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The Moviegoer Putney Swope at the Paris Cinema

By Frank Rich

I ASK YOU: What's going on here?

Someone I've never seen before in my life walks into my bedroom, where I'm talking with three other people, asks for a cigarette, smokes it and leaves. No one knows him, no one asks who he is, no one cares.

Let's Make a Deal is now on prime-time TV.

A friend of mine went to an SDS meeting the other night, only to discover that one faction had beaten up the other, and the meeting was off.

Did you know Dwight Eisenhower was dead?

A guy named Money Banks, who has served most of his life in prison for rape crimes, takes a bundle from a bunch of businessmen in a nameless big city in exchange for selling out his black brothers every time a riot is in the wind.

My roommate goes to his desk and finds a scrap of paper inscribed with the words "Eat Me" on top of his Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary.

I ask you.

We are citizens of a strange world. We are the products of an cra that has vomited up Silly Putty and Vietnam. Norman O. Brown and Milton Berle, Nelson Rockefeller and John Lennon, the Mets and the Chicago cops, Benson and Hedges 100's and LSD, Rex Reed and the Singing Nun. Are these the best of times or the worst?

Robert Downey is a filmmaker. He wrote and directed Putney Swope, a film which shows us how a cabal of black militants function in a Madison Avenue advertising agency. When this review is published, I will send it to the office where everyone who reviews Putney Swope sends their reviews. That office is on Madison Avenue.

Here is Robert Downey's synopsis of his movie: "We're all in trouble no matter who we are unless we stop getting involved with systems, people and projects that we really, deep inside, don't want to get involved with. Also the most meaningful moment can be a moment of laughter."

A system is Madison Avenue. Other systems are: Disneyland, the government asking people "How are you?." a dog show the revolution, the English language, going to a doctor.

Putney Swope has no system. It has no real logic, no real plot, no real characters.

You might ask: What does Putney Swope have? Answer: Two dwarfs making love, a nun smoking cigarettes, the expression "Fuck You!" a table of advertising men who continue to go about their business even when their chairman drops dead before their very eyes. a lot of possibly obscene commercials produced by the militants "Truth and Soul" advertising agency white slaves, Black Panthers, and Uncle Toms.

Putney Swope is the black guy who starts the "T and S" agency Swope hates the system: he will not write ads for cigarettes and war toys and liquor. But the system wins.

In a play called Rosencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead, two of Shakespeare's littlest characters wander around the edges of one of the most aesthetically sound "systems" of all time, Hamlet. But they don't know what to make of it. Ophelia runs around and Hamlet endlessly rants on. It all looks so stupid and pointless.

Rosencrantz and Guilderstern play games and tell jokes to survive. They feel that their surroundings are beyond understanding. They cannot revolt against it all: they are going to die anyway Why bother to understand?

Robert Downey wanders around a system, too. The Advertising World America. He does not wander around with a motorcycle, but he has a camera. He records things as he sees them. It doesn't have to make sense. It shouldn't make sense. Like Rosencrantz and Guilderstern. Downey has developed a sensibility for chaos.

A system is a poor attempt on someone's part to make chaos look plausible. Not everyone sees that, and those who don't get trapped in its fraudulent logic. But we are safe as long as we see everything the way Downey does: crazy and illogical, funny and tragic.

If you throw out one system, you get another system. Is there such a thing as a better system?

Maybe better that we just avoid systems altogether and live.

You might ask: Is Putney Swope any way to make a movie? You bet your sweet ass.

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