Jun 29, 2013

Chafed Elbows

As far as films about incest are concerned, especially of the mother-son Oedipal variety, no film takes such an absurdly hilarious and unwaveringly obnoxious approach to the subject than psychopathically sardonic flick Chafed Elbows (1966) directed by Robert Downey, Sr. (Putney Swope, Greaser's Palace). Of course, being mostly comprised of black-and-white 35mm still camera photographs that were developed at the director’s local drugstore and being only 58 minutes in length, Chafed Elbows barely qualifies as a film at all and, in terms of technique and direction, more resembles the sort of amateurish photo collages created by little girls and bored moms that have flooded YouTube, thus making it all the more ingenious in its glaring early-1960s NYC ghetto production values. Made on a dime store budget of around $12,000 (I was actually surprised it cost that much to make), Chafed Elbows would go on to be an underground classic and provide credibility to the American ‘avant-garde’ and cinematic sleaziness and would even share a double bill in 1967 at Bleecker Street Cinema in Greenwich Village with cine-magickian Kenneth Anger’s similarly subversive and groundbreaking work Scorpio Rising (1964). Of course, centering around a nervous breakdown-plagued anti-hero who shares carnal knowledge with his mother, gives birth to money, shoots cops, caters potato salad (or at least tries) at bar mitzvahs, and feels that he is entitled to government welfare like any and every self-righteous American deadbeat, Chafed Elbows is from a strikingly different planet than Scorpio Rising as a sort of fiercely fucked Freudian celluloid vaudeville show of the absurdist aberrant-garde sort that must have been a major influence on Downey’s debauched racial kinsmen Harmony Korine, whose debut Gummo (1997) features a similarly spasmodic and idiosyncratic collection of seemingly morally insane and stream-of-consciousness skits, pranks, and uncompromising cultural cynicism. A film that satires America just as much as it is a sordid symptom of it, Chafed Elbows attacks everyone from corrupt cops to crackpot psychoanalysts to kosher Jews, as well as filmmaker Andy Warhol and Jonas Mekas, and everyone in between. Indeed, if you ever wanted a jovial antidote to everything you hate about the USA, Chafed Elbows is cinematic iconoclasm and kosher camp at its most hopelessly ill-restrained and incendiary, as if it was directed by Woody Allen’s crackhead stepbrother, except actually funny and not whiny nor wimpy. 

 As one learns during the first couple minutes of Chafed Elbows, perverted proletarian protagonist Walter Dinsmore (George Morgan) not only sleeps side-by-side with his mother (played by Downey’s then wife Elsie Downey, who plays ALL the female roles in the film), but also has steamy incestuous sex with her as well. Rather unfortunately, Walter—a rather goofy fellow with a flat affect and not a dime to his name—narrates that he is in the middle of his “annual November breakdown” (although the film, which is in two parts, takes place during his “annual January breakdown”) and all of Greenwich Village will feel his pain and pessimism, whether they want to or not. After going to a doctor, Walter learns he is pregnant and the deranged doc recommends that he, being a man with a mangina, get a hysterectomy, but instead he magically gives birth to 189 ten dollar bills through his knee via cesarean section, which he concludes may be the result of having swallowed a nickel when he was 5 or 6 years old. On his way home from the doctor, Walt walks into a sleazy artist who prices him at $1700.00 and hopes to hang and sell him at a gallery, but it never happens. Not long after, Walter tells his psychoanalyst that his greatest fear is getting his mother pregnant, which is apparently a “common fantasy,” or at least Freud and equally deluded disciples thought. Although there is no doubt that Walter loves his mommy dearest, the hack psychoanalyst also tells her that his sick son “hates women,” which seems to be true as he treats virtually every girl he meets with neurotic disdain, even if he bangs a couple from time to time. Walter also makes his big debut as a cop character in a no-budget art flick destined for the Cannes film festival and has a chat with the lighting man, a patently pretentious would-be-auteur named “Leo Realism” (who claims to be listed in the Yellow Pages under “truth”). In a clear parody of Andy Warhol and his monotonous celluloid turd Sleep (1963), a film featuring a man doing nothing but sleeping for 5 hours, Mr. Realism offers Walter the job of starring in his new arthouse flick “Smoke” where all he has to do is “sit on a park bench for seven hours and puff on a cigarette.” On a lunch break while still in his police uniform, Walter does some slapstick traffic controlling and kills a real cop after he brags about “smashing a junky’s skull in.” On top of screwing his mother, Walter also impregnated his vegetarian cousin Leviticus who self-righteously proclaims she “won’t even eat animal crackers.” After Leviticus proclaims she is knocked up and that he should financially support her, Walter thinks twice and solves his problem by throwing her out a window. Not long after, Walter visits his brother who plans to “beat the system” by starting his own business, an amusement park that he describes as follows: “It is only gonna be open to white people but on the inside, there’s only gonna be black people. I’m going to have rides like Whip the Slave and Lynch a Nigger…lots of black people are going to have jobs and security just ‘cause of me.” Naturally, Walt—a loony loner without a cause—turns his brother down in regard to becoming a partner in his bigot bro’s dream business. 

