It could arguably be the most underrated movie ever made. Robert Altman’s Popeye, released in 1980, was widely panned upon its opening and still to this day is seen by many as one of the great filmmaker’s lesser works and one that, just in general, seems rather odd (at best) or simply bad (at worst). But it’s none of this. Altman’s Popeye is one of the director’s most enjoyable pictures and, as some of the more recent Internet comments point out, this film is far from bad and has in time perhaps gained much deserved popular appeal.

That said though, it’s easy to see why Popeye opened in such a pessimistic way. First, you had Altman’s output in the previous decade to contend with. Altman, like Coppola, Scorsese and De Palma, saw some of his best films come out in the 1970s: MASH (1970), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Images (1972), The Long Goodbye (1973), Nashville (1975), Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976), 3 Women (1977) and A Wedding (1978), just to name a few. How do you compete with that kind of cinematic quality? How does a filmmaker maintain that kind of exceptional productivity? Unfortunately for Altman, this was indeed a tough act to follow, and Popeye was not the kind of movie audiences were expecting from this iconoclastic director (ironically, I think Popeye was seen as too unusual and too unclassifiable, even by though who appreciated Altman for being just that).

Related to this, and also as related to the fate of Scorsese and company, Altman was a filmmaker working against the newly accepted and anticipated norm of Hollywood. This was now the cinema of Jaws (1975), of Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Superman (1978), and Moonraker (1979). These were big budget action films driven by special effects and predictable characters in a convoluted plot. Now these films certainly have their merits, and many of this type are undoubtedly quite good, but this was a harsh climate for the likes of Robert Altman, for whom things only got worse in the 1980s, when production of these movies grew and grew in size and scope (and cost) and Altman went in the opposite direction.

In any event, amidst this is Popeye, with a mumbling one-eye-closed Robin Williams in the titular role and Altman regular Shelley Duvall in the part she was born to play (indeed it is her best performance), as Olive Oyl. The plot is simple, like one of its source comics. Popeye arrives in a dilapidated seaside town called Sweet Haven – the production design and set decoration of this place, done by Wolf Kroeger and Jack Stephen, respectively, is one of the most astonishing of the film’s features. There he meets the hamburger loving Wimpy (Paul Doooley), among the town’s other eccentric but likable inhabitants. He has arrived just prior to the wedding between Bluto (Paul L. Smith) and Olive. While Bluto may have his qualities (one of which Olive rather naughtily sings about), the relationship seems far from idyllic. After Popeye and Olive become friendlier, their association is only accentuated by the sudden arrival of abandoned baby Swee'pea (Wesley Ivan Hurt - Robert Altman's grandson). All bets are off on the marriage. Of course, Bluto’s not happy about this, and after learning of Swee'pea’s uncanny clairvoyance he manages to kidnap the baby. Added to this storyline is the reveal of Popeye’s long lost father, Poopdeck Pappy (Ray Walston).

Popeye is directed and acted like a live-action cartoon, and as such several sequences are obviously exaggerated and preposterous. Similarly, the characters are erratic and unorthodox in the extreme and certain scenes become at times simply bizarre. These qualities are not negatives though; in fact, they’re what gives Popeye much of its charm, its delightful playfulness. It’s just a goofy, fun movie. It’s over-the-top and amusingly absurd, but it’s extremely likable and fascinating and Williams’ nearly inaudible one-liners are frequently hilarious.

It’s also a musical of sorts, a Robert Altman musical. Altman, known for his innovative use of sound (overlapping dialogue especially), here also experiments with the conventions of the genre. The songs – music and lyrics by Harry Nilsson – float in and out of certain sequences, many without the clear breaks in narrative that you see in other musicals. There’s not always a obvious indication saying, “Ok, now we have a musical break.” Sometimes we simply hear the music start, the characters sing, and then they just go about their business. Sometimes the music plays for an exceptionally long time and the characters carry on like normal, with their regular dialogue taking on a musical quality, mixed with the actual lyrics. Many of the songs are very good: "I Yam What I Yam," "Sweethaven," and "Sail with Me" are among the most catchy and pleasant. The highlight for me though is Duvall signing "He Needs Me." It’s simply a great song, one that counts among its admirers Paul Thomas Anderson, who used the tune in his 2002 film Punch-Drunk Love, and Duvall does a wonderful job with it. There’s a lot of heart in Popeye, and you certainly see it here.

