PUTNEY SWOPE (Robert Downey, 1969)
Alamo Drafthouse Downtown Brooklyn
445 Albee Square West
Wednesday, September 18, 7:00
The past, present, and immediate future of indie cinema are represented in the fourth annual Art House Theater Day, taking place September 18 at several venues in New York as well as around the country. Peter Strickland’s 2018 In Fabric and Brett Story’s 2019 The Hottest August will be screening at IFC; In Fabric will also be shown at Nitehawk’s Prospect Park cinema. But the film to see is the fiftieth anniversary 4K restoration of Robert Downey Sr.’s counterculture cult classic, the low-budget 1969 satire Putney Swope, playing at the Alamo Drafthouse in Downtown Brooklyn and Yonkers. Downey Sr. is still alive, and this presentation includes a prerecorded introduction from the eighty-three-year-old writer-director of such other movies as Chafed Elbows, Sweet Smell of Sex, Greaser’s Palace, and Rittenhouse Square.
Downey skewers race, religion, politics, the corporate world, and Madison Ave. in the absurdist comedy, featuring a crazy cast of characters portrayed by professional actors as well as first-timers Downey found in city bars and cafés and on the street. When ad agency owner Mario Elias Sr. (David Kirk) drops dead during a meeting, the rest of the board, consisting primarily of a bunch of conniving, corrupt white men, accidentally vote the one black man, musical director Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson), to be the next chairman. Instead of stepping aside, Swope decides to take over and make radical changes, renaming the company Truth and Soul, Inc., firing white employees for any reason whatsoever, and hiring a team of Black Power men and women with no advertising experience to produce commercials that go far beyond industry standards, featuring foul language, nudity, and interracial relationships while promoting such products as Dinkleberry Frozen Chicken Pot Pie and Lucky Airlines, where one lucky passenger will win a trip to a back room with nearly naked stewardesses. However, he refuses to make ads for alcohol, toy guns, and tobacco. Putney courts favor with US president Mimeo and the first lady, portrayed by real-life husband-and-wife little people Pepi and Ruth Hermine, whose right-hand man, Mr. Borman Six (Larry Wolf), is a neo-Nazi. But power corrupts, and Swope soon becomes more militant and dictatorial, getting away with his bizarre business plan as the film turns into a fable of rebellion gone astray.
Putney Swope almost didn’t get distributed. In 1969, at a special advance screening, Native New Yorker Downey, the father of Robert Downey Jr., reluctantly allowed Don Rugoff of Cinema Five in, even though Rugoff was late; afterward, Rugoff told him, “I don’t understand this movie, but I like it,” and shortly released the film to sold-out audiences. Downey and cinematographer Gerald Cotts switch between black-and-white for the main narrative and color for the television commercials, giving extra oomph to the latter, which get stranger and stranger, while Charley Cuva provides the groovy music and New Breed Inc. the chic costumes. The cast and crew had such trouble understanding Johnson’s mangled line readings that Downey dubbed in his dialogue in postproduction himself, using a raspy black voice that is way over the top; Putney Swope might be an equal opportunity offender, but it could never be made today, given the current politically correct environment.
Much of the acting is terrible, but a few familiar faces show up to offer a bit of a respite: Antonio Fargas, best known as Huggy Bear on Starsky and Hutch, plays the ever-angry Arab; Allan Arbus, who was Dr. Sidney Freedman on M*A*S*H (note that the poster to the left is a takeoff of the marketing campaign for Robert Altman’s film version of M*A*S*H) and is the son of photographer Diane Arbus, is Mr. Bad News, filling in Swope on the continuing adventures of serial sex offender Sonny Williams (Perry Gewirtz); Shelley Plimpton (the mother of Martha Plimpton) and singer Ronnie Dyson, who were in Hair together, appear as the interracial couple pushing face cream; and Allen Garfield, a successful character actor in such films as The Conversation and Nashville, is Mario Elias Jr. The tall, awkward Stanley Gottlieb is a hoot as Nathan, who speaks primarily in bad jokes, while poet Donald Lev is a lone anarchist. Added to the US National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2016, Putney Swope — a major influence on such films as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, in which Don Cheadle plays a character named Buck Swope, Cosmo the firecracker boy is inspired by Chinese businessman Wing Soney, and Downey Sr. makes a cameo (in addition, Louis CK hosted a Q&A with Downey in LA five years ago) — holds up better than expected, despite its cutting-edge story and small details that leave no one unblemished. It’s certainly no Mad Men, but it’s still a far-out document of a critical time in American history.
