Monday, December 31, 2018
And If It Turns Out Real
Endings do happen but not only do we not always get to decide them we usually don’t even get a say in whether anything really ends. We spend so much time in life searching for a certain connection that sometimes when we’re right in the middle of the thing really happening we just lose sight of it. But we still dream. We are who we are which means we have to face up to what we’ve done and where we failed. And we still hope that it might all turn out ok with us in the end. Even if we have no say in what happens at the end of a year.
But going back much further, it still strikes me as a little odd that my mother took me to a Robert Altman film when I wasn’t even ten years old but the film in question was POPEYE so I guess that’s all right (I don’t think she liked it, but never mind about that). POPEYE opened at Christmastime 1980 and is famously lumped in with directorial follies of that HEAVEN’S GATE era even though it did pretty well, even though it did considerably better than FLASH GORDON which opened the week before. It’s still an odd duck, for the world and for me, and in my own head it’s become the rare film which combines the feeling that comes from those Altmans I’ve discovered as an adult with the unavoidable nostalgia factor of certain films seen when I was growing up. This one is better than a few I can think of, at the very least. And since POPEYE was the first Altman film I ever saw, obviously it was, somehow deep down it feels like that affected the way I approached other films by him when I saw them years later so in some ways it was the best possible intro to his work; along with the Trojan horse of a star from one of my favorite shows at the time it was filled with that sprawling visual style, an idiosyncratic tone and feel unlike what any other director would have done with the basic idea of a Popeye movie along with a very Altmanesque supporting cast of people cramming the frame which of course included the astounding Shelley Duvall the same year as THE SHINING which, needless to say, I hadn’t seen at that point. I’ll never say that POPEYE is one of my very favorite films by Robert Altman, let alone one of my favorite films in general, and there are times watching it that I sort of need to take a break almost from pure exhaustion. It’s a lot, after all. But thanks to the performances and songs, not to mention the the pure artistry involved, I still have a fondness for the sheer defiance it displays in presenting this totally off-kilter world where just maybe the unexpected connections you dream of may still happen even if in the most shambling way imaginable.
Arriving in the seaside town of Sweethaven, a sailor man named Popeye (Robin Williams) rents a room at the Oyl household, intent on continuing the search for his long lost pappy. But his arrival coincides with the engagement of family daughter Olive Oyl (Shelley Duvall) to Bluto (Paul Smith) but when she tries to run off from the oncoming wedding she and Popeye discover little baby Swee’Pea (Wesley Ivan Hurt), an adorable tyke who has been abandoned but instantly brings them together. The three become a makeshift family, much to the rage of Bluto, who immediately takes away the protection he was providing the Oyls with from the local tax man but when boarder Wimpy (Paul Dooley) discovers the special power Swee’Pea has it catches Bluto’s attention which leads to them bringing the child to the mysterious Commodore who runs Sweethaven and no one has ever seen.
Sometimes I’m not sure what to think of POPEYE. Who knows what anyone thinks of it these days even as I want it to become one of those Robert Altman films that becomes something else each time out letting me see it through an entirely different prism the way his best films do but maybe POPEYE can really only be one thing. Even though it’s a would-be blockbuster so expensive that it came from a pair of major studios it’s a cartoon-turned-giant-musical-comedy unlike any ever made while also very much a Robert Altman film (it’s also not QUINTET, but the quality of that one is a debate for another time) which partly means that it doesn’t seem to care how big it all is, willing to focus on the smallest thing in the frame while madness of all kinds goes on around it. The film did fine when released, it just wasn’t a blockbuster and along with some less than stellar reviews--Leonard Maltin’s BOMB rating seems overly harsh--wound up having the stink of a flop so as things went it was Altman’s last film for anything resembling a major studio for some years afterward. Robin Williams himself used it as an easy punchline for a long time but that seemed to fade away by a certain point maybe as he realized how special the whole thing really was. Or maybe it was how Altman’s stature seemed to grow as the years went on, maybe it was Generation X or Paul Thomas Anderson or whoever growing up and appreciating how flat out weirdly endearing it really is. Or maybe they just couldn’t get any of those songs out of their head, which is perfectly understandable. I know I still can’t.
With a screenplay by Jules Feiffer based on the E.C. Segar character and songs by Harry Nilsson, POPEYE is very much a kids movie for adults, designed for me then but still appealing now, maybe hurt by an undeniably lumbering quality it has that does become a little tiring and it might even qualify as a film that I sort of love but never particularly want to sit all the way through at one time. But then there are those moments where the emotions behind the music take hold and the way Altman lets certain moments just happen almost out of nowhere between the characters it becomes clear how much the film is really about the affection it has for almost everyone onscreen in this bizarre world, its understanding of how much they yearn for something better in this place. Saying there isn’t any other film like it might not be enough for some people. But it’s true.
