Friday, August 29, 2014

Popeye (1980)

Screen shot from Paramount DVD.
WHO: Robert Altman directed Robin Williams in his first major motion picture role.

WHAT: Robert Altman directed thirty-six feature films and dozens upon dozens of plays and television episodes, but only one of these was an adaptation of a beloved comic strip character (who had been translated to screen by the Fleischer Brothers as animation nearly fifty years prior). It followed a post-Nashville hitless streak that included some of his strangest (and, some of them, among his best) movies, most notably the so-called "Fox Five": the Bergman-esque Three Women, the caustic comedy A Wedding, the enigmatic Quintet (which could be a good double-bill-mate with Bong Joon-ho's current Snowpiercer), the rock-and-roll romance A Perfect Couple, and the proto-Pret-A-Porter of the naturopathy movement HealtHLongtime Altman collaborator David Levy is quoted in Mitchell Zuckoff's indispensable book Robert Altman: The Oral Biography: "if the five-picture Fox deal left his career in a place where it was on the precipice, this project would be the one that would either put him back on top or he'd be falling over into the abyss."

As it turned out, it became the latter, as Altman spent the following decade-plus persona non grata at Hollywood studios, forced to shut down his own company Lion's Gate (not to be confused with the current outfit), and scrape together television and below-the-radar independent projects (some of them excellent in their own right) until re-emerging with The Player in 1992. This was because of the critical and commercial failure of Popeye upon its opening. However, in a situation that seems impossible to replicate today, Popeye ultimately caught on with audiences starved for big-screen family entertainment, especially at weekend matinees across the country, and ended up, according to screenwriter Jules Feiffer, one of the top ten moneymakers of the year. Today its reputation is in ascendency among Altman fans, although the director always defended it, as at his last San Francisco public appearance at the Castro Theatre in 2003, when he called it his favorite of all his films in response to an audience question that denigrated it. It may be that, as a recent Dissolve article says, producer Robert Evans "bitterly regretted" the film, but in Zuckoff's book he calls it "a work of genius" and "Bob's best work", suggesting that it should be rereleased today.

As for Robin Williams, the star whose suicide this month would sadly be the most likely reason for such a rerelease, here are some of his comments in Robert Altman: the Oral Biography
It's a beautiful film, man. It's done with the same love he made every other film with. He told me later on, "Don't always go with a critical response. Go with, 'What did you do there?'" Yeah, we did do some really great stuff. I think it was just because it was my first movie, it was like the illusion--"I want the studio to make money." [. . .] I think for the first one of of the gate, that's a pretty amazing experience. It's kind of like Apocalypse Now without the death. . . . For your first movie to get the shit kicked out of it, it toughened me up. It's kind of, in a weird way, a gift. It was like, "Hey, now you go off and you work. You're no longer a virgin. You've been in your first battle. it wasn't a total victory but we didn't get slaughtered. So keep going."
WHERE/WHEN: Screens 7:20 tonight at the Castro Theatre, and 4:00 today and 3:00 Monday at the New Parkway in Oakland.

WHY: Popeye is a perfect MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS selection, as it snugly fits head MANiAC Jesse Hawthorne Ficks's neo-sincere philosophy of appreciation of "misunderstood and maligned" movies. Though tonight's Castro screening is surely going to be affected by the spike of interest in Williams following his suicide, it was actually planned (unlike the New Parkway shows) before the star made that tragic decision. So although it's not one of the first Williams tribute screenings here in San Francisco, it will end up being the first at the Castro Theatre, to be followed by eight shows on that venue's newly-announced September calendar. If you click that link you can also see the first programs for October at the Castro, beginning with an October 1st tribute to the late Lauren Bacall, who was tributed beautifully by in this week's issue of Eat Drink Films by Eddie Muller, by way of the vivid description of the circumstances of his 2007 interview with the Hollywood icon (who incidentally starred in Altman's HealtH along with the recently-deceased James Garner; it's been a bad summer for stars of 1980 Altman films.) The back page of the September Castro calendar gives us a bit more information than what's available on-line. More Bacall tribute screenings there will include Key Largo and Harper on October 12th and How to Marry a Millionaire and Written on the Wind on October 19th. Although the Castro now has a new 4K projector for its digital screenings, which will be used to show this weekend's booking of Lawrence of Arabia (I hope this doesn't spell the end of 70mm screenings at one of the few local venues which can theoretically hold them, although I fear it might), I hope that, like most of the Robin Williams tribute showings (all but Popeye and The Fisher King), most of the Bacall screenings will be able to be shown in 35mm prints. No word on that yet, though. UPDATE: Shortly after publication I learned that all the Bacall films will be shown in their native 35mm, other than How to Marry a Millionaire.

As Cheryl Eddy notes in her excellent SF Bay Guardian Fall preview of Frisco Bay cinema options (from which I have finally updated my sidebar of upcoming film festivals, if you scroll up and to the right), the next MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS screening is (a week before previously announced) a September 19th showing of Inside Llewyn Davis (shot on film but sadly unavailable to screen that way, it seems) and a 35mm print of Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner's Daughter. What she doesn't mention (presumably because it was unavailable at press time) are some of the other terrific Castro September options, such as the rarely seen Bob Fosse film Sweet Charity screening in 35mm with the new DCP of All That Jazz September 6th, or a 35mm double-bill of Red Desert and Mickey One Sept. 24, or two prints of Sam Fuller films Park Row and Pickup on South Street, playing with a new documentary by his daughter Samantha called A Fuller Life, on Sept. 28. 

HOW: Tonight's screening is a double-feature with a 35mm print of Sidney Lumet's The Wiz, but Popeye itself will be screened as DCP. The New Parkway's showing will also be digital, as always at that venue.

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