After Ronald Regan scored a dominating win and a second term in office, there had to be some kind of numbness that was felt by those who knew Reagan was an intellectual lightweight but yet somehow, almost despite himself, remained vastly popular. What, they thought, can’t people see, or, more scarily, do they even care? It was probably the latter for Reagan hustled in a kind of hyper-capitalism that ran on credit and deregulation which forced everything to continue to be “bigger and better.” And while this excited those consumers who could afford to see the middle class take a squeeze, it also caused more and more people to fall through the cracks and stumble into the margins where they no longer became part of society but part of a conversation that had some kind of re-beautification scheme baked into it so those people could be further marginalized and forgotten.

Somehow and someway, Robert Altman decided to put all of this and other sundry sentiments of anti-Reaganism into a big screen adaptation of the summer adventures of a couple of teenage characters who had graced the pages of National Lampoon throughout the early eighties. The result was 1985’s O.C. and Stiggs, a film that sat on the shelves until 1987 and one that is generally considered Altman’s worst effort by people who, I suppose, have never heard of or seen Beyond Therapy or A Perfect Couple. While it’s never going to be confused with top-shelf Robert Altman, O.C. and Stiggs remains a delightfully sly film with more on its mind than most of its teen-sex brethren. And, honestly, who gives a flying fuck if Altman forgot to add the sex when he’s having such a gas using his ONE major studio film of the 80’s to gleefully torch the foundation of what every decent American should despise? Altman deserved a medal, not jeers and castigation, for this move.

The plot of O.C. and Stiggs is pretty episodic and random; it’s basically a recounting of the crazy summer that our two characters had as their senior year lurks on the horizon. For O.C. (Daniel Jenkins), it’s a bittersweet memory as he will soon be moving to Arkansas for his final year of high school as the grandfather he has been living with has had his retirement insurance cancelled and is going to have to stay in a nursing home. For Stiggs (Neill Barry), it was just another summer where he can torture the wealthy Schwab family and upend societal convention if only for the attention that he is not getting in his own dysfunctional and overcrowded home.

As much as Popeye was to some extent just McCabe & Mrs. Miller reconfigured for kids, O.C. and Stiggs is basically “I Was a Teenage Hawkeye and Trapper John” where all of the pranks, jokes, and misdeeds have been rerouted from military authority and are now at the expense of the Schwabs, a clan of nouveau riche straights whose patriarch (Paul Dooley) is the insurance king in a community where the words loud, bigoted, tacky, gaudy would be appropriate descriptors. Altman’s rendering of Scottsdale, Arizona, makes it look like the new American frontier; a community of inhabitants in a place not meant to be inhabited, replete with artificial wave pools and other stupid attractions. It’s a baking, sweltering enclave that is an absolute hell, 100% Barry Goldwater territory; the exact type of place where Hal Phillip Walker (Thomas Hal Phillips), Nashville’s third-party presidential candidate, is making a bid for the U.S. Senate ten years after the events of that film.

So it’s a teen sex comedy where the sex is substituted with a giant rod up the ass of the shallow crassness, racial cruelty, and the individualistic, selfish pursuits that had run amok in the back nine of the Reagan Era. And wherever Reaganism failed, O.C. and Stiggs exploits. The homeless, Vietnam vets, decorum, capitalism, and silly charities all get a full inspection as the characters of O.C. and Stiggs are the perpetual progressive irritants in a dead suburbia becoming even more zombiefied. Wherever society decides to stagnate to the detriment of some, the two are there to make sure everyone’s boats are lifted.

So does this really sound like a teen sex comedy at all? The film’s connection to National Lampoon is crucial given M*A*S*H’s contribution to what Roger Ebert used to call the “slob comedy” which was made famous with 1978’s National Lampoon’s Animal House. So this is Altman closing a chapter by bringing it full circle with a certain poignancy and sadness. Unlike other similar films of the day, both O.C. and Stiggs have deep grievances that have some emotional truth. O.C. is hurt by the Schwab Insurance Company which has cancelled his grandfather’s retirement insurance and Stiggs is damaged by a philandering father and a sense of being completely unseen in a busy cacophony of a family (very reminiscent of The Boy’s situation in That Cold Day in the Park). These are kids whose adventures are more stimulated by what their elders have wreaked than it is about chasing girls. “What you boys need is some pussy,” says Melvin Van Peebles’s Wino Bob, in a jive on Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback persona. He knows what it’s like to want to put your foot in the Man’s ass and here are two white kids who have some shared enemies and who want to do just that. But there is a wistfulness to Bob’s sentiment as it’s just too bad that change is left to the young who are the only ones with the energy to do anything when they should be asked little more than to go out and enjoy their lives.

