Alan Smithee Podcast 57: Flash Gordon (1980, Mike Hodges) / Popeye (1980, Robert Altman)

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King Features Syndicate is a print syndication company owned by The Hearst Corporation. They distribute about 150 comic strips, newspaper columns, editorial cartoons, puzzles and games to nearly 5000 of the dying print medium known as “newspapers.” They own a heck of a lot of famous cartoon characters, many of whom started out as newspaper comic strips. Two of these are Popeye and Flash Gordon. After the monumental success of Superman (1978, Richard Donner) they must have been flustered over who owned their most famous characters and whom they could still sell off.

Flash Gordon was already owned for a long time by De Laurentiis, who produced the film version in his idiosyncratic style. Popeye’s film was a Paramount-Disney co-production, yet also very eccentric thanks to producer Robert Evans giving director Robert Altman virtual free reign to make whatever he wanted of the beloved icon. How did two films about such different matinee heroes get made so similarly by such different hands, resulting in two films both rather infamous for falling short of their critical and box office expectations? We do our best to summarize the good and bad from each oddball romp, one of which is mostly good and the other mostly not so good in this, our “King Features Syndicate” episode of An Alan Smithee Podcast.

Flash Gordon opens with an ominous villain finding out the name of our planet Earth, then pushing a button marked “EARTH QUAKE” to attack us. The rest of the movie is a lot like that: archly theatrical in manners of comic book prose, but also distractingly stupid. The combination of Las Vegas pageantry and low fi special effects has its share of admirers, including famed Marvel Comics illustrator Alex Ross, whom on the special edition DVD recollects being blown away by a child in 1980 and wondering why Star Wars couldn’t be more like it. If only there had been several million more children like him; imbued at a young age with the tastes of grown men who still love ogling women in ridiculous costumes as the males in ridiculous costumes ham it up.

The target audience of Flash Gordon would probably be the same people whose favorite season of the Batman TV show was the final one where they added Batgirl and made her ride around on a motorcycle wearing purple lycra. The screenplay was written by a frequent scribe of that very show, Lorenzo Semple Jr, and he never misses a chance to include innuendos about “teaming up” or the pleasures of torture. Sometimes he just goes ahead and lets Flash remark that some girl really turning him on. There’s also language like “damn you” and “go to hell” and even “you lying bitch!” to tick off parents and titillate the film’s true audience; the adult degenerates enjoying all the scantily clad one name Euromodel-actresses populating the throne room of Ming the Merciless.

Flash Gordon has some amazing sets and costumes, corny special effects which nonetheless jibe with the art direction, and even some decent cast who can deliver lines like “NO!!! NOT THE BORE WORMS!!!” with conviction. Unfortunately the director Mike Hodges doesn’t seem remotely interested in his own movie and the decision to let the special effects look fake feels more like a lack of effort than a purposeful refutation of the new realism in effects introduced by George Lucas. There’s also no surprises to be had after the movie gets going – just more of the same cheese over and over for nearly two hours, the two-dimensional nature of everything becoming more and more of a liability. The only component of the movie with a dramatic arc is the famous soundtrack by Queen. Too slow for children and too silly for adults, Flash Gordon finds a way to disappoint everyone.

Similarly confusing to audiences then and now is Robert Altman’s Popeye, which at least has the benefit of, you know, being directed by Robert Altman. Fans of this film actually have a good case to make for it being one of the most artistically accomplished comic book films ever made: the script by Jules Feiffer incorporates as many characters as possible from the original E.C. Segar Thimble Theater newspaper strips and Robert Altman supplies a roster great character actors like Ray Walston, Richard Libertini and Paul Dooley to bring them to life. Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall were famously cast as Popeye and Olive Oyl, and they’re perfectly qualified. Altman’s choice of songwriter, Harry Nilsson, composes some rambling amble tunes which honor the laconic wit of the old comic strip splendidly, awkwardly as they are placed into the story. In an amazing coincidence, Nilsson actually took a break from recording an album titled “Flash Harry” to work on Popeye. Wolf Kroeger’s production design should have won an Oscar; he literally created an island town where in Malta, Spain where there was once a bunch of rocks and the dang place is still standing to this day as “Popeye Village,” a functioning theme park.

Altman directing musical sequences is something to behold for his fans. Seeing him have a go at slapstick is also something behold and not in a good way. Popeye has problems to be sure, some in common with Flash Gordon: the rambling, the repetitive feeling, the palpable confusion as to whom the film is meant for. On the other hand, Altman is a genius and even the lesser works of a genius are unique visions worth seeing.

It’s a tragedy that comic book movies today don’t have the freedom to fizzle out as spectacularly as Flash Gordon or display as much offbeat charm as Popeye. Of course, the super hero movie is what’s synonymous with “comic book movie” and the rare non-super hero comic book movie is a lonely subgenre rife with experimentation for good or ill.