As mentioned, Popeye’s poor reception would signal the beginning of some tumultuous, though nonetheless productive, times for Robert Altman. After more than a decade of lower-key film and television work, work that is still noteworthy, Altman would burst back onto the Hollywood scene with a film that, oddly enough, sharply jabbed the superficial and ridiculous mechanics of Hollywood itself, The Player, in 1992. From there it was on-again, off-again for Altman. For every recognized masterpiece like Short Cuts (1993) and Gosford Park (2001), he had comparatively lackluster films like Prêt-à-Porter (1994) and The Gingerbread Man (1998). And in the middle of these poles were solidly entertaining pictures like Dr T and the Women (2000).

Altman’s final film would be one of his better recent productions. A Prairie Home Companion was released June 9, 2006. Robert Altman, one of the greatest and most original of American filmmakers, passed away Nov. 20 of the same year, at the age of 81.

"Beyond the Hills"

At the very beginning of Beyond the Hills (2012, Dupa dealuri), Voichita, played by Cosmina Stratan, struggles to make her way through an onslaught of people as they get off their respective trains and head down the platform. Everyone seems to be going the opposite direction of Voichita and she’s forced to awkwardly cut through the crowd. This is a fitting shot to open this excellent film, which is very much about going in a path different from that of the majority. (A brief scene later in a gas station also gives the impression of this girl being torn by the appeals of moden life.) 

Voichita is a young nun living in an ultra-Orthodox Romanian convent: isolated, no electricity, rustic. She has left behind all remnants of her previous life, indeed all remnants of modernity in general. If you didn't know any better, you'd think the scenes at the convent were from a period piece, not a film set in contemporary times. So then, with this opening at the train station (trains always a popular cinematic symbol of modernity), we see a girl who is not going with the crowd; she is a solitary figure in this swarm of hustling and bustling urban life. But she is soon not alone. She's at the station to meet a friend, Alina (Cristina Flutur). The girls grew up together in the same orphanage, and strong hints suggest a lesbian relationship at some point. Alina, who has been living in Germany, is here to visit her friend. With this reemergence of a key part of her past, and with the introduction of this secular individual into her religious existence, the trouble for Voichita and the world she now inhabits starts.

Back at the monastery, Alina, to say the least, has trouble adjusting. She makes advances on Voichita, she acts out, she simply doesn't belong there, and she doesn't understand why Voichita finds the place suitable. Couldn't they just leave together? There's a possible job lined up, working on a boat. All they need are the appropriate papers and they can go away, two friends reunited. Voichita, however, is comfortable where she is. She's not crazy about leaving. Her heart is now with God, not Alina. The nuns and priest try to work with Alina, but their efforts are to no avail. Even if she tries, Alina is there to be with Voichita, nothing more. She can't adapt to their ways and she doesn't really want to. Everyone is patient with her behavior, giving considerable leeway to Voichita, hoping that she will soon realize that her friend doesn't belong. Either that or she herself may have to go. A back and forth of progress and compliance and a reversion back to misbehavior follows, until at one point Alina becomes mentally distraught and potentially dangerous. A stay at the hospital reveals no major physical ailment, so once back at the convent, and after another outburst, the internal presence of the devil is assumed.   

It's here that Beyond the Hills gets into the most prominent and troubling of its thematic concerns. Voichita, the nuns, and the priest take drastic steps to “cure” Alina's apparent affliction: she’s tied down, not given food, kept isolated. To them, this is the necessary process when dealing with the bodily inhabitation of satanic evil. Does it, however, the film asks, have a place in modern society? Are they doing what's right, or just what's right to them? Should this kind of treatment be administered when existing, more contemporary psychiatric means are available? It's a drama we've seen played out in real life, where a child deprived of medical attention and instead treated with prayer passes away. That, of course, is the negative side; but some still swear by the power of faith and point to miraculous healing as proof. It goes both ways, and this is what Beyond the Hills explores.

Romanian writer/director Cristian Mungiu is no stranger to controversial topics. His 2007 film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (one of the best movies in recent years) was a gritty and powerful tale of a woman's struggle to have an illegal abortion, and the same sort of objective honesty displayed in that film is shown in Beyond the Hills. Mungiu has a striking style whereby the camera is placed in an optimal location to best cover the scene and highlight the emotional resonance, and each set-up is notably intentional in its formal design. We are seeing things from an observational and unobtrusive vantage point, and at the same time everything about each shot is remarkably well composed.

