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Art by Joan Medina ~ @joanmadethis

Dune Is More Relevant Now Than When It Was Written

When thinking of words to describe Denis Villenueve’s Dune: Part Two, the one that overwhelmingly comes to mind is “epic.” This may seem a bit obvious, yet the experience that Villeneuve was able to cultivate is one that can’t often be replicated. Building on the groundwork Frank Herbert laid in the 1960s novel, Villeneuve makes it something larger than life. Not only is this story entertaining, it also interweaves a discussion of decades-old issues our society has been facing.

When Dune: Part Two began its roll out in theaters, I had yet to see the first film; despite being a sci-fi enthusiast; I remained skeptical, as some of my peers had called it “boring” and “dense.” After a lively explanation from a friend who was persuading me to watch Dune, I finally did. I was hooked and baffled by anyone who had described this world to me as “boring.” I fell in love with the universe Frank Herbert had created and with the lore and culture of Arrakis. 

Once I settled down into the theater to watch Part Two, I was transported amazed and didn’t want it to end (that’s saying a lot considering its 2h 46m runtime). I’m somewhat of a romantic when it comes to the movies and to the unique experience the theater can provide. There’s something about having a shared experience with the strangers around you, while watching a film that will someday be known as one of the greats. Memories of seeing films, such as The Hunger Games, Avengers: Endgame, and now Dune: Part Two in theaters, are the kind I hold dear. 

As a certified Villenueve fan (Arrival is one of my all-time favorites) I had no doubt that he would nail the visuals. The view through this film is breathtaking. The contrast between Arrakis and Giedi Prime, our two main locales, is stark, yet they are each beautiful in their own way. On Arrakis we get warmth of deserts and the setting sun: extreme wide shots of the terrain and close-ups of what little wildlife exists on the desert planet. On Giedi Prime, however, is where we get my favorite scene in the film. All outdoor scenes on Giedi Prime are shown in unique, contrasty black and white (the sun to this planet is black, and gives no regular light to refract and create color), and the Harkonnen arena scene manages to achieve an alien quality distinct from other scenes. The greyscale possesses an incredible starkness, making the Harkonnen appear even more bestial and brutal than they do elsewhere in the film. 

The arena scene, in brilliant fashion, was shot using infrared in order to get this otherworldly feel. The large arena, packed with crowds of hairless on-lookers, the arena guards dressed in strange jester-like uniforms, and the inky black fireworks overhead, all combine to create a specific kind of discomfort. Add to this Austin Butler’s predatory depiction of the Harkonnen, Feyd-Rautha, and the scene becomes the awe-inspiring gem it is. 

Butler’s Feyd-Rautha was one of the standouts in performance. I absolutely love when an actor can realize a good villain, and Butler definitely takes the cake. Rebecca Ferguson also shines in her return to her role as Lady Jessica. I was in love with Ferguson’s performance in the first film and delighted to see her character grow more complex in the second film. Her portrayal of Jessica, and her slow descent into Bene Gesserit madness, transfixed me. Jessica starts off the series as a somewhat cold, yet loving, mother to Paul Atriedes.

Though she is merely the Duke’s concubine, she plays an important respected role in the Atreides family.

 

In Part Two, the Atreides household has fallen, and Jessica begins to embrace her Bene Gesserit training in full. We witness her journey to becoming Reverend Mother to the Fremen and the consequences that have come along with that. She spends the film pushing Paul towards bringing a holy war to Arrakis, even trying to convince him his unborn sister agrees this is the necessary path that he must take. Paul ultimately decides to accept his fate as the Kwisatz Haderach (male Bene Gesserit) and as the savior of the Fremen because of Jessica’s insistence. 

Zendaya’s character, Chani, intrigued me in the first film and I was looking forward to seeing how her character would develop in Part Two. Although I enjoyed watching her develop her relationship with Paul, ultimately her character fell flat for me. I hoped to learn more about her, but she was merely reduced to Paul’s love interest. Even with Chani as the sole voice of resistance, this still disappointed me, to see another female character treated as a plot device for the male protagonist. Female characters written by men have a habit of being one-dimensional, and Chani is no exception. During their climactic fight scene, Feyd-Rautha catches Paul locking eyes with Chani and asks, “She’s your pet?” Unfortunately this line is quite fitting—Paul’s pet is the extent to which Chani’s role plays out in the story. She teaches him to sandwalk and fit in as a Fremen, only to be cast aside for Princess Irulan. 

