This is installment one in our “Psychotronic Cinema“ series.
The films in this series are “psychotronic,” a term borrowed from Michael J. Weldon’s magazine and encyclopedia. Psychotronic covers the wide swath of cinema that is either slightly out there or entirely bonkers – horror, science fiction, fantasy, exploitation, blockbusters, flops, low budgets, no budgets, thought-provoking, brain dead, beautiful, grotesque, bloody, breezy, sleazy, and so on. At the end of the day, what is considered “psychotronic” might come down to the eye test – you know one when it crosses your path.
After watching last year’s Sr., a Robert Downey Jr.-led documentary about his father, filmmaker Robert Downey (Sr.), I was enticed into catching up on some of the director’s offbeat filmography. It wasn’t the documentary itself that invited me to see Greaser’s Palace — neither the clips from the film nor the doc’s father-son bonding moments did it for me. Frankly, the doc felt a few ticks overdone, with its black and white cinematography and Robert Downey Jr. puppeteering some of the would-be heartwarming scenes.
What works about Sr. is the same thing that works (for me, at least) about Sr.’s films, and that’s Robert Downey Sr.’s complete lack of pretension. He’s a whip-smart guy with a mind seemingly made explicitly for filmmaking, and he doesn’t seem to care one way or another whether film is art or trash or entertainment or drivel or something in-between. This ethos makes Downey Sr. as fitting a place as any to initiate our series on psychotronic cinema.
Greaser’s Palace, in this sense, is the unpretentious El Topo, a spaghetti Western of sorts with vague religiosity and episodic plot beats rife with imagery that invite interpretation (but which might be better served with as little interpretation as possible). Released two years after the cult “midnight movie” success of Jodorowsky’s film, Greaser’s Palace is less concerned with the symbolic status of its images and more concerned with dwelling in that tense feeling of needing to crap but being inexplicably unable to do so.
It’s a spaghetti Western, a Christ parable, a constipation narrative, and a musical of sorts. It is a film that revels in its anachronisms and absurdity, and which makes great use of its expansive vistas. It is a film that dares to ask, what if Christ wore a Zoot suit and aspired to be an actor?
This Christ-like figure, Jesse (Allan Arbus), wanders the countryside healing people and walking on water, eventually catching the attention of Seaweedhead (Albert Henderson), a murderous taxman, as well as the townsfolk Seaweedhead is bleeding dry (and occasionally bleeding out). Jesse is on his way to Jerusalem (although the film takes place on the American frontier) to try his hand as an actor.
The comic beats of Greaser’s Palace come in waves of absurdism that only ever go unexplained. A caged mariachi band. The sudden appearance of a close-up magician doing a card trick. The miracle that allows a man to crawl again. The invocation of man named “Bingo Gas Station Motel Cheeseburger With a Side of Aircraft Noise and You’ll Be Gary Indiana.” It all registers at a specific pitch that is rarely overtly humorous, but which serves to animate the town with a light surrealism. The simplicity of the failed card trick bit works most effectively – that it occurs during a rough series of tracking shots with jump cuts in the middle only endears me to it more.
When the film is not meandering through the American West tilting cock-eyed at windmills or attempting a Bunuel impression, it engages in sudden juvenile, sex-obsessed outbursts. These moments are meaninglessly crass and histrionic, and they serve little purpose other than to ruin the tone of the film.
The blessing and curse of Greaser’s Palace is its incomprehensibility. It at once refuses meaning and asks no interpretation from its audience. It succeeds in being eventfully uneventful, but it is also designed to spin its wheels until the wheels literally fall off. Attributing meaning to it would almost make it somehow worse.
Greaser’s Palace is in The Psychotronic Video Guide on page 241.
As always, thanks for reading!
—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)