Tuesday, January 07, 2014

80s Revisited: Popeye

Popeye (1980)
Directed by Robert Altman; screenplay by Jules Feiffer; produced by Robert Evans.

I'm still not even really sure how or why this movie happened. But it sure does waste a lot of talent. And time. This movie is a joyless, pointless waste of time that seems to have no reason to exist.

Seriously: what was the impetus for a live action version of Popeye? Why was it decided Robert Altman would be the best director to make it? Why did Altman agree to do it in the first place? I appreciate the way the film tries to split the difference between the cartoons and the original comic strip, but this is one of those movies that tries to be all things at once and ends up being nothing. Everything is played as a personality quirk, but the movie has no personality. It has some performances that are technically very good--I particularly liked Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl, Ray Walston as Poopdeck Pappy, Paul Dooley as Wimpy (but I like Paul Dooley in literally everything, probably because he's always good in everything), Richard Libertini as Geezil, and Bill Irwin doing physical comedy as Ham Gravy--but the movie isn't really interested in things like characters or humor or story. A bunch of scenes just sort of happen, and in the end everyone decides that's enough and rolls the credits. The actors are more than capable of creating the characters from Thimble Theatre, but Altman as director seems more interested in just stuffing the frame with these overreacting caricatures who are always moving around busily but not really doing or saying or feeling anything.

Seriously, I just watched this last night, and I can't tell you what actually happened in it. I'm still shaking my head trying to figure out what the point of this thing existing the way it does actually is.

Robert Alman being Robert Altman, the cinematography emphasizes wide shots and muted backgrounds with almost no establishing shots or action, which keeps everything at a distance, as though the film itself is too good to deign to be about what it's about. Except for sequences like Olive Oyl singing "He Needs Me," Altman doesn't really get close enough to the characters to let us into what they want. Robin Williams is the worst offender, but most of the cast members are honestly just mumbling and muttering most of the time, which is fairly accurate to the Fleischer cartoons but an absolute impediment to telling a story--especially one that runs two hours.

And why are there songs? The Harry Nilsson songs are okay, but it's like Altman doesn't really want to use them; the songs just sort of begrudgingly hang there, like Altman is making some kind of anti-musical to punish the audience. There's no narrative point of view. People just walk through the frame. But hey, at least they spent a lot of money building a little town in Malta, so they really approached this thing from the right angle. The costumes are drab. There's barely any color in this movie. I'm just listing complaints now, because there's nothing in the way of a story to criticize.

I think someone could take the exact same script and songs and make something vibrant and at least fun. I would feel a little more charitable towards this movie if it had at least tried and then failed. But this movie seems so apathetic to itself, so indifferently made, that I'm a little hostile towards it. How could anyone have ever thought people would be pleased to spend two hours with this? It's so visually unappealing that even the act of looking at it is depressing. It's a weirdly alienating movie and it's driving me crazy that it even physically exists.

But hey, if you've always thought the one element Thimble Theatre needed was off-putting realism, this is the movie for you. I don't understand you, but I'm glad there's something for you.


Kelly Sedinger said...

I've only seen pieces of this, and it struck me as the weirdest damn thing. I recall the Buffalo News critic once calling it "the ugliest movie ever made".

Professor Chaos said...

I was a kid when I saw this and even I knew it was Gawd-Awful! I had no idea this was by Robert Altman. I'm not really an Altman fan, but dear God, he was better than this!

DrGoat said...

Not even Ray Walston saved that movie. I did hear a rumor that the cast and crew were pretty much stoned most of the time. I guess you'd have to be.

Roger Owen Green said...

What the heck did I just see Paul Dooley in?

SamuraiFrog said...

Roger, he was on Parenthood last week if you watched that. Always glad to see him.

Tallulah Morehead said...

Well, I'm glad that you seem to have seen the same movie I did.

Here's the thing: when it was made, I was emceeing sketch-comedy and improvisational-comedy shows every week at The Comedy Store in West Hollywood, where Robin Williams was our star. He had just broken on Mork & Mindy and we lines down the block whenever Robin was there, never an empty seat.