A non-judgmental presentation of the characters also runs through both of these films. In Beyond the Hills, we are simply shown these religious figures and are dropped into their lives. There is no ulterior motive on the part of the filmmaker or the characters. Alina might see Voichita's decision as a foolish one, but we don't necessarily agree. Voichita does, after all, seem content and at peace. And even if one finds their methods archaic and in the end potentially dangerous, the nuns and priest are not "bad guys." In fact, it's quite the opposite. Their intentions are so good that when their tactics fail we feel as sorry for them as we do Alina and Voichita. They did what they thought was best; they're not malicious, stupid, or inconsiderate. The final shot of the film, like the first, perfectly captures this mixed emotion. Without giving too much plot detail away: The shot is on a group of the nuns and the priest seated in the back of a cramped vehicle; the camera steadily moves forward to the driver’s seat and focuses through the windshield on the outside world, a world of cell phones, traffic noise and congestion, road construction, etc. They are clearly out of their element. This is not their world. Are they, then, totally at fault? Similarly, we can identify with both girls: Voichita does seem genuinely happy at the convent and her confusion and conflict is understandable; on the other hand, Alina's desperation to reunite with her friend/lover is terribly heartbreaking, her uncertainty also reasonable.   

Beyond the Hills has been extremely well received since its initial showing at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it won a well-deserved actress prize for Flutur and Stratan and took home the award for best screenplay (it was also nominated for the Palme d’Or, the festival’s most prestigious prize). It went on to be recognized at numerous other international festivals last year and yet is just now getting its theatrical release in the United States. As such, it could be seen as one of the best films of 2012 and, if going by release date in America, it’s certainly one of the best so far in 2013.

"Scorpio Rising" & "Chelsea Girls"

The 1960s were a time of drastic change in American film. Established studios and their structures were breaking down, and with films like The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider and The Wild Bunch (quite a time, wasn’t it?) the ratings system was faltering and both the look and subject matter of American cinema was undergoing a total overhaul. But this was just in the arena of mainstream narrative cinema. What was happening underground, in the avant-garde, on the more explicitly experimental filmmaking scene?

Two of my favorite films of the era that would fall into this latter category were Scorpio Rising (1964), a 28-minute short directed by Kenneth Anger, and Andy Warhol’s 210-minute Chelsea Girls (1966), made in collaboration with Paul Morrissey. There were many other great experimental works during this period (Michael Snow’s 45-minute Wavelength (1967), which is basically, though not only, a slow zoom within a room as various incidents occur, would be another top contender), but these two have always stood out. 

Anger’s short is a tour-de-force of image and sound. It’s one of the first films ever to incorporate a predominantly rock and roll soundtrack: "Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear to Tread)," "My Boyfriend's Back," "(You're the) Devil in Disguise," and "Leader of the Pack" are just a sampling of the tracks included. These selections give the film a unique musical quality, as opposed to a more typical all instrumental score, and they also create a keen sense of time, a time associated with this type of music. Scorpio Rising’s imaginatively edited construction combines one striking image after another, building to a frenzy. Color, light, camera placement, montage, it leaves no stylistic stone unturned. And in terms of what is actually shown, Scorpio Rising is also remarkably revolutionary. The film follows a group of bikers, all filmed in lingering homoerotic detail, as they prep themselves and assemble. Nazi and religious imagery abounds, and we are left to draw our own conclusions about this juxtaposition. It’s certainly an examination of the fetishized male body (Anger himself was gay, at a time when such openness was unquestionably more taboo than it is now). It’s also an examination of iconographic idolatry – the comparison between Nazism and Christianity is and was notoriously provocative. Since Scorpio Rising, like nearly all of these types of films, is loose on narrative, one can extrapolate more and more from the picture with each viewing, without the constraints of overt formal guidance. It’s a rapidly paced film, full of ambiguity and astonishing imagery, so you’re left coming away with multiple questions regarding potential meaning, which is, of course, a sign of any great experimental work.  

While Scorpio Rising is comprised of aural/visual bombardment, Warhol’s Chelsea Girls is a more subdued, though nonetheless challenging, film. It records a group of people in New York City as they basically just hang out, talk, drink, ramble, do drugs, etc. While the film was initially around six hours long, Warhol decided to combine certain segments into a continuous split-screen. So now we have, for the entirety of the film, one image, one “story,” next to another, the audio track going back and forth, the segments visually and thematically contrasting against each other (some are in color, some black and white; some seem uncomfortably volatile, some simplistically innocent). It’s a brilliant experiment in film form, film spectatorship, and film exhibition. In these last two categories, the innovation comes from the fact that when theatrically shown the vignettes were projected separately, even randomly; thus they oftentimes didn’t synch up perfectly and the screenings would subsequently vary from theater to theater, from showing to showing. Like Scorpio Rising, the people and the places here also serve a sort of ethnographic function. We are bearing witness to an essentially authentic assemblage of people during a very precise time and place. It’s little surprise that of all people it would be Andy Warhol who would craft such a culture-specific masterpiece of cinema.