The brief cartoon at the start that also cleverly supplies the Paramount logo draws that line in the sand while making sure we never forget where all this originally came from. There was no way to make Robin Williams look completely like a cartoon and I vaguely remember trying to reconcile that in my head as a child. But the way it makes this cartoon world flesh is part of how defiant the film is in obliterating that line between the two and the town of Sweethaven is a miracle of production design by Wolf Kroeger, a giant outdoor set in Malta which is still there as a tourist attraction. When the dawn breaks and the town anthem heard for the first time it becomes magical in its depiction of this bizarre population made up of whatever this town is supposed to be. There’s no way to fully understand this reality so we just accept it, the characters living their lives and going about their routines almost in a cartoon loop that we fully witness as they take place. This is most keenly felt in the organized chaos that Altman allows, the expert choreography of Popeye’s first dinner at the Oyl house, unable to get a word in or find a place to sit or get something to eat as the family squabbles around him. The rhythms of how the film is staged and cut within scenes always gives it a unique tempo, everything going on with the way it’s seemingly framed by Altman helps to give life to every single movement so the feeling of the place is always tangible. They’re cartoon characters but there’s still a humanity in all their pratfalls and over-the-top reactions with an astonishing level of detail in every shot, felt in moments like Bluto lumbering threateningly through the party as he counts off those flower petals, everyone terrified of him, as if Altman decided the way to express this cartoon feel wasn’t through visual effects but instead to use the purity of the filmmaking to bend the laws of physics as far as possible and this turns it all into a fully fleshed world.
The cinematography by the great Giseuppe Rotuno helps us feel the essence of the town and the wood the houses were built with and the sea beyond, a look typical for Altman in how it retains the telephoto quality of keeping everything in wide shots with very few close-ups. But it also feels more deliberate than the sprawl of some of his other films as if a decision was made to let us seek out and be able to find specific pieces of clutter in the frames which goes perfectly with the idea of a comic strip, unlike the mistiness of McCABE & MRS. MILLER that makes that film seem so much like a dream. Altman always, however feasibly possible, keeps characters alive in the corners of the Technovision frame acting like the animated figures they are, and those details are always essential in this ramshackle film with those buildings that each look like they might collapse at any minute and moments of inspiration that go by so fast we can barely believe we’ve seen it which includes painting the set and all the clothing red for a shot lasting a mere few seconds at one point. Even as it turns me into a kid for a few minutes I start thinking about other Altman films to compare it with, placing Popeye and Olive’s relationship up against some of his other not-quite romances. So it’s not quite a kid movie rewrite of McCABE & MRS. MILLER—I kind of wish it really was—but that film is still what comes to mind in the yearning found in the simmering hostility which turns into a sort of love that can’t be put into words. In this film they’re just able to find the way. I’d love to see a double feature of POPEYE and McCABE, the two romances set in distaff communities found in an almost impossible location, although I’d imagine a few parents bringing their kids might not be so happy.
There’s not much of a plot and who cares, avoiding the easy solution of Popeye eating spinach for every fight by making this essentially a prequel that presents his love for that particular vegetable as an inevitability which hasn’t happened yet, so the story ultimately hangs on how Popeye, Olive and Swee’Pea become a family. It’s not something that happens in one single moment, so Popeye and Olive go from bickering to loving each other without even realizing their feelings, it’s just the way it’s supposed to be, the way she ends their ‘phooey’ argument with a tiny, gentle little kiss. This goes perfectly with the songs—because, in case it’s been forgotten this is a fully fledged musical—that are almost like ditties that never quite turn into full melodies (the end credits suite offers a chance to really hear the lyrical quality that they might have) but reveal the hearts of the characters anyway particularly something like the lovely duet “Stay With Me” where the two of them sing gently to Swee’Pea practically whispered. But I still get a charge from Popeye shouting “I Yam What I Am” in that song and I love just watching Robin Williams charge through everyone during that number which is shot in the wide Altman style, not at all visually distinguished in how it’s filmed from a distance but I love it anyway.
The steady tempo of the “Everything is Food” number early on is one of the best examples of how each cut to another part of the restaurant adds to the scene, giving the film the same energy the town has, and the famous “He Needs Me” number sung by Duvall’s Olive Oyl is almost like pure cinema in its simplicity, holding almost entirely on her and the wistful joy at the connection being hoped for, her shadow sometimes filling out the space nearby and her gaze at Popeye as she moves around hiding from him is like a form of heaven. For a few minutes the film becomes the perfect symbiosis of director, star and music which provides the undeniable sweetness of POPEYE and how for once in an Altman world this kind of selfless connection can be made with no strings attached. Coming in at a little under two hours there are maybe a few too many songs particularly in the second half as if they couldn’t decide on which one to cut or maybe they’re just too close together which I suppose is what happens when you don’t have much of a plot, even if it doesn’t matter that you don’t have much of a plot.