 During the second part of Chafed Elbows, Walter lets the viewer know, “I kind of like part two. It’s got a “collagic,” dreamy, angelic quality. It’s one of my favorite breakdowns.” Indeed, the second part of the film actually features a scene in color of a tiny racist gook calling Walter a “thankless, sinful, Caucasian, spineless, Anglo-Saxon, mentally retarded, middle-class heterosexual” and blesses him “in the name of the Dow, the Jones and the Industrial.” Undoubtedly blessed, Walter decides to become a poet and immediately gets to work on his acceptance speech for the Pulitzer Prize and eventually recites the poetic line “My miniskirt and I checked into a motel and as we were getting into bed, we spotted an old Negro looking in the window. Miniskirt said not to worry because he was probably a peeping Uncle Tom” to a civil rights buff and dean at the ‘New School.’ The dean gives Walter the esoteric bit of knowledge that “Trotsky was a Mexican” and that “Hitler is a hairdresser and alive in Los Angeles.” After talking to an anti-liberal black street philosopher, Walter decides to do something more “real” and becomes a rock star, but he doesn’t “feel it” and decides to walk among his people, thus attracting the attention of a bunch of horny teenage girl and, of course, his greatest fan, his mother. Not long after, Walter is hired to “dish out potato salad at a bar mitzvah in Mineola, Long Island,” but he is fired by the owner of the catering business after kicking the potato salad out the truck while passing through Jamaica. Job or not, Walter decides to attend the bar mitzvah anyway and starts a hot fling with a crazy Jewish chick named Rhoda Dendron that he finds hiding under a dinner table. After telling Rhoda that she managed to put a pretty good tremor in his ‘tick-a-roo-roo’ and offering her to put a big kiss-a-wang-wang on her ‘ruby nugget,’ Walter rips the goofy gal’s clothes off, throws the owner of the catering business off a roof for momentarily cock-blocking him, and defiles the nice Jewish girl, but, to the little lady's dismay, ultimately succumbs to premature ejaculation. After coming home, Walter is happy to discover his slob of a father has drunk himself to death and proceeds to hit his mother on the head with a hammer and assumes he has killed her, but, quite miraculously, she awakens and states quite eloquently, “You can’t kill real love, Walter. Let that be a lesson to ya.” In an exceedingly happy ending to a rather merrily macabre movie, Walter and his mother get legally “peacefulized,” move into a rent-controlled apartment just outside of Manhattan, and eagerly await their first born child and first welfare check.

If any character in film history has truly achieved the “American dream,” it is indubitably loser’s loser and deadbeat's deadbeat Walter Dinsmore, a man that has the opportunity to indulge in every dream job, including actor, rock star, and money-birther, yet ultimately achieves nothing aside from siring an inbred child and living on the taxpayer’s dime; two uniquely unnatural dreams that only could be realized in the land of the free and home of the brave. What is great about Chafed Elbows is that director Robert Downey, Sr.'s celluloid ‘seething cynicism as celluloid sketch-comedy’ knows no bounds, as he manages to target virtually every segment of the American (and most specifically, early-1960s NYC) populous, including (but certainly not limited too), boorish blue collar workers, pedantic college professors, hypocritical feminists, clannish Orthodox Jews, East Asian megalomaniacs, avant-garde filmmakers, psychoanalysts, monetary motivated practioners of medicine, soulless newscasters, egocentric Guidos, belligerent bull dykes, and various other groups/individuals ripe for mockery. Not unsurprisingly, Downey even goes so far as mocking the film itself in a scene where a character states “The only thing about these low-budget films is that all the action is behind the camera” and Walter Dinsmore (standing in for Downey) replies “Don’t worry about it. This whole thing will blow over in less than an hour” (Chafed Elbows has a 58 min running time) Undoubtedly, at least as far as I am concerned, Downey has a naughty knack for making hatred and cultural pessimism a pleasantly palatable thing and it is with Chafed Elbows that he was able to realize this to the fullest, even if the film is essentially a sardonic slideshow of human sideshows directed by a man that clearly only knew the most fundamental aspects of filmmaking techniques. Once described in a 1967 interview as behing “like a Marx brothers movie that has Lenny Bruce language in it,” Chafed Elbows is pure and unadulterated Hebrew humor (and I mean that in the most 'positive' sense, relatively speaking of course) minus the terminal taint of Hollywood philistinism and cultural Marxist hysteria.  If you ever wonder what must be going on in someone's mind to be a Sigmund Freud or a Wilhelm Reich but without having to dig through all the novelty intellectualism and anti-European sentiment, Chafed Elbows—a sort of healthy median between the crappy commie caricatures of George Grosz and the early films of Harmony Korine—makes for a singularly hilarious view at the Oedipal Hebraic psyche and all of its creepily corrupted corners and crevices.

-Ty E

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