So when Robin left to go to Malta for six months to shoot his first movie, we were all very excited, even though it meant keeping the doors open without the gigcantic audience he drew week in and week out. Meanwhile, to put it mildly, I made a lot less in tips for 6 months.

So then the movie finished and Robin - and his giant audiences - returned. Sometimes some of his new movie friends returned with him. I will never forget sitting backstage with Shelley Duval and talking about The Shining, which she had finished right before doing Popeye, and which wasn't out yet either. A year later, that talk might have been quite different, as these two movies, which I'd been excitedly looking forward to, came out and were each, in their unique ways, MASSIVE disappointments.

The Shining left me wanting to find and shoot Kubrick, while Popeye for which I made sacrifices and received nil back, just provoked that enormous "HUH?" I kept finding myself wondering if the soundtrack was properly mixed. Had the projectionist's cat jumped on the theater's sound control and screwed up the in-theater sound mix? Had Altman had a stroke. (When Altman died and we saw rtibute after tribute to his incredible career, Popeye was always conspicuous by its absence, or would have been if people actually remembered it had ever existed.) Before it was released, I had a Popeye one-sheet poster Robin had signed for me up in my living room. I have no idea whatever becam,e of that poster, but I no longer own it, and it hasn't been on my wall since the second time I saw teh movie and saw that , no, that's actually how Altman mixed the soundtrack.

On Paul Dooley: A very good friend of mine is a close friend of Paul's, and as a result, I run into him repeatedly at parties and shows, to the point that it became a running gag with my friends that I was being stalked by Paul Dooley.

SamuraiFrog said...

Oh, boy. I wasn't sure if the sound was like that on purpose or not; I thought maybe because I watched it on a local channel the sound was just more muted. I have an album of Harry Nilsson's demos, and it sounds better than the soundtrack.

I also don't like The Shining (which is probably my favorite Stephen King novel). I will forever be indebted to Shelley Duvall for creating Faerie Tale Theatre, however, which enriched my childhood.

When I was a high school kid I stayed home sick from school and saw Breaking Away for the first time and have been a fan of Paul Dooley's ever since. I'm actually excited when I see him show up in something, like last week's Parenthood.

Roger Owen Green said...

Thanks, it WAS Parenthood!

Tallulah Morehead said...

I don't watch Parenthood, so I missed that appearance. Last thing I saw Paul in was actually a Christopher Guest movie, For Your Consideration, that I happened to watch about three days ago.

If you can rent the movie Little Shop of Horrors: The Director's Cut, the musical version that Frank Oz directed but with the original apocalyptic ending that was never released in theaters, Paul Dooley plays the role that Jim Belushi played in the film as released. Because the role is a pivotal moment in the story's conclusion, they had to reshoot the character, and Paul was not available for the reshoot. Needless to say, Paul Dooley was roughly 1000% better in the role than Jim Belushi. (For one thing, when he enters, instead of you going: "Shit. It's Jim Belushi," and having all the life sucked out of your soul, you get to go: "Oh look! It's Paul Dooley! Great!" and be excited and happy to see him.)

During my "Paul Dooley is stalking me," era I ran into Paul, among many other places, in the lobby at the theater where I was seeing Wicked. I mentioned this to a friend who said: "Well, of course you ran into him at Wicked; his wife wrote it." Well, yes, his wife did write the script for Wicked, and it's made them very, very wealthy, (Paul does not need to go on acting; he does so because it is his life, and believe me, in LA, at my friend's little cabaret-style theater on the west side, you can occasionally still see Paul onstage doing improv sketch comedy with other Second City veterans), but this wasn't opening night on Broadway; it was a mid-week performance in Los Angeles by the road company, about 8 years after it opened in New York. There had been, by this time, thousands of performances of the show all over America. Running into the playwright's husband at the theater was probably pretty rare. (I'm quite sure he'd already seen it, perhaps on opening night on Broadway?) My guess is that the number of people who have run into Paul Dooley at a performance of Wicked vs the number who have seen it but not him is a ratio of maybe 1,000,000 to 1.