(Or is she?) 

Paul Atreides, he of the many epithets: Lisan al-Gaib, Maud’dib, Kwisatz Haterach, and Messiah, is brought to life by Timothee Chalamet. Although I like Chalamet in films such as Call Me By Your Name and Little Women, I have never really subscribed to the hysterics surrounding him. Still, after I saw Paul in the first Dune I was convinced that he’s one of the greatest actors of our generation. He really is the perfect Paul, both physically and emotionally, just as Herbert described in the novel. Paul’s character undergoes a dramatic transformation in the second film and Chalamet’s monologues towards the end of the film, underscoring this, gave me chills. Chalamet depicted the shift from meek and humble to confident and power-mongering to perfection, and the final battle between Paul and Feyd-Rautha is sure to be one of my favorite cinematic moments of the year. 

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Maybe the thing that amazed me most about this story is how ahead of its time Dune was when it was first published eighty years ago, in 1965. I challenge you to watch Dune and not walk away with some understanding of the politics Frank Herbert hinted at. In the most basic terms, Dune is a story about wealthy and noble houses that have taken turns colonizing a desert planet for control of its most valuable export. The way I, and many others see it, this is clearly an allegorical representation of the Euro-American forces that wreak havoc in the Middle East, as they control and extract its oil. It is worth noting that one of the reasons spice is so precious is because it is essential in aiding interstellar travel, a glaring resemblance to the role oil plays in our current society. 

In an interview from the 1980s, Herbert explains that he saw water on Arrakis as a metaphor for oil, clean air, and water itself. He sought to articulate the challenges he saw our world beginning to face in the 60s. In the novel and the film, we see how precious and sacred Fremen hold water, due to its scarcity. They steward the precious substance, taking stringent care of their environment. Meanwhile, the ruling families of the empire fight over spice, as people in ours would fight over natural resources. 

Dune can be interpreted many different ways, and I think that was perhaps Herbert’s intention. I feel the story is more relevant now than it was when it was written. The challenges Herbert was beginning to notice in the 1960s have only intensified in the 21st century. Having grown up in a post-9/11 world, I recognize the similarities to our current conflict in the Middle East as unignorable. Arrakis being a desert planet is a big part of this, but it is also obvious that both Fremen and Bene Gesserit culture, clothing, and terminology are heavily influenced by Abrahimic and Middle Eastern cultures. The Bene Gesserit, for example, represent the role of religion in the empire, and are most likened to Evangelical Christianity with its messianic focus. 

In this scenario, the galactic empire is a metaphor for America. The Atreides are known as one of the more righteous noble houses and the Duke is seen as a fair ruler. I see this as an analogy to the belief (of some Westerners) that America is a great power that can do no wrong, as it brings democracy and freedom. By the time the Atreides take control of Arrakis, the Fremen, stand-ins for Palestinians and the like, are exhausted and angry after centuries of cycling through different oppressors. They express that they have love and respect for the desert, while their oppressors only seek to exploit it, and them, for spice, through any means necessary. 

While the Atreides strategy is to befriend the Fremen and learn their ways, the Harkonnen barely acknowledge the Fremen as human and see them as an inconvenience to be exterminated in order to get to what they need: spice. The House Harkonnen represents corporate exploitation, warmongering, and racism towards the Fremen. We see clips of Baron Harkonnen spitting vitriol to his lackeys about the Fremen and they are referred to as “rats.” I think these two sides of the imperialist coin can be seen as American propaganda vs. the horrors that have actually taken place on Middle Eastern soil. The Atreides represent what American nationalists would have us believe: that America is lending a helping hand. The Harkonnen represent reality: wars have been fought and many lives lost in the name of harvesting oil. 

Given the compelling story and intense cultural implications, it’s hard for me to believe that Dune is only now getting the hype it deserves. A story, at its core, that is something so incredible, and Villenueve made it even easier to fall in love with. It makes me so happy that Villenueve was able to create something this beautiful and buzz-worthy, because now Dune is more accessible to a broader audience (not just to film bros and old school sci-fi nerds). Although Dune has been around for decades, I think Villenueve has made this franchise into something that could give even George Lucas a run for his money. Some people may be growing tired of the Arrakis hype by this point, still, my love for Dune knows no bounds. 

