THE ROBERT ALTMAN FILES: SECRET HONOR (1984)

Locked behind security gates with cameras that pepper his estate like so many rose bushes, an exhausted Richard Nixon slowly retreats to his private study with a package in his hand. He first moves toward the fireplace where he pours a brandy and sits as the portrait of George Washington looms above him. Nah… no time for this. Nixon is on a mission and only Chivas Regal is going to do the trick. After pouring a fresh one, he changes into his smoking jacket and moves slowly to the box as if we’re watching a weird pantomime of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. However, that illusion is broken when the box opens and we see a fully loaded revolver. The stage is now set. For if a gun is introduced in the first act, as the old adage goes, it has to go off on the third. Richard Nixon is going down and for the next 90 minutes (actually 80 as it takes him a bit to conquer simple technology), he’s going to plead his case into a tape recorder for anyone who would want to listen.

Shot on the stage at the University of Michigan where director Robert Altman was employed as a theater professor, Secret Honor is the filmmaker stripped down to the studs and it stand as one of his most triumphant cinematic achievements of the 1980’s. Where his previous two adaptations of the stage plays Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean and Streamers, each reduced the size of both location and cast, Secret Honor is nothing more than 90 minutes of Richard Nixon (Philip Baker Hall in a roaring, commanding, and mesmerizing performance that put him on the map) bouncing off the the wood paneled walls of the study in the cocoon that is Nixon’s post-presidency compound.

Secret Honor isn’t a true tale, mind you and the opening crawl ensures that this is clearly understood. But this isn’t a dark political parable soaked in Greek tragedy and writ large across a 2.35:1 Panavision frame as Oliver Stone’s Nixon would prove to be ten years later. Instead, Richard Nixon is a sole, solitary, and pitiful creature whose tastefully decorated study acts as the prison of his own mind, squeezed into a 1.33:1 frame meant for television broadcasts of the time. Richard Nixon has a story to tell but to let it out would ironically destroy American’s faith in democracy.

So it’s a little surprising that Richard Nixon, dark prince at the center of the malignant rot that began to eat away at America in the late sixties, is presented as sympathetically as he is here. Like Oliver Stone’s film, Secret Honor reflects Richard Nixon as a stone cold zero who used politics and power to make himself a winner. This is underlined in Sharpie by the fact that Nixon didn’t run for office because he wanted to make a difference; he ran for office because a cabal of California businessmen ran him for office. Nixon was never a person with any true core principles, just an insatiable thirst to show those Ivy League punks and east coast intellectuals that he was no loser.

The Richard Nixon of Secret Honor is bathed in paranoid grievances built out of a horrific inferiority complex and the film tries to unspool his pathology in a way to mirror the Reagan Era, then in a bid for a second term. Oliver Stone would suggest that had Nixon not been impeached, Ronald Reagan would have never happened and I can’t help but wonder if Altman felt the same. Watching it in 2021, it’s hard not see Nixon, the dark historical figure who so rattled cognizant Americans, as little more than quaint in the rear view mirror of time but also as someone whose greasy heart of darkness led to the misdirected populism of the Reagan Revolution, itself a one-way slide leading directly to the Trump era. And while the conspiracy theories put forth in Secret Honor have nothing on the kind of stuff Oliver Stone would cook up later, they still point to an America run by a shadow government that’s in bed with numerous Asian governments to help facilitate the heroin trade. Wild stuff, for sure. But how different is it than the United States’s cozy involvement with dictatorial, South American regimes amid the cocaine wars of the 80’s?

Richard Nixon, more than any other President before Donald Trump, infused American politics with a dark sense of personal grievance. Unlike Trump, though, there was little in Nixon’s life that was handed to him without some kind of stark price tag. Like Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Obama, and Biden, Nixon truly came from nothing. The illness of his older brother, Harold, kept him out of Harvard and forced him to go to Whittier College. While pursuing his studies, he was firmly rejected by the schools’ various sports teams and upper crust societies. His future wife, Pat, balked at marrying him but he wore her down by driving her around on her dates with other men. Nixon was a pitiful and loathsome creature who would not take “no” for an answer and for whom every victory had to come at the utter destruction of his enemies all the while using self-pity and cheap political maneuvers to manipulate politicians of his same political party who otherwise loathed him.

Secret Honor shows a Nixon who ultimately found America rotten to the core. “Second rate mobsters and their PR guys,” he bemoans. And, soaked in booze and with his own self-loathing ego in full rage by the end of the film, he chillingly predicts a perpetual Nixon. You’ll never get someone like that down. It’s the American way, after all. And ultimately, he redeems himself by not killing himself and declaring a comeback. Fuck ‘em. As the credits roll over a mindless drone of “FOUR MORE YEARS!” there is little doubt that the dark scream is less about Richard Nixon and about the inevitable further downslide into Reagan’s mourning in America.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE CHARLES B. PIERCE FILES: THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK (1972)

Come sit around the campfire and let me spin you a tale of a more innocent time. 1972, to be exact. The year when a G-rated horror film like Charles B. Pierce’s The Legend of Boggy Creek could make a killing and become an absolute phenomenon. Not only did it cement the areas in and around southwest Arkansas as the United States’s prime real estate for bigfoot creatures and those that would capture the poor beast, it began a rash of independent, regional filmmaking that found its way onto double bills and in drive-ins across the country. You may not believe the tale but one such exists about a small southern burg, some folks who lived there, and the millions of dollars they printed out of thin air with little more than some competent nature footage and a stone-faced delivery of what amounted to a sideshow carnival attraction.

Wikipedia lists The Legend of Boggy Creek as a “1972 American docudrama horror film” which is, in reality, a bunch of words doing some heavy lifting in the service of a subgenre that really doesn’t exist. Part travelogue, part horror film, and part documentary, had The Legend of Boggy Creek turned out to be an industrial film for the Arkansas Department of Tourism that simply escaped the lab and terrorized the southern drive-ins for years, I would have been neither surprised nor mad upon discovery of the fact. For this is a film that is so non-traditional in structure, so bereft of narrative, and so bankrupt of actual scares, that it will likely, and sadly, eventually be lost to time as it’s tough to imagine generations unfamiliar with drive-ins and the type of films programmed for them cottoning to it.

But to understand The Legend of Boggy Creek’s inexplicable success and to get into its skin, the viewer has to cast themselves back to a time in which the vaguest of urban legends could wind their way through the media of the time and become sensationally real. If you never sat with jaw agape while watching an episode of Leonard Nimoy’s In Search of…, never had Orson Welles scare the absolute shit out of you by telling you the world was going to end in short order in The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, or who bought every single thing, no matter how fantastic, either Real People or That’s Incredible! put in front of you, The Legend of Boggy Creek might prove to be less than effective.

But for those on the ground at the time, The Legend of Boggy Creek was really something. You may have noticed that I really haven’t mentioned much about the film’s plot and there’s a very good reason for that as the film doesn’t have one. Instead, the film acts as the memories of a little-seen narrator (voiced by Vern Stierman) who recounts his time as a boy in the tiny town of Fouke, Arkansas, a blip on the map that is about forty-five or so miles south of Texarkana. A town with little more than a main street and numerous winding roads that lead back into a dark thicket of swampland and creek canals, Fouke would be a town you’d likely miss if not for its legend of the Fouke Monster, a giant, hairy creature who lives deep in the bottoms and emerges on occasion to terrorize the inhabitants of the town and all points surrounding same.

