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Spend Thursdays with Robert Downey (wait, not that one)

November 5, 2008 |  5:01 pm

The series “Robert Downey, Sr. – A Prince,” showing Thursday in November at The Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theater, takes a look at the early work of a filmmaker audacious and irreverent enough to credit himself like royalty, see his work name-checked in both a Beastie Boys lyric and “Boogie Nights” and, yes, be Iron Man’s real-life dad. Robert Downey, Sr. did all that.

In his best-known film, 1969’s “Putney Swope, “ which kicks off the series November 6, Downey created an impudent, acerbic satire on the culture of the advertising industry long before the recently acclaimed “Mad Men.” Also showing tonight is his 1970 comedy “Pound,” in which actors portray dogs waiting for adoption. The film features the screen debut of then 5-year-old Robert Downey, Jr. as, appropriately, a puppy.

The heart of the series is a group of extremely rare films Downey made prior to “Putney.” In “Chafed Elbows” (1966) Downey blended still photographs (developed at a drugstore) with live-action footage to craft something of a psycho-sexual collage. “Babo 73” (1964) features Taylor Mead, a longtime doyen of the New York downtown arts scene, as the president of the United States, an in-joke proven only funnier by the passage of time.

“No More Excuses” (1968) combines footage from other projects, creating a stream-of-consciousness glimpse into the psyche of a prototype hipster. For one scene, Downey himself actually charged onto the field at Yankee Stadium during a ballgame while wearing a Civil War uniform. His cameramen wisely spirited the footage away after he was detained to keep authorities from confiscating it.

The rare opportunity to see this collection of Downey’s pre-“Swope” work is also a chance to witness how the hodge-podge of “underground film” began to give way to the more structured idea of “independent cinema.”

“Chafed Elbows,” “Babo 73” and “No More Excuses” are all being shown in newly restored prints. The restorations have been overseen by Andrew Lampert of New York’s Anthology Film Archives with funding by Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation.

Also showing is 1975’s “Moment to Moment,” a deeply personal, impressionistic look at the dissolution of Downey’s marriage with music by Jack Nitzsche and David Sanborn.

“Why does this look like so much fun?” Downey asked himself during a recent interview about revisiting his earlier work. “So nervy and different? Because it was. We didn’t know any better. We didn’t have all the rules of what you can and can’t do, because there weren’t any rules.”

“Robert Downey, Sr. – A Prince” Thursdays in November. The Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theater, 611 N Fairfax Ave, Los Angeles 90036. Cinefamily.org

-- Mark Olsen

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