Taken together, Scorpio Rising and Chelsea Girls are two markedly dissimilar experimental films, in terms of tone, form and content, but they’re both perfectly representative of the best of what avant-garde American cinema had to offer in the 1960s. While this type of filmic experimentation may seem somewhat unappealing to a moviegoer not accustomed to such unorthodox methods, these two are well worth a shot. They’re comparatively more digestible than other experimental titles out there (no less dazzling and remarkable, but perhaps more off-putting, would be the work of Stan Brakhage from the same period). For those interested in this epoch of American society, these two films are also worthwhile simply as cultural artifacts. And for those who simply want to see something new, something that will challenge preconceived stale notions of cinema and standard film convention, they are not to be missed.

"This Happy Breed" & "Brief Encounter"

David Lean is probably best known for large-scale super productions like Bridge on the Rive Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965), and this is of course not without due reason; these, especially Lawrence, are tremendous films. But when you look at Lean’s body of work you see that there was so much more to his career than these massive, sweeping works of grandeur. Before he became primarily associated with Hollywood achievement (Kwai and Lawrence would both win him Best Director Oscars), Lean directed a number of more unassuming pictures that, in many ways, are even more remarkable.

While these later films were all international co-productions, it’s some of Lean’s strictly British work that is really striking on a more emotional and deeply resonant level. Lawrence for sheer spectacle, excitement and scope is hard to rival, but films like This Happy Breed (1944) and Brief Encounter (1945) strike at the heart, and at the soul.

Both films were based on plays by Noel Coward, and both star Celia Johnson. In the former, Johnson plays mother to three children and wife to Robert Newton. The film follows her family over the course of 20 tumultuous years between the two World Wars. There are family squabbles, issues with the kids growing up and whatnot, confrontations with death on one hand and the joys of marriage on the other, and there are the general stresses of everyday life. The glorious thing about This Happy Breed is the way Lean and the performers quickly establish the locale and the characters then set us off on a touching and profoundly authentic whirlwind of real life drama. We’re with this family for a short time in terms of film duration (not quite two hours) but we rapidly cover so much territory and so many poignant situations that by the end our relationship to the whole gang is considerable. They are average folks and they are delightful. There’s not really a single character we don’t care for, and there’s nary a moment that passes that doesn’t hold some sort of significance for them, us, and the bond developed between the film and audience. Each sequence steadily adds to the impact of the film’s entirety, so that by the end we feel like we’ve been with them every step of the way, at a level of intimacy more notable than most cinematic dramas.  

Similarly, Brief Encounter is also about average and perfectly genuine people in an average and perfectly genuine situation. Here love, more than the grandness of life in total, is the cause for dramatic tension and identification. Johnson is the happily married Laura Jesson. But is she really happy? A chance meeting with Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) sends her emotions reeling. She loves her husband; they don’t really have any major domestic issues. But this brief encounter becomes something she never could have imagined. Indeed, she probably never dared. He too is married, but they continue to meet several times. The temptation to have a full-fledged illicit affair grows and grows. They are truly smitten with each other, but it’s complicated. They are also decent and devoted spouses. So what to do? Unlike many films that deal with marital infidelity, including many of those made today, nothing here seems exceptionally tawdry. These are genuinely good people. We can understand their relationship and their dilemma. They are so happy together we see how it’s difficult to conclude this ever-evolving relationship. Brief Encounter is also a beautiful film to watch. Shot by Robert Krasker (who would photograph Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) and Luchino Visconti’s Senso (1954) – two other gorgeous looking movies), the images only add to the dream state of the characters. For Laura, this is exactly what’s it’s like – a dream, a fantasy. But can it be real, can she ever really leave her husband, or is this love only to be a fleeting one? Will she eventually just wake up? Either way, it’s extraordinarily romantic.

