Unassimilated weirdness is typical of Popeye – even in its soundtrack, where goofy “boing” effects are used to accompany ordinary, unheroic movement. Sweethaven’s anthem, the Harry Nilsson song “Everything Is Food,” suggests that matter is perversely organic. In a society of feeders, even items of clothing become live and animalistic, while conversely, nature remains inedible (an animatronic pelican is as stiff and impassive as most of the humans).
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- In Miniature
Here they come, the characters of Popeye (1980): the loping, chattering Olive Oyl (Shelley Duvall); Bluto (Paul L Smith), a thug with the low groan of a tugboat; and Wimpy (Paul Dooley), whose arms instinctively flap out, so that objects dash out of his hands. Each operates according to his or her own mathematical pattern, condensed into a signature act: rapping a handkerchief, or swaying a ladder. When Olive Oyl walks, her body pivots and then lurches at an angle, so that she can only approach you obliquely; she cuts a meandering path through the streets. Popeye (Robin Williams) himself is a character out of Calvino, his complexities and entire expressive range limited to the one grimace.
These people are tiny. Laid out on the beaches of Sweethaven, they are wheezing toys, set to play on an enormous soundstage. Mid-action they unthinkingly bob and reverse, or jump up on completion of a cycle. The film is composed from the interactions of these figures: their attractions and repulsions, the way they cross paths and bump up against one other. They stop-start and wheel uncertainly, to the extent that we believe they may be remotely activated. Yet life is by no means effortless for these people. Sweethaven may be an idyllic coastal village, but it is made up of curved surfaces and rolling seas that resist their very restricted movements. Most of the characters can gain no foothold in this universe; they slip and slide, lolling along the decks – Olive Oyl is as easily overturned as a push-cart. If the definition of madness is the repetition of one act in hope of a new result, then these figures are doomed to perform the same gestures, compulsively, until their mechanisms run out.
What kind of reality is possible in a film with this many motors? At times, Altman’s film seems to takes its view of character from the Victorian novel, with its Dickensian wind-up figures who speak in warped gasps (“Twitchy, twitchy”) and express surprise on autopilot (“Oh, my stars!”). What else might one expect from dialogue written by a cartoonist? Screenwriter Jules Feiffer has a history of creating broad character outlines, not only in his comic strips, but in his previous script for Carnal Knowledge (1971), where the characters were just as locked into vocal mannerisms as the ones in Popeye. In Carnal Knowledge, two terse actors, Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel, wandered through a world populated by women – each one chaotic or unsatisfying in her own way, but clearly defined as a “type.” Another possible comparison might be with Jean Renoir’s French Cancan (1954), a working model of a universe whose dramas are exactly scaled to fit its miniature characters, and where the smallest act is enough to shift the balance in group relations.
In its oddity, Popeye deviates from its source cartoon in more overt ways: this Popeye dislikes spinach. This is a cue that the film is a bizarro world intended to explore the flipside of comic strip, where the known characteristics of objects are either reversed or exaggerated. Strangest of all, Popeye’s patented fight move, the Twisker Sock – a multi-directional, spiral arm movement – is seen here as a one-off, improbable phenomenon rather than a trademark. When this gesture is literally unwound and released as a coup toward the end of the film, it’s viewed as a sign of the extraordinary: the entry of an object from a different dimension, and evidence that the rules concerning fictional bodies have changed.
Unassimilated weirdness is typical of this film – even in its soundtrack, where goofy “boing” effects are used to accompany ordinary, unheroic movement. Sweethaven’s anthem, the Harry Nilsson song “Everything Is Food,” suggests that matter is perversely organic. In a society of feeders, even items of clothing become live and animalistic, while conversely, nature remains inedible (an animatronic pelican is as stiff and impassive as most of the humans).
What is it that produces each character as a set of reactions, gestures, preferences? In each case, it appears to be movement that energizes and activates a body’s recognizable qualities. Popeye sets other bodies rolling in space – he boxes people’s heads until they spin, sends men somersaulting out the door, and wrong-foots Olive into a rotating dance. Even on a psychological level, movement has been key in the formation of his identity. Popeye is the work of a compulsive hand – as an infant, he was “rocked real hard in the cradle” and given electric eels as toys, which accounts for his skittish movements and talk of being “derailed.” When a hapless-looking baby produces a cartoon whistle and is said to be psychic, we realize that “character” here is as pre-formed as in Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely (2007), where the children of star impersonators are assigned their roles and traits from birth. Olive Oyl’s mother, Nana (Roberta Maxwell), has a version of her daughter’s tremulous, affected voice; generations are born out of theatrical styles of expression and movement. None of these characteristics are natural, but they exist and reproduce.