THE SOUND OF SILENCE (Michael Tyburski, 2019)
323 Sixth Ave. at West Third St.
Opens Friday, September 13
Peter Sarsgaard gives a beautifully gentle performance as a house tuner in Michael Tyburski’s feature debut, The Sound of Silence. Sarsgaard is Peter Lucian, an idiosyncratic New Yorker who is hired by people to investigate how sounds in their homes might be affecting them in negative ways, impacting their sleeping habits, success at work, and overall mood. Walking from room to room with tuning forks and a tape recorder, Peter tracks seemingly impossible-to-hear noise and suggests alterations that will change his clients’ lives, sometimes as simple as replacing a small appliance. He is also mapping the city itself, documenting buildings and street corners by the musical notes they emit. At the urging of his mentor, Robert Feinway (Austin Pendleton), he hires Samuel Diaz (Tony Revolori) to assist him as he prepares to publish his findings, something he prefers to do alone. Meanwhile, CEO Harold Carlyle (Bruce Altman) wants Peter to join his firm and turn his unique skill into a big-time money-making venture, but Peter has no interest in corrupting his unusual profession. When he hits a snag trying to solve the problems of his latest client, Ellen Chasen (Rashida Jones), he becomes obsessed, desperate to find the answer as his calm, even-keeled life suddenly becomes turbulent and disorderly.
The Sound of Silence was expanded from rural Vermont native Tyburski and cowriter Ben Nabors’s award-winning 2013 short, Palimpsest. The film is reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola’s classic 1974 thriller, The Conversation, in which Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, an audio surveillance expert who becomes overwhelmed with paranoia, as well as Henry Bean’s 2007 drama Noise, in which Tim Robbins stars as a New Yorker on a one-man mission to eliminate the endless racket made by car alarms going off in the middle of the night. Cinematographer Eric Lin’s camera can’t get enough of Peter’s tender, delicate nature and slow, deliberate speech and movement, so sensitively portrayed by Sarsgaard (Shattered Glass, Kinsey), whether he’s laying down in a client’s bed, standing in front of Central Park’s Naumburg Bandshell with his tuning forks, or looking out at the vast city spread out below him, a symphony of strife, supplemented by Will Bates’s classically influenced score, that he believes he can cure. But even as he helps other people, he is unable to make personal connections in his own life, spending much of his time in his dark office, letting his answering machine pick up for him so he doesn’t have to talk to people on the phone, not knowing how to engage with the real world outside. The Sound of Silence, which boasts a strong indie cast that also includes Alex Karpovsky, Tina Benko, Bhavesh Patel, Tracee Chimo Pallero, Kate Lyn Sheil, and Alison Fraser, opens September 13 at IFC, with Tyburski, Nabors, and producer Michael Prall on hand for a Q&A following the 8:10 screening opening night. The film will also run September 20-29 at the Museum of the Moving Image, with Tyburski joined by physicist Janna Levin at the 4:00 show on September 22.
