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One hates to belabor how baffling the 1980 feature film version of Popeye is  as an aesthetic object; but Christ. This is the movie that happens when one of the most acclaimed and stylistically radical American directors of the 1970s, Robert Altman, decided that he wants to prove that he can make a big family-friendly popcorn movie and musical comedy, but he wants to make it as though the New Hollywood Cinema was still barrelling onward, instead of being interred in the cold ground at that very moment, and also he's not ready to give up his legendarily prolific cocaine use. And also he actually can't make a big family-friendly popcorn movie and musical comedy. Not while still being Robert Altman, anyway.

The result was a boondoggle and a half, the film individually responsible for locking Altman in directing jail, from which he didn't really escape until the 2001 success of Gosford Park (though he did get out on furlough for a little bit after The Player in 1992). It's certainly hard to declare, without at least a little bit of shame, that it's "good", though I am awfully glad it exists: of all the "apply the logic of a slapstick cartoon short to live-action filmmaking" movies, this is maybe the one that commits hardest to that principle, even when (or especially when) that results in something jaw-droppingly grotesque. Filtering that sensibility through Altman's shaggy hang-out filmmaking approach, refined in the realism of 1970s cinema, results in a thoroughly bizarre hybrid: cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno relies a lot on natural lighting, costumer designer Scott Bushnell and production designer Wolf Kroeger use a lot of muted versions of comic strip colors, and the film has a sort of defiantly shabby look that makes for a mind-melting contrast with the rubbery fight scenes. The one thing that more or less fits is that Altman's habit of miking all of his actors to capture inarticulate fragments of dialogue ends up bleeding invisibly into the mumbling asides that were a hallmark of the Fleischer brothers' Popeye cartoons in the 1930s.

The Fleischer cartoons are, of course, one of the two main incarnations of Popeye the Sailor, and Popeye draws heavily from them in deciding how the characters are going to act, talk, and move, as well as defining the narrative (which is basically a 114-minute version of a 7-minute short, and this running time drags much less than it feels like it ought to). The setting is closer to the original comic strip by E.C. Segar: the Fleischers tended to place Popeye in either a generic American suburb or a variant of New York City, with a population consisting of only five main characters, while the film takes place in a cluttered New England fishing village called Sweethaven, stuffed to the brim with odd-look side characters. The plot, meanwhile, comes from neither, so far as I am aware: sometime in the 1930s, Popeye (Robin Williams, in his first major film role), a sailor with astonishingly overdeveloped forearms arrives in his leaky dinghy at the dock of the rundown town. Here he finds that it's under the thumb of an unseen figure called the Commodore, who has left the running of the town to the thick, mean Bluto (Paul L. Smith), controlling everything by means of a limitless list of taxes on very nearly every behavior. Popeye has come looking for his long-lost father, but quickly becomes embroiled in the life of the town after taking a room at the boarding house run by the Oyl family: daughter Olive Oyl (Shelly Duvall) happens to be Bluto's fiancée, and Popeye has arrived the day before the couple's engagement party. Sketching out the plot beyond this point would involve a lot of short, disconnected sentences, for it proceeds for much of its running time in a series of more-or-less contiguous anecdotes; it will do enough to say that Popeye is unexpectedly given charge of a baby, which he names Swee'pea (Wesley Ivan Hurt), and this endears him to Olive, who has already been planning on running out on the savage Bluto. Bluto, of course, takes all of this very poorly, and devotes his energies to teaching the upstart sailor a lesson.

It's not much to hang a feature on - like I said, it's really not much more than the same plot of most of the Fleischer cartoons - but that's hardly a thing to stop the filmmakers who were, in order of the arrival at the project, producer Robert Evans, writer Jules Feiffer, and Altman. And I will say of that trio that I have no reason to think that Feiffer, a cartoonist by trade who'd studied directly under the great Will Eisner, was the problem. Evans and Altman, though, now that's a duo. Working together for the only time in their careers, the super-producer and the A-list auteur were two of the biggest egos in 1970s Hollywood, as well as two of the most legendary cocaine fiends. And I don't think you could say that Popeye reads as "a coke movie" in the same way that e.g. New York, New York from 1977 does (to keep it within the family of inexplicable musicals from major '70s auteurs). There's a certain straight-edged earnest squareness to the bones of the project. At the same time, it's so extremely square, in a sense, that this is exactly the proof of what a drug-fueled frenzy the movie was being made under. It is insanely focused on being a live-action '30s cartoon, trying to find a way of doing, in live-action filmmaking, the things that are done in squash-and-stretch rubber-hose animation. It furiously achieves this thing. And I think you could only possibly be so hellbent on following this to its most deranged, mad extremes when you are being driven by an amount of cocaine that would get you, for example, convicted of being a drug trafficker shortly the film's premiere, in the case of Robert Evans.

