Up All Night With Robert Downey Sr. (Eclipse Series #33) is a collection of Downey’s experimental comedies from the New York underground film scene of the 1960s, individually dating from 1964-1975, and comprising the titles Babo 73, Chafed Elbows, No More Excuses, Putney Swope, and Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight. The collection was initially released on DVD on May 22, 2012. These five Robert Downey Sr. films are the only features of his to be included in The Criterion Collection.
Consistently irreverent and compulsively surreal, these five films directed by Robert Downey Sr. are never entirely concerned with narrative. Rather, they are preoccupied with their own playful deconstructions of cultural norms and formal narrative structuralism. To briefly synopsize any one of these five films would be an ironically misaligned action, belying a capitulation to normality in spite of the very anti-authoritarian intent of Downey Sr.’s oeuvre.
Again, as it bears repeating, what makes any one of these five films so essential is their refusal to be easily defined on the back of a commercially reproducible DVD box set. Perhaps most widely known for Putney Swope, Downey Sr.’s directorial output of the 1960s was aggressively destabilizing of social expectations; his comedies occupied the same counter-cultural territory and film circuit that hosted the nearly indecipherable cinematic output of Andy Warhol. However, unlike Warhol, Downey Sr.’s films are funny, dark satires, whose parody of American life and leisure were (and largely still are) immediately recognizable to anyone with a moral and ethical conscience residing in a country gripped by the amoral devolutions of commercial capitalism and international xenophobia and paranoia.
In the aforementioned Putney Swope, an advertising agency inadvertently elects a senior black board member to the position of CEO after the unexpected death of the former chairman of the board, an action taken under the collective assumption that no one else on the committee would elect a person of color to a position of corporate leadership. The film then quickly evolves into one of the most quirky racial farces to ever be captured on film, its confrontation with homogeneously white infrastructures within the corporate world indicative of far reaching corruption on a national scale. It also beautifully evokes the latent pornographic exploitation of the masses found in your average commercially broadcast televised advertisement, Downey Sr.’s grasp of American follies and errors incisive at a time when such perversely askew stances were still frowned upon by a larger cultural conformity. Today, you can see traces of Downey Sr.’s comic vision on television networks like FX and FXX, Louis C.K.’s Louie entirely indebted to the works of Downey Sr. from a conceptual level and Putney Swope in particular.
While the DVDs minimally comprise only the films themselves, supplementary interviews and commentary tracks conspicuously absent, the overall packaging of the boxed set is modestly appealing, slim and handsome looking. It makes a worthy addition to one’s DVD and Blu-Ray collection. Additionally, the DVD pamphlet slips included within the packaging offer historical analysis and context of the individual features that serve to define the films’ despite their idiosyncratic content, with Criterion Collection contributing writer Michael Koresky offering concise and informative prose.
After watching even one film from this collection, you’ll begin to see Robert Downey Sr.’s influence on the contemporary comedy climate, and will want to delve deeper into the recesses of this indispensable American auteur’s filmography.
Criterion Grade: A+
Film Grade: A