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.
Some time ago I did a piece on the fantastic, crazy Putney Swope, a movie I wish more people would see. Not only is it brilliant, it does so by being daring in ways I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a movie be before. It was also my first exposure to the madness of Robert Downey Sr. and his crazy independent films of the 60s. At the time, I wondered aloud if Swope was just an aberration, or if everything he did was that beautifully weird. Today, I get a clearer look at the happy answer to that question as I go all the way back to the beginning of Downey’s career.
Babo 73 (1964)
Doing political satire in film is always a tricky thing, because it’s so easy to instantly date your film by being too specific and managing to miss your targets by going too broad. Thankfully, Robert Downey Sr. sidesteps this in Babo 73 by just opening fire on the entire concept of the political system, from the specific to the fundamental, to the point that no matter what you’re looking to get lampooned—from religion to sex to nuclear weapons to racism to the President—you’ll find a target hit squarely by the film.
It all opens with a man driving down the street shouting to a jaunty, rousing shout-and-horn song, picking up a woman hitchhiker only to drive her to the side of a field to fuck and throw away. She stumbles out, baffled and wobbly, as he drives off in his car, still shouting to nobody in particular about who-knows-what. We’re then introduced to our cast, including the President of the United Status Sandy Studsberry, new on the job with a qualifying degree in hotel management. His cabinet includes such dignitaries as Chester Kittylitter (the left-hand adviser) and Laurence Silversky (the right-hand advisor, a man who works constantly and is called the ‘fascist gun in the west’).
These three, along with the President’s secretary, spend all their time at the White House. But not the one in DC, but a ramshackle house on a nondescript beech, where they meet dignitaries in folding chairs on the sand. As we meet them, they’re having a disastrous meeting with the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, who tries to blackmail the green President only to find himself shot by Silversky. They dump the body into the ocean, and then dump the bodies of those who dumped the body into the ocean, and dump the bodies of those who dumped the bodies into the ocean. You get the idea.
We’re quickly introduced to the major plot point: the Red Siamese are supposedly corrupting America by distributing birth control, angering the Catholic church who show up to complain only to be told off by the President, who has him give him a confession in the name of The Dow and The Jones and The Industrial before leaving the cardinal to think about his sins against good ol’ evangelical capitalism, the only god any of them seem to actually acknowledge. The corruption doesn’t stop there, as everyone struggled with threats both domestic and foreign as the President’s cabinet pushes him back and forth on a variety of issues as they all begin to spiral out of control.
One of the most enduring parts of this movie is just how guerrilla the filming was. Robert Downey had no permissions, but shot fast and cheap in Washington DC for many of the scenes, going as far as to film at the White House without telling anyone and inserting the President into an actual scene of United States generals riding in a motorcade in a parade. Which provides this no-budget, black and white, hour long trip into the heart of American political absurdity a sense of truth that it needs to keep from spirally into total and utter lunacy. Not like it doesn’t already toe that line, but it does so beautifully.
A recurring theme of the movie is Silversky talking directly to the camera about his plans for a jingoistic foreign policy, from attempts to bomb the Siamese into accepting democracy and his continued efforts to create a strong aggressive conservative social policy of brutal Darwinism. At the same time, Kittylitter talks about race relations in a way that hints at the future of liberally racist ‘colorblindness’ and the fallacy of ‘post-racial America’, talking about his own efforts to enroll in a black college to help further his writings about race, carefully dodging saying the N-word as he talks about how the end of slavery meant he had to do this thing he’d maybe rather not do. He’s writing a book of essays called The Negro as a Diabetic, pontificating with platitudes like “every man has the right to be a bigot, but does he have the time?” even as he’s interrupted by slaves being used to pull a cart. Even here the seeds of Putney Swope exist, an anger buried in the still-infant idea of political correctness and how it excuses the institutions of bigotry.
What’s most evident in the movie is the sense of id run amok, a childishness that makes everyone into brutal animals of want and aggression and posturing, empty of actual intent outside of how it can be twisted to work to further their careers or their wealth or their power. Calling it pessimistic would be too kind: it’s nigh apocalyptic, painting a vision of America that isn’t just already hopelessly bought and sold, but the inbred child of idiots and cowards, left to slowly roll around in its own shit before it has a fatal accident and gives up the ghost for good.
And for all of that, it’s still risky in what it chooses to take on and funny in how it executes them, never going for the easy joke when a weird, potentially-offensive one will do. It’s about pushing what can be done as much as why it’s being done, the heart of independent cinema back when to be independent meant really having no limits on content or form. The end result is heady, bewildering, and more than a little obtuse; but in that miasma of chaos comes a clarity of purpose and a uniform statement on one man’s anger at a system that didn’t work in the 60s and works even less now, relevant not because things haven’t changed, but because they sure haven’t changed for the better.