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January 10, 1981 - Image 5

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1981-01-10

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Saturday, January 10, 1981

The Michigan Daily

Page 5

'What happened to the cartoons?

Oh, how we laughed. We howled, -we
roared when Robert Altman announ-
ced, with a perfectly straight face, that
he was making a musical comedy about
the cartoon character Popeye. This,
from the director of M*A*S*H, Nash-'
ville, and three Women? Is he talking
about our Popeye-that ugly, arcane
-little dude who annoyed us every Satur-
day morning, pouring spinach into his
misshapen maw and beating up an en-
dless, monotonous stream of bulls and
freight trains? Altman has forged a
formidable reputation as an examiner
of American pop icons-doctors,
gangsters, singing stars-but is this
creepy, violent little nautical wretch a'
worthy subject for a respectable live-
action film?
Well, yes, as it turns out. Altman
chose to ignore the obnoxious color car-
toons by which we youngsters came to
know and hate Popeye, and turned in-
stead to the source of the Popeye
legend, a Krazy kat-era newspaper
strip called "Thimble Theatre." As
depicted by his creator, Elzie Segar,
Popeye is a rather sweet-souled, gentle,
witty creature who avoids gratuitous
violence. It was not until animator Max
Fleischer bought the rights to Segar's
strip for a series of early sound era
black-and-white cartoons that the
hapless sailor entered into a career of
gleeful mayhem. Let us ignore the bulls
and freight trains, Altman told his
screenwriter for the Popeye project,
satirist Jules Feiffer. Let us instead
concentrate on the gentle, lovely
Popeye of the "Thimble Theatre,"
cavorting in the Segar-created seacoast
village of Sweethaven, surrounded by
his pals Olive Oly, Wimpy, Bluto, and
Swee' pea. Let us make him noble and
good, a sort of epic hero, embarked on
an earnest quest to find his long-lost
father. Fine. We'll do that.
WAS ALTMAN'S scheme a success?
Well, yes, in many ways Popeye is a
charming 'entertainment, visually
rexquisite,, and I'd definitely recom-
mend that you see it. In other respects
it-is a rashing, lumbering crawl-under-
the-seat failure, and I think that this
can be chalked up to two tragic flaws in
Altman's judgement. First, in tran-
slating the cartoon world of
Sweethaven, into a live-action context,
Altman couldn't decide whether to be
cartoony or realistic, anid the result is a
confusing, unsatisfying mixture of

Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl and Robin Williams as Popeye make
bevoodeeful music together in Robert Altman's-musical film version of
both. Second, in choosing the has-been bump-tied boots, while Duvall handles
MOR composer Harry Nilsson to do the them with assured, gawky grace. Robin
music for Feiffer's libretto, Altman Williams is a little prettified as Popeye:
hobbled an otherwise pleasant little despite those alarming, bulgy forear-
film with one of the most inept, jejune ms, he. looks damn good as a blonde.
and tedious scores in living memory. Duvall may be a perfect Olive Oyl, but
Popeye doesn't look like a cartoon. casting Williams as Popeye was sheer
The setting is breathtakingly real: a genius. .
ramshackle little village surrounded by Williams as a performer is just gentle
picture-postcard mountains and and sentimental enough to pull off the
crystal-clear water. It doesn't even look mushy things that Feiffer's script
American. Altman chose to film in requires. When he dangles his adopted
Malta, with a lot of Maltese extras and son, Swee'pea (played by Altman's
it shows; when Popeye and Olive Oyl granAson, Wesley Ivan Hurt, a hear-
open their mouths, one half-expects tbreakingly cute little kid) or tries to
them to speak in Italian. . It's { convince his grumpy, long-lost dad that
astonishing how much the actors look they are indeed related ("Look! We
like Segar's drawings, and yet are so both got the same bulgy forearms!f"),
plausibly real. It's true that Shelley he just radiates good-humored affec-
Duvall was born tosplay Qlive,with her tion. Like Ma: Felischer's Popeye,
lanky figure.and big doll eyo. Ot er a , William' r ater As prqne to mut-
tresses would look befuddiled i the tering of -t -wa l otto voice commen-
character's absurd frilled collars and ts which are usually funnier than
anything else that's going on. Unfor-
tunately, Altman undermiked most of