The figures of Popeye resemble Dickensian clocks, set to chime at a certain time (the repeated cries of “Food!” and “Large!”). Each character is formed under the pressure of repeated movement and in relation to the skewed angles of architecture. Yet these people are capable of surprisingly intimate and detailed relations. Movements may be automatic, but ego and hierarchy are always factors: a man tells his date, “Remember, my dear, tonight is my turn to fall.” The characters can be understood in terms of permutations (how one person’s clicks interfere with another’s walking rhythm), but most of all as a spectacle of unique paths that draw the eye. Sweethaven is an island of star castaways, like those of Harmony Korine: mumbling and self-narrating, guided by our abiding interest in how they travel.
- In Long Shot
The first, explosive seconds of Popeye – where a tiny cell of the vintage comic bursts into live action – immediately set up a number of oppositions and contradictions. There’s the contrast of a scratchy, lo-fi animation and an ’80s star vehicle; the prospect of a musical that threatens to devolve into an atonal grind; and the tension between sculpted space and flatness, as sketches are made to co-exist with live bodies.
Even the film’s setting is a bundle of strange, diverse effects. The village of Sweethaven, though elaborately constructed on an island in Malta, comes across as a creaking soundstage. This is a hugely expensive set that is at pains to seem two-dimensional; it falls to pieces at the slightest touch. While the village is spacious and livable (it’s now a tourist site, an ode to Popeye with playable attractions), it is built to look paper-thin and rickety. We’re aware that this sensual, tactile island is a finite space: a free world within boundaries.
The film’s structure is an uneven patchwork, which extends to its soundtrack and performances. Songs activate unusually and unnaturally in Popeye; all of a sudden, everyone recognizes the impetus for a lyric, as if undergoing mass hypnosis. When the shipwrecked Popeye arrives at Sweethaven, the orchestration starts up without warning and the entire town rolls out to perform itself to the outsider, in chilling unison rather than multi-part harmony. (As a hymn to numbness, lyrics like “Sweet Sweethaven… safe from democracy” are on a par with the “Suicide Is Painless” theme from M*A*S*H, 1972.) In musicals, it’s customary for every player to know their part, but here the process is denaturalized. The characters are not only ready to sing, but primed for it, too early in advance: they brace themselves and stylize their mannerisms in anticipation of receiving a signal. When he wakes up, the first thing Wimpy does is to part his doors and open his arms in a hale and hearty, operatic gesture, with the expectation of joining in a musical number.
Altman seems to avoid continuity in relation to sound. Tinny noises fall on dead silence and objects topple with an inappropriately loud ker-plunk, indicating the point at which audio diverges from the visual. Many of Williams’ lines were found to be inaudible and had to be looped post-shoot (in the final cut, only a third of his monologues are incomprehensible). Since most of the other actors performed their numbers live, this made for an unusual reversal: a musical with dubbed dialogue and live singing.
It’s a rare film in which the dialogue seems to be more contrived and disconnected than the songs; however, the soundtrack represents a twist on Altman’s signature overlapping voices, with its close-fitting textures of redubbed and natural sound. Harry Nilsson’s music does not have any kind of conventional heightening or underscoring effect. While live songs create a certain intimacy, their wobbly rendition (particularly by Olive Oyl) does not provide the break-out of a fully musicalized moment. Instead, this is a musical full of dissonance, with grimy interior sets and half-muttered lyrics that threaten to drag and grate rather than lift.
Popeye follows no recognizable model of narrative suspense or interest, and is happy to have most of its plot points as foregone conclusions. For instance, when Popeye discovers that the villain Poopdeck Pappy (Ray Walston) is his father, the script spends an inordinate amount of time drawing out this revelation. Pappy and Popeye mirror each other’s gestures to exhaustion, before going through a laborious list of similarities and recollections. The self-evident, stretched to excess, becomes puzzling and mysterious in Altman’s hands.
Even the body of Olive Oyl contains a number of irresolvable contradictions. She is uppity and fastidious, obsessed with things being slender, “clean and beautiful,” yet she herself is far from minimalist. Viewed side on, Olive is a flat figure of animation; from the front, her twitches and jitters bring her to life. Her walk is something to see: her body describes a little helix in space, carving out a looping pattern on the docks. Her voice aims to be forceful, but she progressively loses the conviction of her tone and ends up nattering without an audience. Olive is subject to constant stressors; her woozy “Oooohhh” and habit of gazing nervously from side to side destabilize every scene she’s in.
Williams’ Popeye is just as unhinged, with different powers allocated to his body in each scene. One moment he’s stiff as a board, unable to extend his arms to save himself; then he’s bouncy and indefatigable, nearly indestructible. In a surrealist joke, a fearsome sea monster is boxed by Popeye into a flaccid rubber heap. Yet a previous shot of the monster is truly disturbing, with Olive Oyl nauseated as a tentacle lashes her stricken face.
That quick interchange between concrete and cardboard realities is what makes the film a perfectly lopsided piece of work. When 2D and live action contradict each other, that inconsistency is teased out and magnified. The mash-up of fluffy and distinct voices, the unbalanced characters with variable powers, the sudden entry of unbelievable props – all suggest the displacements that occur when one medium is pushed into another.
