Jan 24, 2014

Pound (1970)

Probably best remembered nowadays for being the first film to feature kosher coke fiend Robert Downey, Jr. in the childishly charming role of a puppy(!) at the ripe age of 5, Pound (1970) is a relatively forgotten and rarely seen film directed by the mainstream Hollywood actor/comedian’s underground filmmaker father Robert Downey, Sr. (Chafed Elbows, Greaser's Palace) that until somewhat recently was assumed to be lost. Rated X due to its naughty language and released on a double-bill with the decadent high-camp Roman epic Fellini Satyricon (1969), Pound was essentially cursed upon its release and would not really reappear until 2005 when Downey found a damaged original 35mm print of the work in his “cameraman’s ex-wife’s closet,” which was in such poor shape that it could not even be run through a film projector, but luckily the print was somehow digitally scanned and restored (though the film has yet to be released on DVD). Luckily, I managed to track down a reasonably decent print of Pound with Hebrew subtitles, which only add to the film’s sardonic and superlatively sidesplitting Hebraic humor, and I can happily report that it is nothing short of a cult comedy classic and one of Downey’s most audaciously absurd cinematic works. Adapted from an off-off-Broadway play written by the auteur in 1961 entitled The Comeuppance, Pound is the pleasantly politically incorrect tale of over a dozen spastic dogs, a Siamese cat, and penguin that are depicted by humans who wait in vain for someone to adopt them from an animal shelter before they are put to sleep for good. In addition to the absolutely scathing surrealist absurdity of the wayward puppy prison, Pound also features a biting and seemingly random subplot about a David Berkowitz-esque pseudo-negro serial killer that goes by the name “Honky Killer” who goes around killing loving Aryan couples, thus unwittingly prophesying the so-called ‘Son of Sam’ killings that terrorized New Yorkers during the summer of 1976. Indeed, with its curious combo of mouthy mutts and seemingly a schizophrenic lady-killing serial killer, one might assume that Berkowitz was a fan of Pound. Following in the nihilistic perversity of Chafed Elbows (1966) and the radically satirical racial-hustling of Putney Swope (1969), Pound is like All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989) on speed and acid as directed by an unflinching auteur that could have shown Woody Allen a thing or two about kosher celluloid comedy with true testicular fortitude. 

 Some supreme wack-job (James Green) with a shotgun, who has been dubbed by the media as the “Honky Killer” due to his perverse propensity for killing white couples and calling media networks while using a fake frog-like black voice, is out on the prowl in NYC, while the only thing a group of dogs in a pound on the other side of town can think of is being adopted and surviving their tragic internment in virtual hound hell. Of course, outside a couple scenes, including some doggy style coitus, the melancholy mutts are depicted by humans of the mostly horny and high strung sort. Indeed, inside and outside of the animal shelter is a dog-eat-dog world and everyone is hungry, whether it be for race hate, rape, or hard drugs. One less than little Dachshund (Marshall Efron) with a Hitler mustache apparently used to deal dope on the outside and swears that, “The only stuff I have is pure cocaine, the greatest sexual drug since Eva Braun.” Undoubtedly, the verbally rabid dog is a Mexican Hairless (Downey, Sr. regular Lawrence Wolf), who proclaims “I’m proud to be a Mexican hairless,” though another canine accuses him of being a crypto-Jew. Naturally, the lone Siamese Cat (Ching Yeh) is played by a pissy Chinaman with a retarded hairdo who somewhat resembles Japanese cult leader Shoko Asahara. To the annoyance of her fellow doggies, a ‘Mutt Bitch’ (played by the director’s first wife/ Robert Jr.’s mommy Elsie Downey) likes to do grating opera solos, which inspires a male mutt to state, “Now I know why the governor terminated funding for the so-called arts.” There's a grouchy, seemingly demented old fart (Stan Gottlieb) who sports a glittery silk robe, and who used to fight but now just talks a bunch of shit fittingly playing the role of an over-the-hill Boxer with more bark than bite. With Antonio Fargas of Putney Swope playing the role of a Greyhound, one should not also be too surprised to see a Black Panther-like political rally going on in the pup pound. 