When I think about the fact that I was living a life without Dune, only a few months ago, it’s hard to believe that a sci-fi nerd like me went a quarter of a century without knowing anything about this iconic story. A story, at its core, that is something so incredible, and Villenueve made it even easier to fall in love with. It makes me so happy that Villenueve was able to create something this beautiful and buzz-worthy, because now Dune is more accessible to a broader audience (not just to film bros and old school sci-fi nerds). Some people may be growing tired of the Arrakis hype by this point, still, my love for Dune knows no bounds.

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Popeye in Malta: A Filmmaker's Adventure

by Stepanie Gardner

 

*note: may contain some spoilers. . . .

What do GladiatorThe Count of Monte CristoCaptain PhilipsMunichTroyGame of Thrones and Popeye all have in common? These films were all made on the sunny island-nation of Malta in the Mediterranean Sea. 

 

I discovered all this when I chose Malta as the destination to run my first marathon. Having trained in the cold, snowy, steep, high altitude Sangre de Cristo mountains of Northern New Mexico, I thought it would be a breeze to run on a relatively flat course at sea level with mild temperatures. 

 

Boy was I wrong! The day of the race came and the temperamental weather gods graced us with torrential downpours, from beginning to end. Runners huddled together under a gas station awning to try to stay dry before the start, a task that proved impossible. 

 

At the last minute, I decided to keep my outer jacket for the race instead of putting it in my finish line bag as previously planned. 

 

Other runners looked at me and asked, “Are you really going to wear that to run?” 

 

Yes. Yes I was. And boy am I glad I did. It was the only thing that kept me relatively dry for much of the race. I never felt too hot nor did I ever feel the need to take it off. The monsoon-like rains never stopped. Perhaps training in the winter snow wearing heavy layers to run in paid off after all! 

 

My goal for this first marathon was simply to finish, and to finish in under the allotted time, which for the Malta Marathon was five hours. 

 

Because of the rains, I took some portions of the course extra slow. At times we were running through the middle of towns and villages, which have uneven brick or stone pavements, narrow passageways, often with locals walking to work. There was also a lot of vehicle traffic that was on the route. This was more challenging than I was prepared for. 

 

Because of the rains, the sidewalks or roads were extra slippery and since I couldn’t always see the surface in front of me (the rains were that heavy that you couldn’t always see the ground… some roads were completely flooded spilling over the sidewalks). 

 

I told myself, “if you get injured, you won’t finish at all” so I made myself go super slow and carefully throw some of these potentially slippery spots. This paid off. 

 

Halfway through the race, I was running on a narrow sidewalk under a tunnel when a large van came racing down the street and splashed me from head to toe with puddle water. The rest of the race was miserable because I became so cold and unbearably wet from this aggressive driver. I was running with puddles in my shoes. Feet damp and cold. But I persevered. 

 

Ironically, the day before and the day after, this landscape showed turquoise waters and clear blue skies with 66 degree Fahrenheit weather: perfect for a casual… or not so casual… Run! 

 

It wasn’t until the last 3 miles or so that I started to worry that I wouldn’t finish in time. (I had miscalculated because I was getting confused between the computation of kilometers to miles in my head.) This portion of the race was entirely along the waterfront with the many forts in the distance and mega yachts parked along the pier. 

 

The race started outside the city gate of Mdina, a fortified city on a hill believed to date back to the Phoenician times. Kings Landing of Game of Thrones was filmed here, as well as more recently, a stand-in for Paris in Ridley Scott’s 2023 Napoleon. I did, however, visit Mdina a couple days after the race and stayed in a local’s home inside the walls of this fortified old town, with a population of approximately 300 residents and hoards of daytrippers. I had the best chocolate cake of my life at the Fontanella Tea Garden. 

 

In the days after the race, I took a couple weeks to explore the fascinating history and stunning landscapes that Malta and its sister island of Gozo, have to offer. 

 

Malta is an independent archipelagic country, approximately 60 miles south of Italy’s island of Sicily, and about 180 miles north of North Africa. Malta is the tenth smallest country in the world. While the archipelago consists of five islands, Malta is the biggest and most populated (Gozo, the sister island is also populated, Comino, even smaller, has a population of one, and the other two are small, uninhabited landmasses). Malta is so small that my marathon took me running across half the island! The island of Malta is only 17 miles long and 9 miles wide.

