Robert Downey, Sr.
Review by David Carter
Posted on 22 November 2008
Source bootleg VHS
Greaser’s Palace opens with an economical credit sequence: white text on black screen, names on the right, jobs on the left. Nothing seems particularly unique about the titles at first glance, yet as they are read one notices that they echo the black-and-white nature of the image itself. There is no “second unit director” or “Foley artist” listed; these jobs are “camera” and “sounds,” respectively. Downey – credited as “writer and director” – seems interested in boiling down the filmmaking process to its barest essence, stripping it away to something closer to a simple truth. Contrarily, Greaser’s Palace confounds the search for simplification and basic truth at every opportunity. It forces the audience to reconsider a familiar story by removing its defining features, distilling it to its essence while obscuring its meaning.
Greaser’s Palace is an allegorical retelling of the Christ story as a Western film. The main building in a small frontier town, “Greaser’s Palace” is the center of all life for the townspeople. Greaser rules with an iron fist, demanding tributes from all and killing those who displease him, though occasionally showing benevolence and a desire to have the people know that he loves them. Jessy, the film’s Christ figure, parachutes into the outskirts of town wearing a two-toned zoot suit and a lavender hat. “The Ghost” hands him a donkey carrying the dead body of Lamy Homo, Greaser’s son, whom he has killed for disrupting the entertainment at the Palace. Jessy brings Lamy back to life with the phrase “If you feel, you heal” and travels with Lamy to Greaser’s Palace, fundamentally changing the lives of its inhabitants. Though he initially proclaims that he is on his way to Jerusalem to be an actor/singer/dancer and meet his agent Morris, Jessy’s growing affinity for the people causes him to reconsider leaving them.
Greaser’s Palace deviates from the mold of traditional Christian allegories by deliberately confusing the story almost to the point of surrealism. The Trinity is the only aspect of the story that is an immediately recognizable cipher. Jessy’s unconventional yet identifiable Christ is joined by “the Ghost,” a bed-sheeted cowboy invisible to humans, and a traditional God figure dressed in all black. The similarities end there, as Downey has each act contrary to their traditionally depicted roles, yet in a way that one could argue is more Biblically accurate. “The Ghost” complains about being the least respected of the three despite his constant presence with the people. God shows up only to torment a frontier woman with hardship after hardship. She herself is the only other clear symbol, this time for the Jewish people.
Jessy is a meeker version of Christ, clear in his intentions but unsure how to accomplish them. He has no designs on helping the townspeople on his own, only reviving Lamy after “the Ghost” tells him, “You’re up.” He is a showman, not a messiah or prophet. Walking on water and raising the dead are part of his “act,” and he only reluctantly offers the people advice after he is shown a picture of the Last Supper, calling into question whether Downey intended him to literally represent Christ or merely a Christ-like figure—though it’s most likely a cheeky attempt to obscure any deliberate meaning. Inspired by the image, Jessy comes up with the idea to tell the townspeople of a malevolent force called “Bingo Gas Station Motel Cheeseburger With A Side Of Aircraft Noise And You’ll Be Gary Indiana” living outside of the town, while reassuring them that he has interceded on their behalf because he believes them to be good people. It is a humorous analogue to the Christian belief of Christ’s intercession with God to save believers from Hell, but one that implies that belief is nothing but a parable intended to give people comfort.
Presenting the story in this way allows Downey to expand some aspects of Christ and contract others, with particular attention given to Christ’s role as an outsider. Jessy’s zoot suit, parachute, and slang are anachronisms within the context of the film, used metaphorically to emphasize the distance between Jessy and Greaser and his followers. The familiar tropes of the Western genre contrasted against the zoot-suited Jessy represent a cultural crossing most filmgoers would not immediately recognize. Jessy is simultaneously in the characters’ future and the audience’s past—a man out of time. In this regard, Downey depicts Jessy as a supernatural being but balks at presenting him as necessarily divine.
Downey plays with the idea of the divinity of Jessy/Christ throughout the film, and to that end includes two crucifixions, one traditional and one symbolic. The symbolic crucifixion occurs first. Jessy asks Greaser if he may perform on the Palace stage; an honor only reserved for Greaser’s beautiful daughter Cholera. Greaser allows it and Jessy does a rollicking swing number, full of “boogie woogie” and “hubba hubba,” that turns somber during the bridge. The bridge of Jessy’s song is perhaps the most traditional of all the allusions in the film and certainly the most touching, abandoning the irreverence that is the film’s most defining characteristic: he sings to the townspeople that he loves them, he’s there for them if they ever need him, and that, ultimately, everything will be okay in the end. Jessy returns to the swing for the big close, which is met with complete silence by Greaser and the audience. Jessy has bombed. As the uncomfortable silence grows, he holds his hands up to reveal the stigmata, greeted by thunderous applause and cries proclaiming it “the greatest show of all time.” Though Jessy survives his failed performance, he later finds himself nailed to a literal cross at the hands of the frontier woman. The film ends on this scene, precluding a resurrection and again forcing the audience to come to their own conclusion regarding his divinity.
Other symbols in the film are markedly less clear. Greaser, in particular, is nebulous. Aspects of his character mark him as representative of God, the Devil, the Pharisees, and the Catholic Church at various points in the film. It is likely that Downey intends him to be a catchall symbol for religion. If Greaser is religion, it makes the symbolism of his two children more readily evident. Cholera would then be the Church, given prominence above all else and the “show” at his Palace. Lamy, the only character in the film who remains steadfast to Jessy throughout, is then humanity, with the “Homo” in his name being the Latin “man” rather than the obvious pun. Downey structures the film such that the minor characters could all be symbols or could all be meaningless. Herve Villechaize’s sexually aggressive homosexual is given enough screen time to warrant analysis but defies any attempt to be connected with anything more allegorical, perhaps the best example of Downey’s technique in the film.
Downey focuses on the physical body a good deal, specifically on the failings of the physical body and how they relate to the metaphysical. The frontier woman is mortally wounded several times but does not die, instead becoming less dependent on the flesh as it is stripped away. Greaser’s constipation is a prominent feature of the film, but in contrast, each time that Greaser’s body fails him he puts more faith in it and dedicates more of his time to it. Jessy and Lamy have a difficult time mounting their donkey after their initial meeting, which might signify that they are having a hard time adjusting to being back in physical bodies after the afterlife. Jessy suffers from an odd gait throughout the film, perhaps again because of his unfamiliarity with the physical form, or perhaps simply because he’s ill dressed for the terrain. As with all of the film’s metaphors, Downey presents the audience with multiple possibilities regarding Jessy’s physical being, with the duality of his symbolism becoming a metaphor in itself. Just as various religions and denominations have interpreted the Christ story differently, Greaser’s Palace invites – and perhaps insists – that viewers acknowledge multiple readings.
Christian theology refers to Christ as being simultaneously divine and human, a dual nature known as the hypostatic union. Greaser’s Palace deviates from Christian theology on practically every issue it addresses but manages to create a hypostatic union of its own. Ultimately the film achieves Downey’s goal of distilling cinema to its quintessence. Greaser’s Palace isn’t the Christ story, it is simply a “story” in the same way the Second Unit Director is “camera.” All of the symbols, allegories, and metaphors in the film are external; they take place in the reality of the audience, not the film. Greaser’s Palace has no meaning outside of what the viewer brings to it. While the same could be said of any film, Greaser’s Palace’s deliberate obfuscation only makes this more evident.