While we certainly care for the characters in the trio of films mentioned above (Peter O'Toole's T.E. Lawrence is one of the most appealing screen characters of all time), David Lean’s true gift as far as creating individuals who invite strong and immediate association is most evident in these earlier movies. The world of the later pictures is magnificent and arresting, but the world in these others is more comprehensible and reasonable and easier to relate to. I’m not especially well-informed on David Lean’s biography, so I can’t say where this turning point in film aesthetic occurred, or why. Perhaps we saw a sign of things to come in Summertime (1955), with its exotic setting and lush cinematography. Films made just before this production were somewhat more practical and reserved, films like the hilarious Hobson's Choice (1954) and even the literary adaptations Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948). Maybe it’s just the natural evolution of an artist. Lean broadens his scope of subject matter and in doing so naturally expands his creative canvas. What’s extraordinary is that he skillfully handles both so well.

Ultimately what matters though, is that one of cinema’s greatest filmmakers made film after film of tremendous quality and impact. Even with two Oscars and with the global fame of at least two of his more than 15 feature films, I still think “underrated” aptly describes Lean and his work. Everyone should see Lawrence of Arabia, there’s no question about that, but for completely different reasons, all just as imperative, everyone should also seek out This Happy Breed and Brief Encounter, two delightfully powerful dramas that have lingered in my mind long after my initial viewings.


Just what was, or still is, "it"? According to British novelist Elinor Glyn, who coined the term, at least as far as it's referred to here, the phenomenon can mean various things: "a strange magnetism that attracts both sexes," for example. Well, whatever "it" is, Clara Bow had it, and that's why she was ideal to play the part of Betty Lou in Clarence G. Badger's 1927 film titled - fittingly enough - It.

Based on the ideas put forth by Glyn in her writing (though the storylines are totally distinct), Bow personifies this enigmatic quality. In the film, when the author makes a rather random appearance, she is asked about this "it," and what "it" designates. "'It' is that quality possessed by some which draws all others with its magnetic force. With 'It' you win all men if you are a woman and all women if you are a man," she states. "It" is "Self-confidence and indifference whether you are pleasing or not and something in you that gives the impression that you are not at all cold." Yes, "it" is all of that. With Clara Bow in this role that is now inseparable for her on-screen persona and, in many ways erroneously, her off-screen self, she is a jubilant being of exuberance, sexuality, playfulness and she is a figure of the times. Bow is one of the most underrated and frequently neglected female stars of Hollywood's silent era, and this is easily her most recognizable performance.

In It, Bow's Betty Lou works in a department store. Monty (William Austin), friend of the store's wealthy owner, Cyrus Waltham (Antonio Moreno), notices her. In a unique self-referential way, Monty becomes infatuated with this craze surrounding "it." He tries to find "it" in the various girls employed at the store, and he does in Betty. He develops a liking for the girl, but she has her eyes set on Waltham. In a daring way for the time, Betty is the scheming and assertive woman; she makes a plan and ambitiously goes for it. Is it superficial? Is it purely for money? Maybe, at first anyway. But her decision to be her own woman and do everything in her power to succeed in her goal positions her as a powerfully independent female force.

What makes this film noteworthy, beyond this audacity, is Bow's screen presence. She's certainly not "America's Sweetheart," little Mary Pickford, and she's no demur Lillian Gish. Bow is closer in spirit to Louise Brooks as a sort of emblematic free spirit of the flapper era. She is immensely attractive and her alluring personality is enchanting. However, she does indeed possess something else, something special. She has that "it" factor. It's somewhat of a copout to say there aren't really words to describe how Bow is presented in this film, but it's true. She did exude a unique quality that had to be dubbed simply "it."

Aside from all this, It is itself a pretty good film, one of the funniest silents I've seen not involving the usual suspects of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, etc. There are some hilarious bits of dialogue, much of it in the slang specific to the period, and some of it just plain goofy in its phrasing: "Sweet Santa Claus, give me him" … "I feel so low, old chap, that I could get on stilts and walk under a daschund." And the situations our main trio of characters find themselves in are quite amusing, especially given the customs of the 1920s.

It was another of the films shown at the TCM festival, my fourth of five seen on that particular day, and to see it there was special for two reasons. One was the live orchestral accompaniment. Silent films were never really silent. There was nearly always music, sometimes even sound effects and narration, so to see the film with the score being performed right in front of you was a tremendous experience. The second major highlight was just to see the film on the big screen, in 35 mm. Say what you will about Blu-ray restorations you can see on your 70 inch television, but nothing matches a sharp film print projected in the Egyptian Theatre. You can see stills of Bow on the internet or in film books, and you can watch her movies from the comfort of your living room, but you've never really seen Clara Bow, and you've never really experienced how she radiates, until you've seen her look, her smile, and her coy suggestiveness and delight on the big screen.

That being said though, I can't recommend It enough. So in the end see It however you can, and enjoy the delightful charm that was Clara Bow.