 

The history of Malta is jam-packed with action, well suited for a screenwriter. From Neolithic times to early agriculturists who created some of the oldest-known man-made structures in the world: the Megalithic temples of Malta, dating back 12,000 years, proven to be older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza; to the seafaring Phoenicians who came in from nearby Carthage and used Malta as a trading post until the Romans took over. Malta became one of the first countries to be converted to Christianity, as it’s believed the Apostle Paul was shipwrecked on Malta. I visited the grotto where St. Paul is said to have hid out and begun converting the population. 

 

Then the Germanic Vandals and Ostrogoths took over, eventually integrating into the Eastern Roman Byzantine Empire before the Arab Conquest invaded and conquered the island. The Maltese language has a lot of influences from this time, as the Abbasid dynasty brought in a specific dialect of Arabic, now extinct, the Siculo Arabic, which the Maltese language is considered a descendant of. 

 

I wrongly assumed, going in, that Malta, being so close to Italy, would have a large Italian influence (and certainly it does in terms of cuisine and other such things), but the languages are quite different. Maltese is the only official language in a European country that is Semitic. Maltese is also the only Semitic language in the world that is written in a Latin script. It’s very unique indeed! 

 

Arab rule continued for several centuries until 1091, when the Norman King of Scily, Roger I, invaded and took back Malta in the name of Christianity. (The island was then tossed between the Germans, French, Spanish, unsuccessfully invaded by Tunisians in the 1492 Siege of Malta), and Malta soon became a hotbed of the Christian Crusades under the Knights Hospitaller (The Order of the Knights Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem). The Knights Hospitaller were kicked out of the Island of Rhodes, and given Malta by the King of Sicily, in exchange for two Maltese Falcons per annum. Of course my mind goes directly to Humphrey Bogart as a noir detective in the classic 1941 John Huston movie, but sadly, the plot of this movie has nothing to do with the contract that gave a Christian military order free reign over the Maltese islands. 

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I became fascinated by the Knights of St. John: even though they were relatively small in number (they numbered in the hundreds), they had a huge impact on the modern history of Malta, and took the notion of branding oneself to impressive heights. Their armor, weapons, shields, and the massive and artistically ornate cathedrals they built were full of symbolism. The Knights Order consisted of eight “langues,” each from a different region of Europe, and each had their own flag, aesthetic-design styles in art and architecture, and so on. 

 

After fighting off the Ottoman army in the Great Siege of Malta (1565), and to some surprise defeating them, as Knights of St. Johns were the underdogs (the knights built up an army of approx. 6,000 men, whereas the Ottomans had nearly 28,000 men), the Knights ruled over Malta until 1798, when Napoleon conquered Malta and kicked out the Knights. By 1800, though, the British took over Malta, as the French were so hated by the Maltese, Malta became a British protectorate for the next century-and-a-half. 

 

When you visit the St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Malta’s capital of Valleta, founded by the Order of St. John, you see that each langue got to design their own chapel, and each chapel is craftily curated in the preferred arts style of that region (i.e. the Langue of France, Langue of Italy, Langue of Aragon and so forth). 

 

From the outside, the St. John’s Co-Cathedral is unassuming. The knights had a habit of building their churches and government buildings to resemble military forts. The cathedral was built by the Order of St. John (the knights) between 1573 and 1578 in dedication to St. John the Baptist. It was packed with tourists. In some areas you could hardly move around. But it was beautiful: the artistry inside. I thought it was one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen, maybe next to Gaudí's La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. The ceilings, especially, painted by Mattia Pretty (an Italian Baroque artist), are masterpieces. The architecture, light, columns and archways and frescoes on the ceilings of the nave with lots of gold gilding makes a spectacular sight. 

 

I became obsessed with the tombs, for important knights and dignitaries, lining the floor; very colorful with artistic tiles depicting coats of arms or skulls or angels or other loyalty symbols. They sometimes even looked like scenes out of a comic-book. 

 

There was an oratory room that had paintings by Caravaggio. You walk in the room mouth agape and awestruck. The light he creates in his painting feels like stills from expert cinematography, yet he was painting nearly 300 years prior to the advent of moving pictures! 

The famous piece in here is “the Beheading of St. John the Baptist,” apparently, it’s the only work Caravaggio ever signed. Also highlighted is his painting of “St. Jerome Writing,” which I quite liked. 

