food for thought
by Douglas Messerli
Jules Feiffer (screenplay, after the comic strip by E. C. Segar), Robert Altman (director) Popeye / 1980
The moment of I heard of the death of comedian-actor Robin Williams, I searched my memory for a movie that might permit me to best express his talent. I’d seen most of his films. But the Williams I love best was a manic comedian that didn’t always come off well in film. Yes, there was the riffing radio personality of Barry Levinson’s Good Morning Vietnam, in which Williams is allowed some virtuoso comic moments of what Time Out Film Guide as “achingly funny, irreverent motormouth” behavior “with a taste for hot soul and a subversive vision of the Vietnam conflict.” But the all too predictable ending—his character’s somewhat patronizing relationship with a young Vietnamese woman, his friendship with a Vietnamese enemy operative, Tuan, and his inevitable fall from grace—ruins this film for me. Even less to my taste are the series of Williams films in which he plays a kind of “serious” psychological advisor or teacher as in Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting, Penny Marshall’s Awakenings, and my least favorite, Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society, all of which not only bleach out Williams’ comic musings, but turn him into, as acerbic critic David Thompson describes it, a “nice guys becoming dangerously sanctimonious and superficial.” At times, in these often sentimental concoctions it is almost as if you can see Williams’ mind knocking against the sweet smile of his unperturbed fatherly face, intensely calling, “Let me out of here!”
I have joyfully watched Chris Columbus’s Mrs. Doubtfire several times, where, at least, Williams is allowed to combine the manic madman with his correct-thinking pontifications. But one has to admit that, in the end, the film, despite its funny and even touching moments, is a totally unbelievable mess.
A couple of movies I hadn’t yet seen offered greater promise, Robert Altman’s Popeye and Paul Mazursky’s Moscow on the Hudson. Since I had just reviewed a couple of Mazursky’s films on the occasion of his death this same year, I ordered up Popeye from Netflix.
Before I was able to view it, critic Eric Spitznagel, writing in Vanity Fair, beat me to it, calling the Altman film, “The Best Film Robin Williams Ever Made.” Since I haven’t seen all Williams’ films, I’ll forego the superlative claim, but I will argue, in observations somewhat different from Spitnagel’s, that Popeye is certainly a good film that nicely represents Williams’ comic and serious acting talents.
Perhaps the fact that this work represents the actor’s first film appearance may contribute to the sense, as Spitnagel argues, that there is a kind of freshness to Williams’ performance, whose “Popeye had a shy and timid sweetness. He didn’t storm through the movie with an insistent likability and ‘look-at-me’ bombast.”
Let me first admit that Altman’s film received numerous dismissive reviews. Vincent Canby of The New York Times loved it, describing it as “charming, immensely appealing mess of a movie,” as did Roger Ebert, characterizing it simply as “lots of fun.” But one of my favorite critics, Dave Kehr, then writing for The Chicago Reader characterized the film and its actors in ways with which I couldn’t disagree more strongly:
Robert Altman's busy, detailed mise-en-scene, flattened cartoon-styl
through space-compacting long lenses, does capture some of the
frenetic atmosphere of the Fleischer cartoons, but it tends to crowd
out, and neutralize, the story values. The plotting of this 1980
feature—outsider in a hostile environment—is personal to Altman,
though few of the feelings survive the clutter: it looks like a remake
of McCabe and Mrs. Miller stripped of deep commitment.
Robin Williams is entertaining as Popeye, in a performance based
entirely on Jack Mercer's brilliant voice characterization in the
original cartoons; as Olive Oyl, Shelley Duvall can't bring
her squashed naturalness to the proper level of stylization—she
seems miscast in the role she was born to play.
All right, we all have our off-days. And Altman’s work is crowded, frenetic, at times even purposely off-putting. Jules Feiffer’s script seems amazingly close to what the creator of the cartoon, E. C. Segar, originally penned. It is no accident, perhaps, that many of the greatest long-lasting cartoon strips—notably Al Capp’s Li’l Abner, Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie, along with Segar’s Popeye—were either created during or, in Annie’s case, became most popular during the 1930s Depression. Flaunting coarse exaggerations of human behavior, employing larger-than-life stereotypes, embracing absurd-like half-human figures (talking animals and babies), and freely dabbling in racial epithets, these cartoons often presented human behavior at its lowest level—the reason, admittedly why I have never been fond of comic strips. Yet in a time where the ordinary everyman of American culture was made to feel very, very ordinary and forced to suffer ridiculous indignities in order to survive every day, these works clearly spoke to millions in a way that no other literature of the day could hope to. While Capp cloaked his attacks on the American system in the costume of hillbilly backwoods homilies, Segar took his Thimble Theatre creations into a strange world where—as in Charles Dickens’ fabulous representation of underground London in Fagin’s Oliver Twist lair—characters survive in a dystopian society controlled by a mysterious “Commodore” (a title, reports by dictionary, of commander, abolished until World War II, and therefore signifying an unofficial position that carries no “rating”) who uses the brutal Bluto to accomplish his wishes and who survives by the insidious demands of a creative tax-man.
Altman not only attempts to recreate this wacky expressionist-like community, Sweethaven—brilliantly conceived by production designer Wolf Kroeger—but dares to express its story through the genre of an original musical comedy, with music by Harry Nillson (a nearly burned-out 1960s and 1970s composer-performer, best known previously for his rendition of “Everybody’s Talking” in Midnight Cowboy), and sung by actors with little or no experience in singing and dancing—a major exception being Ray Walston (the Commodore), who performed on stage and film in Damn Yankees and South Pacific.