NEXT EPISODE: AIRPLANE! SPECIAL! AIRPLANE! (1980, JIM ABRAHAMS & DAVID ZUCKER & JERRY ZUCKER) & AIRPLANE II: THE SEQUEL (1982, KEN FINKLEMAN)

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Episode 40: Gosford Park (2001, Robert Altman) / Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981, James Cameron)

With the Academy Awards once against swelling like a malignant infection, An Alan Smithee Podcast takes a completely inadvertently coincidental look this week at two films from frequent Oscar nominees: the late great Robert Altman and the not so great lately James Cameron. Altman’s career began anonymously in television before graduating to film and earning the acclaim of the academy when it was fashionable for them to do so. Only by making a film about Hollywood years later did he fall back into their favor, receiving at least the courtesy of nomination for the remainder of his life and career while the honors ultimately were bestowed upon keepers of the middle brow like Robert Zemeckis and Ron Howard.

James Cameron blossomed in the special effects boom of the 80s which drove directors like Altman into the darkness. He also did arguably more for the mainstreaming of special effects driven films than Steven Spielberg or George Lucas by making The Terminator and Aliens, blockbusters which established a permanent market for violent action films involving robots and/or aliens targeted at teenage boys instead of the entire family. Flash forward to the present day when serious Academy Award nominated dramatic actors vie to play villains in superhero movies and Cameron stands to sweep the industry’s highest self-congratulatory accolades for directing a 3D aliens and robots movie. Male adulthood has been replaced by perpetual adolescence and Cameron is truly king of the world. Yet even kings have to start somewhere as big fish in little ponds, before they spread their wings.

Gosford Park contains many of Altman’s trademarks, most prominently a sprawling cast with overlapping dialogue in the service of social satire. Ostensibly a murder mystery, the first half of this long story is spent establishing a myriad of ladies and gentlemen and their faithful servants gathering for a party in the countryside of England, 1932. Their social protocol is antiquated yet not so far in the past as to be unrecognizable, and the duality between the hosts and help is a fascinating look at the function and perception of privilege. The depiction of the servants behind the scenes is of particular interest to anyone wondering what the daily lives of maids, butlers et all were busy exchanging bon mots and stabbing each other in the back. Altman’s roving camera and Julian Fellowes kaleidoscopic screenplay create an amazing tour through the waning days of the British empire’s high society and one of the director’s most transportive works.

Roger Corman is scheduled to receive a lifetime achievement award at this year’s Oscars. The actors and directors he gave breaks to are legion and it will be interesting to see whom among them have enough self confidence to be associated with him, or even give their permission to be shown in the inevitable compilation reel alongside Jack Nicholson in The Little Shop of Horrors and Sylvester Stallone in Death Race 2000. Actually, Stallone will probably be too proud to OK the use of that clip.

Whether Cameron will give a tip of the hat to his earliest employer is a toss-up. Corman’s 70s outfit New World Pictures not only gave Joe Dante his first directorial work on Hollywood Boulevard and Piranha, but Cameron’s first special effects work on New World’s Galaxy of Terror and Battle Beyond The Stars. Surely this got Cameron the recommendation for the non-Corman produced sequel Piranha Part Two: The Spawning. Whereas Dante’s original spoofed Jaws while simultaneously making an exciting monster movie, Cameron’s sequel rather straightforwardly takes itself seriously even with the idiotic premise that some of the killer piranha have learned to fly.

If nothing else – and there really is nothing else – at least Cameron got some more special effects expertise under his belt for the future, which was only looking up. There’s a half-eaten Jamaican who looks remarkably similar to a battle damaged Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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NEXT WEEK: COMMENTARY TRACK SPECIAL! BATMAN (1989, TIM BURTON)

Episode 18: Tango & Cash (1989, Andrei Konchalovsky) / California Split (1974, Robert Altman)

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This week An Alan Smithee Podcast gets manly and shirtless with two of the 80s’ eightiest men’s men, Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell, starring in one of Jon Peters’ worst streams of consciousness: Tango & Cash. Stallone’s a yuppie hotshot cop and Russell’s just a hotshot cop. All they have in common is skull denting stupidity and gay panic, which only inflames when the pair are sent to prison. Can they stop talking about each other’s cocks in time to bust out and stop the diabolical Jack Palance before he over-the-tops his performance from Batman the same year? Well, no, Palance is ever hammier and he wears all an white suit like Colonel Sanders. Despite this, his flamboyance pales in comparison to the cock grabbing, cross-dressing antics of our boys as they barnstorm through scenarios that make not one luck of sense, ever. Also featuring free floating coked up screenwriter xenophobia towards minorities.

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Then, Robert Altman takes us someplace warmer and nicer with California Split, another buddy comedy featuring George Segal and Elliot Gould as compulsive gamblers at different points in their addiction. This film pulls few punches in the depiction of gambling while also playing things for laughs, making for a melancholy mood of poignancy and loss. Unlike Tango & Cash, Gould and Segal’s romance is soft spoken and romantic as one takes another under his wing to learn poker and a bromance to last the ages is born.

NEXT WEEK: EMPEROR JONES (1933) / BLOODRAYNE II: DELIVERANCE (2007)