee breaks they get watermelon breaks. But it’s confrontational and angry and conflicted about what the actual truth is concerning who is guilty of what in situations of power. It is the opposite of PC, without embracing the casual offensiveness that being anti-PC has taken these days by ‘free speech’ proponents. Everything seems considered and carefully weighted, even as the whole movie careens through its horrifying corporate vision of America like a train with no brakes.
Putney Swope is aggressive, but not preachy, and its lampooning of the bastions of American cultural power seems oddly prescient of the same statements made later (and less violently, even) in Network a few years later. It’s the kind of movie that deserves to a classic, that has the guts to go where few movies would dare to go, to say what it has to say and demand that people at least listen even if they don’t agree. There’s product and there’s art, but more than even most ‘arthouse’ fare Putney Swope lands heavily on the side of art. It is vital and alive even today, where its message seems revolutionary in its honesty, and it beats with the angry pulse of someone saying what needs to be said.