I liked Robert Altman’s Popeye as a kid, but I couldn’t have told you why. It’s trippy, convoluted, chaotic, and I was sure that either a lot of the jokes weren’t funny or I was just too young to get them. It didn’t look quite like the Fleischer Studio cartoons I would later see, but the movie felt like it was emulating a warm, old, vaudeville fantasia that I liked. There wasn’t enough spinach—although, to Altman’s credit, Popeye doesn’t eat spinach in the original comics; that deus ex machina came only with the cartoons a decade after the strip’s start—but that was somehow okay. The songs were corny, but their almost out-of-tune ramshackle quality made me smile. I was never head-over-heels swooning for the movie, but it somehow worked for me.
It didn’t work, apparently, for lots of people. At the time, critics derided the movie; even Altman supporters—and they were legion during the early 1980s—dismissed Popeye. (Roger Ebert was a rare exception.) The common theory is that Popeye represents the nadir of Altman’s long decline in the late-1970s, from which he would not fully recover—critically or commercially—until 1992’s The Player. Oddly, for all the disparagement, someone liked it—Popeye turned a profit, despite its lavish set (built off the coast of Malta) and gargantuan budget problems.
Lately, though, it’s had a critical resurgence, led in part by bloggers and the online community. But I haven’t seen a better-written, more detailed, wittier, or more delightful defense of Popeye than this lovely piece by Noel Vera. A sample:
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.”
And Vera’s evocation of Shelley Duvall (Olive Oyl) singing the ballad “He Needs Me”:
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).
There’s more, much more. Before you read his essay, be warned that it discusses the plot at considerable length. Even if you haven’t seen it, and I haven’t in two decades (but it’s on the Netflix queue now), read the piece anyway.
For a crash course on Popeye, start with the reprint volume of E.C. Segar’s original Thimble Theatre comics that Fantagraphics has put out, and then seek out the Fleischer Studio Popeye cartoons from the 1930s.