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

In Memory of Danny Aiello: Nate’s Top Ten Performances

Danny Aiello has left us today and with him goes a level of class, talent and charisma that was unparalleled in Hollywood and independent cinema. He had the kind of frame and presence that saw him embody many Italian mafia and tough guy roles but he also had an angelic, gentle essence which came in handy in gentler turns, as well as some of the tougher ones where he brought a softer edge out. Rest In Peace Danny, you were a wonderful, scene stealing, truly great actor and here are my top ten personal favourite performances:

10. Vincent Dianni in Danny Aiello III’s 18 Shades Of Dust aka Hitman’s Journal

I chose this because it’s one of his only lead roles and it was directed by his late son who passed away before him, sadly. It’s a classic low budget NYC crime flick starring Danny and William Forsythe embroiled in a feud between a crime family and the owner of a restaurant. Danny embues his character with a moral complexity and has terrific chemistry with Forsythe.

9. Captain Vincent Alcoa in Pat O Connor’s The January Man

I’m not a fan of this film and in my opinion it downright sucks, but there are some amped up, ham fisted portrayals to marvel at, Aiello’s turn as a hilariously aggressive police captain included. He’s clearly having fun and blowing off steam and gets one of the best, most maniacal “fuck you!!!” moments in cinema, directed at Kevin Kline’s weirdo detective.

8. Tony Rosato in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II

It’s just one quick scene he as a mob hitman here but he famously improvised the line “Michael Corleone says hello” that Coppola loved and kept in the film. Not to mention he gets one gnarly attempted murder and drag the body off frame moment, he might as well have been saying that Michael Myers says hello.

7. Roth in Paul McGuigan’s Lucky Number Slevin

Another tiny cameo but here he serves as warning to one of the characters that events about to be set in motion can’t be undone once the decision is made. Roth is a racetrack bookie who knows a shady bet when he sees one and provides ample foreshadowing before the narrative reaches an event horizon of misfortune.

6. Sal in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing

An Italian pizzeria owner who has had enough, his hotheaded actions basically spur on a riot and push a racially charged portion of the city into riot. Everyone in this film is in performance overdrive, sweaty, fired up and ready for conflict, Danny included as the kind of dude who is always a few inches short of blowing his fuse.

5. Al in Kevin Dowlands’ Mojave Moon

Everyone’s a little loopy in this offbeat indie dramedy. Danny’s Al gives young Angelina Jolie a lift from the big city out to a strange Mojave Desert enclave where he cultivates odd relationships with her, her mom (Anne Archer) and her mom’s unhinged whacko boyfriend (Michael Biehn). This is one of those meandering little experiments about nothing in particular save a gaggle of wayward individuals interacting, often in bizarre fashion. Danny headlines charmingly, has wonderful chemistry with Jolie and blesses this offbeat script with his undeniable talent.

4. Mr. Johnny Cammereri in Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck

Johnny is sweet, good natured and just a bit dumb. He has the misfortune of seeing his fiancé fall for his younger brother but it’s all handled in a lighthearted way in this charming romantic comedy. He gives the role a childlike charm whether he’s aloofly proposing to Cher in a crowded Italian restaurant or using the Adam & Eve parable to explain skirt chasers.

3. Tommy Five-Tone in Michael Lehmann’s Hudson Hawk

What a misunderstood, undervalued gem of a film. Bruce Willis and Danny are Hudson and Tommy, two NYC cat burglars dragged into a loopy global caper all the way to Italy and beyond. The film’s tone is akin to something like The Looney Toons, with both actors displaying a rambunctious, fun loving personality and together embodying one of the funniest and one of my favourite bro-mances in cinema.

2. Louis in Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder

I used the word angelic in the above summary of Danny specifically for this role. Louis is massage therapist, confidante, guardian angel and only friend in the world to Tim Robbins deeply haunted protagonist and the kindness, compassion and protective energy he emanates is a lighthouse of positivity in a sea of disturbing horror imagery that is this film.

1. Tony in Luc Besson’s Leon The Professional

This is the role that’s most special to me, the one I always think of when someone brings Danny up and exists in a special, classic film that I grew up with and watch at least a few times a year. Tony is the ultimate gangster with a heart of gold, father figure and mentor to hitman Leon (Jean Reno), dose of tough love to orphan Mathilda (Natalie Portman), both of whom he has beautiful chemistry with. He’s the neighborhood sage, consummate wise guy and gentleman mobster with a self titled kind streak. The core Aiello performance for me.

-Nate Hill

Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again

Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again is a blast of serotonin in cinematic form, a pure ‘happy’ movie that may be even more fun than the first. I’ll level with you though: to enjoy it you’ll need to a) love the music of Abba, and b) not be one of those stiffly stiffersons who puckers their sphincter at the very mention of the word ‘musical.’ Both those boxes are heartily checked off for me, so it’s nothing but a glowing review on this end. Sunny Mediterranean skies, an unbelievable all star cast clearly having some of the most fun of their careers, all the glorious Abba music you want and a heartbreaking poignancy that both blindsides you and wasn’t quite all the way there the first time around, what’s not to love? Sure, it’s gimmicky, ditzy, silly beyond compare, but like Mrs. Mia Wallace would say, don’t be a 🔲. Staged as both sequel and prequel, this one zooms back to the raucous 70’s to show us just how Meryl Streep’s Donna found her way to that idyllic Greek island and stumbled into the hotel business. She’s played by Lily James here who is a true find, a charismatic beauty with a singing voice that could clear a cloudy day right out. The amazing, uncanny thing here is how they’ve managed find young actors who really do emulate their older selves, in the case of the three famous potential fathers she meets, and her two hilarious best friends, played again in the present by scene stealing Christine Baranski and Julie ‘Mrs. Weasley’ Walters. Amanda Seyfried has really come into her own as an actress, I’m always looking forward to whatever she does next because I know she’ll do it with grace and gravity, and her character blooms here as a strong pillar of the story as opposed to the fresh faced bride role she got in the first. Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan and Stellan Skarsgard return and give the film a shot of humour and warmth, while Andy Garcia charms everyone in a role which ties into a hit Abba song later in a way that’s so funny you don’t know whether to clap or roll your eyes. And yes, Cher is in it, her voice is still a powerhouse but she must have had so much work done that she’s more synthetic that organic these days, she’s gotta be in her early 70’s and looks like she just got done recording like her second album, it’s slightly terrifying. If you’re a true Abba buff you’ll appreciate two wicked cameos from founding members cleverly added. The film is fluff and sunshine for the most part, with emotion being relayed by the not always deep or resonant lyrics of Abba, let’s face it, they were a playful disco band. Curiously, there’s one song that really plumbs depths and reaches the most grounded and emotionally truthful height from both actors and audiences that these films have ever ascended to, and, not surprisingly, it’s the one song we get from Meryl Streep, who sadly has no more than a hyped up cameo, but five minutes of Meryl is enough to turn anything gold, really. This seems like an unreleased Abba song, one from mother to daughter sung to Seyfried, and anchors the film right into lucid pathos that I didn’t think was possible with a jumping bean of a flick like this. Like I said before, it’s love it or hate it. I grew up listening to Abba on vinyl, and these songs are a part of me. Every actor in the cast is someone I love to see, it’s set in one of the most beautiful locations in the world, uses the power of music to literally give nutrients to the soul, and is the perfect recipe for summer escapism.

-Nate Hill