Damn you, '60s and '70s. Damn you straight to cinematic Hell. Oh sure, you gave us the coalesced creativity of the post-modern movement, and you introduced audiences to the popcorn pleasing blockbuster, but did you have to give us THIS is as well? The THIS being discussed here is the artsy fartsy, makes no MF-ing sense in the grand scheme of things 'experimental' movie - except that using the word 'experimental' suggests a mode to some filmmakers madness, and more times than not, there is nary a rationale to be had. Take the "religious allegory" Greaser's Palace. Granted, there is nothing really wrong with this warped-ass western, a surrealistic pillow of preposterous horse opera riffs retrofitted onto a wildly wonky bit of Jesus as Kid Creole jerryrigging. Yep - this is the last days and temptations of Christ as re-imagined by a feverish, insane Sergio Leone copycat, complete with spaghetti-style local color and enough roughneck reprobate to make a dive bar happy. If it makes sense at all, only writer/director Robert Downey may have a clue. Sadly, he's not sharing it with a four decades in the making DVD viewership.
Our savior substitute is named Jess, and he roams the plains of New Mexico in a purple zoot suit and hat. Hoping to make it to Jerusalem to become an actor/singer/dancer, he instead stumbles into the despotic domain of regional baddie Seaweedhead Greaser. Owner of a local saloon and constipated beyond belief, this villain consistently murders his own son, Lemy Homo, and puts his pert daughter Cholera on display for the brawny public patronage to ogle and offend. Luckily, Jess is around to heal the boy, and even tries to upstage the burly-Q on display. As a random female character wanders the wilderness, suffering every indignity and tragedy that can befall a pioneer gal, our hipster hero confronts the Father and Holy Ghost (dressed in a sheet and a bowler), fends off the advances of a confused dwarf, and more or less confuses the 'holy' heck out of anyone watching this weirdness.
If that opening 'Product' paragraph sounded a bit harsh, it comes from a relatively serene and thoughtful state. After spending a good week wrestling with the concepts and criticisms of Greaser's Palace percolating around in the old brain pan, yours truly was stumped. How does one approach a movie that calls itself a comedy, but nary provides a laugh? How do you explain a satire in which the target and the take is as mysterious as the motives behind and in front of the lens? Sure, most of the acting is pretty good, and the various cartoonish characters leave an impression, and you can't help but smile when everyone's favorite Fantasy Island fixture Herve Villechaize shows up and starts making major cow eyes at Allan Arbus's Jess. But in a 90 minute movie promising such demented delights, the actual anarchy is few and far between. Instead, Greaser's Palace repeats "jokes", overstays its welcome in other narrative regards, and fails to make a salient, sound point over and over and over again. By the time one realizes they've been had, Downey (Robert Jr.'s Dad) has dragged us through the Southwestern desert, abandoning us before creating anything that you'd remotely consider 'classic.
This must have wowed the Warhol out of them back in 1972. Clearly following in the footsteps of Alejandro Jodorowsky's far, far superior El Topo, Downey designs a purposeful affront to the Tinseltown mainstream, and those prone to lap up such subversion should have feasted well. But since the introduction of home video, and the preservationist notion of the VCR/DVD player, there have been hundreds of better visionaries discovered and derided. It's not a question of "getting it." You can still enjoy a David Lynch night terror for what it represents artistically and within the concept of the artform in general. Mr. Eraserhead is that kind of creative genius. Downey just can't compare. While something like Putney Swope announces its (successful) intentions with ferocious frequency, the motive here is mangled in bad symbolism, lax attention to detail, and an inherent desire to simply 'have a good time.' There is a fine line between making statement and taking a vacation. Downey and his fellow cosmopolitans can't decide if they are in the West to carry a torch, or merely carry on.
All of which leads to an unusual hour and a half experience in front of the screen. Only an idiot couldn't see what Greaser's Palace is pretending to be. Heck, Jess even "falls from the sky" early on, parachuting into the movie like a wayward Messiah. But then the muddle of the mannerisms steps in, strangling the rest of the storyline to the put of retreat. Greaser's Palace then becomes a test of tolerances, a question of how long you can go without hitting the fast-forward button on the remote. Perhaps with the proper pharmaceutical support, one could easily wake and bake their way through it. But for the most part, this is a movie stuck in its era, unable to unlock its divergent delights for a wider, more contemporary crowd. You just know defenders of this particular realm will take untold umbrage with everything in this review, especially the assertion that it's all much ado about nothing. So let the lovers of Greaser's Palace have their awkward laughfest. After a week or more of contemplation, yours truly has given up.
Presented, supposedly for the first time, in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image, the transfer of Greaser's Palace is pretty terrific. Sure, it's faded and lacking in some detail, but for the most part, the image looks solid and successfully brought into the 21st century. Some of the flaws might have been inherent in the filmmaking, considering the budget and location. From a picture standpoint, however, this film looks fine.
The Mono mix is a tad problematic, however. Dialogue often gets lost in the various ambient noises droning in the background, and Downey's directorial flashes - long handheld shots, the use of mariachi music - often cover up conversations. Still, the overall tech specs are fairly good. Not reference quality, but not a complete disaster either.
There are two halfway interesting bits of added content here. Jonathan Demme defends the film in some engaging liner notes, while Downey sits down to discuss his film. While he doesn't have a lot to add (he doesn't explain things so much as say "Oh really? That's interesting..."), there are snippets here and there that make the 12 minute Q&A enlightening (like how Jack Nicholson provided all the actresses for the shoot). While a commentary track would have been nice, one imagines that Downey wouldn't be that forthcoming over the course of an entire feature.
So, after all the scathing rebuke and dismissal, you probably think Greaser's Palace is going to earn a Skip It, right? Well, you'd be mistake. You see, opinion almost always comes from perspective, and after 40 plus years looking at movies, this critic's viewpoint is clearly not synced up to what Downey was doing back in '71. So instead of telling everyone to avoid this effort like the dogmatic plague is pretends to be, a rating of Rent It is in order. This does not reflect the reviewer's mileage, but the enjoyment per frame you might feel. On mere chutzpah, a Recommended wouldn't be out of line. There's this caveat, however. Just because something was a sensation back before your parents were teenagers doesn't mean that it remains special. Greaser's Palace wants to be devious and deranged. Now, it's just dated.