With some nice references to Apocalypse Now, The Pink Panther, The Last Picture Show, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,Altman hasn’t been this referential since Brewster McCloud, itself referenced in O.C. and Stiggs via the jokey vanity plates and a very pointed scene dealing with a lot of bird shit. Additionally the inclusion of King Sunny Adae and his African Beats sets the film apart as one of the commercial aims of films like this was to pack the film with as many hot new artists as possible if only to create a separate revenue stream for the concurrently released soundtrack album. Here, the music of King Sunny Adae acts as pure joy and a great equalizer, one of the few things that seems to bring joy to everyone who hears it. And special mention has to be given to both Jane Curtain, who nails her role as the perpetually soused matriarch of the Schwab family (every member of which being too oblivious to notice is also a nice touch), and the radiant Cynthia Nixon, object of O.C.’s desire.

Of course, not everything in the film works like gangbusters. Sometimes the film has a difficult time mixing Altman’s style with the kind of two handed teen comedy that the movie sort-of kind-of wants to be. Sometimes it’s at ill at ease with itself and there are moments where Altman makes big miscalculations as to what the audience will find amusing by throwing unnecessary and goofy sound effects onto the soundtrack. Additionally, the film also shows the tell tale signs of over-editing; like the shapeless story was given the slightest bit of a plot only in the editing room leaving even more of this film on the editing room floor.

But considering the states of both Altman’s career and the subgenre he was inverting with O.C. & Stiggs, there is far more to celebrate here than to dismiss and the film’s continued life as a punchline thanks to people who should know better is borderline irresponsible. For all of the things Altman called out as a threat to our society in Nashville have brought in a return on their investment ten years later thus beginning the slow, poisonous crawl to our sorry state today. This is no better realized than in the character of Pat Coletti (the always incredible Martin Mull), a lazy and affable millionaire whose geographical proximity to the Schwabs makes him their almost polar opposite. Rich, insulated, and bored, Coletti’s brand of capitalism is an open, creative, and almost lax approach to making money which proves to be more inclusive and has a more balanced entrepreneurial spirit. So if O.C. And Stiggs is the final word in the slob comedy and not at all a teen sex comedy, Coletti and all of the adult characters represent the bitter end of the first half of their lives. While they’re all victims of Reaganism, they’re all choosing their own specific misery as they sink into inert middle-age, a place where most people no longer know how to grow but only know how to expand. And the choices they make speak volumes about their characters.

While Paul Dooley’s racist, conspiracy theory, doomsday prepper character looks like a first step toward MAGA right in the red, white, and blue middle of Reagan’s America, a retrospective view of O.C. and Stiggs shows how shockingly on the nose Altman was about all of it and how, perhaps, some of the criticism was from people who just didn’t want to believe it. I suppose if you had your head in the sand, this film would look incredibly silly. But, gosh, all of those American flags and “Don’t Tread on Me” signs papering cookie-cutter stucco homes that magically popped up in the middle of the Arizona desert to get away from… something? I’d say that, despite the inherent silliness in a so-called teen sex comedy being “Exhibit A” to prove a larger point, MAGA was less a phenomenon that sprung forth in 2016 and that it was there all along.

“This is real!” O.C. screams at Dennis Hopper during the film’s climax as the former is handed a grenade to be used to get out of Schwab’s doomsday room.

“Everything gets to be sooner or later,” Hopper replies.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain


As the seventies came to a close and a new day was dawning on Hollywood, filmmakers and studios began to shift their work and business models to better prepare for the type of film they needed to make. Sure, the point of any movie studio at any time in the history of motion pictures had always been to make a profit. But after watching truckloads of cash show up at their doorstep after the release of films such as Jaws and Star Wars, it was no longer enough to just turn a profit. Movies began to come together in board rooms and designed to be less as entertainment vehicles that would make money and more unstoppable machines that would print money. So this is why it made a certain amount of sense for Paramount Pictures and the Walt Disney Company to join forces for a slate of films that would be geared towards the entire family but would be just a smidge more sophisticated than what could be expected from a live-action “Disney movie” which, by the 1980’s, had a certain kind of downmarket reputation and wasn’t exactly raking in the cash.

This partnership produced exactly two movies, Robert Altman’s Popeye in 1980 and Matthew Robbins’s impressive Dragonslayer, released the following year. That it produced anything is a small miracle as Popeye, first on the slate, was an absolutely cursed production from top to bottom and any sane assessment of the film reveals that fact many times over. From on-set fighting to the cocaine bust of producer Robert Evans, the production of Popeye kind of had it all. It wasn’t quite a Heaven’s Gate but it was definitely the last thing director Robert Altman needed at that point in his career. After owning the first half of the 1970’s, Altman’s work was continually met with diminishing returns which culminated in HealtH, his previously completed picture, getting completely buried and unreleased by 20th Century Fox. He needed a hit in the worst way and Popeye was a tee-up for him.

