A review of an obscure indie film (courtesy of HuluPlus’ choice selection of films from the Criterion Collection), some film history & Eric Michael Kochmer. Read on to find out why indie filmmakers should care. Every #TBT.
Chafed Elbows (1966) directed by Robert Downey Sr. (58:10) Black & White
Robert Downey Sr. was kicked out of the army during the Korean War for essentially being a juvenile prankster. A few years later, while he was living in the East Village, he read an article about making films by Jonas Menkas (the great film essayist and founder of The Anthology Film Archives) in the Village Voice, and decided that films were his calling. He started out by making several low budget underground films and making a name for himself in these off-beat circles.”Chaffed Elbows” was his first commercial success and paved the way for his satirical masterpiece’s “Putney Swoop,” and “Greasers Palace.” All of these films solidified Downey as an underground filmmaking legend. Time has made him a bit obscure. Obviously his movie star son helped, but Downey is now, and will always be, considered a great talent.
“Elbows,” was made on a budget of $12,000 and about 80% of the film is made up of still images, shot on a 35mm still camera and developed at Walgreens. The rest of the film was shot on 35mm motion picture film. To say that Downey uses his shortcomings to his advantage is a understatement. All 13 female roles are played by Downey’s wife (and Robert Downey Jr.’s mom) Elsie Downey.
The plot concerns a man, Walter Dinsmore (played by George Morgan) who is undergoing his annual November breakdown while attending 1954’s World’s Fair. He has a love affair with his mother, has a hysterectomy operation (after giving birth to American currency in the amount of $1,800), is then sold as a piece of living art, goes to heaven and then becomes a singer in a rock band. The manic comedy/art satire that he assembles rivals the likes of Woody Allen and Mel Brooks.
Now that we are in the digital age, some young, smart-ass, clever so and so could make somthing like this for $10. The fact that Downey was able to engineer the feat that he did in the mid-sixties is incredible. The pacing of film is rapid fire, and the frames are almost timed out with the pacing of the dialogue. The general wit and low-brow humor of Downey’s writing center around the art scene and the general absurdity and pretentiousness of artists. This film is a great example of what can happen with a great script and a great idea… and using your disadvantages to your advantage.