about a quart!" Popeye (to Olive):
"Are ya Greek?"
real, if bizzare, context, Altman tries to
make his people act like cartoon
people, and it just doesn't come off. In
the cartoons when Olive has an under-
water tangle with an octopus, it is con-
ventional and fitting. In Altman's film,
the same schtick looks like something
out of a cheap Japanese kiddie show.
When Bluto socks Popeye and the latter
rolls down a ramp like a hoop, he rolls
slowly, deliberately, and we are aware
of the shoddy special effect. The same
thing happens slam-bang in the car-
toon, and we accept the dopey event.
When Altman tries for cartoon violen-
ce, he violates the realistic physical
world that he has set in motion, and the
effect is embarrassingly out of place.
Altman should have stuck to his
original thesis, that of ignoring the
animated Fleischer Popeye and
creating the static character anew on
his own terms.
At the film's end when Williams
sings, "I'm Popeye the Sailor Man/I'm
strong to the finnitsch/Cos I eats me
spinach," one is squirmingly aware of
how much better and more apropos to
the proceedings is Sammy Lerner's
venerable little ditty than Nilsson's en-
tire new-fangled score. What makes
Nilsson's music for Popeye so ghastly is
not so much the fact that it's unin-
teresting tonally and clumsy lyrically,
but that it is constantly at odds with
what's going on. The characters are
dressed in turn-of-the-century garb;
they sing catchy Seventies commercial
tunes. When we are trying to pay atten-
tion to a tense chase scene, Ray
Walston, as-Popeye's father, "talks" a
sort of endless patter song about
ungrateful children; Popeye pun-
ctuates a scene in which he angrily
asserts his morality in a den of vice by
gently crooning, "I yam what I yam
what I yam what I yam ."...Trust the
composer of the theme song of The
Courtship of Eddie's Father to reduce a
vehement assertion of individuality to
the level of a fast-food jingle.
For all the vulgarity of the Max
Fleischer cartoons, the animated
Popeye is a character we can buy. Alt-
man's mesh of live action-look and car-
toony intentions fails, but it's more
because he's in the wronig league than
the,.impossibility of translating the
spinach-eating sailor man's story into a
visually realistic film. The naturalistic
Altman products are his best, he has a
keen eye for looking over people's
shoulders and seeing their true make-
up. Popeye and Olive in this movie may
be flesh and blood, but they have car-
toon souls. That's one less dimension
than Altman usually deals with and it
takes the punch and some of the quality
out of his Popeye.

DIVIPUA LMEA IF1 Ann Arbor neater CrAP
ie a' ber 7 *1-9700 FLICKS will be back JAN. 16
N *
FRI, MON-7:15, 9:20
SAT, SUN-12:50, 2:55, 5:10, 7:15, 9:20
SAT, SUN $1.75 til 1:00 (dr cop)





<<_ "'



Information 995-4242
1s -iweekdavs

711 N. University
Ann Arbor

" new classes beginning
January 12, 1981
" separate classes for
Chidren baoet creattve movemefl
- adults baglet modern jazz

* rare books found
in local book store
(Continued rrom Page ii recovered could be just "the tip of
NUSSBAUM, However, said at least iceberg." He said that the susr
"some of the books contained "may have been doing business
signatures or rubber stamps of the years."
Zoology division." "This person has been doing busir
Det. Branson said that he knew the with the bookstore for some time
books as only being marked with maybe a year . . . or two years,"
signatures or stamps of the owners, in- Branson.
cluding those owned by individuals and . At least one of the books involve
those bequeathed to the University. owned by Reeve Bailey, curator
Mark Cassino, the principal library fishes for the Museum of Zoology.
assistant at the Museum Library, said books are located in one of the mus
he identified one book. Cassino said that libraries for student use: Bailey s
the book he identified had "ambiguous "We're afraid there might be m
markings," and that in his opinion it more items."
might not be recognized as University Nussbaum said the books invol
property. came from five different sources:
BRANSON SAID that there may have University of Michigan Libr
been one book that contained the mark System; the Divisions of Herpatol
of a University department, but he was Insects, and Fishes of the Departn
not sure. The detective also said there of Biological Science; and, Bail
was no evidence of criminal action on private collection. All the books v
the part of the bookstore. He said that stored in the museum.
"some people at the University were Commenting on thefts from Uni
unhappy with the way he (Sheets) con- sity libraries in general, Directo
ducted himself." Libraries Richard Dougherty said,
Prof. Nussbaum said the University the cost of books increases, the prob
occasionally sells old second copies of has seemed to become magnified
some books, but specific forms must Nationally, as books become m
accompany the sale in order to valuable, thefts of rare books are on
legitimize it. rise."

them, so they're hard to catch, but
rewarding nevertheless. The scene in
which the bemused Popeye is in-
troduced to the Oyl household, in which
people have names like Olive and
Castor, is filled with this kind of under-
the-breath hilarity. Popeye (behind
oks Mrs. Oyl's back1: "Looks like she's had

d is
r of
r of

ro Tonlql

the ann arbor -
h, film cooperative TO ih
Mystery Tour
7:00& 10:20M-B3
Rare early footage .(wm iterviews
and more.
a:40 only MLB 3



"We're on a mission from God." Jake is released from Joliet Prison only to
discover that he and his brother must raise five grand to pay back taxes and
save their alma-mater orphanage, the only home they ever had. They go on
a quest to revive their old band and play a big-bucks gig. The mission isn't
easy when all Elwood has to run on is white bread toast, and Jake's ex-girl-
friend is trying to blow him away with sophisticated weaponry. JAMES
he's still around), CAB CALLOWAY. In 35mm. 7:00 & 9:00 at LORCH
Monday: CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF with Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman
CINEMA GUILD Diced, Sliced and'Crinkle Cut
LORCH HALL (Below Crisp)

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