To be sure, this is all one of Popeye's greatest strengths. When faced with the impossibility of applying cartoon physics and musculature to real spaces and real humans, the filmmakers simply did it anyway. Sometimes, it's as simple as having the good sense to hire Bill Irwin to be the character who needs to crumple up like an accordion and then stretch back out again; more often it involves effects Williams giant rubber arms, that look so profoundly wrong and uncanny that the brain has no choice but to accept them as real, since nobody would be demented enough to put something like that in a movie. The film manages to sell all of this by burying an overt surrealism within the apparent realism of the cinematography and design: Sweethaven was built as an outdoor set in Malta, and every board and nail was obviously placed there artificially to facilitate some gag or another. When night falls, the sky becomes so inky black, and the lights so blatantly unmotivated, that it feels like we must surely have moved into some black-box studio. You never once suspect this is a real place, or anything other than an elaborate playground, and yet the visual treatment of it is so gravely quotidian that it manages to overwrite your brain. Even in the unmitigated disaster of the finale, which finds Duvall flapping around a fake octopus that looks no more convincing than the one in Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster, while the plot has given up making any sense at all (it is a matter of record that the film's climax was filmed in a hurry with the last of Paramount and Disney's money that Altman had been enthusiastically wasting for the entire shoot), the insistent physicality of the water and the rocks somehow trumps how ludicrous everything else is.

The same commitment is true, incidentally, for the whole cast - if there's anything we should be able to count on Altman for, it's that! For almost 40 years now, we've all known that the best in show is Duvall, of course; in all of the history of film acting, there probably hasn't been any individual more perfect for playing a live-action Olive Oyl, and Duvall's expression to the flailing, boneless blocking that she has been obliged to translate into plausible human biomechanical movement is impressive as hell. Williams is just as deeply committed to the erratic mumbling that makes up very nearly his entire character; it is a strange and alien performance, but not one that the actor seems to be second-guessing for even an instant, and his unyielding weirdness is in a very real way the foundation upon which the rest of Popeye was built. Accept this bent-over, sonically inexplicable figure as a real human - and Williams insists that we do so - and pretty much everything else follows.

That leaves just one thing to talk about, which is the music: because if all the above wasn't enough to process, Popeye exists because Evans was annoyed at losing the rights to the Annie stage musical to Columbia, and decided to see what other Depression-era comic strip he could work with instead. And thus we get one of the last original movie musicals for a generation, with 11 songs written by Harry Nilsson (who also composed the film's score) and a twelfth number in Sammy Lerner's theme song for the Fleischer shorts, here serving as the triumphant finale. Most of the film is so arrestingly bizarre that it becomes fascinating, and when it is admirable it is admirable because it refuses to compromise; Nilsson's soundtrack is the one element of the film that's actually good in and of itself. Not every one of the songs works (I have particularly little enthusiasm for "Everything Is Food", which seems to exist largely because Nilsson wanted to set the catchphrase "I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today" to music, and then forcing Paul Dooley, of all people, to sing it), but Olive's lilting, keening love ballad "He Needs Me" is one of the best things Nilsson ever wrote, and Duvall's unimpressive singing voice (there are, to be fair, very few impressive singing voices in Popeye) drags something even more sweetly direct and sincere than the song itself already is. The bulk of the songs have a similar simpleness about them, using straightforward jokes in the lyrics and clean, hummable tunes; it's a gentle, silly family musical, and as the rest of the film tries to have every single tone possible, the soundtrack is the one place where it seems to have ended up as exactly the film it set out to be. Not that I regret the sheer madness on display everywhere else - glorious messes are some of my favorite movies, and Popeye is messy on a level they almost don't have words for - but it's nice to have something small and humane anchoring .all the rest of the frenzy and making the whole film at least a little bit graspable