DEPRAVED (Larry Fessenden, 2019)
323 Sixth Ave. at West Third St.
Opens Friday, September 13
Earlier this year, Larry Fessenden’s Depraved made its world premiere at IFC Center as the opening-night selection of What the Fest!?, five days of twisted films and discussions that pushed the boundaries of the horror genre. Depraved, which does just that, is now back at IFC for its inaugural theatrical release. “Humanity does so love destruction. Depraved. That’s what we are. Utterly depraved,” Polidori (Joshua Leonard) explains in the film, a contemporary reimagining of Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein involving the military, Big Pharma, and fatherhood. The smooth-talking Polidori (named for John William Polidori, an acquaintance of Mary Wollstonecraft’s who in 1819 published the first modern vampire story) is overseeing a cutting-edge experiment by Henry (David Call), who is seeking to bring life to the dead through surgery, medication, and therapy. (Dr. Frankenstein was named “Victor” in Mary Shelley’s book but “Henry” in James Whale’s 1931 movie.) Using body parts from multiple corpses, Henry, a former army medic in Iraq, has patched together a living being he names Adam (Alex Breaux). The final, key piece is the warm brain of Alex (Owen Campbell), who is brutally murdered moments after having a fight with his girlfriend, Lucy (Chloë Levine), in Brooklyn. Adam develops sooner than expected, taking a liking to Henry’s girlfriend, Liz (Ana Kayne), while Polidori uses this as an opportunity to speed up the deals he’s working on. It doesn’t go very well.
Written, directed, produced, and edited by Fessenden (The Last Winter, Wendigo) — who made the cult vampire hit Habit in 1997 and is now working on a long-conceived werewolf picture — Depraved takes on several timely issues, most powerfully war and PTSD; Henry, who suffers from PTSD himself, and Polidori are hoping to keep mortally wounded soldiers alive while also helping them deal with post-traumatic stress, but they did not anticipate Adam experiencing memory flashbacks of Alex’s life (which are accompanied by creepy animation). Fessenden also explores the nature of parenting in twenty-first-century America: Alex is murdered shortly after fighting with Lucy about having children; Henry perceives Adam as a kind of son to him, especially early on when he is teaching him elementary school basics and playing catch with him; Polidori, who is married to Georgina (Maria Dizzia), works for his father-in-law (Chris O’Connor) while also serving as Adam’s bad parent; and, as a bonus, Fessenden’s son Jack is the film’s videographer and appears as Eddie. (Larry can be seen in a cameo as the guy at the end of the bar, where Adam meets Shelley [Addison Timlin], named for the author of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.)
The strong cast is led by Breaux (Red Speedo, Jack Fessenden’s upcoming Foxhole), who gives a multilayered, sensitive performance as Adam, a lonely man — not a monster — lost in a world he no longer understands, and Call (The Sinner, The Breaks), who humanizes the mad-scientist-as-God role. Inspired by neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight, about how she recovered from a severe brain hemorrhage, and the legacy of Oliver Sacks, Fessenden is not merely trying to scare the hell out of us with Depraved, which was made in twenty-four days in Gowanus and includes a scene shot guerrilla-style in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Instead, he has made an intense film that looks at how we are wired and how trauma impacts our relationships with others. And more than fear, the film hits us with an overwhelming sadness. “We always have tomorrow,” Alex says in the beginning. Alas, not always. Fessenden will be at IFC for Q&As following the 9:45 screenings on September 13 and 14.
Crossing the Line Festival
French Institute Alliance Française and other venues
September 12 - October 12
FIAF’s thirteenth annual Crossing the Line Festival, one of the city’s best multidisciplinary events, opens appropriately enough with the US premiere of French director Cyril Teste’s Opening Night, a multimedia adaptation of John Cassavetes’s 1977 film. The seventy-five-minute presentation, running September 12-14, stars the legendary Isabelle Adjani, along with Morgan Lloyd Sicard and Frédéric Pierrot; the actors will receive new stage directions at each performance, so anything can happen. (In conjunction with Opening Night, FIAF will be hosting the CinéSalon series “Magnetic Gaze: Isabelle Adjani on Screen,” consisting of ten films starring Adjani, including The Story of Adele H, Queen Margot, and Possession, on Tuesdays through October 29.) Also on September 12, Paris-born, New York–based visual artist Pierre Huyghe will unveil his free video installation The Host and the Cloud, a two-hour film exploring the nature of human ritual, set in a former ethnographic museum; the 2009-10 film will be shown on a loop in the FIAF Gallery Monday to Saturday through the end of the festival, October 12. Another major highlight of CTL 2019 is the US premiere of Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne’s Why? Running September 21 through October 6 at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, the seventy-five-minute show delves into the very existence of theater itself. The festival also features dance, music, and other live performances by an impressive range of creators; below is the full schedule. Numerous shows will be followed by Q&As with the writers, directors, and/or performers.
