Sunday, February 20, 2011

The End of the Century: Robert Altman's Popeye

Robert Altman gets a lot of (due) credit for a lot of things, but one thing I don't see mentioned enough is how effortlessly he expresses something essential about a place. And more amazingly, what he's expressing changes and grows from film to film. His work across many genres and tones seem to stretch wider than the films they inhabit, influencing the next and the one before it and the one decades ahead. His view of Los Angeles in The Player is more magical and charming because of The Long Goodbye and California Split, and more cynical because he'd be back in town the following year for Short Cuts, and more unnerving because of 3 Women, which doesn't really take place in Los Angeles so much as a desert on the outskirts, but then none of his films really take place in Los Angeles, do they?

Altman's view of the world is sort of like that - one step removed from reality, a little heightened, and never exactly consistent (certainly from picture to picture). One could call it a certain detached bemusement, but the sadness over the state of the world in McCabe is miles from the bitter anger of Short Cuts, and neither do much to explain anything about The Long Goodbye. Popeye is not so far removed - though set in the fictional and clearly constructed town of Sweethaven, Altman captures the town no differently than he did Los Angeles, Nashville, or the similarly-constructed town of Presbyterian Church in McCabe and Mrs. Miller. It's Altman's most exaggerated reality, but not by as much as you would think.

As much credit as he gets for dialogue, Altman has a unique talent for filtering seemingly diametric world views through his own, expressing equally everything that made the original (book, short story, play, radio show, comic strip) so beloved and a certain way of seeing things that you won't necessarily find in his other work or the source material itself. This is why A Prairie Home Companion is everything that makes the radio show so great (yes, I am a fan of Garrison Keillor, and whatever that makes me is whatever it makes me), while still being as uniquely Altman as The Long Goodbye, which is in turn a perfect modern interpretation of Raymond Chandler. Never mind Short Cuts, which is so exactly evocative of Raymond Carver that you cannot, for the life of you, explain what exactly makes it different from reading his short stories.

So yes, where was I? Right. Popeye, of course, SOUNDS like a Robert Altman film. There are more throwaway jokes in the dialogue than most films have right up front, and Popeye's mumbling from the classic Fleischer cartoons - long my favorite aspect of those cartoons - is a constant companion in a very strange journey (not unlike Phillip Marlowe's live-read voiceover in The Long Goodbye, but even less coherent). And Popeye really is equal parts Altman and, well...Popeye. I'm hardly a historian on the cartoon icon; I know he started in a comics form that I've never read, but I know the cartoons very well. More accurately, I know how they feel, and Altman's film is a remarkable recreation of that feeling. Spontaneous, inventive, unbound by any physical limitations, boundlessly joyful, and weirdly musical.

That last part is where the Altman influence is felt strongest. Music plays a surprising role in Altman's films, be they out-and-out musicals like Nashville or mood pieces like McCabe and Mrs. Miller, 3 Women, or The Long Goodbye, the musical elements play as much a role in setting tone as the cinematography or performances. The credit sequences of McCabe and 3 Women are enough proof alone - you instantly know exactly the film you're watching.

Popeye is Altman's most outwardly musical film, with characters regularly bursting into unannounced, completely delightful songs (by Harry Nilsson), but the music feels ingrained in the people of Sweethaven as a way of life. In a manner not dissimilar from Jacques Demy's masterpiece, The Young Girls of Rochefort, characters will sing bits of songs out of context and have a more fluid way of moving than is natural. It's a common, shallow, cynical approach to complain that musicals aren't realistic because who just bursts into song anyway, but musicals do suffer when they try to create some realistic environment in which the characters do just that. Musicals are better for the realm of some degree of fantasy, and Popeye toes that line so perfectly you wonder why a) it has been so totally dismissed over the last thirty years, and b) more musicals don't understand these simple principles.

I really do honestly wonder why Popeye has the reputation it does. It's pointed to as the film that ended Altman's career until his resurgence in the '90s, but it did astonishingly well at the box office. In doing some research, I found a pretty thorough and almost convincing takedown of the film, but it is only so if you buy into the idea that a Popeye film can only be one thing. Don't get me wrong, I picked up on the Marxist leanings, too, but this IS still a Robert Altman film after all. If you're not onboard with radical leftist thinking, Popeye is merely the least complex distillation of Altman's political leanings (you know, for kids!). I just never really tend to fault a film for having a point of view.

And Popeye does have so much worth celebrating beyond any discussion of its politics (and anyone who faults its gender politics really isn't familiar with Popeye in any iteration). It's completely charming through and through, oddly sweet at points, and has the most remarkable performance by a baby that you've ever seen. Honest. It jettisons the concept of story structure out the window pretty quickly, and is all the better for it. It opens up the film, leaves room for the small joys to take center stage. In many ways it was the last of Altman's '70s films. Not just chronologically, but it was the last time Altman would have such resources until the '90s, the last time he'd make a film that centered around small moments. For all the pleasures of his later work, they were much more driven, less lived in, more complex, less...pure. Popeye was his last pure film.

Whatever your reaction, it's on Netflix streaming, and you have very little to lose by giving it a go.


Jason Bellamy said...

Nice review, Scott. I've been thinking about revisiting this one for a while now. What I remember is what perhaps everyone remembers: that the film doesn't fit neatly into any specific genre and thus watching it is a bit discombobulating. I'll work this into my Netflix viewing in the next few months. Your review has me even more excited to see what this film reallly is.

Scott Nye said...

Thanks, Jason, hope the movie works as well for you.

Oh, and congrats on three years blogging!

Ed Howard said...

I really like this film, and I'm glad you've given it such a thorough, loving treatment here. It's just such a fun, idiosyncratic movie, totally true to the spirit of both the cartoons and, perhaps even more, the E.C. Segar comic, with its energetic physicality and tangled linguistic humor. No surprise there: the script is by Village Voice cartoonist Jules Feiffer, a great artist and a very interesting screenwriter, and I suspect that a lot of the punchy, punny dialogue — not to mention the lefty polemics — comes from him as well as from Altman.

Like you, I don't think the film is at all sabotaged by its politics, either. Yes, it has a point of view. In some ways, it's not even that much of a distortion of the source material: turning Wimpy's "I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today" into some kind of socialist catchphrase is pretty genius, and not even so much of a stretch from the original character. There are all sorts of economic subtexts in Segar's comic.

Anyway, great job on this, you've made me want to revisit this one as well.

Scott Nye said...

Thanks, Ed! I didn't find a good place for it in the post, but one of my favorite headlines for an article analyzing the current recession was, indeed, "I'll Gladly Pay You Tuesday for a Hamburger Today."

I never know how much to include Altman's screenwriters when analyzing his films, considering how he was known for abandoning screenplays to one degree or another in the process. But given Feiffer's background as a cartoonist, you're probably right, he shouldn't be ignored here.

Ed Howard said...

Hah, that's definitely a great headline.

I don't know the details about Feiffer's screenplay for this film, how much Altman used or discarded, but I do detect some of Feiffer's sensibility and his obvious affection for the Segar comics, so I've always assumed that at least a substantial portion of his work made it through. Still, Altman obviously put a lot of his own stamp on this, and there's not nearly as much of Feiffer as there is in his scripts for Carnal Knowledge or Little Murders, both of which are films where I pretty much consider Feiffer the auteur, creating cinematic continuations of his comic strips. Altman's got too much of a defined sensibility and approach to ever let a writer define his film like that. As a result, Popeye is kind of a blend of the sensibilities of Altman and Feiffer — and Nilsson, of course.