Have you ever seen a classic western and thought “that’s great, but it’s missing the Jesus handshake”? If so, then have we got the movie for you! Some films seem to exist outside the normal paradigm of film criticism. Instead, their value depends on how strange or transcendent they are, and how successfully they evoke a feeling or tone in us that we didn’t even know existed. Acid westerns do this quite well and often create a paradoxical sense of alienation in the familiar. The 1972 film Greaser’s Palace, directed by Robert Downey Sr., does this quite effectively, although the full point of the film remains unclear. Regardless, it’s an interesting entry into an interesting sub-genre during the peak of cinema’s existential break from normalcy in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Greaser’s Palace follows the journey of Jesse (Allan Arbus) as he travels throughout the American frontier on his way to Jerusalem to follow his dream of being a famous dancer and singer. On his way, he stops in a town that has been taken over by Seaweedhead Greaser (Albert Henderson), a merciless tyrant who terrorizes the residents and imposes exorbitant taxes on them. In one of the earliest examples of Seaweedhead’s reign of terror, he shoots his own son Lamy Homo (Michael Sullivan) in the chest multiple times for interrupting his daughter Cholera’s (Luana Anders) erotic dance routine at the saloon. Jesse, dressed to the nines in a purple suit with white gloves and looking as if he could bust out into a show tune at any second, goes around healing people and raising the dead (including Lamy) with the super groovy maxim “if you feel, you heal”. Jesse soon gains quite a healthy following, most of whom have migrated away from Greaser’s tight grip.
What Are the Similarities Between ‘Greaser’s Palace’ & ‘El Topo’?
While the plot and tone of Greaser’s Palace are undeniably absurd, unavoidable comparisons can be made between it and Alejandro Jodorosky‘s El Topo, the counterculture classic which came out a mere two years prior. The film even beats Jodorowsky to the punch with a subversive and satirical take on the Jesus Christ narrative one year before the celebrated surrealist would release his magnum opus The Holy Mountain. While Greaser’s Palace is in no way as meteoric of a film as El Topo, it shares much of the same DNA, even when one looks past the surface-level similarities.
Both films are obviously alternative takes on the Western with pseudo-spiritual leanings, but the irreverence with which it handles those leanings is really where the similarities get interesting. Both films have characters that are in effect less so characters in themselves and more so broad archetypes that question the validity of social authority. The Christ figure in Greaser’s Palace is surprisingly not very spiritual, especially when compared to many of the characters in Jodorowsky’s films. He is an aimless traveler with the paper-thin motives of reaching stardom and success, not a wise guru and even less so a messiah. Even in Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain, the Christ figure is on some sort of spiritual journey, even if it is not the one that we are used to seeing. It’s a bold interpretation of Jesus Christ, as though religion is often satirized, there are still very few examples of Jesus himself being the target.
Greaser’s Palace is much more straightforward in its satire than El Topo, yet the movie’s point is either impenetrable upon first viewing or unsuccessfully communicated. The audience is left with the question “What if Jesus was a lowly magician who for no greater reason had supernatural abilities”, but the film, unfortunately, doesn’t delve any further. Still, it is an interesting concept and one seldom if ever tackled on screen.