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Blu-ray Review

DVD cover

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)
(Blu-ray & DVD Dual Format)


Starring: Sandy Dennis, Cher, Karen Black, Sudie Bond and Kathy Bates
Distributor: Eureka Entertainment
RRP: £19.99 (Blu-Ray & DVD Dual Format)
Certificate: 15
Release Date: 22 July 2019

Robert Altman was a tough minded resilient filmmaker. I knew a producer who detested him because during a TV movie they were working on together there was disagreement on how things were going. The producer told me he was pulling rank on Altman because after all he was the boss. Altman and his entire cast and some crew members barged into the guy’s office (let’s call him Gerry) and intimidated him. Security had tried to stop them but were just invited to troop along and watch. I think an actress sat on Gerry’s desk, lit a cigarette and dared him to look up her skirt. Gerry was very upset but he had to eat his status and Altman got his way.

In the San Fernando Valley of the shadow of Hollywood death after Altman did the loathed Popeye (1980) and his triumphant return with his grudgingly praised, star studded masterwork The Player (1992), Altman never stopped working. He turned to little films in that decade of darkness, including Streamers (1983), Secret Honor (1984), and Tanner ’88 (1988), the latter – whose fictional eponymous politico (Michael Murphy) is reincarnated as a true life human anthropoid in Martin Scorsese’s crypto Dylan docu Rolling Thunder Review: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese (2019) – is an indicator of the respect Altman got from his colleagues. Even after he was dead, one of his characters pops up to participate in the faux history of ramblin’ Bob’s exploits. The late Altman would no doubt have hooked a long toke and laughed deliciously.

The first little picture in this covey was Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. Altman loved the stage play by Ed Graczyk and wanted to honor it, both as a stage production and a film. And he did. With a first magnitude cast, led by the immortal Sandy Dennis as Mona, and dual 16mm camera coverage, he gives us a study in perplexion for the witnessing self when dealing with ‘given’ truths like persona, gender, friendship, Jesus and did James Dean really father Mona’s son? And, oh yes, the irony of a human body disconnected from its mind and the friend who is still the same but different.

Three women meet in a dusty little West Texas diner twenty years after they founded their James Dean fan club. Dean was their avatar in 1955 and after he died in an auto accident on September 30th of that year they have made the diner into a shrine to the actor. Dean had been wrapping up Giant that summer in Marfa, Texas, a little town sixty miles away. Mona had even been chosen to be an extra but confides her face was never visible because Liz Taylor’s head was in the way.

But entering their 1975 reunion is a woman of mystery, Joanne. Joanne (Karen Black) is familiar yet unknown. She knows them too which is even more perplexing. Sameness in a universe of constant change. Yet in quantum entanglement there is a simultaneity of uniting, a likeness achieved.

Mona has a treasured memento from the Giant Reata mansion movie set. It is a sun-baked wooden curl of American Victorian bric-a-brac from the front façade. ‘Only the front of course,’ she explains solemnly, ‘that’s the way they do things in movies.’

But Altman’s diner set has a rear dimension. The row of mirrors behind the counter often go transparent and parallel scenes from 1955 play out in tandem with what’s happening in front. Sometimes Mona even talks to them. And they talk back.

Memory mirrors. Problems arise when Joanne’s truth doesn’t reflect Mona’s or anybody else’s. Truth telling dominates the third act and though viewers (especially today) will see the dessert trolley coming from a mile off, the pleasurable tension is nonetheless as enjoyable as a Black Forest Gateau with your name on it. There are a few revelations one might not anticipate though. Everybody has a truth to tell. Often more formidable than others want to hear. Joanne’s truth for Mona causes paroxysms of rage and denial, laughter and new commonality, new uniting.

For Altman to return to the subject of James Dean’s effect on people and popular culture was no whim but a calculus of his beginnings and the popularity he had won and lost. It’s Altman being true to himself. His first film was a rough hewn documentary on Dean constructed in the months after Dean’s death and released very early in 1957, The James Dean Story.

Critics have called the film wretched, turgid, saccharine and a total failure yet it has been cannibalised for nearly every James Dean docu since. For a $35,000 budget what do you expect for a debuting novice from Kansas City, Missouri? Altman’s work ethic showed itself even here. In that year and a half he also produced, wrote and directed a movie called The Delinquents (1957) starring a young Tom Laughlin. ( The budget here was bigger, a hefty $65,000.

In returning to the subject of James Dean, Altman was dealing with the effect of James Dean. The 1982 Graczyk play is a parallel universe not merely of truth telling and certainly not about Dean; everything that can be known about the actor is known. But Graczyk gives us a fascinating reality session for the truth tellers and a warning of peril. A lie becoming truth will change a person but seldom for the better. ‘What’s real?’ somebody murmurs. The answer to that lies within the heart and mind of the teller and not the object of adulation. Truth be told, the essence of reality here is friendship, the memory mirrors in the final shot give us a ghostly reminder we’d better hang onto friendship whenever and wherever we can.

Extras abound in this 1080p presentation. Either format will give you reality chills of superb acting up close and personal. But Altman’s cameras and Jason Rosenfield’s editing choices are acting too. It is dramatic/comedic synchronicity that bears watching more than once to discern the nearly indiscernible transitions and this Eureka Blu-ray and DVD serves that reality pristinely.

"To James Dean," Mona toasts. "Long live the dead." How right she is.


John Huff

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