What the F–k: A Literary/Film Analysis of Popeye
So I’ve been thinking a lot lately. Having graduated from Indiana University with a degree in philosophy, that’s pretty much all I’m qualified to do, really.
Still, you would think that with my having been so deeply steeped in the arts and exhaustively educated in the classics that my intellectual life would be concerned with puzzling out some intractable problem of metaphysics or in dreaming up post-post-modern approaches to ancient philosophical dilemmas. But no.
I’ve been thinking about Popeye.
And the conclusion I’ve come to?
What the fuck, people?
I mean seriously. What the fuck?
Watch this clip of Popeye. I mean, really, watch it. What do you see? A timeless, lovable American icon who helped pave the way of optimism and technological wonder of the postwar Jazz age? Or do you, like me, see something darker?
Let’s look at the characters.
First, there’s Popeye.
Popeye is, by autobiographical account, a sailor man. This is at odds with the fact that he is clearly retarded.
Note: I do not mean to use the term in a pejorative sense. Earnestly using the term to insult a person in full possession of his wits is shameful, and worse, not funny. What I mean to say is that Popeye very clearly suffers from numerous liabilities and impairments, both physical and mental- from the unevenness of his facial expression, my armchair diagnosis would be that he has suffered one or more severe strokes. This would explain his speech, his ataxic gait, and the apparent simplicity of his motivations and actions, though it does not explain the elephantitis afflicting his forearms and calves.
It is unclear whether Popeye suffered the stroke while in service to the US Navy, and being unfit for duty now lives off a meager veteran’s pension while he clings to his last shred of overt identity, or whether he is simply a transient who acquired surplus naval clothes at a shelter and lacks the awareness to change them. Regardless, he wanders the alleys and byways of port towns, his face a twisted mask of knotted twitching muscle, singing shanties in a broken slur over lips stained green with spinach- because spinach is the only food Popeye can afford to eat.
Complicating the narrative- Popeye the sailor, stroke victim is also in love. Predictably, he is in love with the least attractive woman not just ever, but possible. Olive Oyl is a plain, thin, chinless, balding spinster with man hands and orthopedic shoes. She is possessed of a bipolar temperament, switching from saccharine to capriciously violent in a matter of moments, shrieking all the while in a voice that is the 1920’s answer to Fran Drescher.
The two erstwhile lovers, the hideous woman and the simple “sailor”, pursue their morally ambiguous relationship amidst the anything-goes culture that pervades the docks and red-light districts of American port cities of the 20’s. At least until the third player in this sick Brechtian farce introduces himself- Bluto, a grossly obese man who also seems to love the morbidly unattractive Olive Oyl, completes the love triangle and propels the story forward.
Bluto expresses his love by abducting the hideous woman from the delusional stroke enfeebled vagrant. Predictably, Popeye gives pursuit which ends in a fight that would morally shame Bumfights. Limbs are bent and necks are twisted in a horrifying parody of the natural order. The obese wretch Bluto has the advantage over Popeye until the climax of the battle, at which point Popeye eats spinach, goes into a beserker’s fugue and severely beats the obese man unto submission and/or death. The broken sailor then claims the jubilant, extremely ugly woman, ending the episode with a deep and subtle sense of unease.
And the worst part of it is, this exact sequence of events keeps happening to these people. Bluto keeps kidnapping Olive Oyl, Popeye keeps clubbing him near to death with his unnaturally swollen limbs, Popeye and Olive Oyl leave content in the moment, and the cycle begins again. And disturbingly, no one ever stops it. The police, mental health and hospice officials, even well-meaning bystanders who could put a stop to these awful people repeating this pattern of behavior over and over again; all conspicuously absent. Society has clearly failed them.
The question occurs, of course, as to whether Popeye remembers all this or if to Popeye each violent rescue is his first. Similarly, if Bluto is the drunkard he appears to be, perhaps his mind has been so rotted out by cheap dock tavern turpentine spirits that he is, by this point, merely abducting Olive Oyl out of what dim instinct the drink has left him. This would mean that Olive Oyl is the only one of the three who realizes and understands that they are all trapped in a Jean-Paul Sartre play by the towering walls of their own lusts and infirmities- a play which is doomed to repeat itself forever and ever until they die, unless of course they are dead already.
This all assumes, of course, that Olive Oyl isn’t orchestrating the whole affair for her perverse amusement- hiking up that knee length black skirt and fetidly masturbating with her giant malformed hands to the power she wields over the two senseless men who continuously play out her vicious dramas. As she nears screeching climax, she rejoices with the thought “Dance, my puppets. Dance. Yes. This is how an ugly woman takes revenge upon the world that made her.”
Now I understand how this dark interpretation might seem like a stretch, but when you take the proper inferential steps it is a remarkably short road from the beloved American icon to the disturbing David Mamet drama I have unfolded for you here. The first and most important step is to picture the Popeye characters as real people instead of cartoon characters. Imagine a real human being with a face forever trapped in Popeye’s frozen grin, 30% of their body weight in their forearms and shins. Imagine a Olive Oyl as a real woman, stunted hips and sunken chest, her every movement a graceless failing. Imagine Bluto, fat, growling, his eyes out of focus- imagine the smell, sour wine and unwashed vomit and abrasive body odor. When you engage the imagination, you begin to see how terrible these people are- these are the type of people who try to attack you with an aggressive conversation about socialism while waiting in line at the BMV. And they are the main characters of the cartoon Popeye.
Seriously, give me an indie film budget, get David Lynch on board, and let me produce a live action film. It will be the most terrifying Lynch project ever, delving deeper into the dark places in the human psyche than any previous work his name has been attached to. The Diner scene from Mulholland Drive? G-rated by comparison. David Lynch’s Popeye will spark a new era in disturbing surrealism, found a brand new Théâtre de la Cruauté, ushering in an age of ego-shattering disillusionment for the bourgeois American middle class. It will… oh. Wait.
Is this a David Bowie cover?
Until next time, then.