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Robert Downey Sr. At Anthology

By Mike Everleth ⋅ September 13, 2008

Film still from Chafed Elbows featuring a woman wearing glasses

First the news: The early, mostly unseen, some long-lost and forgotten films of Robert Downey Sr. are screening at the Anthology Film Archives all this week. The event started last night, but there are films tonight, Sept. 13 at 6:00 p.m., with Babo 73, Chafed Elbows and Moment to Moment. Those films and more will screen different nights this week with Downey Sr. making an appearance on the last day, Sept. 18.

Now the commentary: Although it’s not playing during this mini-retrospective, Downey Sr.’s Greaser’s Palace is one of my favorite movies of all time. I used to watch it over-and-over on VHS as a teenager, long before I even knew what “underground film” was. However, it certainly prepped me for my eventual interest in them.

I haven’t seen the film in a long time, although I still have a VHS copy of it. But I used to get really turned on by the absurdist surrealism and abstract humor in the film, from Christ-figure Alan Arbus’ boogie-woogie dance cum stigmata performance, HervĂ© Villechaize and his transvestite lover, Greaser’s inability to have a bowel movement and the repeated killing of his son who keeps coming back from the dead after seeing babies swim in a rainbow. The film is also notable for being the uncredited screen debut of Robert Downey Jr. as a baby. Brilliant stuff, although as a kid I didn’t “get” most of the references. (I probably still wouldn’t if I watched it again.)

The rest of Downey’s films have been hard to come by. I think the only other one I’ve seen is Up the Academy, another film I watched repeatedly as a kid when it was on cable TV all the time. It’s a very maligned film now, but I remember thinking it was hilarious. Again, I haven’t seen that in many years, either, so I don’t know what I would think of it now.

If I were still living in NYC, I would love to go see these films. I’ve been linking to press for the films on my Twitter feed. (Which you’re following, right?) The best is this excellent interview with Downey Sr. conducted by Ed Halter for the Moving Image Source. Ed gets the director to talk in-depth about his early filmmaking career. Most fascinating bit is that Downey Sr.’s Chafed Elbows had a long run as a successful double bill with, of all things, Kenneth Anger‘s Scorpio Rising. That’s a pairing i’d still love to see together and figure out what made it a popular combo.

Then, in the Village Voice, J. Hoberman reviews the films playing at Anthology, which only makes me sicker that I can’t go see them.

But, if you want to go and can, here’s the Anthology’s full schedule for the films.

And, just for fun, here’s part one of interview with Downey Sr. from 1991 on the show Night After Night. I haven’t watched the whole thing, but very early in it, Downey Sr. said he was directly influenced to make films by reading Jonas Mekas’ “Movie Journal” column in the Village Voice. Mekas would eventually then go on to support and praise Downey Sr.’s efforts in the same column. That whole thing kind of blows me away because I went from being a huge fan of Greaser’s Palace, to now being a huge fan of the Movie Journal book, without knowing there was any kind of connection. Must have been destiny for me when I pulled that film off the video store shelf.

‘Robert Downey: A Prince’
September 12 through 18
Anthology Film Archives
32 Second Avenue
New York, NY 10003