- Ex Machina
The marvel of this film is that it manages to reconcile actors as diverse as Walston, Williams, and Duvall, and that its rattling sets and sounds are brought into some kind of recognizable harmony. Popeye is full of rhyming effects: for instance, the way Olive Oyl’s face repeatedly turns to dismay when she sings the word “large.” Altman choreographs his actors’ tics so precisely that Olive’s forlorn look becomes associated with that stretched note, as if she is striking the same chord with her body and voice (the effect might be the inspiration for the “Big and Chunky” theme from Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, 2008, with its refrain: “Girl, you large.”).
Even the manic acting of Robin Williams achieves an internal coherence. In this early, imaginative phase of his career, Williams plays Popeye like a parody of a Method actor trying to seem autistic (anticipating Dustin Hoffman’s performance in Rain Man, 1988). But although his speech is superficially lunatic and disordered, it displays clear patterns in relation to his own movement and the rest of the film. His fast footwork during the boxing sequence corresponds to the rhythm of his personal monologue (“Dancing, dancing”). His stifled breaths and grunts mirror the film’s structure: the meticulously timed stops and starts in the soundtrack and the actors’ movements. While Altman’s films initially present an eclectic mix of appearances and acting styles, a chaotic world is revealed to be a smoothly running system.
It’s a surprise how regular the film is. The swing of Popeye’s hammock corresponds to the ring of the bell, which in turn awakens the inhabitants of the village. The town is an ecosystem where everyone seems to be in accord, in the same sway of things – not dissimilar to the functional bunch of misfits Altman showed us in Cookie’s Fortune (1999), or the efficient coordination of upstairs/downstairs manners in Gosford Park (2001). It is a society where shrill and piping voices jostle for prominence (as in McCabe and Mrs Miller, 1971, and Dr T and the Women, 2000), but with the feeling that these people are guided with metronomic precision, however varied their individual acts are.
In Popeye, the panorama of Sweethaven brightens in an instant, as if on automatic setting. Each sunrise sets the characters going on a routine of clumsy acts – dropping binoculars in the ocean, tripping over a bridge, chasing the same hat – which continues throughout the day. Olive Oyl can reliably be expected to turn every movement into a jagged arc. Her performance of the song “He Needs Me” is shaky, with notes uneasily prolonged and words quickly stammered to make time with the chorus – yet Altman ensures that the rendition is exactly matched to her stumbling, cross-footed walk.
The film’s décor is reminiscent of Jacques Demy; characters strike notes of color against muddy and sepia backgrounds. Olive Oyl inhabits her room through a series of stock poses: sitting knock-kneed on the bed, or twirling around as her distinctive silhouette – a costume with wide shoulders and huge boots – is fitted onto her. People perform their distinguishing characteristics without surprise or fuss. After all, this is a fictional reality so consistent that villains announce their guilt with “I confess!”
All this constancy is a kind of preparation for the moment where the film reaches for a full release. By stripping Popeye of musical and visual lushness, Altman paradoxically enables a richness to return, in the form of a simple gesture. Toward the end of the film, a greying world is lit up when we see Popeye, Olive Oyl, and the baby Sweetpea on the rocks in the searing sun. There is the feeling of a sudden, revelatory moment of real time – as of a fictional element being illuminated – when these characters, who seemed only to exist within the tonally consistent décor of a Cukor or Minnelli, are removed from their protective interiors and exposed to natural light. Surprisingly, they do not disintegrate, but thrive. It’s a formally exciting move, when hitherto opaque figures are drenched with light and become fully invested bodies with skin tone and visual depth. In the exuberance of this moment, Altman reveals what he has in common with Jean Renoir. Thrust into the clear sun, blinking, these people resemble the theatrical figures of The Golden Coach (1953), left stranded outside the curtain at the end.
The ambiguous reality of Popeye’s characters – figures of great personal idiosyncrasy as well as familiar archetypes – is further revealed in a later sequence, when the actors are given theatrical props to handle, such as a plastic-looking octopus and a treasure chest. Some mysterious time shift occurs when the long-lost chest turns out to contain the secrets of the future, rather than the past. The “treasure” is actually a set of toys for Sweetpea, including a pair of silvery boots, a photo frame, and a trumpet: all the tools needed to produce the child as a character in a comic, an inhabitant of Sweethaven with well-defined traits. The boots designate the kind of walk the child will have, while the trumpet gives it the vocal signature it requires in a cartoon land.
In this final, enchanting sequence, Altman manages to expose his means of character construction, as well as create a feeling of renewal tied to the film’s ending. It’s clear that Sweethaven is a totally self-sufficient world, even by comic strip standards. The fact that its hidden prize is a box of tricks for producing a new character shows that fiction contains its own means of regenerating itself.
Note: Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the film.