Popeye is a loner at first, someone who I guess has been traveling from port to port in his tiny boat, not feeling like he belongs at first and even sleeps in his hammock above the bed while rooming at the Oyl house as if he can’t even bring himself to pretend to be part of a community. This is also certainly not the first Altman lead character to mumble to himself, whether John McCabe or Philip Marlowe and it seems like some kind of kismet that he made this film because of that, making him the perfect director not just for the world but for the character alone. And for all of its scale the film is at its best when simplest, when it’s just Popeye and Olive bickering over taking care of Swee’Pea and a little too often all that other noise gets in the way. As much as it willingly ignores the laws of physics that effort is sometimes a little too evident and as crazy as the gags are, you sometimes feel the effort all those artisans put into it.
The specific editing within certain scenes to give it the right surreal comic strip style is counterbalanced by just how long the damn thing seems to go on for and, yes, that includes the climax featuring slow moving boats heading for the big fight with Bluto we all know is coming, although any appearance by an Octopus is always welcome, and it all just kind of abruptly ends the way an actual Popeye cartoon would because how else should it end. It even feels a little like POPEYE goes against basic screenwriting formula since Popeye doesn’t even make the choice to finally try some spinach so some of that greatness is thrust upon him but he achieves it anyway and, besides, Bluto had it coming. Ultimately, it finds the happy ending for all those couples in Robert Altman films who weren’t allowed to get one and that’s really all that matters. POPEYE isn’t perfect. It isn’t THE LONG GOODBYE or NASHVILLE or McCABE & MRS. MILLER. As far as sheer weirdness goes, it may not even be BREWSTER McCLOUD. With POPEYE you feel the effort a little too much and there are sequences like the boxing match where I’m focusing on how much effort went into building this set and shooting it than actually paying attention to the movie. But each time I’m still a little amazed at it all, marveling at how they could have possibly pulled this off. Besides, if POPEYE was perfect and not this ramshackle oddity unlike anything else then it wouldn’t do us much good at all, no matter what our age is.
Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall are spectacular, each of them embracing the need to inhabit these characters making their surface quirks an integral part of everything they do and say. Robin Williams in his first film is jittery rawness in projecting each side of his character, the sweetness that comes out when he and Olive connect but also the angry side always ready for another fight, especially if someone is coming after Swee’Pea. Shelley Duvall is just about otherworldly in how she brings life to the very essence of Olive Oyl, never winking, treating every absurd situation as if it’s the most understandable thing in the world. I love everything she does here but everyone in the large cast is tireless in the energy they bring to making this world come alive, even the ones who barely get a line of dialogue. This includes Paul Dooley with the perfection to his walk and mannerisms who couldn’t be a more perfect Wimpy, Roberta Maxwell’s unending exclamations of surprise as Nana Oyl, Donovan Scott as Castor Oyl, David Arkin in his final film once again playing someone a step behind everyone else as he always did for Altman, Dennis Franz is one of the toughs and Wesley Ivan Hurt (Robert Altman’s grandson) as Swee’Pea is one of the most adorable babies ever seen in a film. Ray Walston’s late appearance Poopdeck Pappy is a reminder of how much more of an old-school musical guy he is when placed up against the rest of the cast and he seems to get Robin Williams to almost change the register on how he approaches things for a few minutes plus it’s almost perverse how he gets maybe the oddest song to perform since it’s barely a song at all and the great Donald Moffat (RIP) is memorable as the tax man, who would probably charge me a nickel not-mentioning-him-until-the-end-of the-paragraph tax.
Maybe the happiness the film makes me feel almost makes me sadder, maybe because I’m not back watching it again on a cold day in Yonkers Movieland screen #3, even if my mother wouldn’t want to see it again, maybe because of what hasn’t come true. Thinking of the past can do that. Many years after that first viewing I was at an Altman tribute where I found myself sitting in front of Vilmos Zsigmond and Paul Dooley who for all I know had never met but were exchanging Altman stories, the man who was once Wimpy saying, “We were over there six months, we had Fellini’s crew,” as he recalled the past he once experienced on this film. Even now I think of that when I see all those Italian names in the end credits. You always want to find that connection to your past in search of a future but maybe the severing is inevitable. Everything ends. You just don’t get to decide when that happens. So here I am looking to the future, wondering what kind of future there is. I just know, like it or not, I am what I am. I also want to claim that it’s ok with me, to reference what really is my favorite Altman film, but the truth right now is I’m not so sure. Maybe I’m somewhere in the middle. Right now it’s probably the best I can hope for.