Posted by David Kalat on August 16, 2014
I had planned to run something else here this week, but in light of this week’s tragic news regarding Robin Williams, I’ve shoved that essay to a later week and opted to re-run an oldie but a goodie, my fifth ever Movie Morlocks post from four years ago about one of my very favorite movies, which happens to star Robin Williams (apparently when I re-posted it, the original comments reposted with it!).
The actual piece itself makes a passing mildly unkind remark about Williams, within the context of praising one of his most notorious flops. I thought about rewriting that section but decided against it because it felt dishonest. And as schmaltzy as Williams ever was, he was never dishonest.
There is a curious distinction to be drawn between “pop culture” and “popular culture.” It’s a divide that’s been opening up in American entertainment ever since the days of Elvis–arguably ever since jazz–but the 21st century’s media fragmentation and Internet communities have only hastened the pace. To put it simply, “pop culture” loves Community; “popular culture” loves NCIS. And there was a time when Robin Williams was an anarchic rebel force from pop culture, and a time when he opted to make career choices driven by popular culture. The hipsters of pop culture never forgave that defection; the vast majority of America never saw it as a defection in the first place.
Below the fold: the story of an oddity that belongs to neither pop culture nor popular culture, despite being a splashy musical comedy from some of America’s most accomplished satirists and starring its then-up-and-coming beloved comedian superstar, adapted from one of the most ubiquitous and enduring characters of 20th century pop/popular art.
Remember how your mama told you “two wrongs don’t make a right?” Well, maybe two wrongs don’t make a right, but a half dozen or so might. Consider Robert Altman’s 1980 POPEYE. Almost without exception, every creative decision that went into its manufacture was catastrophic. Yet while any one of these horrible ideas could have completely derailed the whole thing alone, once you stack them one atop another you get a critical mass that starts to cancel itself out. Eventually, it cycles around the back of wrong and comes out the other side as imminently watchable. How is POPEYE a glorious mess? Let me count the ways.
BAD IDEA #1: WHAT IT IS.
Let’s begin with the bad idea at the heart of this: making a musical out of POPEYE at all. It is nearly indefensible.
At the very least, from a 1980 standpoint it makes no sense. Nowadays we are forced to endure a culture that excretes every conceivable product as a musical: I still can’t understand what would compel someone to make SHREK: THE MUSICAL, or what sort of human being would pay to go see it. But dial the Way-Back machine back to 1980, and there was a tacit understanding that movie musicals were adaptations of Broadway shows that had proven themselves.
POPEYE would jump directly from a cartoon series whose heyday was in the 1930s to a 1980 movie musical with nothing in-between. Harry Nilsson, an accomplished and acclaimed popular composer with a number of hit tunes to his name, composed the songs. Critics tore into him for the soundtrack, but I bought it on audio cassette at the age of 10 and listened to it until the tape wore out. Maybe that says something about my blinkered and unregenerate musical tastes, but I really like the POPEYE songs. However, I can freely admit they are weird. Minor key melodies, unpretty voices, raggedy recordings of songs with bizarre lyrics—it’s an acquired taste. Most audiences were unwilling to acquire the taste.
BAD IDEA #2: WHAT IT IS ABOUT.
In 1980, there were several generations of Americans who had grown up with Popeye as a beloved cartoon hero. The theatrical cartoons created by the Fleischer brothers in the 1930s had outstripped Mickey Mouse in popularity. A few decades later, packages of these cartoons were sold to television where they lived in perpetual rotation. Other, crappier, renditions were produced directly for television consumption. There was scarcely a citizen of our great republic who didn’t know the scrawny little one-eyed sailor with his bulbous forearms and passion for spinach.
And so, the film opens with a tribute to its cartoon origins… and right away we can see a problem:
“I’m in the wrong movie!” announces Popeye (and why plant this idea in the audience’s mind at all, much less the moment they first sit down? You’re just handing ammunition to your enemies).
