I see a message in this mess.
Moment to Moment (aka Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos) is many things, but most of all it a definitive argument for the inclusion of director’s commentary on a DVD. So many straightforward films feel obligated to tack on the ubiquitous commentary track, wherein the director reveals little more than behind the scenes shenanigans and valueless, trivial insight about their ‘vision’. Moment to Moment, a bricolage of absurd scenes, home movies, and experimental wishes, cries out for Robert Downey, Sr. to give insight to the madness that he has created. Sadly, Moment to Moment has not been given an official release on DVD, nor do I expect it ever will. If it does, I suspect that the director’s commentary will consist of five simple words – “It is what it is.”
But what is it?
What Moment to Moment is, at least on the surface and upon first viewing, is a carefree experiment. Robert Downey sets out to create a film that far-fetched and nearly impossible to understand. Scenes play out more like one-line jokes. Non sequitir lines flow freely. Characters come and go, some resurface, many don’t. The humor of the film is a mixture of bad puns and era specific witticism. A more sentimental tone arises from small montages of home movies and poetic imagery. Behind it all, David Sanborn, Jack Nitzche, and someone credited as Arica, provide a smooth, but energetic soundtrack that acts as a loose thread tying everything together.
For those unprepared for the experience or unfamiliar with Downey’s off-brand of humor Moment to Moment will be a perplexing, even maddening experience. Other than those interested in seeing Robert Downey, Jr. in an early role (he’s only a pre-teen) there is little to draw the average film fan towards Moment to Moment. Even as an avid fan of Downey films such as Chafed Elbow and Putney Swope, I found the experience of Moment to Moment to be challenging. I watched more out of curiosity and dedication than being entertained. Unlike most films were you can get hooked into a character or a struggle towards a goal, Moment to Moment has no in-roads; no hooks. The film is ever shifting and there are few other films to compare it to.
One could find similarities in the work of Bruce Conner. Moment to Moment often feels like found footage, scraps abandoned from other projects. At times, the humor mixed with the experimental nature of the work makes Moment to Moment feel more akin to an Owen Land film. Then there are films like Groove Tube, Tunnel Vision, American Tickler, and Can I Do It Until I Need Glasses? All films composed of sketches and vignettes, all made around the same time. However, Moment to Moment still feels more like a jokester making and art film than a true attempt at low brow comedy, something Downey would have no trouble doing. There is a pseudo-seriousness behind the non-sense. Often the writing feels like a scramble between Paddy Chayefsky and William Peter Blatty – just slightly more twisted and more underground.
Robert Downey, Sr. had gotten his start in the underground. His early films like Babo 73 and Chafed Elbows played along side Kenneth Anger films and were written about by Jonas Mekas. Later works like Putney Swope and Greaser’s Palace found Downey breaking out of the underground, but never enough to become a household name. Moment to Moment put him further off the radar which is sad. The film deserves deeper consideration, not as a comedic, art film flop, but as a glowing tribute of love.
Presently, Moment to Moment is one of those forgotten films. A failed experiment, swept under the carpet, but perhaps one that needs to resurface. One can learn just as much from its mistakes as from its successes and if anything it shows a drastically different approach towards cinema. Due to its lack of availability and its fragmented nature I can think of few films Moment to Moment may have inspired. There are few I can think of, but routinely Gummo came to mind. Though that film trades in more recognizable and understandable eccentricities and its trailer park oddness if vulgarity is more easily embraced than almost anything in Moment to Moment.
Moment to Moment is a turn away from the mainstream and a return to the underground, but it is not just a turn towards the weird. Moment to Moment is a turn inward towards family and in particular Robert Downey, Sr.’s wife. Elise Downey co-wrote the film and she takes on numerous roles in the film. The film ends with a still image of her, receding into the distance and it begins with a voice over that clearly states, “She made me do it.” Less an accusation of blame and more a proclamation of love, Downey is saying that this film is his chance to showcase his wife. And, she is showcased throughout the film. She’s goofy, she’s glamorous, she’s a lover, a wife, a mother, and even though she’s constantly slipping in and out of various characters, she is the real thread that ties everything together. I assume this is as true in the film as it is in reality.