How ‘Boogie Nights’ led me down a path to Robert Downey Sr. masterpiece ‘Putney Swope’
Far Out film writer Kane Martin explores the influences of a ’90s indie classic.
If you’re like me, a cinephile who probably masturbates and drinks too much, there’s a good chance you spend an obscene amount of time trawling the internet to find shit to watch and listen to.
It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch of the imagination to presume that during your breaks from your self loathing and self induced orgasms your artistic inquiries have brought you across a few Paul Thomas Anderson films, and upon finding them, you’ve probably thought to yourself ‘this guy is the fucking balls man!’ because it’s widely understood that he is.
To my shame then, I only saw Boogie Nights a couple of weeks ago and my eyes were opened to what I know consider the king pin of ’90s indie cinema. Boogie Nights, which actually received a substantial bit of funding in the wake of Pulp Fiction‘s success, but in actual fact I’d probably go as far as saying Boogie Nights is a better film, but that’s just me.
It’s just got everything you need, Mark Wahlberg standing in the mirror rockin’ a huge prosthetic cock, a show-stealing performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman (what else is new?) as a gay porno camera man, Burt Reynold’s being cool a fuck, a killer soundtrack, and not to mention a shit load of cocaine and a Chinese dude throwing firecrackers around a room while walking in a circle. Seriously though, what more do you need?
Despite the opinion you’ve formed hitherto reading this; this article isn’t about how great Anderson’s funny as hell tapestry of excess during the ’70s porn boom is, this article is actually about a little gem that influenced that film and director profoundly: Putney Swope.
Before I explain the relevance of everything I’ve just written and answer your burning question: “Who or what the fuck is Putney Swope?” let me tell you: I’m a film student from Manchester who moved to the Big Smoke to study, I occasionally do stand up and yes, I am aware that statement reads exactly like my Tinder bio. So comedy, film and music are the loves of my life.
Having moved to London in pursuit of my dreams, to get me along my way, I listen to shit loads of interviews with artists I like to see if I can come across some advice which might be useful. In one particular interview I came across between Louis CK and Marc Maron, the two talk about the time when they went to Blockbuster and the only film they could afford was Putney Swope.
Like me, they had no idea what this film was about but it turned out to be life changing, altering Louis CK’s entire perspective on filmmaking in an instant. He recalls, fondly: “It made me realise you can do anything and it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make any sense,” a lesson I think is liberating and vital to any up and coming artist as it can provide a springboard to experiment and find your own voice.
Immediately this film intrigued me. So, as soon as I finished listening to the interview, I knew I had to explore it further. Turns out all sorts of people I admire love this film, Paul Thomas Anderson, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock to name but a few. I was aware of Robert Downey Sr’s career as a pioneering underground filmmaker but truth be told, whenever I think of underground film in New York all that comes to mind is some Andy Warhol art film where someone’s face is being filmed whilst they receive oral sex from a man covered in his own urine, that kind of avant-garde stuff that becomes cliché and a parody of itself, so I was dubious to say the least. But I watched Putney Swope and I was blown away. Probably the most ridiculous but enjoyable cinematic experience I’ve had in some time.
The basic premise of Downey Sr’s absurd masterpiece is that after the chairman of a multimillion dollar advertising company unexpectedly dies mid-sentence, forcing the remaining members of the board to vote for who shall replace him by means of a secret ballot, the catch being the bylaws of the corporation prohibit voting for oneself.
So everybody votes for the one person who they’re certain won’t get in, the one black member of the company: Putney Swope. What follows is a whirlwind of late ’60s counter-culture biting satire, golden one liners, a dwarf playing the president and a oriental man throwing fire crackers on the floor who as Putney himself says: “It’s a one man pearl harbour!”— I happened to be watching this in female company and spat out my beer when I realised where the same scene I had watch a few weeks before in Boogie Nights had been inspired from this very bit.
Needless to say she wasn’t as impressed by Anderson’s homage as I was. I later found out that the film had such a profound effect on Anderson that it inspired Robert Downey Sr’s cameo. I love this film, not fully on an intellectual level, it’s hardly The Seventh Seal but it affected me on a gut level, it felt right, it was inspiring.
For people aspiring to be creative in any field, I urge you to watch this simply because it’s a lesson that, with not a lot of money and a few good friends you can make something profound that people are gonna be talking about in years to come. It is not Blade Runner or Interstellar, as wonderful as these epics are, they are somewhat daunting. Downey Sr. on the other hand asks us ‘hey look what we did, what the fuck can you do?’ The simple answer being: anything.
During the ’60s there’s a few unsung literary cult heroes who get overshadowed by big names like Burroughs and Kerouac. People like Richard Brautigan, Terry Southern and Frederick Exley. With so many of today’s cultural heroes citing them as an influence, Robert Downey Sr. is cinema’s equivalent of these and it’s our responsibility to keep watching his films so his reputation grows and in turn so will we.