Thursday, September 12
Saturday, September 14
Opening Night, directed by Cyril Teste, starring Isabelle Adjani, Morgan Lloyd Sicard, and Frédéric Pierrot, FIAF Florence Gould Hall, $45-$55, 7:30
Thursday, September 12
Saturday, October 12
The Host and the Cloud, directed by Pierre Huyghe, FIAF Gallery, free
Friday, September 13
Sunday, September 15
Manmade Earth, by 600 HIGHWAYMEN, the Invisible Dog Art Center, $15 suggested donation
Tuesday, September 17
Wednesday, September 18
The Disorder of Discourse, Fanny de Chaillé’s restaging of a lecture by Michel Foucault, with Guillaume Bailliart, the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, free with RSVP, 8:00
Saturday, September 21
Sunday, October 6
Why?, by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne, Polonsky Shakespeare Center, Theatre for a New Audience, $90-$115
Wednesday, September 25
Isadora Duncan, by Jérôme Bel, CTL commission, with Catherine Gallant, FIAF Florence Gould Hall, $35, 7:30
Thursday, September 26
Saturday, September 28
Somewhere at the Beginning, created and performed by Mikaël Serre, choreographed by Germaine Acogny, set to music by Fabrice Bouillon, La MaMa, $25, 7:00
Wednesday, October 2
Radio Live, with Aurélie Charon, Caroline Gillet, and Amélie Bonnin, based on narratives by young change makers from around the world, FIAF Florence Gould Hall, $15-$35
Thursday, October 3
Sunday, October 6
Look Who’s Coming to Dinner, world premiere choreographed by Stefanie Batten Bland, with music by Paul Damien Hogan, inspired by 1967 Stanley Kramer film, La MaMa, $21-$26
Friday, October 4
Saturday, October 5
The Sun Too Close to the Earth, world premiere by Rhys Chatham for nine-piece ensemble, inspired by climate change, along with Le Possédé bass flute solo and On, Suzanne featuring harpist Zeena Parkins and drummer Jonathan Kane, ISSUE Project Room, $25, 8:00
Thursday, October 10
When Birds Refused to Fly, conceived, directed, and choreographed by Olivier Tarpaga, featuring Salamata Kobré, Jean Robert Kiki Koudogbo, Stéphane Michael Nana, and Abdoul Aziz Zoundi, with music by Super Volta and others, FIAF Florence Gould Hall, $15-$35, 7:30
Friday, October 11
Saturday, October 12
Дyми Moï — Dumy Moyi, solo performance by François Chaignaud, the Invisible Dog Art Center, free with RSVP
Regal Cinemas Battery Park
260 West 23rd St at Eighth Ave.
September 12-15, $30
The third annual Tribeca TV Festival, brought to you by the folks behind the Tribeca Film Festival, takes place September 12-15 at Regal Cinemas Battery Park, offering four days of new shows, season premieres, a musical finale, and a tribute to a 1990s classic. This year’s offerings come from a wide array of providers — CBS, Apple TV+, BET+, EPIX, Amazon Prime, the CW, STARZ, HULU, Freeform, and HBO — and feature appearances by James Spader, Whoopi Goldberg, Steven Soderbergh, Jill Soloway, Mark and Jay Duplass, Hailee Steinfeld, John Green, Jane Krakowski, Dennis Quaid, Judith Light, Billy Bob Thornton, Pam Grier, Forest Whitaker, Lake Bell, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, and Christine Lahti, among others. Tickets to all events are $30; screenings will be followed by discussions moderated by writers from TV Guide, Vulture, the New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly, and other pop-culture purveyors.
