Thursday, November 15, 2007
4 Color Cinema
A lot of pundits like to pontificate about comic book adaptions to film and how they have finally "made it big" in Hollywood. While this is not really wrong, it's not really right, either, as comic adaptions, like all cinematic trends, are cyclical. Things come and go, with a certain routine to the proceedings befitting an industry known for churning out the same thing over and over again until it is no longer profitable. (By the way, I mean the film industry, not the comic book industry. They'd never do that!) So for anyone over the age of 12, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the late 70s and early 80s were also rife with 4 Color adaptions in Tinseltown, including the film we'll be looking at today, Robert Altman's Popeye.
And I think it is crucial to put Altman's name before the title, because his influence is strongly felt in the final product. Altman was at the forefront of what was known as (and is still called today) the "New Hollywood" era, which was the period in American film history ranging from the mid-60s to very early 80s at the latest. New Hollywood was formed when the studios, reeling after the Paramount Case essentially broke their old "Studio System" lock, began to look for some way to reach the youth audience they were unable to communicate to with traditional fare. The big studio pictures of the late 50s and early 60s depended largely on spectacle -- improving and innovative technologies for pciture and sound made it possible to present epic period pieces or grand musicals on new scale. But audiences grew weary of these trends quickly, and after a few large scale financial flops (most notoriously Cleopatra, which remains the most expensive American film in history with inflation and nearly closed down Fox, but also Hello Dolly, which did good business but failed to turn a profit), executives were willing to try just about anything so long as it was cheaper. So they turned to the new generation of filmmakers, most fresh out of film school, and almost all inspired by the cinematic exploits of avant-garde contemporaries like those of the French New Wave. Names like George Lucas, Woody Allen, Sam Peckinpah, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorcese, and Steven Spielberg all began their careers around this time.
The upshot of all of this is that there were new ideas being played out which bucked any type of conevtional filmmaking guidelines. Altman, best known for MASH, Nashville, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller in the first half of the 70s, had a certain trademark "style" which evoked classical autuer theory of the New wave. He became known for his world building, to borrow the comic book term, creating deep and involved settings for his characters to exist in, which were believable and tactile to the audience. He liked to use large, ensemble casts, and would often choreograph scenes in such a way that no matter where the eye looked, something was going on. And, probably most notably, Altman was known as an "actor's director," and he would frequently allow improvisation and let his actors talk over one another in an effort to portray realistic, well-developed characters -- often at the expense of the plot.
And so we arive in 1980 at Popeye. (And if you managed to read the previous three paragraphs, give yourself a pat on the back.) The film stars Robin Williams (his film debut) as the titular Sailor Man, complete with bulging forearms and squinty eye, and Shelly Duval doing her best impression of Olive Oyl. The cast is rounded out with character actors and bit players, cast seemingly less for comic timing than for their ability to embody their comic strip counterparts -- Paul Smith, best known as the torturer from Midnight Express (!) is the perfect Bluto, and Paul Dooley, who has appeared in everything from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to the remake of Hairspray, looks like he was born to play J. Wellington Wimpy. Sweethaven is inhabitated by a gaggle of goofballs, including Olive's family (patriach Cole, his wife Nana, and her brother Castor), lots of burly sailors, and one nameless, bespectacled taxman who seems to always linger just out of the frame.
And what a town the little hamlet of Sweethaven is. Like a matte painting come to life, the town couldn't possibly exist, and yet, it does. With a few dozen homes and buildings crammed into what looks like one city block, it's streets winding and twisting up and down hills, Sweethaven is a fully realized setting. And Altman knows it -- he uses Sweethaven like another character in his ensemble, with each new setpiece bringing some new facet to the forefront. Bizarrely enough, this set, now dubbed "Popeye Village," is still standing where it was built in Malta and is a popular tourist spot.
Ultimately, though, this is probably why the film failed to reach a wider audience than it did upon release. Altman gathers his cast together, gives them a great place to play, and then lets them loose. The film lacks structure and locomotion, moving from one setpiece to the next in an episodic, almost discrete fashion. Ostensibly the film is about Popeye finding his long lost Poppa, but once he arrives in Sweethaven, things take detours frequently, moving along different tangential adventures with the whole gang. Audiences in 1980, weren't expecting this, and responded with poor word of mouth which eventually shut the film down and gave it a bad rep. Ths is reinforced with the opening gag, as the film starts with the credits of a Popeye cartoon, only to have the sailor proclaim that he's "in the wrong movie!" They wanted Popeye, but what they got was Thimble Theater.
The musical aspect of the film doesn't help either. A musical is defined by the showtunes being integrated into the story and helping to move the plot along, and Altman takes this to heart. The songs are grafted right into non-musical scenes, often cutting between them. Coupled with the lack of rhyme -- almost all of the numbers use repetition of certain phrases instead -- this tends to make the music unmemorable and at times boring, especially to a modern audience. "Food, Food, Food" is a quirky little number which is paired with a silly scene at the Roughhouse Diner, and "He Needs Me" is a standout ode which would later be rerecorded for Punch Drunk Love of all things. But beyond that, nothing is really all that hummable -- the classic "Popeye The Sailor Man" being an exception of course!
Despite these misgivings though, I enjoy this film. Altman wanted to create a live action version of the Thimble Theater/Popeye comic strip, and he succeeded. Robin Williams is game as Popeye, and while he may be hard to understand on his overdubbed mumblings, he certainly looks like a live action version of our favorite sailor, and his goofy grin is infectious. Similarly, Shelly Duval is perfectly cast as Olive, her affectations in speech and gait combining to create a living cartoon in all the best senses. Great touches abound, like when Bluto gets so angry that he literally sees red, or Popeye's classic "twister-sock" punch. Sure Altman loses the plot (not an uncommon New Hollywood fault -- see One From The Heart for reference), but everyone is having a lot of fun, and it soon begins to rub off on the viewer. By the time the last reel begins to unspool, and the "high seas" adventure episode kicks off, the audience is right there with the cast.
So if you are in the mood for something 4 Color that doesn't involve funny looking people punching each other... hrm. Let me rephrase that. If you are looking for something 4 Color which doesn't involve funny looking people punching each other and having feelings about it, and can make you laugh at the same time, then give Popeye a try. It's not perfect, but it's amusing and great to look at. And besides, if anyone asks what you did with your time, you can say you were catching up on your New Hollywood cinema studies.