 

Carravagio ended up in Malta because he had been arrested in Rome for a violent quarrel where he killed a man (in a bar brawl). He fled Rome for Naples hoping to get a Papal pardon. The Order of St. John’s took him in: he sailed with them to Malta and produced some work for them in exchange. But Carravagio got in another brawl in Malta, this time with a high-ranking Knight (and he seriously wounded the knight). Caravaggio was arrested and imprisoned at Fort St. Angelo, where he escaped for Sciliy. He was expelled from the Order. 

 

The new Netflix limited thriller series, Ripley, starring Andrew Scott, Johnny Flynn, and Dakota Fanning goes into this Caravaggio storyline and Caravaggio’s trajectory and aesthetic influences becomes a sort of metaphor for Ripley’s inner psyche. 

Fascinating to me though, is WWII history in Malta: heavily bombed by Germany and Italy, Malta never gave up their land nor were conquered by the Axis. The archipelago had unique positioning as an Allied territory with direct access to the Axis lands. It eventually became an air-base and the staging area for the Invasion of Sicily, aka Operation Husky, which Eisenhower and Patton planned from an underground war room a la Dr. Strangelove in labyrinth-like tunnels under the city of Valletta. I visited this series of underground tunnels, deep under the Upper Baraka Gardens, and learned all about Operation Husky at the Lascaris War Room, with a guided tour from a historian who turned me onto the book, Sciliy ’43, by James Holland, a very dense and thorough look into the planning and execution of Operation Husky, which proved successful and helped to speed up the end of WWII. 

Even more interesting was Operation Mincemeat, which was a fake invasion of Greece that was planned to divert Hitler’s attention away from Sicily to allow Operation Husky to move forward. There is a well-made movie from 2021, starring Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen, which depicts Operation Mincemeat in all its absurd, surreal peculiarities. If it didn’t really happen, you would never believe the plot of this riveting movie! Malta finally gained its independence in 1964, with the British fully leaving in 1979, the same year Robert Altman filmed Popeye

 

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The highlight of the trip, was traveling to Mellieħa on the Northwest coast, to visit Popeye Village, what remains of the set of Robert Altman’s 1980 film, Popeye, a live-action movie- musical shot in Malta on a set they built on the coast at Anchor Bay, near Mellieħa. 

 

I took some time to walk around Mellieħa, a cute town on a hill surrounded by gorgeous turquoise waters, with the obligatory church and town square and narrow side streets and tourist shops on the main drag. 

 

After a breakfast of Salmon Avocado Toast at the Seaview Cafe, a dive overlooking the Mediterranean, popular with locals and tourists alike, I Ubered to “Popeye Village,” the main tourist attraction of the area. For the past five years, I have been traveling the world with a travel-meets-cinema arts and culture docu-series, 33 and Me, which includes visiting filming locations of movies made in over 33 countries around the world. Though I was not in Malta for 33 and Me, I couldn’t resist the urge to scope out where Robert Altman’s Popeye was filmed. After all, it’s set in one of the most gorgeous spots on the planet.

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Sweet Sweethaven 

God must love us 

We the people 

Love Sweethaven 

Hurray hurray Sweethaven 

Flags are wavin' 

Swept people from the sea 

Safe from democracy 

Sweeter than a melon tree 

Put here for you and me 

 

As this anthem-to-Sweet Haven opens the movie, we are introduced to the quirks and characters of the town, while Popeye rows in on a small boat. Antics abound! A man chases his hat down the street, another awkwardly slides down a fire pole. The movie uses a lot of physical humor, and apparently Altman brought in various circus performers from across Europe to play some of these background roles. 

The funniest is the tax collector, who accosts Popeye as soon as he’s out of his (very tiny) rowboat. There’s a tax for everything in Sweet Haven. I wouldn’t be surprised if thinking without speaking gets you a surcharge! 

 

There’s a new-in-town tax, a rowboat-under-the-wharf tax, leavin’-your-junk-lyin’-around-the-wharf tax. The taxes, we are told, go to the “Commodore.” 

 

“Who’s the Commodore?” Popeye asks. 

 

For that he gets charged a nickel for the “asking-a-question tax.” 

 

There’s even an exact-change tax. You can’t win! 

 

This early banter between the taxman and Popeye introduces us to the style and tone of the film: it’s quick and satirically funny with a lot of physical humor. 

