The story of Christ has provided artists with fertile subject matter for more than two millennia, with interpretations running the gamut from reverent to scandalous. In the ’60s and ’70s, progressive storytellers drew parallels between the Gospel and hippie-era counterculture (Jesus Christ Superstar, et al.). Others took even more license, like the folks behind the so-called “acid western” Greaser’s Palace. Directed by fringe-cinema luminary Robert Downey Sr., Greaser’s Place sets the Christ parable in an Old West milieu, though the picture features myriad anachronisms. The movie offers abundant sex and violence while portraying a Jesus surrogate as a flamboyantly dressed song-and-dance man with an overactive libido, but Downey’s shock-value tactics render middling results. Greaser’s Palace is a needlessly weird retelling of an enduring narrative, rather than a fully conceived and purposeful interpretation.
The movie opens with a dancehall girl (played by the director’s wife, Elsie Downey) crooning a song about virginity to a roomful of lust-addled frontier types. Then a dude wearing a head-to-toe white sheet beneath a cowboy hat picks a fight with a young man, putting out a cigar on the young man’s chest. The young man is Lamy “Homo” Greaser (Michael Sullivan), son of the local overlord, Cholera Greaser (Luana Anders). As a result of his constant physical abuse, Larry dies. Around the same time, a mystery man wearing a zoot suit parachutes from an empty sky into an open field. He’s Jesse (Allan Arbus). Jesse comes across the dead Larry and resurrects him. Then Larry proclaims, “I was swimming with millions of babies in a rainbow, and they was naked, and then all of a sudden I turned into a perfect smile.” So begins a meandering tale pitting the messianic Jesse against the monstrous Greaser.
Downey, who also wrote the script, ventures onto bizarre tangents, including a scene of a grubby-looking dude humping a doll. Oddly sexualized images, such as men wearing nuns’ habits or a Native American girl running around topless, pass through the movie without much in the way of explanation or justification. The movie’s tone is all over the place, sometimes frivolous and sometimes horrific, and Downey’s use of Biblical signifiers seems deliberately perverse. Jesse performs an old-timey musical number that climaxes with his manifestation of stigmata. In another scene, Jesse tracks down his talent agent, who wears a globular spaceman helmet and seems to represent the devil. The list of peculiar sights and sounds goes on, and, the director’s son, future movie star Robert Downey Jr., appears briefly. Thanks to Peter Powell’s elegant cinematography, much of which comprises supple long-lens imagery, Greaser’s Palace may be Downey’s best-looking film, and the overall technical execution is quite slick. Nonetheless, given the outlandishness of the enterprise, Greaser’s Palace is surprisingly boring to watch, and it leaves only the faintest of impressions in its wake.
Greaser’s Palace: FUNKY