SUPERMAN had opened with a similar conceit—a kid flipping through the original SUPERMAN comic book, as a way of paying tribute to the deep origins of a popular pop cultural entity. Fair enough, but the choice of the B&W Fleischer clip represents a problematic attitude that will dog the entire production. (And it’s not even the real thing—it’s mocked up for the movie! The only people who would recognize it, would also excoriate it for inaccuracy)
If the filmmakers wanted to tip their hats to the classic cartoons, more power to them—and certainly the B&W Fleischer ‘toons were superior to the later color ‘toons. It’s an act of rightful fealty to pay respect to the best version of Popeye… but the B&W ‘toons almost never aired on TV. Only recently, and thanks to much loving effort on the part of serious cartoon archivists, the B&W Popeyes have come out on DVD. Back in 1980, the number of people who would even have known that Popeye cartoons had once been in B&W could be counted on the fingers of none of your hands.
This desire to overlook the facile, superficial notions of what Popeye meant to 1980s audiences and return to the character’s roots would take the filmmakers much farther than the B&W Fleischer ‘toons.
Cartoonist E.C. Segar’s “Thimble Theater” had been a thriving newspaper strip for ten years by the time, in 1929, a weird-looking sailor made a brief appearance as a background character in one installment. Popeye stole readers’ hearts and stayed around, quickly overtaking the rest of the strip, which was belatedly renamed in his honor. In 1933, the Fleischer brothers licensed the right to adapt Popeye into theatrical cartoons, nearly all of which were made in B&W.
Eventually, the perpetual war between Disney and the Fleischers took its toll, and the brothers sold out to Paramount, which took over the Popeye shorts and, in 1943, transitioned them to color. It would be these later color cartoons that would have the greatest prominence on television, the ones best remembered by viewers.
Enter Jules Feiffer, screenwriter for the 1980 POPEYE. Feiffer brought a first-hand knowledge of cartoons, a grown-up satirical sensibility, a child’s sense of wonder, and a proficiency with all manner of writing to the project. But he was perhaps TOO perfect for the job, and overthought it.
Feiffer drank deeply of Popeye’s history, and throughout the film will show off the fruits of his research. Obscure characters and references rebound, but at the same time the aspects of the character that most audiences would recognize have been muted, undermined, or rejected. The attitude seems to be, “whatever you think you know about Popeye, forget it. This ain’t your father’s Popeye.” But people didn’t think they knew that much about Popeye! They had a passing acquaintance with a familiar cartoon that made them feel good, and came to the movies on a curiosity hunt.
Feiffer skipped over the color Paramount ‘toons and took most of his inspiration from the original Segar strips (which had been reprinted in bound form the previous decade, but would not have been au courant for most viewers in any case). Thus we find the story rooted in the dour burg of Sweethaven. It is a desolate port town where the citizens are ruthlessly taxed by their unseen dictatorial overlord, the Commodore, and kept in check by his brutal henchman, Bluto. Living daily under such Stalinist rule, the Sweethavenites have become greedy and exploitative in return.
It is a town of leeches and parasites. It is a place of stunted ambitions, unfulfilled desires, and reciprocal cruelty.
Sounds like a fun setting for a family-friendly musical, right?
Feiffer also took from the archives of Popeye lore details like his search for his deadbeat father Poopdeck Pappy, his adoption of the orphan Swee’Pea, and (drum roll please) his initial dislike of spinach!
BAD IDEA #3: WHO MADE IT.
It has become fashionable to slag off Robin Williams—and he’s earned our scorn, thanks to decades of awful career choices and a shameless indulgence of the most theatrical mugging. But back in 1980, Williams was one of America’s most promising new comedy stars. POPEYE was his theatrical debut—he was still the star of MORK AND MINDY and would continue in that role for some time yet. It is a canny sense of marketing to sign this hot new property for the film.