 

“I’m just disgustipated,” Popeye, resigned, mutters as he heads into Sweet Haven for the first time. 

 

One of the unique things about Popeye, like Malta itself, is the language. Popeye has his own individualistic way of speaking, a dialect that heightens phrases to a cartoonish level: “Whatta co-in-ki-dink” he might say. 

 

At first, nobody in Sweet Haven is nice to Popeye. He walks the streets looking for a place to stay, even a friendly nod, but the town is seemingly afraid of outsiders. This kind of feels like a lot of places in the world today. Fear the other, could be the notion of such a feeling. 

All the shop owners slam shut their doors and windows as Popeye passes by, “Closed” and “No rooms for rent” signs suddenly emerge. And to add insult to injury, Popeye gets knocked down to the ground. 

 

Finally, Popeye finds some hospitality in the matriarch of the Oyl family (pronounced “oil”). Mrs. Oyl offers Popeye her room for rent, while the rest of the family is still skeptical: Castor Oyl, the son, is afraid of strangers like the rest of the town; the pretty tall and lanky Olive (Shelly Duvall) acts like a spoiled teenager and wants nothing to do with Popeye, while comedically tripping over herself and completely destroying his room from her clumsiness. Picture frames come crashing off the wall; she trips into the bed which collapses into what looks like an off-kilter Van Gogh painting. 

 

Olive is perhaps the most cartoonish character of all; and the wardrobe really helps to give this movie a unique look of its own. Olive Oil is in a red blouse, she puts a big black and white polka dotted bow in her hair, she has round red earrings. One of the funniest scenes to me comes early on in the movie: Popeye’s first night in Sweet Haven, when he tries to sit down for dinner with the Oyl family. There’s no room for Popeye at the table, so he moves his chair round and round the table, until he can find a place to squeeze into. Meanwhile, Popeye is a gentleman, and stands up every time Mrs. Oyl comes to sit at the table. But as Mrs. Oyl is also the one serving dinner, she’s constantly getting up and down from the table, thus causing Popeye to stand up and sit back down in rapid succession. It becomes a bit of “musical chairs” meets “duck duck goose.” To top it off, no one ever sets him a plate, so he has no way of eating the food served on the table. 

 

By the end of the scene, everyone’s left the table under different pretexts, and Popeye is alone without having ever been served food. 

 

“It’s never good to be too full, I guess,” says Popeye. 

 

I love this about the movie: for all the obstacles Popeye comes across, he always maintains a positive attitude, and he continues to move forward in his journey. And for the most part, no matter how rude everyone is to him, he still remains a gentleman. He’s still mostly kind and of strong heart. 

 

It feels like running a marathon: despite the rain, sleet or snow; the hills, the traffic, the miles and miles and miles where you feel like your feet will fall off, you keep going. Because that’s life as Popeye handles every obstacle that comes his way without dwelling on the difficulties, he keeps going because he has goal: to find his long-lost father. 

 

While the plot to Popeye is somewhat simple, there’s a nice existentialism to the piece. 

 

Once Popeye becomes a “mother” after he and Olive Oyl find an abandoned baby left on the wharf, Popeye starts to question his place in the world. 

 

“What am I?” He asks in song form. 

 

“I yam what I yam what I yam” he sings. “And that’s all I yam.” 

 

There’s something cathartic in embracing this overly-simplistic inner self. Why try to be something you’re not? Why try to be anything other than who you already are? 

 

Nowadays most people live such busy lives, we stress over the smallest things, sometimes over- analyzing who we are, and how we should best project that identity onto the world. In reality, if we just stepped back from everything and allowed ourselves to say, “I yam what I yam,” life might start to feel a little bit easier, and perhaps, more enjoyable! After all, there is a certain joie de vivre to Popeye’s lifestyle. 

 

And baby Swee’pea really steals the show. This baby is smiley and charming all throughout, and he has a surprising amount of screen time! Turns out, the baby was Robert Altman’s grandson! 

 

At the start of the movie, Olive Oyl is engaged to Bluto, a big, brutish guy who works for the Commodore, and controls the town in a bullish way. After Popeye and Olive return with a baby, Bluto takes this to mean she’s been sneaking around on him, and he wreaks havoc on the Oyl’s house, destroying it and making them destitute. 

