Most Robin Williams movies are exactly that – they’re movies about Robin Williams, built around an explication of his outsized public persona. POPEYE, by the great Robert Altman, is a bit of an outlier in this regard. Williams plays the titular sailor with eccentric aplomb, but he rarely serves as the sole focus of his own movie’s frames. That’s thanks to the aforementioned auteur. For Altman, each actor was but a color he could smear onto his images; and though he seldom obtained a splash of paint as vibrant as Robin Williams, he never allows the performer to overwhelm the film itself. There’s only one author of this film, and his vision is overwhelmingly clear.
This picture even fits into the politically-minded director’s standard narrative framework. Like a great many Robert Altman movies before and after it, POPEYE is about an iconoclast-loner-outsider-other adrift in a strange ecosystem that he must come to understand, so that he may game it to his own advantages. THE LONG GOODBYE, MCCABE & MRS. MILLER, QUINTET, MASH, TANNER ’88, CALIFORNIA SPLIT. In comedies, tragedies, and films that fall in between the two, Altman told this story repeatedly.
The auteurist angles in this movie extend past the narrative, too. POPEYE is also constructed and directed in the same mode as Altman’s kaleidoscopic wide-frame masterpieces of the 70s. His presentation of Sweethaven, full of criss-crossing under-and-over bridges and wood-boarded homes, looks like a New England shantytown that was designed entirely by Muppets, and he constantly lets his camera linger on the landscape shots it provides, watching from a detached viewpoint as the denizens go about their day. (The way that the town was built from the ground up also allowed Altman to control the color palette to a degree he rarely had before – the film, full of rusted wood grey’s and sailor cap blues, has a very fussily achieved look.) Altman films always took pleasure in minutia, and POPEYE gave him the sort of budget needed to indulge that pleasure on a grand scale. Forgive the cliche, but Altman’s Sweethaven, so intricate and dense in design, indeed appears to us as a cartoon come to life.
So Altman is obsessed with ensembles, ecosystems, wide-lens cinematography, and the way that cinematography lets him take a look at those ensembles and ecosystems from a distance. But how does POPEYE make use of all that? To extremely formal comic ends. POPEYE is filled with gags that fulfill the potential that the big screen offers for humor. Take one particular shot where Olive (Shelley Duvall, natch) bumps into Popeye and goes flying into the wall. She hits the wall itself, then a windowshade goes flying up a beat later, then a picture falls off the wall a beat after that. All these events follow each other in rhythmic motion, and all are seen via a single unbroken shot – it’s lyrical, poetic goofiness.
The gag works as well as it does because Altman feels no need to call special attention to its moving parts. He let’s the whole process play out within the same long shot, allowing your eyes do the work themselves. This is true of the less humorous moments of the movie, too. Its musical sequences, for instance – set to uproarious lyrics devised by the great Harry Nillson – are almost entirely focused on documentations of group rituals seen in long shot, like the town’s denizens eating dinner (“Everything is Food”) or going to work in the morning (“Sweet, Sweethaven.”) Altman’s camera is always set up from a vantage point far enough away from the action, and it lets viewers set an objective gaze upon extremely skewed, subjective portrayals of reality. The contrast, as usual with the director, is invigorating.
You could even argue that there’s a sense of ‘Bazinian realism’ brought on by such use of long shots and deep focus: Your eyes are being afforded the freedom to look at any part of the set or the frame that they want to, and that leaves POPEYE feeling much more alive than films that are ostensibly in a much more “realist” mode. It is indeed a cliche to say that POPEYE is a cartoon brought to life; what’s exceptional – what transcends the cliche – is that Altman’s formal approach makes the film feel more like a documentation of an alternate reality, more than an actualized representation of a stylized cartoon.
It’s because of that formal approach that audiences need to come to the Brattle and see POPEYE on the big screen. The true beauty of Robert Altman movies is in their mise-en-scene; in the way Altman painted each frame full of jokes and asides that provide great visceral pleasure to the viewer. It lies in the way he would lay multiple jokes around different corners of the same frame, like that gag with Olive’s havoc crossing the room; in the way he would have actors talk over each other and use surround sound to separate the dialogue; in the general busyness with which he would fill every single image. He was a man who truly painted on wide canvases. Watching an Altman film like POPEYE at home is akin to looking at a small print of a painting at a museum gift shop instead of sauntering over to the exhibit to see the real thing.