Those who think independent film finally took off with the screening of Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape at the 1989 Sundance Film Festival may want to check out a free series that's screening Friday-Sunday, Nov. 30-Dec. 2, at the UW Cinematheque, 4070 UW Vilas Hall. Even the series title, "Up from Underground: Film-Makers' Distribution Center, 1966-1970," suggests that not only was independent film off and running in the 1960s, it was veering dangerously toward the mainstream. The Chelsea Girls, Andy Warhol's 3-hour Fellini circus of posers and poseurs, had roused the New York critics from their slumbers, and the Film-Makers' Distribution Center was an attempt to cash in on this newfound interest. Three decades later, many of these films have returned to the underground ' six feet under, to be exact. But the Cinematheque series will attempt to dust off such artifacts as Mike Kuchar's Sins of the Fleshapoids, Stan Vanderbeek's History of Motion in Motion and Jonas Mekas' three-hour cinematic diary, Walden.
Directed by Robert Downey, Chafed Elbows is screening on Friday. Downey, who is now perhaps best known as the father of that other Robert Downey, the one who can't decide whether to devote his life to acting or drugs, was once known as the Lenny Bruce of the New American Cinema. A biting satirist with a taste for the absurd, Downey Sr. was responsible for such countercultural laugh-a-thons as No More Excuses and Putney Swope, the latter a role-reversal swipe at the lily-white advertising industry. In the intervening years, alas, he's also been responsible for such yawn-fests as Rented Lips and Hugo Pool. But 1967's Chafed Elbows finds Downey in what we'll just have to call his prime. Shot in black-and-white for a measly 25 grand, it garnered praise from such critical fussbudgets as Judith Crist and The New York Times' Bosley Crowther. And it enjoyed a nice long run at the Bleecker Street Cinema.
Ah, the sweet smell of success. Today, Chafed Elbows is all but forgotten, which is a pity because, despite the crudeness of its filmmaking, it's a valuable reminder of what American humor ' one strand of it, anyway ' was up to at the time. The "plot" makes Alice in Wonderland look like Waiting for Godot, so let's just describe it as a few days in the life of a guy who not only loves but marries his mother, gets pregnant and delivers 189 ten-dollar bills, gets turned into a work of art, has a series of nervous breakdowns, hires on as an extra in an underground film, dies and goes to heaven, records a song, kills his mother and, as far as I can tell, lives happily ever after. Overall, the humor seems to owe as much to "Rocky and Bullwinkle" as to Lenny Bruce. "Ask for Art, tell 'em Pop sent ya," the man on the street who turns our main character into a walking/talking Rauschenberg canvas says. Here and elsewhere, the verbal rhythms, however poorly dubbed, are straight out of vaudeville.
Whatever its sources, Chafed Elbows also gives off that underground-film sense of being sui generis. What's it up to, finally? Well, critic Parker Tyler once called it "a sort of parody of underground hipsterism." Today, of course, it seems less a parody and more an example of underground hipsterism ' a self-parody, if you will.