 

Swee’pea is kidnapped . . . a couple of times . . . once by Uncle Wimpy because it’s discovered that Swee’pea is psychic and can predict the winners of the horse races, which cleverly are shown with wooden toy horses; and then Bluto discovers this and takes Swee’pea to help him find a sunken treasure. 

 

Meanwhile, Popeye is reconnected with his father, Poopdeck Pappy, who look and act nearly identically, and Popeye rescues Swee’pea and Olive Oyl while defeating the oh-so-mean Bluto. 

 

The movie is good fun all around and shows something that’s often lacking in filmmaking today: the pure joy and craftsmanship of “the magic of movie making.” The sets, costumes, physicality, even the songs; are so fun and creative. It’s nice to shut off your mind for a while to sit back, relax, and enjoy some classic entertainment. 


 

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Upon arrival to Popeye Village, you are left off on a cliff overlooking the clear blue sea, looking down on a wide-shot of Sweethaven, the fictional village of the film, hovering over the waters with rocky abandon, and you’re transported back to 1979 and feel as though you were dropped into the movie. 

 

While kitschy, if you let go of all seriousness, this destination is a barrel full of fun! Recently, I read in National Geographic that adults need to incorporate more play into their lives. It is scientifically proven to improve health and wellbeing. If you allow for it, the Popeye Village is pure play. 

Popeye is an adaptation from a popular comic strip popularized in the early 1930s, which remained popular through the 1950s and beyond. Created by comic strip artist E.C. Segar (b. 1894, d. 1938), the character of Popeye first appeared in Thimble Theatre, a comic strip which debuted in the New York Journal at the end of 1919. At the time, Thimble Theatre was based on three characters: Olive Oyl, Castor Oyl (Olive’s brother), and Ham Gravy (Olive’s boyfriend). About a decade later, as described by signage at Popeye Village, “the story took another turn and the comic needed a sailor to navigate the ship,” hence, Popeye The Sailor Man was born when “Castor Oyl came across a one-eyed sailor.” 

 

Altman’s Popeye was a joint production between Paramount Pictures and Walt Disney Productions. Legend has it that Paramount lost a bidding war for the movie-rights to the popular Broadway musical, Annie. As a result, Robert Evans, prominent film producer (Rosemary’s Baby, The Godfather, Chinatown) and a longtime executive at Paramount, sought out comic-strip IP that the studio held rights to, in hopes to create a movie-musical to rival that of Annie; Popeye was the best option available. 

Evans hired Jules Feiffer to adapt Popeye for the screen. Feiffer was a cartoonist (including as a staff cartoonist for The Village Voice), satirist and author who had penned the play, Carnal Knowledge, which Mike Nichols adopted into his infamous 1971 movie. 

 

Initially Evans wanted Dustin Hoffman to play Popeye with Lily Tomlin opposite as Olive, directed by John Schlesinger of Midnight Cowboy fame. Allegedly, Mike Nichols, Hal Ashby and Arthur Penn were all slated to direct this movie. 

Instead, Popeye’s fate rested with Robert Altman, who’s 1970 film, M.A.S.H., put him on the map. He then directed such acclaimed films, such as McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Nashville, 3 Women, and The Player, before taking on Popeye

 

Instead of Dustin Hoffman (who didn’t like Jules Feiffer and in a rare instance the producer chose a writer over an actor), Robin Williams was chosen to play the title role. This was William’s first starring role in a movie. He had previously played the alien-just-arrived-to-earth Mork on the popular 1970s sitcom, Mork and Mindy, a spinoff character from Happy Days. Robin William’s wanted Gilda Radner to play Olive Oyl, but it ultimately went to Evan’s pick, Shelley Duval, a quirky character actress perhaps most known for The Shining. Duvall has appeared in several Altman films and in Woody Allen’s Oscar winner Annie Hall

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Altman refused to work on set in studio soundstages, preferring to make his films “on location.” Hence why he built an entire set in Malta to replicate the town of Sweet Haven, where nearly all the filming took place, both interior and exterior scenes were filmed on the set-buildings designed from scratch. The actors lived on location. 

 

The set village remains and is a pseudo theme park-meets-interactive museum. It’s sort of like a mini-Epcot village, except based on a fictional town, though Epcot towns often feel like fictional versions of a real place. It’s designed to look cartoonish, which makes the “architecture” of the set-design fun to look at and poke around, as you can explore all you want, in and out of buildings. 

