Saturday, July 13, 2013

Random Film Review: Popeye

Dir: Robert Altman | 1980 | 114mins | USA

My first surprise was when I asked the bus driver where the Popeye village was. I looked at him and saw the spitting image of what I'd imagine Popeye's father to look like, a squashed-together and gnarly face. Then he spoke – and sounded just like Popeye's father would sound like. He directed me to a beat-up minibus on the side of the road, which would take me the mile to Popeye village.

My second surprise occurred upon entering the beat-up minibus: I saw three Afro-American couples incongruously seated inside. They were very bling, and looked like they belonged in a stretched limo in a 1990s rap video. They were all beautiful, the guys well-built; the wives dazzling, taking random photos of walls with their $2,000 DSLRs whilst the guys made rude digs at the locals. Best of all, they had drinks in their hands, obviously taken from a local bar. They oozed cool. I felt like I'd gatecrashed a cheesy party. They seemed friendly enough, though. Indeed, I even came to question their bling when they questioned the fact that their pre-paid tickets were €10 whilst mine on the door was only €9. Whatever.

After driving in the bus for ten minutes, we arrived at the film set of Robert Altman's 1980 musical adaption of Popeye, starring Robin Williams (in his film debut) as the eponymous hero and Shelley Duvall cast to perfection as Olive Oyl. Anchor Bay in Malta was chosen as the location for the film and nineteen wooden structures were built, all deliriously ramshackle. It was pretty surreal walking around the colourful village, but I was out of season and out of sorts. There were two performers playing Popeye and Olive Oyl, but they looked nothing like the real thing. The guy meant to be Popeye looked about nineteen, and skinny as a rake. They did an embarrassing dance to some techno track, and the Afro-Americans joined in ironically, drinks still in hands.

The film itself was a commercial hit but a critical disaster. Time has been less harsh on it, and it's now a cult movie of sorts and can even be discussed as being thematically consistent with Altman's other films. The film has a lot of charm and energy, capturing some of the spirit of the original cartoons. The music, by Harry Nilsson, isn't totally successful, but the film's an enjoyable romp with the two lead performers excellently cast. But back in the 1970s and 80s comic strip film adaptations weren't as popular as they are today. They'd been Superman in 1978, Flash Gordon in 1980, Annie in 1992, but nothing like the explosion of comic book films we've had in recent years.

Strangely enough Popeye now looks like a sort of comical remake of Altman's masterly western McCabe and Mrs Miller, made in 1973. In this Warren Beatty plays McCabe, a lonesome drifter with ambition who wonders into town, mumbling to himself ('I got poetry in me'). And Popeye, lonesome and shipwrecked into town, mumbling to himself. Both films deal with an outsider in a hostile environment and feature isolated settlements.

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