The UCLA Film and Television Archive’s Festival of Preservation is continuing this year all throughout the month of August at the National Gallery of Art’s East Building in D.C. The Festival is screening rare and historic works that have been dredged from UCLA’s extensive archives. The most contemporary of these films is a long forgotten film by honored director Robert Altman, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982), which will screen on Saturday, August 13.
The bulk of the film takes place in 1975 inside those now-defunct Five and Dime stores, which, if you can recall your nostalgic filmic Americana, where littered in every town from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. A group of fan-girls who call themselves The Disciples of James Dean, have gathered together on the 20th anniversary of the actor’s death at a Five and Dime not far away from where he was shooting his last movie when he died. The Disciples (Karen Black, Cher, Sandy Davis, Kathy Bates, et al) reminisce with each other and by themselves in flashback sequences. Characters reveal hidden links to one another throughout the film and….hmm…I could have sworn there was more to this story. But no, no there isn’t.
Based on the play by the same name, Jimmy Dean suffers from what most play-to-film conversions suffer from: lack of a strong story and theme. But if there’s any director who can push an audience past this problem and still deliver an interesting experience, it’s Altman. He has a way of filming his actors that creates a natural atmosphere unlike any other director. Much like Terrence Malick, Altman’s films are uncanny and singularly his. There is a thread of humanity running through most of his best work that simply shines over the material. When compared to the other hundreds of films that come out in a given year, Altman’s tone is refreshing and sincere.
Director Altman was honored in 2006 by the Academy Awards for “a career that has repeatedly reinvented the art form and inspired filmmakers and audiences alike.” His tribute from the academy was long overdue for an accomplished director who had been working in the industry for over 50 years. Occasionally though, Altman fan-boys have looked over some of his misgivings (Popeye (1980), Prêt-à-porter (1994)) and concentrated his body of work on classics like MASH (1970) and Nashville (1975). Still, even his bad films have a certain majestic quality to them, and Jimmy Dean is no different.
A “who cares?” attitude certainly plagues the film. There are definite likeability issues with some the characters here, and although Altman’s mirror-into-the-five and dime scenes feel like the thankfully-forgotten old cinematic relics that they are, the movie still holds the viewers attention with strong performances and Altman’s touch. Whether that touch can be described as gentle or ham-fisted (or, somehow both) is an ongoing debate.
Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean will screen at the National Gallery of Art’s East Building Concourse on August 13. To see a complete list of screenings for the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s Festival of Preservation, visit the site here. The National Gallery of Art website can be found here.
Remember, if you miss the screening, you can always watch the film on old VHS tapes, if you can find them. No version of the film has yet been released on DVD or Blu-Ray.