Thursday, April 07, 2005

WHY POPEYE, EMBODIED BY ROBIN WILLIAMS, IS GOOD FOR THE CHILDHOOD SOUL

Something you loved at five years old should not be the same thing you love at twenty-nine years old. You're supposed to have matured in your artistic tastes, put your childish thoughts away, realized that our preschool likes and dislikes, even loves and fears, are something to be left behind, not intentionally sought after.

But after watching the DVD of Popeye, I can state, unequivocally, once and for all: Naaaaah.

Viewed objectively, as a so-called adult, Popeye is a strange movie. It's photographed and directed like a drama, because the director is Robert Altman, one of the most respected, if not revered, directors of the last fifty years (MASH, The Player, Nashville, McCabe and Mrs.Miller, Short Cuts, The Long Goodbye, and on and on). It's paced like a drama, too. The story is episodic and rambling, without even a hint of a plot. The characters are, by necessity, cartoons; Robin Williams plays Popeye brilliantly, and Shelly Duvall as Olive Oyl is, well, the cartoon come to life. And yet they are given adult quirks and lines of dialogue that I didn't understand at five but can certainly appreciate a quarter of a century later. To top it all off, it's a musical.

The whole idea is ludicrous. "I know! We'll make a big-screen version of the old Popeye cartoons, but it'll be live-action, paced like a drama, and, of course, it'll be a musical! What's not to love?"

A crazy notion.

But what a great film.

Again, I can't really view it objectively.

Nor do I want to.

As a child, there was something altogether right about seeing your animated, comic-book heroes come to life in a format that at least approximated reality. Such adaptations showed that there was a definitive link between the 'real' world and the world of comics and books; it was possible for one to transcend the other. I could read the Superman comic books, then see Christopher Reeve's version of the character boldly fly across the screen. I could devour Batman's adventures at night in my bed, then watch him on TV in the campy-but-as-a-kid-I-didn't-know-it TV show. (I knew there was SOMETHING odd when Adam West, as Batman, pulled a can of Shark-Repellent Spray to fend off a bothersome great white, but I couldn't place my finger on why.) I could catch Popeye cartoons on Sunday mornings, which were straightforward and simple and funny and goofy, and then see Popeye transformed into a living, breathing person as embodied by Robin Williams -- alert, funny, a simulation of the cartoon but there, a real person (or as real as any of us can be).

A lot of stuff in movies and TV shows goes sailing directly over kids' heads, but that's an altogether good thing; it allows children to understand that they can still enjoy something on a basic entertainment level while subtly, almost covertly implanting the notion that there's something, well, more going on underneath the surface, ideas and messages and allusions that point to a world larger than the one they know.

Popeye can jump out of a cartoon into the real world, yes, but this real world will be strange and funny and slightly off-kilter and, while similar to the world you know, only vaguely so -- that's the message, at five, I unintentionally, against-my-will, got.

As for the message I got at twenty-nine, while watching it again?

I can't do better than what the man himself said:

I am what I am and that's all that I am.

28 comments:

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Anonymous said...

Hi Scott

I saw your Blog and thought you'd be interested in our online Policy eDiscussion on Canadian culture and know-how abroad. Below is the blurb I've been sending out to list serves and newsletters.

All the best,

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Policy Planning/Planification des politiques
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www.fac-aec.gc.ca


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- What role does Canadian culture and know-how play in our foreign policy?
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The eDiscussion is open from April 4 to May 6, 2005. Once completed a summary of the eDiscussion will be circulated to senior policy planners in the department.

A series of video interviews with various Canadians describing their experiences working and studying abroad are posted on the site to help stimulate debate. We also provide links to other resources to help frame this feature issue.

We'd like to invite you to add to the discussion at the Canadian International Policy Web site: http://www.dfait-maeci.gc.ca/cip-pic/menu-en.asp

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