Like Oliver Stone’s JFK, the film throws a ton of information and anecdotes at the audience but ultimately presents a very weak case for its subject matter. When it’s all boiled down to the brass tacks, the Fouke Monster could just be an elaborate grift by the various members of the family Crabtree, a seemingly endless number of people who pop up throughout the film to make mention of their encounters with the monster. The film (almost laughingly) wants us to believe that about three different Crabtrees had some kind of encounter with the monster but never told one another for fear of disbelief, running counter to my experience with the way families communicate in rural parts of the country. Yes, I’m sure that over many drunken hunting trips, fishing excursions, and family get-togethers, not a one of them ever uttered a peep about their encounter. It’s actually easier to think that the Fouke Monster might have come about in conversation over a case of Coors and a dwindling fire pit in the same way the Amityville Horror scam was cooked up by deadbeats George and Kathy Lutz and underwritten by the terminally unserious Ed and Lorraine Warren.

Of course, veracity is hardly the point here. The Legend of Boggy Creek is really just a relaxed and lazy carnival ride and the more ingrained one is with this part of the country, the more tactile the experience will be. And it’s not without its moments of effectiveness. Some of the dusky shots surrounding the run down and rustic shacks still inhabited by people have an eerie stillness to them and Pierce does a good job keeping the creature mostly hidden by brush and quick edits. Disguised as a horror film, it is just as much a celebration of a tiny American community on the brink of extinction that has likely been given a 75 year lease on life due to this film.

Does shrinking this film down to television screens and forever anchoring it in living rooms diminish its power as a film? Certainly. But the film’s influence has a shadow that has been cast so long that it’s almost forever rooted itself as a piece of American folklore in that part of the country. The Fouke monster has spread into the southwestern part of Oklahoma where Bigfoot tourism creates no small amount of tax revenue. And could there be something to the notion that The Legend of Boggy Creek was one of the first films to graft a flimsy true and supernatural story onto film, thereby creating an entire phenomenon? Where the people who owned the actual Long Island Amityville house eventually had to remodel it to ward away tourists who would forever stop and snap pictures of it, Fouke has welcomed the attention. For the main highway into town has been renamed the Monster Parkway and there is most definitely a Monster Mart just to the north of the Boggy Creek Cafe.

“I’d still like to hear his lonely cry just to know that there is still a little bit of wilderness left and there are mysteries that remain unsolved,” the film’s narrator pleads at the end. Despite the cottage industry The Legend of Boggy Creek has created in its corner of the world regarding swamp monsters and the like, it never really creates the notion that there’s anything mysterious going on in Fouke. But what it has proven is that, no matter how sophisticated a society we become, there will always be plenty of carnival marks. And, for the sake of our sense of wonder, that’s not at all a bad thing. God bless America.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE ROBERT ALTMAN FILES: STREAMERS (1983)

After the critical success of his cinematic adaptation of Ed Graczyk‘s Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Robert Altman set his sights Streamers, the last in playwright David Rabe’s trilogy of pieces surrounding the Vietnam war. Self-financed and shot on the quick in Dallas, Streamers almost means to be the y-chromosome mirror of the distaff 5 & Dime, jumping right into the center of a drab Army barrack in 1965 that doubles as a Petri dish of different corners of masculinity, either real, imagined, or put on. Like 5 & Dime, the tensions between the characters in Streamers are mostly sexual, though a strong dose of racial politics is thrown into the pot, causing it to be more explosive, even if it results in a less engaging and satisfying film.

To be sure, mirroring is crucial throughout Altman’s filmography but it becomes incredibly important during his 80’s period where he was able to get layers and dimensions in limited settings by raising the dramatic stakes and casting his characters off one another. This often leads the characters to either look at themselves in the past or, more importantly, see themselves as they really are in the present. This was driven home quite literally with a mirror prop in 5 & Dime but it’s just as prevalent here as Streamers is about a group of trapped men as they await their deployment to Vietnam. Billy (Matthew Modine) and Roger (David Alan Grier) are pals who bounce off of each other quite well but their friendship is stressed just by the fact that one is black and one is white. Across the room bunks Richie (Michael Lichtenstein), an openly gay soldier who senses a certain uncertainty in Billy, who reacts to Richie’s provocations in ways that causes the audience to sense the uncertainty, as well. Added to this mix is the combustible Carlyle (Michael Wright), three months into his service and already on the brink of a psychotic collapse, and the perpetually soused Cokes (George Dzundza) and Rooney (Guy Boyd), commanding officers damaged by so much carnage seen in World War II, Korea, and now Vietnam, that all they can do is stay drunk and wait for death to take away the pain.

Despite Rabe being a downmarket Harold Pinter when it came to making opaque observations, and a certain archness to some of the performances in the film, there is a great deal that works in Streamers. In choosing the material, Altman certainly was able to save a few bucks due to its appropriately stripped-down and uncluttered set (this was probably the easiest paycheck production designer Wolf Kroeger ever earned) which adds to the heavy pall of ennui and almost maddening claustrophobia. Additionally, cinematographer Pierre Mingot’s fluid camera refuses to be nailed down in the third row and, instead, floats alongside the bunks and up their metal railings mostly acting as an observer of listeners rather than an optical mechanism, revealing more about the characters than if they were center-framed delivering a monologue.

And as barren and solitary a set that it is, the barrack functions as both pinball machine and narrow hallway of time. Much of the dynamism occurs when Carlyle saunters into the room and bounces off each and every character as if they were bumpers, all the while Cokes and Rooney are always perched at the end of the barrack, segregated further, representing the destiny of each and every one of these men that will survive the dehumanizing machine of war.

The majority of the performances, too, are aces and spot on. Modine and Grier display an uncomfortable rapport that is much different than the unease felt whenever either are dealing with the absolutely excellent Lichtenstein. Each character’s baggage gets tossed on top of the other until the whole thing collapses when the weight of Carlyle is added. A swaggering mix of rage, sadness, menace, and down-low vulnerability, his character is the wild card who drags the ugly truth out of all of the other characters. But as played by Michael Wright, the character becomes the most boorish and stage-bound; a dynamic performance full of rage and emotion but played to the back row and lacking in the subtleties befitting a screen performance. As it sits, he’s definitely the focus of attention whenever he’s on the screen but the audience ends up spending too much time watching him chew his way through whatever scenery there is. This, by the way, is not on Wright, who would go on to do amazing work on Oz, but, instead, it’s on Altman who had a responsibility to calibrate his actors to match the size and scope of the material. Though tackling the material for the big screen can’t be seen as anything but brave in 1983, it appears that, with Wright, Altman caught a fish too big for the boat in which he was sailing.