 When it comes down to it, none of the dogs really care about each other and merely blabber on about their own problems, fantasies, and desires, which are depicted in surreal Amarcord-esque dream-sequences. When a whiny canine complains, “Why does everyone have to be black or white?... What about the grays?,” his criticism goes on deaf doggy ears despite the eclectic collection of pedigrees/non-pedigrees at the pound who could benefit from such a 'humanistic' philosophy. When a young puppy (Robert Downey, Jr.) is brought to the pound, he is soon adopted by a violent jigaboo dope dealer, thus causing the rest of the dogs to realize their days are numbered as they wait with a foreboding feeling of impending doom and gloom. Meanwhile, the Honky Killer kills a loving couple as the boyfriend performs cunnilingus on his girlfriend on a park bench. Eventually, Honky Killer calls the local Police Chief (L. Errol Jaye) and after getting off the phone, the black cop remarks to his white underlings, “Well at least we know he’s a brother…but if he is really the Honky Killer, why should he threaten me.” In a feeble attempt to ostensibly seek penance for his sins, a deranged doggy confesses that he wishes he could, “find all the creatures I raped and tell them I’m sorry… If they hadn’t resisted, I wouldn’t have done it,” but literally seconds later he attempts to perform involuntary lily-licking on the Mutt Bitch. In the end, all the poor doggies are gassed in an Auschwitz-esque fashion and take a train to the afterlife. As for the Honky Killer, he attempts to kill his wife at the deep end of their drained swimming pool, but a young piano player, who is carrying of an affair with the killer’s wife, pops out and stops him. As they say, “Don't shoot the piano player; he's doing the best he can” and of course Robert Downey, Sr. was doing the best he could do with Pound

 A work that brings new meaning to the phrase, “Society has gone to the dogs,” Pound is an aberrantly allegorical work that somehow manages to make all the multicultural chaos, urban decay, psychopathic serial killers, bitchy black (and not to mention, morbidly obese) government employees (indeed, the manager of the animal shelter is a sort of New Wave Aunt Jemima), degenerate dope dealers, and related metropolitan American filth seem so much more joyous and wonderful. At the website, Robert Downey Jr. Film Guide, the actor summed up his bittersweet feelings on the films as follows: “Dad got a grant to make a film about dogs. He said it would be more realistic if he could have actors interpret what the dogs were feeling ... Pound is about how everyone’s basically waiting to die. [My father takes] kind of a dark comedic attitude toward very real issues that some people don’t even touch on ... I played a dog in a pound. We were all going to get gassed unless we got taken, so that was our motivation! It was a real art piece ... I couldn’t understand why we had to shoot scenes over and over. It was disconcerting and rather boring ... [A crewmember on The Shaggy Dog] came up to me and said, “I used to baby-sit you when your dad was making Pound. I know what it was like back then.” And he handed me the slate from Pound which was the first movie I ever made, and it said 3/17/70, so it was literally like 35 years ago. It looked like something the art department had come up with to look like a period collector’s item, like Sotheby’s from The Fortune. So lately there’s been a whole sense of closure.” How Robert Jr. went from starting his acting career by playing a puppy in Pound and going on to work with James Toback on a number of films to starring in blockbuster superhero schlock like Iron Man (2008) is anyone’s guess, but it might have to do with the fact his filmmaker father exposed him to the wonderful world of drugs (i.e. marijuana) shortly after appearing in his first film role when he was still just a little pup. Of course, while somewhat sophisticated, Pound could certainly qualify as a ‘pothead picture’ as it would explain Robert Downey Sr.'s nasty knack for endless non-sequiturs, one-liners, and puns, as if a coherent plot would be too much to ask for from a hyper-cynical Semitic stoner. A film that truly epitomizes the genuine spirit of Sephardic Jewess Emma Lazarus' words that adorn the bronze plaque of the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!,” Pound is the uniquely unflattering allegorical depiction of America in mutt microcosm that reminds the viewer that ‘every dog has its day,’ at least when it comes to death. 

-Ty E

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