Acid Westerns: Greaser's Palace (1972)

"Greaer's Palace," Robert Downey Sr.'s 1972 anti-Western, seems like it has been on the periphery of my life since I was in my teens. I suspect I first saw it in a video store, looked at the cover, read the description, and then nervously put it away. It used to be quite difficult to locate independent art house Westerns, but "Greaser's Palace" has always seemed available and yet never desirable.

I can't precisely say what it is that made me nervous about this film. At some point I saw Downey Sr.'s "Putney Swope," his sendup of the advertising industry, and was thrilled by it. But there was something garish about "Greaser's Palace" that I couldn't shake — a fear that it would be too grotesque, too abstract, too scatological to enjoy.

I don't know that I was wrong. There is a meanness to the film: One entire narrative thread is about the death of a settler family, and the agonizing quietus of the mother plays out over the entire film as she is just whittled down, bit by bit, in the wilderness. The film's namesake and antagonist, Seaweedhead Greaser, is a frontier boss whose costume bristles with guns and who is defined by two things: chronic constipation and a tendency to repeatedly murder his own son, named Lamy Homo. One of Greaser's henchmen will sometimes stop the story to tell ugly, pornographic tales of sexual conquests, and in one instance it is clear he is describing rape.

The film delights in the sorts of disquieting images you might find in an Alejandro Jodorowsky film, including nervous representations of homosexuality and transvestism, as well as extreme violence and the use of a little person (Herve Villechaize) for cheap surrealism. Additionally, the film is a Christ parallel, of sorts, but is so satiric and so acidic that it seems designed to provoke (one online critic described it in this way: "hateful to Christ and Christians.")

It's hard to get a bead on what Downey Sr. intended with this film, as in interviews he presents himself as a bit of a lucky screw-up, making films mostly as a dodge from doing real work and telling the stories of his films as though they were inconsequential pranks. Put all this together, and I'm temped to declare I was right about the film, right to be nervous about it, right that it was just a puckish exercise in provocation.

It wasn't, though.

The film is simply made with too much sheer brio, too much craft, and too much intelligence for easy dismissal. It is, as I feared, a deliberately alienating movie, but because Downey Sr. has a tremendous visual sense of humor, it somehow manages to make that alienation tremendously fun.

An example: the titular Greaser's Palace is a frontier saloon, a marvelous multi-story structure made of wood and nestled into a hillside. Seaweedhead Greaser's constipation is represented by him, and his men, marching up a series of exterior staircases to the top of the structure, where there is, for some reason, an outhouse. This is next to a series of cages, and one of the cages contains a mariachi band, who burst into raucous mariachi music the moment he enter the outhouse and stops again the moment he exits, sadly shaking his head. What is this?

Well, it's about as entertaining a representation of constipation as I have ever seen. Additionally, Downey Sr. had the intelligence to cast Allan Arbus in the Jesus role. Those of you who watched "M*A*S*H" likely remember Arbus from his recurring role as psychiatrist Dr. Sidney Freedman in the series, where he was the soul of gentle, genuine compassion.

He brings a real sweetness and innocence to his role here, insisting, always, that he is just a song and dance man on his way to Jerusalem, and seeming heartbroken when his father tells him he will have to die in this awful frontier town. Many of the scenes with him in it are unexpectedly lovely, including the way they are filmed. For all its grotesqueness, "Greaser's Palace" takes real pleasure in the rugged beauty of the west, and it's most memorable images are subtly surreal, rather than horrific.

An example: When Arbus first appears, it is in a scene of a covered wagon, which is about as classic a Western image as this film offers. But Arbus enters the scene by parachuting in from the top of the frame, which should have been the iconic image of the film, in the same way the statue of Jesus helicoptering over Rome was for "La Dolce Vida."

"Greaser's Palace" gets categorized as an acid Western, and that seems fair — it's druggy, especially the Native characters, who always seem to be smoking vast bowls of something, but for one, played by Toni Basil, who races from one mission to another, always topless. The film has both the cynicism and the midnight movie sensibilities one would associate with an acid Western.

I called it an anti-Western at the start of this essay, and that's another category, but fits as well — as I mentioned previously, these were not deliberate subgenres, but instead critical categorizations that came later, grouping films together based on common themes. Anti-Westerns tended to be set in a morally unbalanced West, where it was hard to tell villain from hero, where, in fact, the West seemed defined by a collapse of any moral order.

A lot of acid Westerns live in this version of the West — especially since the author who most defined this subgenre was Rudy Wurlitzer, who I will get to, and who also authored "Quake, " a novel set in a Los Angeles where a big earthquake unleashes an almost dadaist level of amoral anarchy.

This is part of the reason why I like the acid Western. It sees the West as a place between civilizations — the dispossessed and murdered Natives that were first there, and the sanctimonious and showily moral settlers that were yet to come.

Instead, in this depopulated land, we have a world of free-roaming psychopaths and small settlements ruled by petty tyrants that might as well be warlords. It's the West as a sort of interstitial apocalypse, a dystopian science fiction film set in the past, which isn't just a recipe for great cinema — it also seems like an accurate depiction of the era.


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