Altman, apparently determined to make his Sweet Haven one of the strangest and least pleasant communities on the planet (he mysteriously created the set in Malta, perhaps just to escape the long arms of Hollywood and hands-on producer Robert Evans), suggests this ramshackle, tough and tumbling down community, a distorted mirror-image of the good old USA, is a dictatorship “safe from democracy”:
We the people
Hurray hurray Sweethaven
Flags are wavin'
Swept people from the sea
Safe from democracy
Enter the quite innocent sailor, who in obvious befuddlement, good naturedly suffers various derogations, from the quick-shifting machinations of the town’s taxman (Donald Moffat), the basic distrust by community members of strangers, and the near destructive stumbles of the boarding-house owner’s daughter, Olive Oyl (Shirley Duvall) to the rude table manners of the boarding-house tenants (Wimpy [Paul Dooley], Castor Oil [Donovan Scott], Ham Gravy [Bill Irwin], Cole Oyl [MacIntyre Dixon], and Nana Oly [Roberta Maxwell]) who in their speed to chow-down their dinner permit Popeye not a bite to eat. In fact, Popeye is hardly ever allowed to eat throughout his Sweet Haven stay; the very next day, at the local diner Wimpy (the character who will “gladly pay you Thursday for a hamburger today”) eyes and eventually devours Popeye’s hamburger breakfast. Indeed, in the “sweet, sweet haven” where he has suddenly found himself in search of his Pappy, food seems to be the major commodity. As expressed in “Food, Food, Food”
Everything is food, food, food
Everything is food to go
Everything is food for thought
Everything you knead is dough
It is food
Everything is food
The song not only reiterates the fact that a great majority of the town’s citizens are named after food or condiments that go atop, but also suggests that its people are empty husks of reality, desperate to be filled with something that might give them the energy to move forward or to actually come up with an idea. As Altman, Feiffer, and Nillson make clear, their world is an inverted one.
Everything is upside down now
Everything is sunny side up
They can't trick us
With no hot dogmatic
Williams as Popeye suffers all these and more indignities through a non-stop under-the breath utterance of reactions to his experiences that with their odd pronunciations and numerous malapropisms are absolutely hilarious—if you can catch them fast enough within the fold of your ear (meeting Olive Oyl, for example, he mutters, “Sounds like some kind of lubricant”/ encountering prostitutes later, Popeye nearly lisps, “Women of a venerable disease.”). As Altman demands of the viewer in every single film he ever made is that he or she be as quick-witted and attentive to every moment of the movie as the language he and his collaborators projected into space. And, in that sense, Altman’s creations are always somewhat Platonic, abstract representations of a real world in another time and place. Both Popeye and his Pappy carry around photographs of one another that consist only of words: “Me Pappa,” “Me Son.” And food, as the song suggests, is always “food for thought.”
Is it any wonder that on the night she is about to celebrate her engagement to the genetically mean Bluto, Olive Oyl secretly packs up her bags and heads to the streets. All she can say of her marital “catch” is that “He’s large.” Duvall is so perfect as Miss Oyl that it is hard to take one’s eyes off of her; as if she were truly a figure of ink, she spins and twists her entire body all at once in two directions. If before one might have thought of assimilating Duvall in very small doses, in Popeye—despite her shrill cries and whining insinuations—you want all the oyl you can get. If Williams is absolutely charming and rambunctiously infectious, Duvall is radiant in her calamitous clumsiness. And when the two suddenly acquire their little Swee’pea (the forever chortling photogenic grandson of director Altman), singing a lovely duet over the sleeping beauty that pulls them into opposite directions of desire—he asking the babe to “Sail wit’ me,” she pleading for him to “Stay with me”—the sensitive viewer is almost swept away.
We know, of course, that our characters and we must suffer numerous adventures—the child’s abuse by both Wimpy and Olive as a horse race tipster, the kid’s kidnapping by Bluto, Popeye’s discovery of his Pappy and his Pappy’s indignant denial of his heir, a chase to a buried sea treasure in which Olive is stuffed into smokestack and made to wrestle a gigantic octopus, and Popeye’s being forced to swallow up every last dollop of his least-favorite food, spinach—before we can reach that apogee again. But we don’t mind as long as Popeye “yam what he yam”—a delightful, bow-legged, one-eyed, dancing sailor man—who needs his Olive Oyl in order to raise up his little Swee’pea in a new and sweeter haven.
I might even go so far as to suggest that in this film Altman, with the help of Italian cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, has created a kind of American equivalent of Fellini’s Amarcord (on which Rotunno worked as director of photography in 1973), another portrait of a distorted fascist society of the 1930s in which the citizens struggle to outgrow their seemingly endless adolescence.
Fellini’s Amarcord begins with a young woman hanging out freshly-washed cloths, happily pointing at the puffballs floating in the wind. A nearby old man, mutters the community aphorism, “When puffballs come, cold winter’s done.” Indeed, as children in the town square jump to catch the puffballs, the village idiot recites a poem dedicated to regeneration.
All we need to transform a Sweet Haven into a heaven, suggests Altman and friends, is a little bit of faith and a good sense of humor, both of which Popeye projects even in his very first encounters with the seeming no-good inhabitants of the film’s cockeyed hamlet. As they spiritually and sometimes even physically attempt to “blow him down,” the sweet tempered sailor (as perfected by Williams) croons—or perhaps I should say, he “growls out”—an anthem of possibility and hope:
It's a love place
Think I'd like to stay but
Blow me down
Blow me down
It's nice and friendly here
I think I'll spend a year
Or two maybe three
In the evenin' air
Lots of people there
Tryin' to blow me down
But unlike the clothes I wear
I haven't got a care, so
Blow me down
Blow me down
Even if Popeye was neither Williams’ nor Altman’s best film, it’s certainly worth another long look.
Los Angeles, August 16, 2014
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (August 2014).