Earlier, the word “trapped” was used to describe the situation of the men and it is used both figuratively and literally as Streamers is best approached as a a work about men who are trapped. They are trapped in the service, trapped in a war, trapped in their own minds, trapped in bodies that are failing, trapped in bodies that are responding in ways that upset them, or trapped in a socioeconomic nightmare not of their making. For all the talk and introspection, when the credits roll, the men will have made choices and will be trapped even further. Same as it ever was.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE JACK HILL FILES: MONDO KEYHOLE (1966)

The “roughie” was a subgenre of sexploitation that mixed the kind of soft-focus, waist-up nudity with a hard and dangerous edge of violence of some sort. Invented (accidentally, probably) in 1963 with Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Scum of the Earth, the roughie gave audiences of a certain stripe the ability to indulge in a motion picture focused solely on their specific fetish, already a staple for pornographers who shilled their wares in the back of adult magazines and distributed stills and the like through the postal service. Jack Hill’s Mondo Keyhole is a mad slice of sexploitation that, like Scum of the Earth three years before it, wallows in the world of mail-order pornography. But despite ostensibly being a cheap-thrills quickie, Mondo Keyhole artfully subverts the audience’s expectations while also giving them what they came for (and then some).

Mondo Keyhole concerns the exploits of Howard Thorne (Nick Moriarty), head of a shabby, mail-order pornography clearing house that sends out still photographs, 8mm S&M films, and 33 LP’s containing ersatz sounds of Sadean pleasure. Thorne is also an inveterate rapist to whom it makes zero difference whether he’s committing his vile crimes while carrying out a nighttime home invasion or during a stalk-and-assault in the bright, mid-day outdoors. This generally leaves him retreating to his (impossibly cool) Hollywood Hills home totally spent and without anything left for his amorous wife, Vicky (Adele Rein), who has become addicted to heroin out of pure boredom and likes to meet him at the door while wearing a revealing neglige and a fright mask.

So far, this thing sounds typical to the genre and possibly boring. However, when the worm turns as the film enters its final set-piece, you can almost hear Keith Morrison’s voice in the back of your head saying “But this is exactly the point where things began to (pregnant pause) take a turn for old Howard Thorne. And not a pleasant one, either.” For in act one, Vicky reminds Howard of the costume party they have to go to the following evening. Act three is the party itself and… hooboy… it would be criminal to spoil it.

To be up front, this is very much an exploitation film. But while it’s not necessarily something I would recommend to my mother, I would be more than comfortable screaming about its virtues at the top of my lungs after a couple of glasses of wine among friends with likeminded taste. Primarily, this is very much a Jack Hill film and it reveals itself as such due to its female characters. If they don’t show up strong, they learn to become so. While the film sets the audience up to think the narrative is going to be all about Howard’s criminal misogyny, it smartly pulls the rug out from under by ultimately making the film about Vicky s journey out of her drug-fueled doldrums and into a sexual fantasia of personal agency and a more independent life. As Vicky makes love to herself in the mirror in a truly remarkable moment halfway through the picture, Mondo Keyhole shifts from a film you want to sneak home in a brown paper bag to a celebration of sex as a mutual adventure of understanding and unbridled joy. That’s Jack Hill all over; the guy who could make a trashy cheerleader movie do double duty as a sociopolitical treatise.

Not to oversell it but the orgiastic party at the end is one of the wildest things I’ve ever seen captured in a non-pornographic motion picture and it needs to be seen to be believed. Sure, it’s not exactly something that would see a lot of traffic on Pornhub and likely will be seen as pretty tame by most these days but there is a meditative quality to it as you realize that what’s unfolding in front of your eyes isn’t at all scripted. What kind of party is this? What are we not seeing that’s just out of frame? Except for those that we know are actors, this feels like a very real party thrown in the very large abode of the film’s producer where the lights of Los Angeles tinkle down below and god-knows-what kind of hedonism is happening behind closed doors and tall hedges, the warmth of the summer night fueling the notion that the endless possibilities of the time were all for the taking.

Mondo Keyhole is definitely what it purports to be but, due to the uncanny filmmaking skill of Jack Hill, it’s even more than that. It’s a slow-walk of genre material through a door and into a place where it could have deeper dimensions, loftier intentions, and artier craft, yet still remain wickedly entertaining.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE RUSS MEYER FILES: EROTICA (1961)

One of the drawbacks of the nudie-cutie film is that there are just so many interesting ways to show nudity for nudity’s sake for the sixty minutes that made up the average length of the movies. Most of the time, as was the case with The Immoral Mr. Teas and Eve and the Handyman, the films were a string of adult party jokes come to life in episodic fashion. In Erotica, Russ Meyer’s third feature, there is more emphasis on the episodic as the film is built out of what literally feels like a series of differing nude scenarios with Meyer and Jack Moran’s corny narration spot-welded to the images after the fact.

Beginning as an industrial film about the construction of a motion picture, Erotica jumps off the screen with Meyer’s strong visual flourishes that promises to unleash a more sophisticated nudie film than the two previous productions and one that hints that it may in fact act as a meta commentary on them; kind of like Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Boin-n-g from 1964 but… you know… good. It jumps with a breathless narration that employs Russ Meyer’s trademark double entendres, equating the filmmaking process to masturbation in a cadence that makes you feel like you’re going to be asked to buy something by the time it’s all over.

However, once the film opens up, Erotica becomes a hugely hit or miss affair. Its segmented structure serves it well as if you find yourself stuck in the tedium of a segment, you can bet that it will likely end soon. However, that same structure is what causes the film to lurch forth in fits and starts which does not help the sixty minute running time move any quicker. Truth be told, Erotica truly feels like a Meyer sizzle reel that he may have carted around to living room parties with him; kind of like an animated portfolio to the discerning viewer, as it were. The filmmaker’s unsettled legs are apparent as he rocks back and forth between these well-staged pieces of breathing cheesecake and moments in which there seems to be an honest sexual expression that doesn’t feel like a wax put-on. Like putting Esquivel on the jukebox and looking at what once passed as your great-grandfather’s porn stash, Erotica has a kitschy charm that cannot be denied and, on a technical level, it’s quite good. But composition and color aren’t the film’s major problem as much as time is. The humor is a mixed bag of cornpone laffs for the hicks with some inspired moments that are reminiscent of a slower and bawdier Rocky and Bullwinkle episode. But hardly any of it works today which moves this further away from “entertainment” and into the arms of “museum piece.”

In watching the film, though, I began to wonder if the overwhelming feminine appeal for Meyer’s work rests not only in the agency and representation of the strong, independent, and dominate female characters but also in his gravitation to the Rubenesque, where dimples, rolls, and imperfections were all part of the package. Sure, they’re objectified, but they also seem more than exploited; they seem genuinely loved. That said, when compared to Eve and the Handyman, Erotica reflects a clear difference between women who Meyer directs and women who direct Meyer. Erotica is too much of the former and not enough of the latter and Meyer was at his best when his sexual drive and his creative energy were both motivated by a insatiable sense of wanting to be dominated by 50% hard-ass mom and 50% woman he wanted to sleep with. He could set up brilliant compositions of women in pools in his sleep. Creating something while completely obsessed with the central figure? Now THAT would be a real challenge.

Some of the framing in a few of the vignettes appear to be dry runs for much later work such as Supervixens and Cherry, Harry, Raquel!, further giving credence to the idea that Meyer used the nudie cutie to give the audiences what they wanted but also to employ trial and error in seeing what created the most aesthetic and sexual value on screen. By the time he got to his Gothic period three years later with the potent Lorna, he had an arsenal of shots, angles, and visual framing in his back pocket that allowed him to move through his productions like a hot knife though butter while creating something bold and artistic at the same time.

