April 13, 2011

Absurdist Jazz: Robert Downey Sr - Part I

by Allen Irwin

Although this film is practically “lost” I was able to catch a digital presentation of it, straight from Downey’s personal collection, this week at the Alamo Drafthouse’s repertory series of a few of his films. 

Moment to Moment (aka Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos) (1975) – dir. Robert Downey Sr.

A sharply ascending sax line graces the first black frame of Robert Downey’s Moment to Moment, a sort of aural overture to the cinematic improvisation to come. The film works more as a jazzy, surreal series of riffs, or variations on a theme, rather than a conventional narrative, but that it does extremely well. Downey’s then-wife Elsie (credited as L.C. Downey) serves as master of ceremonies to his free associative carnival.

Downey filmed Moment to Moment over the course of a few years and released it in 1975 on a few 16mm prints that almost immediately disappeared from circulation. The film consists of short sketches, interviews with strange characters, what look to be home movies, and possibly even some found footage. While some characters reappear, none is more consistent than Elsie: playing every single female part, even when it requires her to have a conversation with herself, affecting a different British accent for each character. The singular nature with which the film views her makes it easy to conceive of Moment to Moment as a sort of love note or poem celebrating and examining Elsie as not just a woman but the woman. While the film’s subjectivity remains hard to pin down, it is possible that it is either Elsie’s or Downey’s (or neither).

In the first tableau, Elsie plays a woman named Yoga who is playing horseshoes, with each shoe connecting with the stake to the tune of an electrically distorted tone. A young Asian boy comes up to her acting as if he is her lover and transitions into an intentionally theatrical monologue that includes the truism, “We live moment to moment.” Yoga then counters with her own monologue relating a dream she had where she was on stage as a jazz singer, but fell down due to weakness from “Charlie Parkinson’s disease.” Linguistic playfulness of this sort is central to the film’s achievement as a kind of stream-of-consciousness absurdist sketch comedy (note again Elsie’s credit as “L.C.”). Not only does Downey edit between related images and playful point of view shots, he also utilizes linguistic editing. The turn of a phrase may lead to a sharp response from a character previously unknown or an inversion of said phrase for comedic effect.

For instance, a man instructing two characters to play a kind of human chess game tells one:
- Your move.
- Check.
- (other character) Cash.

A lot of the comedy comes from exchanges such as these, or else from pseudo beatnik monologues delivered by old men or a hipster on a roof attempting to speak directly to God. The freedom of association that these techniques afford Downey let him create a freewheeling hard-blowing solo of a movie that might take off down any tributary of thought before returning again to a familiar character or situation from 40 minutes previous.

In addition to the style are Elsie’s twenty-plus characters who populate the movie like so many tenants taking up space in her (or Downey’s) brain. A few shots included in the numerous associative montages give a distinct impression that Elsie (or one of her characters) is the one generating the images we are seeing. One brief shot of a pair of hands miming playing a piano brings to mind mental repetition: the turning over in one’s mind the thoughts and images that preoccupy us when we’re idle. Later, we see Elsie drag a strip of film over her eyes, as if projecting her thoughts from inside her head onto the outside world. The image reminds us of the relationship between film and the mind, because what is film but thought projected through a physical medium?
In light of this theory, other aspects of the film begin to accumulate meaning. Images of their children recur over other scenes. One scene towards the end is of a prolonged embrace in the ocean’s waves. Other scenes of mundane activities find their way into the absurd sketches, giving them the quality of flashing memories or stray thoughts. One of the more provocative scenes is one that recurs at least twice: Elsie sitting in an editing room (presumably watching the rough cut of the film) with an old man asking to see the “rape scene”. A number of her characters seem about to engage in aberrant sex acts or are interacting with strange men in various social situations. Whether these are fleeting thoughts of a woman or a man’s examination of the same is hard to say, but the film gives the impression that the moment to moment inner life can meander from the violent to the absurd, back through the sexual and into memory and emotion.

To be sure Moment to Moment takes a big risk in making itself mostly unintelligible, but the impressions it leaves are strong and multilayered. Downey combines random found footage mash-ups and counter culture comedy with poignant images and intimations of emotion to create a fascinating film. Love note or cinematic jazz solo, it seems to bridge the gap between experimentalists like Bruce Conner, the 60s underground cinema and modern personal films such as those of Guy Maddin. Finally, with one last joke, Downey may make one of his most affecting and amusing statements about the perils and risks of making a personal film. His final credit on screen reads as follows:

Written & Directed by: Robert Downey (a fool)

Here are a few choice quotes that I wrote down from the film:
- I like my burgers raw, my wine on the rocks, and my women ridiculous.
- The fortress of Jive, twice recaptured by Captain Lame.
- (First Man) When I get what I want, I don’t want it.
- (Second Man) But if you want what you got, then you get it.

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