The role had originally been written for Dustin Hoffman. Yup, you read that right. Whatever else you say about Robin Williams, he’s a better choice for Popeye than Dustin Hoffman, so there’s that. (Hoffman quit because he didn’t want to work with Feiffer).
Furthermore, what is Popeye? He’s a character who is tightly wound, until the right triggers are pressed to unleash his anarchic energy. Until that time, he wanders around muttering to himself. So, what you’re looking for is an actor who can deliver a non-stop barrage of ad-libbed metatextual commentary, while giving off vibes of barely restrained chaos. Who else in 1980 does that describe BUT Robin Williams?
Then we’ve got Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl. This is brilliant. To play Popeye, Robin Williams needs prosthetic forearms and an affected accent (or should I say an affected axinkt?), but Shelley Duvall is already a cartoon character. Surrounding them are an array of stupendous character actors: Donald Moffat, Richard Libertini, Paul Dooley, Ray Walston, Bill Irwin! This is the movie that first introduced me to the genius of Bill Irwin. His character is a nameless citizen of Sweethaven, given just a handful of scenes as a background player, but he performs peerless physical comedy so memorable that I was compelled to look up his name and learn more about him. Can a supporting player ask for anything more?
So, in terms of the cast, I have no complaints. This is one area where POPEYE dodged the bullet. I’ve already mentioned Jules Feiffer, and his slavish fanboy adherence to the most obscure aspects of Popeye mythology. I also mentioned the composer, Harry Nilsson, whose oddball songbook for the flick very nearly destroyed his own high-flying musical career. That leaves us one remaining important creator, the director: Robert Altman.
Forgive the text-era profanity, but WTF?
I mean no slouch on Altman. By this point he already had notches in his belt for the likes of MASH, BREWSTER MCCLOUD, MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER, NASHVILLE—he could have retired and still had a more illustrious CV than most of his peers. But, and this is a big but (to quote Pee-Wee Herman, “everyone has a big but”), Altman’s style is known for densely packed worlds that weave together overlapping dialogue, half-heard fragments, a myriad of side-stories and tangential digressions pinging off in the background. They may follow a certain set of characters through a specific plotline, but there is always the understanding that other stories are all around as well.
How does such a realistic approach mesh with a musical? Why, not at all, thanks for asking! Musicals typically come to a halt for their big showstopping musical numbers. It is this very aspect that turns off people who don’t like musicals, and attracts people who do. The heightened unreality, the exhilarated fantasy—this is what enervates a good musical. Altman cannot commit to any single idea long enough to give any of Nilsson’s songs center stage.
BAD IDEA #4: WHAT’S IT LIKE TO WATCH.
Altman’s technique of layering different events together fights against the impulses of musicals as a genre, while Feiffer’s script ruminates on Popeye ephemera and comic history. These two problems actually collide, and in so doing generate a new problem. Here’s how it goes: Feiffer has taken certain familiar aspects of the premise and pushed them off the main stage, held them in reserve, made them things to build up to. Time and again, the movie builds up to a Big Moment only to squander it pointlessly.
Altman’s meandering camera and unselective editing takes the smallest moments and packs them full of life and detail—at no point is the movie dull. You could watch it endlessly and always find new things hidden in the margins (I speak from experience here, folks). But, this works against him on the big scenes—the same impulse that makes every small bit huge makes every big bit small. Time and again the film winds up to some big fight, some major setpiece, which is then every bit as fragmented and scatterbrained as everything else. He can’t stay on point long enough to sell the big scenes.
BAD IDEA #5: WHAT IT MEANS.
We’re nearly 30 minutes into the film before Popeye hits anybody. And he takes a LOT of provoking before he does. Since arriving in town, he has been cheated, insulted, and generally rejected by everyone—most pointedly by those characters who are, along with him, our points of audience identification! Desperate for companionship, Popeye is willing to buy a hamburger for the mooching Wimpy, if only to have someone to talk to. But Wimpy is such a worthless friend that he accepts the free food but shows no interest in listening to Popeye spill his life’s story.
