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Putney Swope

Year: 1969
Production Co: Herald Productions III
Director: Robert Downey
Writer: Robert Downey
Cast: Arnold Johnson

Nowadays you can swing a cat in a mainstream cinema and hit a dozen independent films, but back in the late 60s they were a very different creature with very different markets.

And unlike the best of VOD, R rated, cable TV or niche appeal films can offer today, there were very few opportunities for filmmakers to really cut loose and do stuff that was weird, alternative, socially uncomfortable or just not suitable for kids.

Putney Swope is all of those, a Black Power statement as well as a sarcastic satire on modern consumerism and the takeover of the public discourse by brand culture.

The script, pacing, premise and execution are like few films you've seen even today, and although I know nothing about the work of writer/director Robert Downey Sr (credited here as 'Robert Downey [a prince] ') he seems to have been part of a vibrant counterculture movement in Hollywood when the studios were languishing and the New Brat generation was emerging.

If he's still an angry old hippie trying to smash the state, one wonders what he thinks of the success of his son, having starred in two billion-dollar comic book movies and pocketed a $75m payday. While Senior looked like he was sticking it to The Man, Junior became The Man.

Putney (Johnson, who apparently had all of his lines redubbed) is the token black board member of a Madison Avenue advertising agency. A long and surreal first scene sees the current Chairman burst into a board meeting, railing about improving business and keeling over dead on the table mid-speech. The rest of the board then votes on his successor with the corpse going cold on the table, all of them voting for Putney in the mistaken assumption they'll be the only one who does so (since nobody's allowed to vote for himself).

Swope immediately fires the entire board (and anyone else throughout the movie who does something he doesn't like), renames the company Truth and Soul, Inc, and staffs it completely with militant black brothers and sisters, telling them they're not doing the same old soft drink, beer and cigarette advertising as before.

The whole thing then goes from one theatre-of-the-absurd moment to the next, some of them making so little sense they're hard to even remember. A random sample is the account executive who keeps flashing people outside, the high priced consultant who shows up at the beginning of the film in a helicopter but who looks like he stepped out of Sons of Anarchy, or there are the new ads the company produces, LSD-like soft porn head trips shown in colour when the rest of the film is in black and white. Swope goes from dressing like a businessman to wearing a Black Panther uniform and then to full Castro garb, including the cigar.

For some reason the moneymen of every big corporation in America want to work with Truth and Soul, the reception area of their office brimming with bespectacled honkies offering suitcases full of cash, practically begging for services.

The story is too all over the place for it to become the classic it could have been given the intent. It has a hopped-up, gonzo mood that flies in the face of every cinematic convention you've ever seen which honestly could have been thrilling, but the script is only partly comprehensible.

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