In the end, Erotica doesn’t add up to anything much but is still a fascinating addition to the evolution of Meyer from nudie huckster to narrative trickster. While that metamorphosis occurred in a herky-jerky manner, all points of interest are worth exploring given the incalculable amount of value Meyer gave to American film.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE ROBERT ALTMAN FILES: COME BACK TO THE 5 & DIME JIMMY DEAN, JIMMY DEAN (1982)

With cinematographer Pierre Mingot’s camera crawling across the dusty and crowded aisles of the shabby Woolworth’s five-and-dime aided by nothing but the sound of the hot Texas wind blowing in the background, the stillness is shocking and the silence is deafening. After the assaultive soundtracks and busy tableaux of Robert Altman’s body of work from 1970 through 1980, this seems downright pastoral; retrograde, in fact. For this quiet solemnity is the brief calm before the kickoff of the 20th anniversary reunion for the Disciples of James Dean, a small gaggle of friends who once wore matching sweaters, dreamed of being in a singing group like the McGuire Sisters, and worshiped at the alter of James Dean while sweating out life in McCarthy, Texas during the early fifties.

Set on September 30th, 1975, the 20th anniversary of the death of James Dean, Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean tracks the sad, lonely, and scarred lives of those for whom the Woolworth was once the nexus of their universe; a place you could get an orange Crush and read Photoplay magazine while waiting for your friends to get off work. And in 1975, time has not been kind to the Woolworth, itself slowly beginning to feel the pressure as regional retailers like TG&Y, Target, and Wal-Mart began to slowly creep across the map all the while watching smaller stores burn out and die as their host towns did the same.

The McCarthy Woolworth is situated not sixty miles from Marfa where, in 1955, director George Stevens and company travelled to film portions of Giant, a film that would prove to be James Dean’s last. This proves to be a crucial point in time in the lives of those at the Woolworth, most especially high-strung Dean fanatic, Mona (Sandy Dennis), and Joe (Mark Patton), her co-worker and friend whose homosexuality is becoming a point of rancorous contention in the conservative town. A day-trip to Marfa in the hopes to be extras in the film leads to a secret that will be revealed twenty years later in the course of the reunion just as everyone else in the store’s purview will see their lives peeled back and exposed.

It’s perhaps no accident that 1982 marked the 25th anniversary of the release of The Delinquents and The James Dean Story, Robert Altman’s first two films that were bathed in the ghost of Dean and his legacy. For 5 & Dime, Altman’s adaptation of Ed Graczyk’s stage play, is a film about, among a lot of things, a gulf of time, starting over, and reassessment; a mirror of disillusionment and reconciling the past with the present. After the death of HealtH and the perceived folly of Popeye, Altman was on the other side of the Hollywood gates, reconfiguring his strategy and finding new energy for the march through the wilderness ahead.

In 5 & Dime, Robert Altman gets to start the 80’s off with a big “fuck you” to the type of salt of the earth community that was so lionized in the ascension of Reagan’s America. Steeped in religious hypocrisy and homophobia, the town of McCarthy deserves to shrivel up and die on the vine. We see that this isn’t a town where the righteous and the upstanding live, but, instead, its a lifeless husk inhabited by the sad denizens of a religious culture that has proved ruinous. We never see anything of McCarthy outside the store but we really don’t need to, mostly because movies like Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show exist and it’s a well-traveled landscape. This is a town in which the skating rink closed in 1965. You really only need to understand that.

Populating this world are only those who work at the Woolworth or those from its past. Randy and foul-mouthed Sissy (Cher, extraordinary in her first serious dramatic role) still works the counter twenty-five years later but now is cemented to Lester T, a husband we never see but about whom we will hear plenty. Juanita (a perfect Sudie Bond) runs the place with the same kind of starchy, unforgiving attitude that was its brand when it was being run by her late husband, Sidney, who, like Lester T, is a man we will not see but about whom we will hear plenty. Coming in from out of town are Stella Mae (Kathy Bates, hurling it to the back row), a wealthy but terminally empty woman whose acrid ribbing of the plain but sweet-natured Edna Louise (Marta Heflin) reveals a deep pain of jealous resentment. Mona still lives in town and arrives a little late from a trip to Marfa, carrying another piece of Reata, the false front from Giant built in the middle of that town’s arid wasteland that slowly became dismantled by the natural elements and tourists who wanted a piece of its memory. Finally, the one stranger to the group arrives in the form of Karen Black’s Joanne, a mysterious woman with bold and striking features who drives a fancy yeller Porsche who… somehow… reminds everyone of someone they once knew.

It should go without saying that there is a feeling by some that this film is poorly representative and isn’t without issues. While I certainly understand and to a certain extent agree with some of those concerns, I do think they miss a wider point of just how rare it was in 1982 to see any film that dealt with LGBTQ issues as openly and with any sympathy for those characters who had been traditionally marginalized. But aside from being a very brave, LGBTQ-positive film, 5 & Dime is pointedly reflective for Altman on a personal level. Along with Popeye, here, too, lies a dark self-assessment regarding the regrets of misspent parenthood as it is revealed that Mona’s child, long-heralded in McCarthy as the illegitimate love child of James Dean, has been smothered and emotionally abused by his mother. And it is again Mona who acts as the vessel in which Altman places some of his wistful nostalgia for his salad days. “I should have kept up with all of them,” she says as the transparent scrim in the mirror gives way to a reminiscence that feels like it’s bathed in CinemaScope, revealing a sadness that independent, cinematic productions of one-set plays was the extent of Altman’s professional reach. In Sandy Dennis, Altman had a rare creature who could be as pitiful in her neurosis as she could be tender and hers is the character who slowly fades away over the course of the film, her life no more than an empty shell of lies disguised as memories.

If Hollywood bet Altman would wilt without his widescreen trickery and ephemeral bullshit, they bet wrong. With nothing but one set and a handful of actors, Altman spans twenty years of hurt and pain that feels epic in scope. Not only is it a roaring success, it’s a remarkable piece of filmmaking and one of Altman’s very best pictures. And even if he would eventually pare his mise-en-scene down even further in 1984’s blistering Secret Honor, the amount of production value Altman gets from just the performances and the theatrical utilization of the mirror as a window into the past reflects just how incredibly gifted he was when it came to brass tacks of visual storytelling. 5 & Dime could obviously be done in a master shot but every cut and camera setup seems considered and, unlike other adaptations of stage plays to the big screen, Altman does absolutely nothing to open the piece up to make it more cinematic, correctly gauging that the claustrophobia would make the microscopic examination all the more riveting.

