Based on the only novel by folksinger Richard Fariña, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me takes place in 1958, so by definition it was already a museum piece upon its release. That said, the film’s narrative has parallels to the fraught climate on America’s college campuses circa the early ’70s, so it’s not difficult to see why producers thought the picture might curry favor. Alas, the movie is aimless, episodic, and thematically murky, tracking the adventures of a young iconoclast while he bounces through friendships, clashes with administrators, a stormy romance, and finally an excursion to Cuba. Complicating matters is the participation of leading man Barry Primus. Although he handles the film's tasty period dialogue well, he was already in his thirties when he made the picture, so he's badly miscast. However, if these remarks give the impression that Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me is a complete misfire, that's not the case. Better to say it's a frustrating movie infused with intelligence and a muddled sort of purpose.
The picture revolves around freethinking Gnossos “Paps” Pappadopoulis (Primus), recently returned to campus after a disappearing act that left some of his friends convinced he was dead. Our first introduction to the character conveys his weird combination of cleverness, insouciance, and self-involvement: While chatting up an Englishwoman with a room for let, he fakes a British accent as a means of lowering her defenses so he can get laid. Throughout the movie, he uses his considerable intellectual and verbal gifts to achieve various goals, some praiseworthy and some not. At his best, he forces a friend to acknowledge the danger of joining a group of revolutionaries in Cuba, and at his worst, he treats a woman contemptuously for having the temerity to find something other than his obnoxious monologues interesting. There's also some business about the protagonist’s relationship with a drug dealer, though how that fits into the overall thematic mix isn't especially clear.
In lieu of a properly shaped storyline, the movie has idiosyncratic flavor, as well as the aforementioned happenin' lingo, so the thing lurches forward in fits and starts, with some scenes providing a gentle kick while others merely come and go without leaving an impression. By the end of the flick, most viewers will have had their fill, and then some, of the lead character’s smug speechifying, seeing as how his primary goals appear to be gratifying his ego and satiating his somewhat indiscriminate lust. Are a few moments of amusement, some colorful patois, and a glimpse at the early days of collegiate freethinking reason enough to soldier through equal measures of consequential and inconsequential scenes all the way to the needlessly grim ending? Depends.
Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me: FUNKY