But the fact of the matter was that there was no real certainty Popeye would be a hit. All that was there was a vague notion that the monster Broadway success of Annie meant that there was sure to be a motion picture adaptation and, therefore, something had to be crafted to catch that similar wave of upscale family fare. Paramount owned King Features and, therefore, the universe of the Popeye comic strip so why not hire Harry Nilsson, the genius but inveterate alcoholic pop star on the downslope, to write the tunes and Robert Altman, an independent, bullheaded filmmaker whose last huge hit had been a whole decade earlier, to direct? I mean, it looked good on paper to somebody and I can’t help but think that somebody was Robert Evans whose career, like Altman’s, was also in jeopardy after a string of poor decisions teetered his reputation for rescuing Paramount Pictures in the late sixties from impatient creditors who were ready to engage the studio in a complete fire sale.

Another thing not considered is that by 1980, there was a giant delta that separated audience’s understandings of the Popeye from his origins in the Thimble Theatre comic strip created by Elzie Crisler Segar in 1919. In that iteration, Popeye (introduced in 1929) was but a supporting player in the larger world of Sweethaven, a cockeyed seaport town crawling with strange, yet lovable denizens. After becoming the star of the strip, Max Fleischer’s studios popularized Popeye and the majority of the Thimble Theatre characters in a series of cartoon shorts which usually put Popeye and company in contemporary and urban settings. By the time Paramount’s Famous Studios began producing the cartoons, Popeye and Olive Oyl were fully suburbanized and Popeye would frequently appear in shorts in which he would be battling his nemesis Bluto over trivial things like front lawn maintenance and seats at a baseball game. When Altman and screenwriter Jules Feiffer took the story back to its roots, it looked a lot like a world unfamiliar to many of the people who had become accustomed to Popeye as the confident, spinach-swilling, language-murdering hero who always had Olive Oyl by his side and Bluto at his feet.

But, oh, Lordy Moses, did people bitch when Popeye hit the theaters. Save the Wolf Kroeger production design and the incredible sets constructed in a Maltese cove (that are still standing and function as a tourist attraction, by the way), there was virtually nothing in the film that didn’t prove distasteful to at least one person in some shape or form. It did decent business but, unfortunately, was made at a time when it wasn’t enough to do good business if the business wasn’t good enough. Because of this attitude, Popeye has since been remembered as a magnificent disaster and a flop of a film, neither of which are remotely true. It’s a wild film in Altman’s canon and looking at it from the highest peak of Mt. Objectivity reveals an absolute mess of a final product but it’s also not out of line to rule Popeye a film where the sum of the parts are definitely better than the whole. As if it were built as if it were a number of cartoon shorts strung into one whole movie, Popeye is a movie without much drive but with a whopping ton of energy which can be joyous and fun but, at 114 minutes, feels like a juggernaut that could even wear down the last, most energetic person on the Studio 54 dance floor.

To the uninitiated, Popeye is about the titular character (Robin Williams in his film debut) arriving in the seaside town of Sweethaven in the search for his father, Poopdeck Pappy (Ray Walston). During his hunt, he becomes entangled with and falls for the dizzy Olive Oyl (Shelley Duvall in her final bow for Altman), takes charge of abandoned infant, Swee’ Pea (Wesley Ivan Hurt, Altman’s impossibly cute ham of a grandson), and runs afoul of Bluto (Paul Smith), the burly and hirsute heavy who begins the film as Olive’s betrothed.

Thematically, this is McCabe & Mrs. Miller territory (replete with a direct blink-and-you’ll-miss-it visual nod in the floating casino sequence as a zonked-out prostitute examines a ceramic pot as she reclines in her bunk); ultimately a story about how an iconoclast can enter a town and rearrange the structure. The problem with Popeye is that the story never allows the viewer to understand how anything in the town works in the first place. Some of it feels like a parody of shallow American nationalism but the town of Sweethaven is such a sketch, the details the audience has a right to know are either not there or buried. Taxes are being constantly collected but for what purpose and they’re routed where, exactly? The town has a Mayor but the Commodore holds more stroke why? The Commodore is a recluse that nobody has seen for what reason? Is this an isolated island burg in a post-Quintet future that’s surrounded by the melted ice and where the people are only just learning how to be a functioning society again? Because they sure act like it.

But, putting narrative and story aside (which we shouldn’t do but will anyway) is there another movie outside of Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy that looks like it was Silly Putty’d right off a newspaper than Popeye? As a retrospective criticism, the film’s bloated budget would be a legitimate concern if every single dollar wasn’t up on the screen and everything didn’t look absolutely gorgeous. The beautiful widescreen compositions by cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno capture the sideways-pitched structures against an immensely beautiful green sea where foregrounded primary colors absolutely pop off the screen. The costumes by Scott Bushnell, longtime Altman producer, are magnificently elaborate and detailed and everyone in the cast looks 100% perfect.

