Thursday, November 30, 2017

wrong is wrong even if it helps you

Popeye, especially Robin William's take in Robert Altman's film, is a strange character. Loving but prone to violence. Kind but prone to insult. He speaks without thinking and, while he's fairly accepting of the people around him (seriously, Popeye and Sweethaven here are like Phil Connors and Punxsutawney reversed), he still has his standards and, when it comes to gambling at least, he's quite expressive about them. Doesn't matter how it might actually help the baby he himself has taking to caring for (and by mere cinematic whimsy, with Swee'pea there, they cannot lose); whatever moral code Popeye's got--his "moralikies"--he sticks to it.

Meanwhile, in the real world, you've got Republicans supporting a child molester because he would support their politics, Democrats calling out sexual abusers and harassers all over the place but then when it's one of theirs, do they scream as loudly? And, if they do, what happens when their senator resigns and their politics are weakened? A bunch of partisan bullshit as usual. One side against the other against the other. Always and forever. Or so you'd think. Like the Hatfields and the McCoys, two sides convinced they're permanently embroiled in a conflict for this very soul, and the soul of the country.

And the president fuels it deliberately, like this tweet from yesterday:

The only people who don't like the Tax Cut Bill are the people that don't understand it or the Obstructionist Democrats that know how really good it is and do not want the credit and success to go to the Republicans!

Some simple logical fallacies in there--a good either-or fallacy, a bit of a true scotsman crossed with a straw man, not to mention the notion that the minority in an organization built on voting holds the power to be "obstructionist". But, nevermind his inability to argue well. What matters here, regarding my current point, is that it is easy to push two opposing sides into their corners if they want to be there, if it's in their respective natures to want to back themselves into their own corners and come out fighting. It's the nature of the political beast (and I won't bother bringing out Fiske (2002) about how people seek out others like themselves yet again), and far too much the nature of the American beast; we just can't be bothered to exist without an ongoing conflict.

The people of Sweethaven are like the abused partner in a relationship with Bluto (and, to a lesser extent, the tax man). Constantly trying to appease him, to keep him from blowing up, and yet not making enough effort to really avoid him. (Like all of us liberals who have the president's tweets coming right to our phone, I suppose.) Olive doesn't have to pay taxes, of course. And, she explains to Popeye,

You think everyone pays taxes but me and my family, don't you? Well, you couldn't be more wrong... You think it's because I'm engaged to Bluto and Bluto runs the town for the Commodore so we get special favors. Well, it's a lie... Bluto is kind and generous and likes to do things for his loved ones. And you want me to hurt his feelings.

Sounds delightfully Trumpian.

And, yes, I'm partisan. Yes, I'm petty. And, yes, a simple movie from 1980 can trigger me into talking politics instead of film...

Except, as I have often contended, film is politics, politics is film. Any given film offers up a snapshot of a time and a place--on one level the time and place it is set, but even more so the time and place it was made. Consider: Popeye, like Flash Gordon, was based on old comics and a cartoon. Built-in name recognition is the kind of thing Hollywood loves. Neither of these films was considered to be particularly successful that week that they both opened, but Popeye was the #12 grossing film for 1980, and Flash Gordon was #23. (#1 was, of course, The Empire Strikes Back.) We're still in the Cold War. We've put Vietnam and the 60s counterculture mostly behind us, but free love and rock & roll gave us swinging and disco. Hollywood had been embracing more adult fare through the 60s into the 70s. And, this was the year we'd elect Ronald Reagan, the guy who, in his role of governor of California, said of protestors, "If it takes a bloodbath, let's get it over with. No more appeasement." The American Way, use a whole lot of force as long as you think you're side is right. This is Popeye, easily. Paint Bluto as mean to everybody and Popeye doesn't have to do much to be the hero. (Hell, he never actually beats Bluto in a fight in the film. Instead, he punches an octopus and Bluto swims away scared.)

His fight with Oxblood feels close to the gambling Wimpy does, but the film puts Popeye in red, white and blue for that fight and gives him the extra careful bit of 1) not getting in the ring until Oxblood has already beaten Castor Oyl, and 2) not wanting to really beat Oxblood as long as Oxblood's mother is there to watch; Popeye is painted as a knight, with not just moralicky but honor. But, morality and honor are defined by whoever's in charge, whatever societal waves are crashing at the time. And, our loss in Vietnam behind us, America wanted a win. Not that Popeye is explicitly set in America, but the character was born out of the Great Depression, and born out of our need for violence to solve our problems. And, he's finding his father, finding himself, saving a baby, and scaring off the bad guy, and it's a bit of everything we like in a film, but painted in strange brushstrokes, with bizarre characters all over the place, a comic strip writ large on the big screen.

Interesting politics, though: Bluto isn't really the bad guy. Nor is the tax man. They both work for the Commodore. The third act introduces this Commodore finally, and--you know, SPOILERS--it's Popeye's father and he's immediately painted as not that bad when 1) Bluto ties him up, and 2) he sides with Popeye and the Oyls in the final chase and gets spinach to Popeye when he needs it. It's like if, in Return of the Jedi, when Luke finally got the Emperor and Palpatine abruptly sympathized with the rebels and wanted Vader jailed. It would be a cheat there, and it's a cheat here. Similarly, the presence of the Octopus means Popeye never has to beat Bluto like he beat Oxblood. And, the Commodore never really has to be the bad guy, even though he's the one accepting all those taxes, and he's the one who left a brute like Bluto in charge in his absence.

In the world of Popeye, women barely matter and men fight over anything and everything. It would be nice if that were exclusive to just 1980 America.

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