In adapting the play to the screen, Altman is reporting on an America that is breathing its last breath. It’s a place where the plastic pinwheels refuse to move in its atmosphere. There is a stagnancy and a ripening; rain threatens to roll in but always passes by without showing up. Most everyone in the group promises each to reunite again in the year 1995 but there’s little question that it’s a reunion that won’t occur. As the ending credits roll, the audience is reminded that time will eventually wear everything down into a bittersweet, faded memory. From the structure of Reata in which nobody dwelled to entire towns that once bustled with actual life and energy, absolutely nothing is spared in the end.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE ROBERT ALTMAN FILES: POPEYE (1980)

As the seventies came to a close and a new day was dawning on Hollywood, filmmakers and studios began to shift their work and business models to better prepare for the type of film they needed to make. Sure, the point of any movie studio at any time in the history of motion pictures had always been to make a profit. But after watching truckloads of cash show up at their doorstep after the release of films such as Jaws and Star Wars, it was no longer enough to just turn a profit. Movies began to come together in board rooms and designed to be less as entertainment vehicles that would make money and more unstoppable machines that would print money. So this is why it made a certain amount of sense for Paramount Pictures and the Walt Disney Company to join forces for a slate of films that would be geared towards the entire family but would be just a smidge more sophisticated than what could be expected from a live-action “Disney movie” which, by the 1980’s, had a certain kind of downmarket reputation and wasn’t exactly raking in the cash.

This partnership produced exactly two movies, Robert Altman’s Popeye in 1980 and Matthew Robbins’s impressive Dragonslayer, released the following year. That it produced anything is a small miracle as Popeye, first on the slate, was an absolutely cursed production from top to bottom and any sane assessment of the film reveals that fact many times over. From on-set fighting to the cocaine bust of producer Robert Evans, the production of Popeye kind of had it all. It wasn’t quite a Heaven’s Gate but it was definitely the last thing director Robert Altman needed at that point in his career. After owning the first half of the 1970’s, Altman’s work was continually met with diminishing returns which culminated in HealtH, his previously completed picture, getting completely buried and unreleased by 20th Century Fox. He needed a hit in the worst way and Popeye was a tee-up for him.

But the fact of the matter was that there was no real certainty Popeye would be a hit. All that was there was a vague notion that the monster Broadway success of Annie meant that there was sure to be a motion picture adaptation and, therefore, something had to be crafted to catch that similar wave of upscale family fare. Paramount owned King Features and, therefore, the universe of the Popeye comic strip so why not hire Harry Nilsson, the genius but inveterate alcoholic pop star on the downslope, to write the tunes and Robert Altman, an independent, bullheaded filmmaker whose last huge hit had been a whole decade earlier, to direct? I mean, it looked good on paper to somebody and I can’t help but think that somebody was Robert Evans whose career, like Altman’s, was also in jeopardy after a string of poor decisions teetered his reputation for rescuing Paramount Pictures in the late sixties from impatient creditors who were ready to engage the studio in a complete fire sale.

Another thing not considered is that by 1980, there was a giant delta that separated audience’s understandings of the Popeye from his origins in the Thimble Theatre comic strip created by Elzie Crisler Segar in 1919. In that iteration, Popeye (introduced in 1929) was but a supporting player in the larger world of Sweethaven, a cockeyed seaport town crawling with strange, yet lovable denizens. After becoming the star of the strip, Max Fleischer’s studios popularized Popeye and the majority of the Thimble Theatre characters in a series of cartoon shorts which usually put Popeye and company in contemporary and urban settings. By the time Paramount’s Famous Studios began producing the cartoons, Popeye and Olive Oyl were fully suburbanized and Popeye would frequently appear in shorts in which he would be battling his nemesis Bluto over trivial things like front lawn maintenance and seats at a baseball game. When Altman and screenwriter Jules Feiffer took the story back to its roots, it looked a lot like a world unfamiliar to many of the people who had become accustomed to Popeye as the confident, spinach-swilling, language-murdering hero who always had Olive Oyl by his side and Bluto at his feet.

But, oh, Lordy Moses, did people bitch when Popeye hit the theaters. Save the Wolf Kroeger production design and the incredible sets constructed in a Maltese cove (that are still standing and function as a tourist attraction, by the way), there was virtually nothing in the film that didn’t prove distasteful to at least one person in some shape or form. It did decent business but, unfortunately, was made at a time when it wasn’t enough to do good business if the business wasn’t good enough. Because of this attitude, Popeye has since been remembered as a magnificent disaster and a flop of a film, neither of which are remotely true. It’s a wild film in Altman’s canon and looking at it from the highest peak of Mt. Objectivity reveals an absolute mess of a final product but it’s also not out of line to rule Popeye a film where the sum of the parts are definitely better than the whole. As if it were built as if it were a number of cartoon shorts strung into one whole movie, Popeye is a movie without much drive but with a whopping ton of energy which can be joyous and fun but, at 114 minutes, feels like a juggernaut that could even wear down the last, most energetic person on the Studio 54 dance floor.

To the uninitiated, Popeye is about the titular character (Robin Williams in his film debut) arriving in the seaside town of Sweethaven in the search for his father, Poopdeck Pappy (Ray Walston). During his hunt, he becomes entangled with and falls for the dizzy Olive Oyl (Shelley Duvall in her final bow for Altman), takes charge of abandoned infant, Swee’ Pea (Wesley Ivan Hurt, Altman’s impossibly cute ham of a grandson), and runs afoul of Bluto (Paul Smith), the burly and hirsute heavy who begins the film as Olive’s betrothed.

Thematically, this is McCabe & Mrs. Miller territory (replete with a direct blink-and-you’ll-miss-it visual nod in the floating casino sequence as a zonked-out prostitute examines a ceramic pot as she reclines in her bunk); ultimately a story about how an iconoclast can enter a town and rearrange the structure. The problem with Popeye is that the story never allows the viewer to understand how anything in the town works in the first place. Some of it feels like a parody of shallow American nationalism but the town of Sweethaven is such a sketch, the details the audience has a right to know are either not there or buried. Taxes are being constantly collected but for what purpose and they’re routed where, exactly? The town has a Mayor but the Commodore holds more stroke why? The Commodore is a recluse that nobody has seen for what reason? Is this an isolated island burg in a post-Quintet future that’s surrounded by the melted ice and where the people are only just learning how to be a functioning society again? Because they sure act like it.

But, putting narrative and story aside (which we shouldn’t do but will anyway) is there another movie outside of Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy that looks like it was Silly Putty’d right off a newspaper than Popeye? As a retrospective criticism, the film’s bloated budget would be a legitimate concern if every single dollar wasn’t up on the screen and everything didn’t look absolutely gorgeous. The beautiful widescreen compositions by cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno capture the sideways-pitched structures against an immensely beautiful green sea where foregrounded primary colors absolutely pop off the screen. The costumes by Scott Bushnell, longtime Altman producer, are magnificently elaborate and detailed and everyone in the cast looks 100% perfect.

Altman’s on-screen choreography with his performers, always a staple in making his movies breathe, might just be at its highest level here as the frame is constantly swishing back and forth, always revealing some new information in the background. In fact, so busy is its canvass that, after forty years of watching the film, I have just recently spotted the caveman that randomly pops up in the far back of the background throughout the movie. Where most Altman films demand a second viewing due to the multi-tracked, overlapping dialogue, Popeye joins ranks with works such as Brewster McCloud and HealtH as needing multiple views due to everything that’s going on everywhere but the center of the screen. Just one instance of this is Robert Fortier’s Bill Barnacle. Sloshing around as the town drunk (ya know, the same character he played in McCabe & Mrs. Miller for those of you keeping score), it’s worth missing everything else that’s happening on the screen each time he appears as his physical performance is likely funnier and more interesting than what’s happening front and center.

