August 5, 2008

Blow yourself down

We're just days away from the start of the 2008 New York International Fringe Festival, and I'm always a tremendous fan. Not that I go see very many of the 200 or so Fringe shows in the typical year—my average is about 0.8—but it's one of those things that I just appreciate the existence of. Each show is like one person's whacked-out little dream, that crazy idea you come up with while falling asleep after several hours of Nick at Nite, marijuana, and Entenmann's cookies. Most of us let these ideas pass into the ether of the night; I try to turn them into quiz video rounds. The people in the Fringe actually produce them as theater.

So a plug: I mentioned it at the last quiz, but one Fringe show I'm excited to see this year is Sailor Man. It's described as a "darkly comic look at a well-known animated sailor. Startlingly violent, it’s Saturday morning cartoons, delivered Sam Shepard-style"—basically, a live action Popeye cartoon, a lot more violent but no less surreal. (And notice how they can't legally use the name Popeye. Or, I'd imagine, the words goon and jeep.)

I'm intrigued for two reasons:

(1) I know some of the people involved (yeah, so, I use my pulpit as it were to promote friends. Deal).

(2) Like everyone else in our culture, I spent much of my childhood watching Popeye cartoons; I believe they were on a loop of one of the eight stations in the NYC area in the late 1970s. So it's hard to step back and see them with a critical eye, rather than regard them as yet more of the colorful wallpaper of American life. (Kind of like Star Wars—while I was growing up, Darth Vader and R2-D2 are like nursery rhyme characters, more icons than figures in a narrative. It was only when I rewatched those movies in high school that I even knew what the hell the plot was. Oh, and that Luke Skywalker is really a pathetic excuse for a hero.)

Anyway, when you really watch them, Popeye cartoons have a kind of amazing strangeness to them. (I watched a few at a Sailor Man fund-raiser recently.) Popeye and Bluto/Brutus are always squeezing each other in potbellied stoves, smacking each other over the head with live farm animals, bending each other into playable musical instruments. It's a very creative conception of violence, and it makes you wonder if the people behind those cartoons should've started going to therapy a smidge more often. True, you can see this kind of violence in a lot of cartoons—Tom and Jerry was all about that, and Ren and Stimpy was a flat-out parody of it. But Popeye benefited from the ace talents of the Fleischer brothers studios, among the best animators to ever work the medium. Seriously, these cartoons make Tom and Jerry look like you're staring into a zoetrope. An example:

Plus, there's pathos in Popeye; I mean, this never-ending narrative was kind of sad. Popeye is this pathetic drifter, a Navy man clearly no longer occupied by the Navy, muttering to himself incessantly. His only joy is the fickle attentions of a distinctly unpleasant woman who is no one's idea of a hot piece of ass, and she baits him into an endless series of meaninglessly violent encounters with a sadistic, alcoholic bruiser. Plus, there's a poorly supervised foundling child, and an obese man with a compulsive-eating problem. Oh, and the spinach: so Popeye's on the juice, too.

So I'm intrigued that someone is approaching this material from a more realistic standpoint, recognizing its value to be truly bizarre and disturbing (two of my favorite adjectives). And you, my fellow aficionados of the pop culture blender, might appreciate it too. Buy your Sailor Man tickets here; it opens Saturday, it's only $15, and you can actually say you went to a Fringe show after eight years of saying you really mean to.

UPDATE: I saw Sailor Man last night. It was very violent, very funny, and very good idea. Go see it. That is all.


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