In 2010, comedian Louis C.K. appeared on the popular podcast WTF with Marc Maron and recounted the “severely life-changing moment” that was the first time he saw Robert Downey Sr.’s 1969 advertising-world spleen-vent and black-power pasquinade, Putney Swope. He found the flick in the bargain bin at a Blockbuster Video, took it home, and had his mind blown. “[Putney Swope] made me think you can do anything you want [in movie or TV] even if it doesn’t make any sense,” C.K. explained. It’s easy to see how C.K.—whose comedy swings from pop-profound social observation to deadpan surrealism—would find the flick brain-busting. Just consider the plot:
Putney Swope (played by Arnold Johnson, voiced by Downey Sr.) sits on the board of a typically evil advertising firm as the token African-American member. When the old white guy in charge croaks mid-meeting, all of the impudent honkies on the board, being callous business-types, immediately vote for who will take his place while he’s still dead on the table. Because they can’t vote for themselves and they don’t want to vote for any of the other jerks in the room they actually take seriously, they all vote for Putney, thinking no one else will vote for the black guy. Winning by an accidental landslide, Swope in turn fires everybody, save for a token white dude, renames the company Truth and Soul Inc., and vows to stop promoting products like alcohol and tobacco to children. Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with the United States government, which prefers advertisers push poison on its people. Putney eventually sells out to corporate America and an aggressive POTUS, here played by a broken-English-sputtering, pot-puffing little person who goes by the moniker Mimeo (Pepi Hermine).
Shot in gritty but beautiful black and white, punctuated by colorful proto-Saturday Night Live commercial parodies, and performed by actors caught up in the off-the-rails craziness of experimental theater, Putney Swope is chock-full of absurdist smarm and biting satire. And really, any movie whose cult includes Louis C.K. and culture-jamming music producer and pontificator DJ Spooky (who presents the MFF screening of the film) is probably one you should just go ahead and join unquestioned.