Altman’s on-screen choreography with his performers, always a staple in making his movies breathe, might just be at its highest level here as the frame is constantly swishing back and forth, always revealing some new information in the background. In fact, so busy is its canvass that, after forty years of watching the film, I have just recently spotted the caveman that randomly pops up in the far back of the background throughout the movie. Where most Altman films demand a second viewing due to the multi-tracked, overlapping dialogue, Popeye joins ranks with works such as Brewster McCloud and HealtH as needing multiple views due to everything that’s going on everywhere but the center of the screen. Just one instance of this is Robert Fortier’s Bill Barnacle. Sloshing around as the town drunk (ya know, the same character he played in McCabe & Mrs. Miller for those of you keeping score), it’s worth missing everything else that’s happening on the screen each time he appears as his physical performance is likely funnier and more interesting than what’s happening front and center.

And despite his giving up on the project to return to Flash Harry, his penultimate album before his untimely death in 1997, the Harry Nilsson tunes (and their wonderful Van Dyke Parks orchestrations) still soar. “Sweethaven,” “I Yam What I Yam,” “I’m Mean,” “Kids,” and, especially, “He Needs Me” all have a loopy charm and sly humor while “He’s Large,” a song dedicated to Bluto’s… ahem… girth, sung by Shelley Duvall and backed up by the Steinettes, the Greenwich Village doo-wop outfit who served as the Greek chorus in HealtH, is absolutely inappropriate for a family film but, on second thought, perhaps this film deserved such a shot of raunch if to only diffuse the treacle in “Sailin’” and “Swee’ Pea’s Lullabye,” two slabs of straight sentimentality that feel a bit out of place in a bizarre place such as this.

1980 wasn’t terribly kind to Popeye and time has done little to repair its image. Folks that loved it then, love it now. Folks that hated it then are always quick to point out they’ve never revisited it. Contemporary audiences don’t know quite what to make of it. Robert Altman didn’t end up in director’s jail but he would be cast out onto the stormy seas of the 1980’s with almost zero studio support, fully requested by the powers that be that he learn to fend for himself. In the end, Popeye turned out to become a fondly-remembered cocaine film for children and, regardless of the film’s box office returns, we probably needed more of them as the dawn of Reagan loomed large.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

Arthur Hiller’s Silver Streak

Is this what was considered funny in the 70’s? Because it felt lukewarm, awkward and stretched over a super long runtime to me. Don’t get me wrong I love Gene Wilder with all my heart and Richard Pryor is cool too but if Silver Streak is any kind of barometer as to what their comedic pairing in cinema back then is all about (this is my first one) then, well… meh. Wilder plays a mild mannered businessman on a long distance rail trip who gets unwittingly yanked into all sorts of espionage shenanigans involving a femme fatale (Jill Clayburgh), a malevolent Bond type villain (Patrick McGoohan), a boisterous undercover federal agent (Ned Beatty) and many others aboard the speeding train, all of them looking for some sort of highly incriminating McGuffin object that we never really see. Pryor himself doesn’t even show up until at least halfway through the film playing a rowdy petty thief who is proud of his vocation (“I’m a thief” lol) and sort of forms an uneasy alliance with Wilder to outwit all these competing forces. That sounds like a ton of fun, right? Not so much. It all just comes across as awkward, weirdly paced and WAY too long, this is a brisk 90 minute comedy posing as a two hour big budget thing that just doesn’t have the juice to fill that runtime with enough to keep us occupied. There’s a jarring sequence where Wilder gets done up in blackface, *with* Pryor’s assistance no less, and get coached in jive turkey talk as some harebrained disguise gimmick, but it’s only really in the film as a shtick to serve itself and makes no logical or comedic sense whatsoever. Now I know this was the 70’s and comedy was a lot different back then, and I’m the last one to ruffle my feathers over stuff like that but time period aside it just feels lame, awkward and unnecessary, with both actors making painfully embarrassing asses of themselves. There is one scene that genuinely made me laugh hard, in which a frazzled Wilder frantically tries to explain his predicament to a dozy small town sheriff (Clifton James) who simply cannot wrap his mind around the complexities of a multi-character spy dilemma unfolding in real time. This part is genuinely hilarious and shows some spark but it was the only instance of that for me. The film is packed with recognizable faces including Fred Willard, Scatman Crothers, Ray Walston, Richard Kiel and more, none of whom make very vivid or memorable impressions. This just felt like a misfire to me overall, with two actors who I know to be surefire winners most of the time that just sort of flatline here in oddly conceived skits, a hopelessly cluttered and not particularly engaging caper that just feels like a lot of sitting on a train, running around and then more sitting on the train without much that kept me entertained. Check out the sheriff’s station scene over on YouTube though, it’s a hoot.

-Nate Hill