And despite his giving up on the project to return to Flash Harry, his penultimate album before his untimely death in 1997, the Harry Nilsson tunes (and their wonderful Van Dyke Parks orchestrations) still soar. “Sweethaven,” “I Yam What I Yam,” “I’m Mean,” “Kids,” and, especially, “He Needs Me” all have a loopy charm and sly humor while “He’s Large,” a song dedicated to Bluto’s… ahem… girth, sung by Shelley Duvall and backed up by the Steinettes, the Greenwich Village doo-wop outfit who served as the Greek chorus in HealtH, is absolutely inappropriate for a family film but, on second thought, perhaps this film deserved such a shot of raunch if to only diffuse the treacle in “Sailin’” and “Swee’ Pea’s Lullabye,” two slabs of straight sentimentality that feel a bit out of place in a bizarre place such as this.

1980 wasn’t terribly kind to Popeye and time has done little to repair its image. Folks that loved it then, love it now. Folks that hated it then are always quick to point out they’ve never revisited it. Contemporary audiences don’t know quite what to make of it. Robert Altman didn’t end up in director’s jail but he would be cast out onto the stormy seas of the 1980’s with almost zero studio support, fully requested by the powers that be that he learn to fend for himself. In the end, Popeye turned out to become a fondly-remembered cocaine film for children and, regardless of the film’s box office returns, we probably needed more of them as the dawn of Reagan loomed large.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE MICHAEL MANN FILES: MANHUNTER (1986)

Once waist-deep in the world of Miami Vice, executive producer Michael Mann became obsessed with the dichotomy between both the law and lawlessness and good and evil. In that series, these themes were explored through the lens of the undercover cop who has to blend both the personal and professional into one, often creating moral quandaries and existential crises of the soul. In Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon, Mann found perhaps the starkest example of these themes as it blended the law enforcement official with a serial killer. Moving beyond dope peddlers and cat burglars, this was a story that would really put the protagonist through the paces.

Due to the financial drubbing felt by producer Dino De Laurentiis’s Year of the Dragon, released in 1985, Red Dragon was retitled Manhunter to avoid the same fate. It didn’t much work as Manhunter, a title that almost nobody on the planet liked, barely made a blip at the box office, grossing less than nine million dollars and having to settle on slowly finding a cult audience on HBO and home video. By the time Jonathan Demme’s adaptation of Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs was released to almost universal acclaim in 1991, Manhunter and its pioneering cinematic representation of serial killer Hannibal Lecter (spelled Lecktor in Mann’s film) had been mostly forgotten, leaving cinephiles who dared to articulate a preference for Mann’s highly stylized thriller over Demme’s film castigated and hectored as snobbish contrarians. But legion was and is the gang of folks who find Manhunter’s moody, yet cool and uncluttered visual palate and detail-oriented procedural a more sensory intoxicating cocktail than Demme’s admittedly brilliant hair-raiser.

In terms of a broad plot outline, the differences between Manhunter and Lambs are negligible; FBI Agent Jack Crawford recruits a brilliant investigator to track down a serial killer which causes the investigator to enlist the help of incarcerated serial killer Hannibal Lecter to assist in stopping him before he kills again! The major difference between Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs is in its protagonist. I can’t imagine greenhorn cadet Clarice Starling being as compelling a figure in the world of Michael Mann as haunted FBI profiler Will Graham (William Petersen), the man who earned a Pyrrhic victory by capturing brilliant serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox) but only after absorbing a punishing amount of psychological damage in the process. With this character, Mann gets to have it both ways as Graham continually walks a fine line not just between cop and criminal but literally between saint and monster. As is the case with Clarice Starling’s monologue about the doomed livestock in Lambs, Manhunter underlines Graham’s humanity with a turtle hatchery he’s constructing at the beginning of the film with his son, Kevin (David Seaman). Will Graham is doing his best to save what he can from the awful, predatory forces of nature. Meanwhile, Jack Crawford (a terrific Dennis Farina) and Molly Graham (an even more terrific Kim Greist) sit on the balcony of the Graham’s beachfront home where she grouses to him about the dangers of bringing the retired and broken Graham into the investigation, all the while being framed against one of Mann’s painterly vistas that drive home the perpetual theme of emotional distance that affects almost all of his characters like a virus. Unlike Lambs, however, the investigative prowess of the protagonist is, in fact, part of his actual deviancy as telegraphed early in the film as Graham’s investigation of a crime scene utilizes the same point of view footage from the pre-credit sequence which chronicles the home invasion by the horrifying Francis Dollarhyde (dubbed “The Tooth Fairy”; Tom Noonan, giving the performance of his career) as he prepares to slaughter the family inside.

As the embodiment of the mythic Mann hero who is conflicted the second he breathes air outside the womb, William Petersen gives a performance that has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the first of its kind. Coming off of a highly energetic turn in William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. the previous year, Petersen commits to a performance where he makes a series of choices that have been criticized over the years as being flat or unconvincing. It’s a performance that is not exactly either one of those things but it is unconventional and has to be viewed from a very specific angle to be fully admired. Sometimes his emotive bursts are a few degrees too hot for the scenes in which they occur but there are a number of very tricky and difficult things Petersen successfully pulls off that are more important to the character as a whole than a couple of awkward line readings. There is a severe fragility eating at the center of Petersen’s Graham that occurs in scenes with his family where he chillingly employs a mid-distance stare and a lukewarm delivery that never seems like it’s coming from a real person. But, holy god, watch him in an early scene in the hotel room where he dutifully checks in with his sleeping wife on the phone only to have his eyes light up like a Christmas tree when he hangs up and moves over to the portable TV and VCR unit where he can indulge himself in watching the victims’ home movies in order to recapture the mindset of a murderer. Looking like a seventeen year old who is now watching his parents’ porn after assessing that the coast is clear, Will Graham fits in with the many Mann protagonists who treat their lovers and significant others as mothers from whom they need permission to go outside and play and only come alive when totally plugged into their work.

Unlike any other of Mann’s works, sex is treated less as a pleasurable action between two adults but as a brief respite from ongoing pain in the lives of its principal characters. Graham’s character spends his last night with wife at their home making love with her but he’s already on another track that will lead to rack and ruin; something she knows, recognizes, but is also cognizant to the fact that she is powerless to stop it. Dollarhyde, by comparison, eventually makes a genuine physical connection with a blind co-worker (a fabulous Joan Allen) but instead of bringing him any peace, their night together only brings more pathology. And in further tying the two together, the film’s structure is very purposeful as, right around the film’s halfway mark, Manhunter becomes less about Graham and more about Dollarhyde. This specific kind of duality is further driven home by visually framing Lecktor and Graham in such a way that both characters are functionally looking at themselves in a mirror, predating Detective Vincent Hannah’s coffee date with Neil McCauley in Heat by a number of years.

Manhunter was also Mann’s one theatrical film that looks MOST like a traditional Mann production of the time. Thief might be the masterpiece that subtly influenced short-subject filmmaking but Manhunter was the most modernist Mann film. Dante Spinotti’s cinematography is bold and the compositions strong with the exact same kind of anti-earth tone mission that was employed in the first couple seasons of Miami Vice. Additionally, thanks to the production design by Mel Bourne and art direction by Jack Blackman, almost nobody lives in a house that looks like it was built by a sane architect nor decorated by a legitimately bonded interior designer. Mixing the post-modern structures of Miami Vice and the geometrical furnishings and tchotchke from Crime Story, Mann creates a world that is both of its time and retrograde; where glass block is as prevalent as brick and almost every FBI office is spotless and looks like its been cleaned by someone on a coke binge.