 

With your 15-euro entrance ticket, you get one free postcard (from the gift shop, a clever ploy to get you excited about all the Popeye Merchandise), and one free popcorn, redeemed at the village's “cinema.” Popcorn and postcards: these are two of my all time favorite things in life! I admit, I ended up buying a Popeye puppet and a Popeye T-shirt, which I am wearing as I type this piece! 

 

The park has characters dressed up as sailors and townsfolk, Popeye and Olive, who do shows with the guests. Each day they organize a group where you can make your own movie and then watch it in the cinema… something I didn’t feel the need to participate in, since movie-making encompasses my entire life. 

 

You can walk in and out of the colorful buildings (the mayor’s office, the post office, the firehouse, etc.). Each had its own mini exhibit inside. One was about the original Popeye cartoon, with various memorabilia, and you can watch the 1980 movie in full here. 

 

Fieffer’s Popeye script intentionally stuck closely to the original Popeye comic-strips, Thimble Theatre, as opposed to the more well-known-by-the-80s Popeye television cartoons of the 1960s and 70s. As a result, some audiences were disappointed because the movie-musical felt too different from the TV series generations had come to love, but in reality, it stuck closely to the heart of Popeye, and the original source material from Segar’s Thimble Theatre

 

Another building led to an exhibit about the Musical production aspect of Popeye. Harry Nillson, the composer, came to Malta with a band and they built a recording studio on set, which is almost unheard of in Hollywood productions! Nillson would watch the dailies and then compose through the middle of the night. The actors sang live in the takes (this is extremely rare) and it was all mixed right there in Popeye’s Village. 

 

In this same exhibit, I was delighted to come across the headshot and bio of a favorite professor of mine from NYU Tisch. It was my former screenwriting/directing teacher, Alan Nichols, who was a close friend of Robert Altman and acted in several of his films! In Popeye, Alan plays Rough House, the chef who runs the Hamburger joint in town. I directed my very first film, The Mentor. I loved seeing Alan’s name and bio on display as I have fond memories of his class as it’s possible I never would have become a film director without those experiences he and the class gave me. 

 

I wandered around the Popeye Village with a grin plastered to my face. I enjoyed looking at the quirky set design details that were used, with lots of comical embellishments, if you look closely enough, spread across. For instance, the Mayor’s office Opening Hours are from 11:30am - 1pm and 3:30pm-5pm: not very long or convenient if you ask me! 

 

Popeye’s village has activities for all ages, from a bar overlooking the pristine turquoise sea, or the cheeky “toilet paper-roll toss” game they have out for kids to play with. 

 

The cinema, where you can redeem your free popcorn, shows a “making of” documentary from 1999, and the lobby of the cinema displays film posters from some of the other famous movies made in Malta since Popeye. Each poster is accompanied by a TV screen showing information about the locations used to film these Blockbusters. I learned that the producers of Gladiator, for instance, had a replica of the Roman Colosseum built at 1/3rd scale (which to me sounds quite large!) at Malta’s actual Fort Ricasoli in Kakara. 

 

After the Popeye Village, I took an Uber to the Red Tower (St. Agatha’s Tower), built on a cliff in 1649 by the Knights of St. John, to protect the coast from invasion. There are towers like this all over Malta, though most are not red. The Red Tower looked like something you’d find straight out of Game of Thrones. I went mostly for the views, and then walked all the way back to my hotel in Mellieħa, which took me approximately 1.5 miles along the sea. I had incredible sushi for dinner. 

* * * 

 

Like filmmaking, I run because I like it. When I run, I clear my mind. Sometimes it’s not even about clearing my mind, but rather, gathering it. Thoughts flow that allow me to access how I’m doing in life, where I stand in my projects, and what I need to do to continue moving forward. After all, millions of people before me for centuries have run marathons, and many millions more after me will do the same. 

 

I crossed the finish line in 4 hours and 48 minutes. I was so happy to have earned the finisher’s medal! After which, I had the desire to do nothing but change out of my wet clothes and dry off. 

 

My limbs would barely work, so it took me nearly 30 minutes to walk the 10-15 minutes to my hotel. 

 

Despite all the extra challenges this race brought me: the rains, winds, and flooding streets; the cold and dampness; I wouldn’t have changed any of it for the world! I did it, and I will never forget my first marathon in Malta and the visit to Popeye’s Village.

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