Thursday, September 12
Tribeca Talks: James Spader with Whoopi Goldberg, Regal 11, 6:00
Godfather of Harlem: New Series World Premiere, with Chris Brancato, Paul Eckstein, Ilfenesh Hadera, and Forest Whitaker, moderated by Jelani Cobb, Regal 5, 6:30
Room 104: Season 3 World Premiere, with Mark Duplass and Sydney Fleischmann, moderated by Jen Chaney, Regal 11, 8:00
First Wives Club: Special Screening, with Tracy Oliver, Michelle Buteau, Ryan Michelle Bathe, and RonReaco Lee, moderated by Breanne Heldman, Regal 5, 9:00
Friday, September 13
Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Celebration of Friends: A Conversation with the Series’ Executive Producers, with David Crane, Marta Kauffman, and Kevin Bright, Regal 11, 6:00
Goliath: Season 3 World Premiere, with Lawrence Trilling, Billy Bob Thornton, Nina Arianda, Tania Raymonde, Amy Brenneman, Dennis Quaid, and Shamier Anderson, moderated by Damian Holbrook, Regal 5, 7:00
Hip Hop: The Songs that Shook America: New Series Premiere, with One9, Erik Parker, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Tarik “Black Thought” Trotter, and Angie Day, moderated by Lola Ogunnaike, Regal 11, 8:15
Saturday, September 14
Katy Keene: New Series World Premiere, with Michael Grassi, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Lucy Hale, Julia Chan, Jonny Beauchamp, Katherine LaNasa, Zane Holtz, Camille Hyde, Ashleigh Murray, and Lucien Laviscount, moderated by Damian Holbrook, Regal 5, 3:00
Party of Five: New Series Sneak Preview, with Amy Lippman, Chris Keyser, Michal Zebede, Brandon Larracuente, Niko Guardado, Emily Tosta, and Elle Paris Legaspi, moderated by Gio Benitez, Regal 11, 5:30
Evil: New Series Premiere, with Robert King, Michelle King, Katja Herbers, Mike Colter, Aasif Mandvi, Michael Emerson, Christine Lahti, and Kurt Fuller, moderated by Evan Real, Regal 5, 6:00
Bless This Mess: Season 2 World Premiere, with Lake Bell, Dax Shepard, and Pam Grier, Regal 11, 8:00
Dickinson: World Premiere, with Alena Smith, Hailee Steinfeld, and Jane Krakowski, Regal 5, 8:30
Sunday, September 15
Looking for Alaska: New Series World Premiere, with John Green, Josh Schwartz, Stephanie Savage, Charlie Plummer, Kristine Froseth, Denny Love, and Jay Lee, moderated by Kathryn VanArendonk, Regal 11, 2:30
Tribeca Talks: Hasan Minhaj, Regal 5, 4:00
Leavenworth: New Series World Premiere, with Steven Soderbergh, Paul Pawlowski, Mike McGuiness, David Philipps, and John Maher, Regal 11, 5:30
Closing Night: Transparent — Series Musical Finale, with Jill Soloway, Faith Soloway, Judith Light, Jay Duplass, Alexandra Billings, and Shakina Nayfack, Regal 5, 6:00
Who: Jon Lovett, Stacey Abrams, Desus and Mero, Wyatt Cenac, Dulcé Sloan, Alyssa Mastromonaco
What: Live broadcast of Lovett or Leave It
Where: Radio City Music Hall, 1260 Sixth Ave. at Fiftieth St.
When: Friday, September 13, $39-$79, 8:00
Why: Every Friday night, producer and former speechwriter Jon Lovett hosts Lovett or Leave It, a political podcast about the week in review recorded live in Los Angeles; recent episodes include “Dunaway or the Highway,” “Gays Against Equinox,” “Hot Inslee Summer,” “Big Not So Little Lies,” and “Send Him Back,” with such guests as Larry Wilmore, Jay Inslee, Matt Walsh, Julian Castro, and Andy Richter. On September 13, Lovett, the cofounder (with Jon Favreau and Tommy Vietor) of Crooked Media, which produces such other podcasts as Keep It, Pod Save America, and Hysteria, brings his show to the East Coast, hosting the program at Radio City Music Hall with former Georgia House Democratic leader Stacey Abrams, Showtime’s Desus and Mero, Problem Areas’ Wyatt Cenac, The Daily Show’s Dulcé Sloan, and former White House deputy and bestselling author Alyssa Mastromonaco, looking at the events of the past seven days, which keep getting crazier and crazier. There will also be related games and quizzes.
NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
566 La Guardia Pl. at at Washington Square South
September 6-8, $40
The good news is that five-time Obie winner JoAnne Akalaitis’s BAD NEWS! I was there . . . is a salient, pertinent, and entertaining work. The bad news is that it’s all too true. Initially workshopped five years ago at Poet’s House and debuting at the Guthrie last year, BAD NEWS! is a clarion call that relates Greek tragedy to what is happening around the world today. The ninety-minute show takes audiences, divided into four groups, through numerous spaces in NYU’s Skirball Center, where it continues through September 8; in each location, two messengers in yellow safety vests with flashlights in the pocket over their heart deliver tales of disaster, murder, catastrophe, suicide, violence, butchery, incest, and war as a young child (Jah-Sire Burnside, Devin Coleman, Donovan Coleman, and Riley Velazquez) sits nearby, reading superhero comic books. The audience is separated from the performers by yellow caution tape, a constant reminder of impending doom. “In death there is nothing but death,” the cast says in unison.
The dialogue and songs (the music is by Bruce Odland), presented in English, Greek, Latin, French, and German, have been adapted from classical literature by Sophocles, Euripedes, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Jean Racine, and Aeschylus, translated by Anne Carson, Bertolt Brecht, Ezra Pound, W. B. Yeats, Ted Hughes, Caryl Churchill, and others. Eight seminal tragic figures are represented: Medea (Katie Lee Hill), Thyestes (Jenny Ikeda), the Bacchae (Rocco Sisto), Phèdre (Kelley Curran), Oedipus (Howard Overshown), Antigone (Henry Jenkinson), Orestes (Jasai Chase Owens), and Hecuba (Rachel Christopher). Guides (Ahsan Ali, Maya Carte, ESJAE, Josh Fulton, ALEXA GRÆ, Chloé Worthington, Isabella Peterson, Milo Longenecker, and Aigner Mizzelle) carry lights as they lead the groups through narrow hallways, up and down stairs, and into various rooms; they also serve as a Greek chorus, singing in unison in the background. Along the way, white sheets with the title of the show written in what looks like blood hover. Curiously, there are not enough chairs to seat everyone at each stop, so if you can stand, let the elderly, infirm, or pregnant sit down.
As you watch one section, you can clearly hear snippets from at least one other part (the first four scenes run concurrently and can be seen in any order), creating a cacophony of bad news, as if you’re being overwhelmed by social media and television reports. (Julie Archer designed the sets and costumes, with lighting by Jennifer Tipton and sound by Odland.) It all culminates in a grand finale that brings all four groups together, making one last stand. Created and directed by Akalaitis, the cofounder of Mabou Mines and former head of the New York Shakespeare Festival, BAD NEWS! is about bearing witness, in the past and the present; it asks us to pay attention to what is going on across the globe and to speak up when we see danger. “I was there and I will tell you everything” is the play’s constant refrain. (For example, when no Holocaust survivors are left on earth, what happens to their stories, especially with so many conspiracy theorists claiming it’s a hoax, and so many people on the internet believing them?) The show is accompanied by a multimedia lobby installation on Greek tragedy, supplemented with articles on the refugee crisis, Donald Trump, neo-Nazis, and other current events, and the audience is asked to write down their own personal bad news on a sheet of paper. After the performance, you’re encouraged to have a free drink, talk about what you just experienced, and read aloud one of the anonymous pieces of bad news. “I speak the truth. All evils are revealed,” one character says early on. The actors are not just delivering tragic news from ancient tales; they’re warning us about today, and tomorrow. And that’s a good thing, if only more people would listen.