Though current home video releases of Thief have been graced with an additional scene not seen in its theatrical release, Manhunter was Mann’s first film to go back to the editing room on multiple occasions and there are no less than three different cuts of it floating around out there and one might say that Mann has used home video as an excuse to tinker with 90% of his work. While Mann gets it right the first time on the majority of his films, a case could be made for the director’s cut of Manhunter (available on Scream Factory’s Blu ray which also includes the theatrical cut). While we lose the elevator shot in Graham’s hotel which feels like taking a knife to my mother’s throat, and the running of the opening credits over the initial Crawford/Graham conversation makes it feel like you’re about to watch a television movie, the director’s cut leans more heavily on the concern for Graham’s mental well-being and also makes the focus on the family much starker. If one thinks of the film’s happy ending as a detriment (as I do), it’s a crying shame that Mann didn’t shoot something a little more dour and closer to his heart as an alternate, even if the odds of getting it past the producers was likely going to be a no-go. For the penultimate scene in the director’s cut would work even more beautifully if, instead of an awkward reunification of the Graham family as is the case no matter what cut you go with, Will was left with nothing but his memories and an empty beach. Graham’s unnecessary and creepy presence at the home of what would have been Dollarhyde’s next victims would hint at a happy ending but, really, Graham could have only really gotten to know their identities if he were as disturbed and calculating as Francis Dollarhyde, casting the film’s finale as something that more closely resembled William Friedkin’s Cruising.

But even if it wasn’t a capitulation to the studio, Mann’s disallowance of Graham to be alone on the beach at the end, especially with the terrible Red 7 “Heartbeat” song draped over it, feels like a false note. In the true universe of Michael Mann, Graham would wander in the white sands amid a bunch of turtles he’d saved but only at the expense of losing everything and everyone else in his life, including himself. And, like Graham, Mann had found a way to get the darkest examination of his obsessions onto the big screen but with no small amount of budgetary difficulty and with little to show for it in return.

With Manhunter behind him, Mann would slink back into the world of television where he would hone and woodshop new visual and thematic ideas in episodes of Crime Story and, portentously, 1989’s made-for-TV L.A. Takedown. Despite his enormous contribution to popular culture, the first phase of Mann’s career was ending on an inauspicious note; a big filmmaker retreating back into a small medium where he was likely to get trapped for the remainder of his career. But the 1990’s were on the horizon and a sea change was forming. Michael Mann was about to get his day.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE RUSS MEYER FILES: EVE AND THE HANDYMAN (1960)

Russ Meyer had to take incremental steps to get to become the storied and respected filmmaker that he eventually did. His first step was being a gifted photographer who was as adept at his skill as mortars and debris rained down around him in the heat of battle as he was while studying the contours of his models’ bodies as they were lying at the base of an oak tree while bathed in dappled sunlight. His second step was punching through the wall of morality and releasing The Immoral Mr. Teas, his groundbreaking film that introduced actual nudity in a motion picture to those who would pay for the privilege to see it.

I would bet that Meyer’s most important step in the evolution of his success was hooking up with and marrying the former Eve Turner in 1952. No doubt that Meyer had talent to burn and that his personality caused him to be a little shrewd but Eve took his game to a whole other level. At once both his business partner and muse, Eve Meyer pumped life into his output in which she was the subject by being both impossibly built and having a uniquely strong relationship with the camera. In terms of what they did for each other and each other’s work, you’d probably have to look to Jess Franco and Lina Romay for something comparable.

So it’s something of a shame that, as far as his motion pictures went, Eve Meyer was only ever in front of the camera in Eve and the Handyman, Russ’s follow-up to the previous year’s Teas. But her presence in it is both sly and smart; Eve Meyer is the primary woman on display in this film and it ends up being ten times as effective as Teas without having to resort to any nudity on her behalf.

Like Teas before it, Eve and the Handyman is little more than a sketch-pad for Meyer’s visual ideas and micro-budgeted creativity. A jack-of-all-trades handyman (Anthony-James Ryan) is stalked by a mysterious, trench-coated blonde whose constant, double entendre-stacked voice-over narration positions the film as a bawdy, Dragnet-style procedural in which every move of the handyman is noted and remarked upon by his voyeuristic pursuer. Gone is the gimmick in which naked girls pop up to awkwardly pose in the daydreams and hallucinations of our protagonist only to be replaced by our bumbling hero staying 100% focused on his day-to-day tasks, never to be distracted by the many buxom women he encounters along the way (mostly all played by Eve Meyer in various get-ups).

Where Teas reflected women contented to be placed like statues and given little to do, Eve wants women to be the driver of the engine. Teas wants to be a moving centerfold and Eve wants to be the whole damn magazine. The jokes are livelier, the mood is more jovial, and, more importantly, Eve Meyer flips the script by giving the audience an instance in which the woman is on top and the man is the dope. Sexually oblivious, Bill Ryan’s Handyman gets saddled with Eve Meyer almost exclusively because her mission is to, ostensibly, wise him up. So she becomes every woman in his path while remaining the detective that wants to sell him toilet supplies in the end.

Eve Meyer’s presence in this film couldn’t help but inform Meyer as to what exactly he wanted in the future. For Eve Meyer is the first “Russ Meyer Woman.” Eve Meyer showed Russ Meyer how to present a woman who looked like she wanted to be wanted. More importantly, she wanted the audience to know she knew they knew that she wanted to be wanted. Untangle all that and you’re are the heart of what makes Russ Meyer’s films stand so far apart from other films of their ilk that the massive delta between them renders it unfair to mention them in the same breath. Show me a Russ Meyer film that’s blessed with a narrative structure and I’lll show you a heroine that sprung forth from Eve Meyer’s roots which are so firmly planted in this film.

Once past the nudie cuties, the cinema of Russ Meyer is as equally hilarious and exhilarating as it is titillating. And even if the nudie cuties are tame pieces of antiquity, they aren’t bereft of a good laugh or two. The jokes in Eve take a while to unfold and your mileage with them may vary; they might or might not be worth it, depending on your perspective. But this film is the first to have this specific blend of broad, sight-gag humor and sex which was mostly missing from Teas, a film that feels like it can barely breathe lest it get caught doing what it wants to be doing. Additionally, in employing a panoply of visual ideas representative of intercourse and orgasm (the constant churning of oil wells, the coupling of trains, etc.), Meyer gives the thrust of the train into the tunnel at the end of Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, itself released a scant one year earlier, nowhere to hide.

As stated before (and likely will be stated at least one more time in this series), there’s just not a lot of there there in the subgenre of the nudie cuties. They are what they are and the trick is to try and enjoy them with a sense of historical context because there just aren’t many of them that are going to stop the conversation at a dinner party and become the thing everyone will have to have seen before the next get-together. Depending on the director and the talent involved, they mostly all run the gamut between unwatchable and pleasant enough. With Eve and the Handyman, Russ and Eve Meyer joined forces to give the audience something a little more more memorable; electric burlesque compliments of Eve’s stong, palpable sexuality reminiscent of one of Howard Hawks’s joyously randy heroines and Myer’s clean compositions, edited together like a breathless Gatling gun shooting off eye candy.