The only people who do listen—and who hang on every word—are a gaggle of bullies who tease Popeye for his mispronunskiations of words. Fed up, Popeye demands an apology. The bullies respond by coercing phony apologies from innocent bystanders.
Throughout this, Popeye stands, boiling in indignation, as these bozos ridicule him, insult his family, intimidate helpless people… and he does nothing. That is, nothing until the bullies demand an apology from HIM. This is it, he cans’ts stands no mores, and lets loose.
Popeye “apologizes” by pummeling them into the floorboards. We have been clued in to the strange moral code of this film now.
This is important, because up until this point, the phrase “You owe me an apology” has been a running gag, uttered as a catchphrase by Olive Oyl’s father, Cole Oyl. The entire Oyl family is stymied by relentless bickering and unrelieved hostility—a microcosm of Sweethaven’s dysfunctions. Always aggrieved, the Oyls constantly feel entitled to an apology. And now we understand—the references to “apologies” are coded discussions of tit-for-tat retribution. “Apologies”=vengeance.
To his credit, Popeye tried to avoid violence. He never raises his fists first, and he takes a beating before he retaliates. In its way, this is honorable. But he does, eventually, hit back—and he hits harder than anyone else. The movie tries to ennoble him as a figure of righteousness, but his fundamental nature as a fighter keeps undermining that message.
BAD IDEA #6: HOW WELL IT’S MADE.
After years of on-again/off-again development turmoil (during which the film passed through different directors’ hands: Mike Nichols, Arthur Penn…), when it finally landed in the hands of Feiffer, Altman, and Nilsson, it was as if someone had slammed their foot down on the accelerator. Everything went into a frenzy: Nilsson took his musicians to Malta to record the soundtrack while the movie was filming; Robin Williams was obliged to perform some scenes with a long-sleeved trenchcoat to hide the fact his prosthetic arms hadn’t been made yet. After it wrapped, the sound technicians discovered that Williams’ muttering hadn’t been picked up cleanly and had to be redubbed.
The whole thing looks ramshackle and haphazard. And only rarely do those rough edges look intentional.
This movie derailed the careers of its creators—leaving toxic residue on anyone who touched it. It wasn’t until THE PLAYER that Altman finally rebuilt his professional reputation; Nilsson was obliged to self-release his next album because of the POPEYE fallout; Williams struggled to establish himself as a screen star and would slag off what he derisively called his “Popeye years.”
Michael Phillips wrote a fine editorial in the Chicago Tribune about the difficulties faced by a critic reviewing a “so bad it’s good” movie—a work of artistic idiocy that nevertheless delivers entertainment. Basically, as he sees it (and I generally agree), such things are works of sincerity that fail, and thus can be enjoyed at an ironic remove (a distinction he draws from things made with irony intended). But I’m not talking about that at all—as far as I’m concerned, POPEYE isn’t “so bad it’s good,” because I think it’s just plain good. There’s no irony involved—I enjoy it on its own terms.
I realize this is an unusual thing to say–not just that I am defending POPEYE, but that I am doing so without stating that any part of it is defensible. Film critics typically articulate a list of attributes they admire, and conclude from the aggregation of those elements “this is good.” You know the routine: such and such has beautiful cinematography, outstanding performances, innovative storytelling–it’s a must-see. But we don’t live our daily lives that way. We don’t choose who we love because they have it all: beautiful, smart, strong, rich, powerful, good-hearted. We’re lucky if our loved ones meet those criteria, but we don’t choose them for that. We just love–and we all have loved ones who are troubled, destructive, flawed, messy in various ways. We don’t love them despite these flaws. We just love them, and they’re flawed. Why can’t we do the same with movies? I can’t give you one single thing I think POPEYE gets right… but I don’t care.
It’s not good by normal criteria, but somehow the various deficiencies and missteps clash and combine in ways that cancel each other out and create weird new combinations–distinctive, quirky, memorably strange and genuinely unique.
I love it.
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