' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)

Friday, April 03, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)

“You mean you regret it?” a character is asked in Robert Altman’s “Come Back To The Five Dime, Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean.” The character replies: “Only when I think about it.” It’s a variation of the immortal riposte by “Chinatown’s” Jake Gittes when asked if his cut-up nose hurts – “Only when I breathe,” he says. Both of these lines possess strident pessimism, of course, but the latter expresses a pained acceptance of it whereas the former is a strict manifestation of denial. The almost entirely female ensemble of Robert Altman’s film, which is based on a stage play he also helmed, is withering on the vine of denial because they, to paraphrase Garrison Keillor, believe in looking reality straight in the eye and telling it what to go do with itself. I don’t make that Keillor reference lightly. After all, Altman also helmed, years later, the cinematic manifestation of “A Prairie Home Companion” and the Five and Dime of “Come Back” may as well be a Lone Star version of Lake Wobegon’s Chatterbox Café, a place where locals get together to shoot the breeze, likely as a means to deliberately ignore the howling winds of desolation.


This collective notion of refusal to acknowledge life’s reality is given a face in the form of James Dean. After all, he came to film “Giant” in Marfa which is but a scant 62 miles away from McCarthy, Texas which is where a few female friends have created a fan club to the original rebel without a cause called The Disciples Of James Dean. They have pictures on the wall, a budget – well, they had a budget ‘til they spent it on matching jackets. Of course, not long after, Jimmy Dean meets his maker in a fiery car wreck. That, it would seem, is not only the night their gang disbanded, but the night the lights went out on the ladies’ respective perceptions of the real world. Now they have re-gathered twenty years later at the five and dime to rehash memories.

“Come Back To The Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean” was based on a stage play, one that Altman directed, and it shows, what when considering the film is strictly contained to one locale, the store of the title. Ah, but Altman, it goes without saying, was an exemplary cinematic craftsman, and this film merely re-illuminates it. Sure, the pictures themselves aren’t particularly illuminating given that he shot the film quickly and cheaply on Super 16 before blowing it up to 35mm. The Netflix DVD on which I watched it was chock full of fairly scuzzy images, almost Dust Bowl-ish, which, frankly, only add to the film’s burned out atmosphere. Frames don’t have to pretty to be function effectively.

More crucial, however, is Altman’s maneuvering between past and present, which happens repeatedly and often concurrently. Rather than simply employing basic editing to make the time-jumps, he erected a second set separated from the first set by two way mirrors. It’s a legitimately brilliant decision that allows the characters to literally see themselves in flashback, evoking the idea of lingering in memories in an awesomely tangible way. Films these days so often drop softly lit flashbacks into the midst of present day scenes, but Altman achieves the same effect without ever leaving the current shot. It’s not only a logistical triumph, it’s a means of making the past that much more incredibly immediate. And because the actors are seen long-ago as the same age they are now, it works to underscore that way in which our recollections in our mind don’t always account for the physical changes we underwent.


Each character harbors a secret of one sort or another, varying in level of shock. And although Joanne (Karen Black) might have the most shocking reveal, the most vital reveal is the one that all the other characters already know full well – that is, Mona (Sandy Dennis) pervading the myth her son was sired by Jimmy Dean himself. The whole story of how it happened, and the girls get Mona to recount it one more time, is ludicrous, and it’s supposed to be. It’s a tall tale – a humongous tall tale – and she recites it yet again with such devout passion that you can tell she has really hypnotized herself into believing it. Of course, this reunion will call her on the carpet, and so it does for everyone else as the whole film devolves into a series of melodramatic confessional monologues.

The play, it would appear, was not well received, and that’s understandable. So much of the dialogue is so overwrought that I can’t imagine any stage set, however stylized, could have possibly allowed for it. But here, on Altman’s majestically grimy movie set, one designed by David Gropman, it all feels right at home, true and mind-bogglingly far-fetched all at once. Every metaphor comes at us like the Jesus picture over the bar awash in neon. Outside the door, storm clouds gather in the distance in the hope of bringing rain that will cure the area’s drought, a ham-fisted emblem of the alleviation of everything they have repressed.

Then again, what if the storm just laughs and passes right on by?

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