(Belated (it's all about being late, I suppose) entry to the Slapstick Marathon. Please note: plot discussed in close detail)
Robert Altman's Popeye opens with the tinny monophonic sound of The Sailor's Hornpipe, segueing into Sammy Lerner's theme song (I'm Popeye the Sailor Man). We see the cartoon image of a ship's rear cabin, doors sliding open, the classic opening of many a Max Fleischer cartoon short; Popeye pops up, chuckles, exclaims (in stereo, and in the voice of Jack Mercer, who played the sailor from 1935 to 1978):
"Hey what's this, one of Bluto's tricks?"
"I'm in the wrong movie!"
Crash and boom. Cut to thunderclouds piled high and visibly boiling. Camera pans down to a tiny orange sunset, all but overwhelmed by the oncoming storm; more lightning reveals Popeye's little rowboat, bobbing in a restless sea. Cut to a closer view of the boat--thanks to Altman's telephoto lenses the boat is surrounded, overwhelmed, engulfed by row after row of waves, in an endless march towards the camera (Popeye lost in an ocean of waves, the way Altman puts it onscreen, is about as lost as one can get). Cut to a bell tower--think of the church in Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1972)--shrouded in shadow; the bell chimes, the tower emerges in sunlight (filters, I suspect), and we hear horns blow the fanfare introduction to the song "Sweethaven." The entire opening is Altman's way of saying "this is not the Popeye you're familiar with--not the Fleischer cartoons, not Famous Studios, not Segar's strip. And not like any musical you've seen before, either."
"Sweethaven" is the kind of solemn, sarcastic anthem you imagine convicts singing in a gulag or concentration camp ("Sweet Sweethaven; God must love us," they chant in a zombie monotone). As the little boat approaches the town's wharf, you notice ships of all shapes and sizes, tilted, half-submerged--Altman's (or production designer Wolf Kroeger's) joke being that everyone was shipwrecked at Sweethaven; no one ever intentionally lands there.
The town itself is all creaky wood perched on craggy rock, photographed under the harsh Malta sun by one of Fellini's favorite cinematographers, Giuseppe Rotunno, and far more weatherbeaten than anything imagined by either Segar or the Fleischers (I'd rank it along with Tativille and Ridley Scott's 21st Los Angeles as one of the more eccentric visions of a world mounted and put onscreen). "God must have landed here, why else would he strand us here?" the citizens ask, as they shuffle out of their respective cellblocks (sorry--homes); Altman's camera responds by pulling back along streets at their approach, as if apprehensive of these grim marchers, this cheerless ant colony. The question ("why else would he strand us here?") contains layers of irony--Rotunno's lenses reveal a treeless, shrubless, almost lifeless landscape (no dogs, no cats, almost no incidental animals of any kind (there is a defecating cormorant, but it's obviously artificial); at the same time the camera captures startling glimpses of beauty in the margins, the deep blue of a Mediterranean sky, the deeper blue of a Mediterranean sea. You want to say to the town's denizens: yes, God did land--they only need to look up, or look beyond the broken shanties for proof of His existence.
To relieve the desolation (or, rather, fulfill it) Altman populates his town with performers and acrobats and comics who invent their own little bits of business. A lookout spots Popeye's boat and promptly drops his binoculars; a ladder swings right and left like a metronome, a man clinging to its highest rung; another's foot breaks through a plank bridge, leaving him stuck and grumbling; best of all is actor-performer Bill Irwin's Ham Gravy, forever chasing his hat, forever having the hat kicked just out of reach by his own shuffling feet.
Altman records the actors' antics with customary tact, but often adds emphasis to the action with understated camerawork. When Popeye (a young Robin Williams) arrives at the Oyls seeking a room for 'renk' ("What for what?" "Renk. Renk. Your sign says ya got a room for renk") and Nana Oyl (Roberta Maxwell) asks Olive (Shelley Duvall) to show him the room, Olive is furious; she feels she doesn't need to render hostess service on the eve of her engagement party to Bluto (Paul L. Smith)--a party she plans to call off anyway. Altman's camera retreats in deference as she struts stridently down the corridor (Popeye following, muttering), her progress interrupted only by Cole Oyl (MacIntyre Dixon) demanding an apology. At corridor's end the camera pauses and waits for Olive to try the door; naturally it's stuck. Olive pushes and shoves to no effect; Popeye helpfully lays his hand on the knob and the door promptly gives way, launching Olive with a small "sproingg!" and just the slightest of camera movements, a tiny forward lunge that almost seems to propel Olive across the room. The camera is content to stand and stare (Popeye's point of view, presumably) as Olive recovers her balance by snatching at the window drapes, tearing them off their curtain rods, then hiding the tattered rags behind her back; perfectly timed for maximum humiliation, a picture frame beside the window drops to the floor. "Nice lookin room," Popeye says; Olive smooths her hair, and we can't help but notice that standing before the window with the sun framing her embarrassed disdain in bright Maltese light (still Popeye's POV, presumably), she's unexpectedly gorgeous.
Dinner at the Oyl's is a full-fledged production in more ways than one. Opening image is a dinner table, waiting like an empty stage set; in the background are men waiting in the living room, women working in the kitchen (Wimpy attempts a pre-emptive raid through a side door, is promptly banished). At some signal the diners stampede to the service table grabbing plates and utensils; they swarm about the dinner table, staking out positions from which they'll sit and devour the evening meal. Altman's editing will often alternate between long, flowing tracking shots that involve large groups to briefer shots stitched together to pick out details within such groups. In this case the cutting is as frenetic as the eating--shots of individual diners (two, three of them) interacting are interspersed with shots of the entire table, people popping up from chairs and running around adding to the general chaos.
Popeye is the still, unnoticed center of the meal: the family swirls about him, ignoring him (Olive does notice long enough to push his corncob pipe aside like a turnstile), yet Altman grants him the most frequent closeups. While the Oyl family and its guests share in the general gluttony and bickering (Bluto we eventually learn is the most powerful man in Sweethaven (aside from Bluto's boss, the mysterious Commodore) and everyone except Olive is excited to marry her off to him), Popeye stands apart with his gracious (if ungrammatical) manners, his vain quest for a plate, a chair, a bite to eat (of everyone present, he's the only one who doesn't run around).
Altman often enjoys sitting back and watching the foibles of folks in his films and here he enjoys them to the hilt. If, however, he can't have someone flawed (John McCabe, Bill Denny), cool (Hawkeye Pierce, Dr. T), or vulnerable and innocent (Bowie, Brewster McCloud) for a protagonist, if in Popeye he must have someone terminally uncool, impossibly virtuous, superhumanly impervious to harm--in short, a genuine, unabashed superhero--then (you can imagine him thinking) he might as well pile all the human flaws and vices he usually has in his films on his supporting characters; hence the contrast at the dinner table.
The dinner culminates in yet another table-wide shot, with Olive (at far left) knocking her chair backwards to deliver a tirade to Popeye (far right), a dinner napkin waving like a flag in one hand: she'll refuse Bluto, she declares, if only to stop them all from "taking advantage of the sweetest, most humble man on the face of this earth!" Olive flounces away, leaving Popeye hungry and alone at an empty table, the meal--and show--over, at least for now.
The evening ends with a throwaway conceit: Bluto at the Commodore's ship, growling and fuming. He roars "It's nine o'clock! Curfew! Lights out!" Lights do go out, but interestingly the doused lights aren't just window lamps but huge floods illuminating entire houses (you even hear the gasp of electric arcs being broken); the effect is of a gargantuan movie set--which in fact the whole thing is--being shut down for the night.
Houses, streets, entire sections of town are plunged into darkness, save one window. Altman's camera moves in on the window, and we see that it's Popeye; he's slung a hammock over his broken-down bed and is looking at a picture of his missing father (he'd heard that the man was in Sweethaven, hence his non-accidental arrival). He puts the picture away, and we get a glimpse of what he had been looking at, a blank frame with the words "Me Poppa" scrawled on it.
At Olive's engagement party she's up in her bedroom with her bridesmaids, while Bluto waits below. The song she's singing, "He's large," is both lewd and defensive--Olive seems dismayed by the size of her suitor (one assumes that she's thinking of their honeymoon night) but is too proud to admit it, and she stubbornly defends him while her bridesmaids titter.
Interesting that with this number Altman explicitly flattens his images. From the long shots of the town in the "Sweethaven" number to the busy theatricality of the dinner table sequence, he's progressively squeezed space down to the point that the screen resembles a huge comic book panel. I've always thought there was a similarity between theater and comics, that they share a tendency to present characters and background in a narrowed perspective, or at least a perspective where depth (or the lack of it) isn't a flaw or priority (the more imaginative theatrical productions I've seen acknowledge this, take the tendency and either fight it, or do creative variations)--did Altman, working on a genre he hadn't worked on before (but would again, in the 1985 O.C. & Stiggs) note this similarity as well and used it as a shortcut to ease himself into things (from theater to comics in two, three easy sequences)? Was the dinner sequence a rehearsal prior to trying something more blatantly two-dimensional? Olive stretches to grab a piece of clothing from under her pillow, stuffs it in her suitcase; she makes another quick grab for a knicknack on the fireplace mantle, stuffs that in her suitcase. Each time Altman replies with a shot of all the bridesmaids sitting in a row and singing chorus--you could imagine this as a series of panels, bright colors and all, sitting side by side by side on a page. At one point Altman has a shot including all five (Olive and her bridesmaid) that gradually zooms in on Olive; instead of spatially tying everyone together the zoom has the opposite effect--Olive is singled out, isolated in her anxieties. The finale is wonderfully underhanded, with an image--a panel, if you will--of the door closing on Olive and her departing suitcase, the final words of the song ("he's large...") trailing behind her.
Another throwaway detail: Popeye had earlier tried to attend the engagement party, was snubbed by everyone there including host and hostess Castor and Nana, and decided to step out for a while. Altman shoots his feet crossing a bridge, his shadow stretching longer and longer behind him as he grumbles to himself: "I don't want to go to no party." "That's good cause you ain't invited." "Who sez I ain't invited?" "I sez." "Who are you?" "you know who I am, I'm you." It's Popeye's honesty speaking out again, like his shadow inescapable and annoying, keeping him funny, keeping him real.
Popeye and Olive meet, find a basket with a baby inside (Wesley Ivan Hurt, Altman's grandson), return to the engagement party, and in one of Altman's less successful special-effects sequences, face Bluto's wrath. Pow! and Popeye somersaults over and over again like an oversized Slinky down a ramp; Wham! and he rolls like a hoop down another. Biff! and he's sent spinning in place; Crack! and he's drilling himself downward, through the wharf and into the water. Altman shoots and cuts to cover the prosthetic and acrobatic effects, but they seem more like grotesque concessions to the Saturday Morning 'Toons audience than live-action approximations of the Fleischer brothers' graceful animation. Better, I think, is a fight earlier at Roughhouse's diner. Altman builds up to it with a series of sight gags--a cook climbs on the counter and over, pushing two diners backwards so their milk spills onto their faces; Ham Gravy grips the table and plates and glasses start trembling with terror; the cashier pulls a giant birdcage down around her for protection. Then Spike, leader of the Bruiser Boys (a--but who else could it be?--slimmer, younger Dennis Franz) calls out: "Hey runt--I bet your pappy is as ugly as you are."
That sets him off. Popeye doesn't so much strike back as start things rolling with a pair of elbows into two midriffs; where the Bruiser Boys stage a (in Popeye's words) "smorgasbord of violence," Popeye's response is more elegant--a feint here, a sidestep there, and the Bruiser Boys more or less fumble or knock themselves out. Altman handles the fight with equivalent grace; he keeps his camera at a distance (the better to see stance and balance and posture) and cuts less swiftly here than even in his dinner scene, the shot shifting only to show the next blow to its best advantage. At one point Altman plunks the camera down to watch Popeye turn one Bruiser Boy into a speed bag--circle punches smooth as you please, alternating with diagonal slashes right, left (pause to adjust pipe while the Bruiser's head obligingly keeps bobbing). Simple fight choreography, simple camerawork and a ceiling fan--what more can anyone ask?
In the number "He Needs Me" it's useful to note the rhetorical device Olive (through lyricist Harry Nilsson) uses--not the standard-issue "I love him," but a startled realization that he, after all, loves her. "He needs me," goes the thought echoing through her head, gaining strength from every bounce off a concavity; she's drunker than usual--the very definition of a "dizzy dame"--from the shock and can only repeat the words over and over again as if to see if they ring true; at times she's reduced to mumbling like an idiot ("ta ra-ra rat rat rat ta ra-ra ra ran...").
Altman doesn't go for comic-book flatness here; this is cinema, I submit, working with the simplest elements (the finest way to work, in my opine): a bridge, a girl, a song. The music has an odd, unsteady quality to it, as if the players had taken a swig too much sailor's grog; Olive peeks coyly from behind a log pillar, then sashays (kind of) onto the bridge. "It could be fantasy," she wonders, leaning against the bridge's railing; cut to a closer shot as she turns and exclaims "O-oh!" (may just be me but the precision of that cut, timed to punctuate the languorous quality of Olive's sigh (you can feel the swell of voluptuous--almost sexually so--emotions in that sigh) sends tingles up the spine). "Or maybe it's because--"
Cut to a camera slowly swinging into place as she spins away on stiltlike legs. "He needs me he needs me he needs me he needs me he needs me he needs me..." (from where Duvall stresses the syllables you can see the realization rolling like a wave through the sentence--through her, in effect). Later, she walks to the left side of the bridge singing: "For once, for once in life I finally felt that someone needed me--" and turns to the right; Altman responds with a Tati-like shot of a house presented face-on (a full-page comic book spread, practically) its four windows manned by four citizens closing said windows in a hauntingly deliberate manner. The realization is sinking in, she's saying, and Altman responds with a reminder of just how little the rest of the world cares, how emotionally distant she is from the rest of them (she's drunk on love, they're readying for bed)
Many a Popeye fan--and quite a few who aren't--point to the number as being the very heart of the film (Paul Thomas Anderson used it in his 2002 Punch Drunk Love--(Anderson's best work to date, in my opinion), though to far lesser effect (again in my opinion)); why this is so, though, is a touch difficult to determine. It isn't as if Duvall, who performs the number, sings or dances particularly well (if in fact she's singing and dancing at all), but the very awkwardness of her performance--the gangly legs, the heavily rouged lips, the tremulous voice repeating those three words over and over again (not to mention the even more maddening "ta ra-ra rat rat rat ta ra-ra ra ran..." warbled in between refrains) are the very source of the number's charm. Duvall, with Altman as puppet master high above jerking at tangled strings, transforms the gangly and grotesque into a poem about the delicate and vulnerable; she (under his direction) finds the beauty in the skewed, the crooked, the less-than-symmetrical.
The ending is perhaps too cartoonish; I enjoyed it and so do kids I watch it with, but the hijinks are strictly one-dimensional, with little that is expressive or lyrical. Two moments do sparkle in this latter part before matters descend to kindergarten level, the first being the meeting between Popeye and his mysterious Pappy (Ray Walston). Olive goads Popeye into trying to prove that his Pappy isn't on the mysterious Commodore's ship. "I know you ain't there," he says; "now, where ain't you?" he demands, following the camera down into the hold of Sweethaven's most dreaded vessel--its Heart of Darkness, if you like. Cut to a shot of Pappy tied up and helpless, the camera hovering over the old man's right shoulder to look at Popeye's reaction. "Pappy? Pap? Poppa? I knew it! I found you!" Popeye exclaims, hugging his father; a simple melody plays softly in the background. Walston saves the moment with appropriate acerbity "Oooh! I hates sentiment! I am disgustipated!" (Cartoonist-playwright Jules Feiffer's take on Segar's discombobulated English (with inserts by Williams that approximate Mercer's famous improvised mutterings) is a sharp delight).
The second moment I'm thinking of is in the classic chase that ends most Popeye cartoons--Olive in the hands of Bluto and Popeye in close pursuit riding Poopdeck Pappy's ship, a sprawling many-storied vessel that, when shot full-on by Altman's camera reveals itself to be an elaborate multilevel stage, with bits of business going on at once on every level. Here is Altman's metaphor of comic-book page as theatrical stage (or vice versa) run amuck: if the brief shot of a house in "He Needs Me" seemed like a full-page spread, this spills out on two full pages, a veritable Mad Magazine centerfold with the most interesting action going on at the margins.
Poopdeck Pappy dominates the scene, a grizzled Lear railing against life, the world, children in general, his ungrateful son in particular. "Kids, dadblast 'em! They're gonna lead you to ruin. That's what they're gonna do, lead you to ruin. They cry at you when they're young, they yell at you when they're older, they borrows from you when they's middle-aged and they leave you alone to die. Without even paying you back." Pappy joins a long line of epic Altman mutterers, from Lieutenant Barney Greenwald to Philip Marlowe to Richard Nixon to Popeye himself, iconoclasts with an obsessive point of view that no one listens to until too late.
Which might be a nice little metaphor for Altman himself (not to mention us writers and bloggers, tapping away in the dark). If I had to sum up, easily one of my favorites of Altman's misfires (if, again, we consider it a misfire--a slippery concept when it comes to Altman). Popeye is comic poetry; rickety, broken-down poetry but nonetheless poetry that staggers, stumbles (hence the term "comic"), and on occasion, flies. And when it does take flight, it's a sight like nothing on earth.