Thursday, March 15, 2007

Revisiting An Altman Classic

In light of Robert Altman’s passing a couple months ago, I was recently thinking about the Altman flick I’ve seen most, by twenty or thirty times: Popeye. It’s not exactly as renowned as other Altman classics like Nashville or M*A*S*H, or even, say, O.C. And Stiggs, but it was a pivotal part of my childhood.

I was obsessed with Popeye as a kid. I don’t think I ate more spinach, but I did wear a sailor’s hat and chew on a pipe and talk unintelligibly and draw an anchor on my arm with a ballpoint pen. When the movie came out in 1980, I was eight years old, and at the peak of my sailor man fandom.

There’s something naggingly unsatisfying about seeing a live action film attempt the visceral abandon of animation, kind of like watching a puppet show of Titanic, or having an afternoon of cartoons interrupted by that show where the guy did line drawings and told stories. At its worst, like with Jim Carrey mugging under pounds of makeup as the Grinch, it’s deeply and soulfully lame.

But Robin Williams, though saddled with weird fake forearms that looked like he had a strange disease, was spot on. He’s still the only person in Hollywood I can picture in the role (although I’d enjoy seeing Matt Damon take a crack at it.) Also, to the best of my recollection, for better or worse, Popeye launched a genre. It was the first time I remember seeing cartoon gags rendered in live action form, like when Bluto’s outfit turns completely yellow to reflect his emotion on encountering Popeye post-spinach-ingestion. In the 90’s, when Hollywood became convinced that movies are no good without source material – that no movie was as good as Something: The Movie – there was a woeful parade of live action cartoons trotted out: Josie And The Pussycats, The Flintstones, How The Grinch Stole Christmas, The Cat In The Hat, Inspector Gadget, etc. None of them compare – partly because they’re unwatchable, and partly because Popeye was pretty decent.

I have no idea how it holds up today – I’m still seeing it through my eight-year-old eyes – but if your biggest career failure is a movie that launched a genre, and thirty years later is still the best example of that genre, then it definitely says something about your directing skill. Personally, I’d rather rewatch Popeye than Gosford Park any day.

6 Knee-jerk Reactions:

Blogger picture said...

I remember being unbelieveably depressed by the colors of popeye: the movie. I couldn't get PAST that.

but I was obsessed with olive oyl, at the same time - I remember doing a balance beam routine as olive from altman's film, warbling (and wobbling) insecurely through the whole thing...

3:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whenever I see Shelley Duvall in anything, I still picture her as Olive Oyl. The casting of that movie was brilliant.

And I nearly wore the soundtrack LP out playing it on my cheap little suitcase turntable.

2:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even though not relavent to the theme, I kept expecting Robin to adlib with..."Heeere's Popeye!"

I'm pretty sure I saw the Shining first, so had a bit of a darker frame of mind when I saw Popeye.

7:55 AM  
Blogger Francis said...

Haha! That's a rather disturbing mashup...

2:08 PM  
Blogger Fa said...

you're the only person on earth besides myself who loves that movie. I saw it a trillion times as a child and still remember it fondly.
By the way, excellent job on God, Inc!!!

6:56 PM  
Anonymous zippythechipmunk said...

You missed what is without a doubt, truly the greatest film of this genre: George of the Jungle.

4:47 PM  

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