‘”Chafed Elbows” is a series of one-liners and sight gags that amount to a cinematic equivalent of Mad Magazine, and it has Mad’s adolescent intellectual-emotional level. Its “shocking” irreverence somehow is impotent; there’s a disturbing gap between the outrageousness of the subject matter and the relatively gentle impact of its treatment…’
Gene Youngblood, legendary reviewer and cultural theorist who died in April 2021, began a series of film reviews in the LA Free Press in 1967. Many of these reviews formed the basis of parts of his book ‘Expanded Cinema‘ which is now seen widely as a foundational document of post-psychedelic cinema. Blackmass Movies is proud to begin the process of collecting Youngblood’s reviews in one place for the first time. Youngblood’s TV interview with a young George Lucas is here.
The underground is dead. The murderers are Robert Downey and Judith Crist. The mourners are the thousands of moviegoers who kept Downey’s “Chafed Elbows” running eight months in New York.
“Chafed Elbows” is a montage-collage of stills, stop-motion and full motion in sepia monochrome, full color and black-and-white. Occasionally there’s dubbed lip-sync, but never direct sound; mostly It’s “wild” sound over silent film.
The young male protagonist marries his mother and lives on social welfare while working in an “underground” movie.
He gives birth, by Caesarian section from the hip, to $180 in cash. He goes into business selling contact lenses to female midgets as diaphragms. He falls in love with a girl “who looked like she’d been drop-kicked by the whole northern hemisphere… she had a yellow ribbon in her armpit.” In church he meets another girl with a fetish for sniffing sweatsocks (“… if you ever wanna sell your socks, come up to see me”). He becomes a Velvet Underground rock singer (“… Hey, hey, hey, your black leather negligee … kick me in the shins”).
In a satire on the life-is-art syndrome, he becomes a Work of Art: a madman in a trenchcoat accosts him on the street, paints the initials A.W. on his shirt and announces: “You are my best painting. I’ll put you in the Museum of Modern Art and call you ‘Man On the Street’.”
The screen goes black and a sign announces 23 seconds of soothing music. We hear a collage of “Danny Boy,” assorted Bronx Cheers and neo-Stockhausen musique concrete. Possibly a double satire: on “cinema of truth,” with specific reference to Godard’s “My Life To Live,” in which there is one minute of silence; and on Ralph Gleason’s “new music.”
In a satire on TV news a girl reporter interrupts her murder story with a cheerful weather report; a publicist for the female impersonation “Jewel Box Revue” refers to herself as “a campfollower” ; policemen are called “interpreters of the law.’
“Chafed Elbows” is a series of one-liners and sight gags that amount to a cinematic equivalent of Mad Magazine, and it has Mad’s adolescent intellectual-emotional level. Its “shocking” irreverence somehow is impotent; there’s a disturbing gap between the outrageousness of the subject matter and the relatively gentle impact of its treatment. The iconoclasm is closer to Stan Freberg than to Lenny Bruce. Downey is a perverse Robert Benchley without Benchley’s originality or subtle wit. I’m saying “Chafed Elbows” is not the underground. It’s a commercial movie that utilizes just about every blatant commercial ploy in P.T. Barnum’s repertoire: in a word, sensationalism.
In our total-communication society a true underground is no longer possible. No sooner did Haight-Ashbury flower in all its paisley glory than Time Magazine was there making it a pop cult. And no sooner has the cinema underground come into its own than massthink critics like Judith Crist are jumping on the bandwagon. When Mrs. Crist tells her readers “Chafed Elbows” is “the best of the underground” the cause of the New American Cinema is set back several millenia. Thanks to “popular” criticism, our total-information environment is saturated with everything but the truth.
We speak a language of labels, and though we might have it differently we must use labels if we are to communicate: thus terms like “underground,’ “establishment,’ “hippie.” Actually, there is no “underground” apart from the establishment. Everything is the establishment. As Claude Chabrol remarked about the French New Wave: “There are no waves, there is only the ocean.”
I agree: the waves ARE the ocean. But there are currents, and in society the current is the underground. By “underground” I mean avant-garde. By avant-garde I mean anti-culture.
According to critic Fred Wellington: “No one in the establishment is going to question the fundamental validity of culture. Culture is a sacred pig. The Met and Leonard Bernstein are culture. But the mass-media avant-garde, especially when it concerns itself with issues of the day, are generally considered an uncomfortable if not unpleasant phenomenon – for no power structure likes to be publicly challenged. Culture does not analyze. Culture does not challenge. Culture is always in good taste. Good taste is the sophistic gloss used to mask the real world and lull us into deceiving ourselves as to what we perceive. Art is seldom in good taste.”
Robert Downey has attempted to assault “good taste” in his film. “Chafed Elbows” is supposed to be cinema of outrage. But it is more like cinema of naivete. When outrage becomes apparent as a goal and not an inherent quality of the artistic expression, its effectiveness is diluted. Downey knows you can criticize without challenging. He knows that an establishment — collectively aware and ashamed of its weaknesses, but not strong enough to correct them — likes to laugh at itself. So Downey pokes fun outrageously but politely, and with a minimum of seriousness. That’s not avant-garde; that’s history.
The New American Cinema — like any other avant-garde movement — is a metaphorical iceberg: only one-eighth is visible. But it’s that invisible seven-eighths that gives weight, meaning and direction to the phenomenon. And it’s that below-surface mass, not the small portion we see, that ultimately will gouge a gaping hole in the hull of the establishment.
In the sea of artistic discourse, lightweight objects rise to the surface first, leaving the heavier, more solid entities in retrograde. That’s the tragedy of the avant-garde: its fundamental implications often are obscured by ostentatious but meaningless outgrowths that misdirect an uninformed public.
To identify the New American Cinema with political, social or sexual sensationalism is to miss the point entirely. But because establishment critics single out only those independent films that are most sensational, most easily accessible and least esoteric — despite their technical-artistic shortcomings — the establishment view of the cinematic underground is one of disrespect and prurient interest.
When Judith Crist or Bosley Crowther say a given underground film is “best” they mean it is likely to provide the most entertainment to the largest audience. Notably, both Crowther and Mrs. Crist panned Warhol’s “Chelsea Girls,” simply because they could detect no *reason” or “meaning” within its convoluted framework, not because of its sensational nature.
The recent exhibit of student films at UCLA was infinitely more avant-garde, experimental AND entertaining than “Chafed Elbows.” Comparing them with Downey’s film reveals just how commercial “Chafed Elbows” really is. Perhaps, someday when they are out of the womblike protectiveness of the university, many of the students will themselves opt for commercialism. But now they needn’t worry about distribution, financial backing, etc., so they manifest a freedom of expression that is only faked in Downey’s “underground classic.”
There would be no reason for an “underground’ cinema, for a New American Cinema, if all it produced were films like “Chafed Elbows,” for we’ve had films like this throughout the history of cinema: from W.C. Fields to Jerry Lewis.
The classics of the under-ground are films like Brakhage’s “Dog Star Man” and “The Art of Vision,” or Peter Emanuel Gold-man’s “Echoes of Silence,” or Ed Emshwiller’s “Relativity,” or or Warhol’s “Chelsea Girls,” or Robert Nelson’s “The Great Blondine” or Jack Smith’s “Flaming Creatures.”
I say the underground is dead when “Chelsea Girls” does fantastic boxoffice across the nation but gets panned by the same critics who praise “Chafed Elbows.” I say the underground is dead when its contributions to the realm of cinema go unnoticed and unappreciated – until they change the nature of cinema from within, a slow metamorphosis.
I say the underground is dead, but only for those unwilling to see it. The underground is dead; long live the underground.