“The biggest catch in life, my friends, is a happy ending,” so says our heroine in the final line of the film. As much as that phrase meant something even in the creaky days of 1960, the film earns its right to use it as Eve and the Handyman, while not the best or bawdiest of Russ Meyer’s output, is truly his first effective mix of the sex and the sublime.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE ROBERT ALTMAN FILES: HealtH (1980)

When you begin to consider the high-level talent that went into the formula that produced Robert Altman’s HealtH, it’s difficult to recall another movie in film history that was, and continues to be, treated as poorly. Coming directly after Altman’s twin failures of 1979, Quintet and A Perfect Couple, its production was relatively quick and on-the-fly; an attempt to get one in the can while things at 20th Century Fox were still being run by Alan Ladd, Jr., a staunch Altman proponent who once gave the maverick filmmaker a million and a half dollars to make 3 Women, a movie that came to Altman in a dream and had no real cohesive story.

Sure enough, things did change and Ladd left for form the well-intentioned but doomed Ladd Company. HealtH, which had an initial scheduled release date in late 1979, began to get slowly pushed back on the schedule. Early 1980 came and went and a series of test runs arranged by the new management proved to be less than promising. The master plan of having it released before the 1980 presidential election never materialized. It’s safe to assume that when Altman began shooting the lavishly budgeted, dual-studio event picture Popeye in 1980, he couldn’t dream that he would get it shot, edited, and in theaters before HealtH.

But Popeye was released in time for Christmas in 1980 and HealtH was eventually pushed off of the Fox release schedule entirely (its final replacement on the Fox release schedule being Oh, Heavenly Dog!, a movie starring Chevy Chase and Benji). It did manage to play a limited engagement at Film Forum in 1982 but, aside from its occasional, stealthy appearance on various television movie channels, HealtH has never seen a release on home video. Every once in a while, a widescreen rip from one of those movie channel broadcasts makes its way onto YouTube, but it’s difficult to know if it’s been edited for time or whether the somewhat squeezed visual presentation is a representation of the film’s true aspect ratio.

Given its obscurity, the perceived notion is that HealtH must be some kind of otherworldly dog of a film; a real hubristic bonanza crafted amidst a barrage of likeminded projects by Altman. But the truth of the matter is that HealtH is a surprisingly strong and wicked look at the ridiculousness of the American political system as filtered through the world of the then-bourgeoning consumer health industry. A fine addition to the busier, wide-canvas ensemble pieces Altman could engineer with remarkable skill and dexterity, HealtH performs double duty as a sly comedy and a prescient warning of the toxic injection of empty personality and media-driven messaging into our electoral process. And having rewatched it in 2021 to rejigger this piece (originally written in early 2016), HealtH comes off as an even stronger film today given the twisted road down which we’ve travelled as a country.

HealtH is, on the surface, about two days at a health convention in which two candidates are running for the title of “President of HealtH.” Present at this convention are product pitchmen, authors, political functionaries & fixers, glad-handing bureaucrats, dirty tricksters, aides, liaisons, and PR staff all centering around the two presidential hopefuls. In one corner, Esther Brill (Lauren Bacall), 83 year-old virgin whose ubiquitous campaign slogan “Feel Yourself,” is delivered with an astounding cluelessness as Brill believes that each orgasm shaves 28 days off of your life. Her staff is made up of PR guru Harry Wolff (James Garner), oversexed campaign manager, Dr. Ruth Ann Jackie (Ann Ryerson) Brill’s undersexed personal physician who secretly lusts after Wolff, and a gaggle of nurses who are constantly drinking behind Brill’s back. In the other corner is Isabella Garnell (Glenda Jackson) a pragmatic-yet-cold idealist whose speeches all seem swiped from Adlai Stevenson. Her entourage consists solely of Willow Wertz (Diane Stilwell), a sweet-natured aide whose ongoing sexual frustration is rooted in her inability to feel anything sexual for anything whatsoever. And between the two candidates are Gloria Burbank (Carol Burnett), a representative from the White House and Wolff’s ex-wife; Dr. Gil Gainey (Paul Dooley), an independent candidate for president and shill for something called “Vita-Sea;” Colonel Cody (Donald Moffat), a bellowing political string-puller; Bobby Hammer (Henry Gibson), a slimy, Roger Stone-adjacent political operative sent to disrupt the Garnell campaign; Sally Benbow (Alfre Woodard), the convention hotel’s PR director; and, finally, Dick Cavett, as himself, who is there to cover the event for his talk show. Oh, yeah, and the Steinettes, an a capella outfit that acts as a ridiculous (but appropriate) greek chorus to HealtH’s very odd portrait of 1979 America.

In the film, we’re told that HealtH (which stands for “Happiness, Energy and Longevity through Health”) is an organization more than three times the size of the NRA and whose members can be similarly motivated to vote one way or the other. So the film certainly exists in an America that could also produce the cockeyed presidential campaign of Nashville’s Hal Phillip Walker. But Walker didn’t much have a real-life counterpart in 1975. The populist politics of Nashville reflected a hopelessness that washed through the post-Watergate, pre-Carter country like a rotten fever. The politics of HealtH were much more immediate. While sending up the then-current political climate, the film seems to anticipate the cultural shift that occurred in the presidential election in 1980. Even if the other candidates in the film could be composites of many other political figures, Esther Brill is a certain representation of the perceived image of Ronald Reagan, a man who counted on a network of advisors and aides to keep him informed and aware and who was about to enter the presidential race with a boatload of sunny optimism and slogans aplenty.

While HealtH isn’t perfect due to its unfocused and rushed production and its occasional tendency to get lost in the sauce of its own mix of satire and reality (you never really feel like you should be investing in it as you really should), it’s Altman’s strongest film since 3 Women. The script, by Altman regular Frank Barhydt, actor Dooley, and Altman does an amazing job keeping the film equally steeped in reality (through the characters of Woodard and Garner), television (Cavett and, eventually, Dinah Shore), and fantasy (basically everything else). The performances, too, are all top-notch. Burnett, Bacall, and Jackson are all terrific but the film is absolutely stolen at every turn by Woodard whose polite facade hilariously begins to give way to disdain as the convention rolls along. Among the men, Garner turns in a reliably easy-going performance, Paul Dooley is as energetic as I’ve ever seen him, and Dick Cavett, remarkably comfortable in a sizable role, has a great deal of fun.

As history marches on, HealtH’s chances of being anything other than a completely forgotten and mostly unseen film become slimmer and slimmer. Fox’s catalog is now owned by Disney, Altman passed away in 2006, and, aside from his centennial that will occur in 2025, there simply seems to be few occasions that could plausibly act as a catalyst for its release. This is a genuine shame because while sometimes chuckling and sometimes wincing while watching it in the midst of our own current absurd political climate that certainly seems like it could play out in an Altman film, it’s almost guaranteed that HealtH could still find an audience today. Sadly, it will probably never have the chance.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain