By Ray Young
“This is a movie…isn’t it?”
Henry Jaglom x 3 on DVD
Tracks (1976) Written and directed by Henry Jaglom. With Dennis Hopper, Dean Stockwell, Taryn Power, Topo Swope, Zack Norman and Michael Emil. Widescreen, 91 minutes. Paramount DVD includes commentary by Henry Jaglom and Dennis Hopper. Available from Amazon
Someone to Love (1987) Written and directed by Henry Jaglom. With Orson Welles, Andrea Marcovicci, Sally Kellerman, Michael Emil, Oja Kodar and Henry Jaglom. Widescreen, 108 minutes. Paramount DVD includes commentary by Henry Jaglom and Andrea Marcovicci. Available from Amazon
New Year’s Day (1989) Written and directed by Henry Jaglom. With Maggie Wheeler, Gwen Welles, David Duchovny, Melanie Winter, Harvey Miller, Michael Emil, Milos Forman and Henry Jaglom. Widescreen, 88 minutes. Paramount DVD includes commentary by Henry Jaglom, Maggie Wheeler and David Duchovny. Available from Amazon
There’s a moment in the documentary, Who is Henry Jaglom?
(1997) when Alex Rubin and Jeremy Workman relate the debacle that faced them throughout the making of that film: does Henry Jaglom create good or perhaps even great pictures, or is it all just wasteful, pretentious, self-indulgent and bad
? Any given movie of his that they’d marvel at one day could seem appalling and amateurish the next. The maverick and fiercely independent writer and director of such introspective and gloss-free psychological comedies as Eating: A Very Serious Comedy About Women and Food
(1990) and the recent Hollywood Dreams
(2006), Jaglom doesn’t invite simple classification. At times his work appears to be a mixture of the varying moods and techniques in the films of John Cassavetes, Eric Rohmer, and Woody Allen…until the reality hits that, no, it isn’t, not at all. If anything, Jaglom’s work is truly original.
New on DVD from Paramount are three of his pictures and as good an introduction as any to his style and formulae: Tracks
(1976), New Year’s Day
(1989) and Someone to Love
(1987). That last one offers the final screen appearance of Orson Welles, holding court from the back row of a theatre (“the cheap seats,” he informs), pontificating on drama, art, relationships between men and women, and the inevitability of change. Released two years after his death, it’s an extended cameo appearance, a valentine to all film lovers, and the best thing Welles ever did after F for Fake
He’s garrulous and buoyant, warm, tender and humorous, a truer, less theatrical Orson than the imposing icon nurtured by myth, a man who lunched often with Jaglom and felt relaxed enough to question the unorthodox technique unfolding before him. (“This is
a movie, isn’t it?” he wonders aloud.) It’s also one of the very few commercial hooks to lure a prospective audience, as Jaglom’s films tread in uncharted waters infested with the kind of introspective theorizing that scares a lot of people off. Here the similarities with Cassavetes, Rohmer and Allen should click, but those directors often (always?) retreat to the relatively convenient comfort zones of anger, entangled romantic pursuits and idealism, where lofty characters are apt to gag on their own will. The people in Jaglom’s films appear similarly self-possessed, but the revelations his scripts deal to them—dependent upon their ability to listen and concentrate—can lead to states of grace, compassion and humility…or, in the case of Tracks
Taryn Power and Dennis Hopper in Tracks
Born in 1941, he started out as an actor, training with Lee Strasberg and doing some off-Broadway work and small roles on television. In the late 1960s he was in Hollywood when Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper and other members of the then ‘happening’ New American Cinema were beginning to alter forms and conventions. He’s listed as “Editorial Consultant” in the credits of Hopper’s Easy Rider
(1969), and played an artist weathering some nasty hallucinations in Richard Rush’s trippy Psych-Out
(1968). Then followed parts in Nicholson’s Drive, He Said
(1971), Hopper’s The Last Movie
(1971), and Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind
Jaglom wrote and directed his first picture, A Safe Place
, in 1971. A nostalgic romantic fantasy woefully unavailable on DVD or VHS, it stars Nicholson, the great Tuesday Weld, Firesign Theatre’s Phil Proctor, and Welles as an ethereal magician. It gained notoriety and a cult following (Anaïs Nin was a fan; you can read her take on it by clicking here
), but five years passed before the release of Tracks
, his second film.
Shot on railroad trains traveling across America, it follows an Army Sergeant (Hopper) transporting the body of a soldier killed in Vietnam back to his hometown. But Jaglom, as he would go on to demonstrate time and again, is less interested in developing a linear narrative than in exploring the mood of the period and the personalities of the people onboard (“A ship of fools,” he quips on the DVD commentary). He breaks the fourth wall right off the bat, before the opening credits when Hopper asks into the camera, “Do you think about your childhood?” It’s one of the dozens of questions floating freely with any number of concepts and confessions, in a film where the lines separating script from improvisation soon blur.
As Jaglom and Hopper reveal in the commentary, there was a screenplay in the beginning. And the picture does offer semblances of ‘plot’ in both a romantic interlude between Hopper and a young free spirit played by Taryn Power (an underemployed beauty and the daughter of Tyrone Power and Linda Christian), and a climactic espionage conundrum with Dean Stockwell that could be an extension of the ‘real’ story or one of the Sergeant’s ongoing hallucinations. For Jaglom, however, the script is a blueprint for the actor’s interpretation of character and action: “The key to improvisation is everyone knowing not only their character but their arc in the story, and their being able to depart in terms of individual expression.” He supplies the notion or idea of the character and lets them work from there, with the cameras rolling.
Kathryn Harrold discusses being alone in Someone to Love
This brand of faux cinéma-vérité
is very dicey, and its success may rest more on the acuity and spontaneity of the performers and the patience and acceptance of the viewer than on the acumen of the director. It also marks the spot where Jaglom parts from banality: chances are you either follow and absorb what he’s attempting to do, or you may very well reject it altogether.
Who is Henry Jaglom?
addressed his affinity for women and femaleness (as opposed to femininity), but there’s a streak of what could be regarded as male cruelty within the tender moments and personal exchanges in his films. Taryn Power seems genuinely embarrassed doing a brief nude scene in Tracks
; David Duchovny bravely musters up the aplomb to deflect Jaglom’s domineering assault on his pride and vanity in New Year’s Day
; and, most profoundly, in Someone to Love
when Jaglom declares his affection to co-star (and then-girlfriend) Andrea Marcovicci, only to reel around and coldly ask the cinematographer if he’s got her in the frame. Unaware she’s been set up, Marcovicci storms off as the cast and crew look sincerely flabbergasted by his heartlessness. It’s a painful but remarkable passage where honesty, agony and insight coalesce…and, as pointed out in the commentary, a very shrewd piece of filmmaking.
Jaglom works from hurt as well as the heart, a nagging obsession to love and be loved, and most assuredly on his terms—though he’d probably debate that last point. He employs a cunning ruse in his scripts, a method to prevent us from judging him too harshly while conveniently letting him off the hook: character names. When Marcovicci and others in Someone to Love
—Sally Kellerman, Monte Hellman, Oja Kodar, Welles—call Henry ‘Danny,’ it momentarily transports us from something presumably ‘real’ to a subtle but awkward bid for the distance of fiction. By the time Welles puts in a request for “some of that Danny magic,” the mind has been blitzed by so many concepts, philosophies and ideas that there seems no choice but to surrender to that negligible sting of absurdity.
Nonetheless, Someone to Love
is a transcendent achievement, and quite often brilliant. Taking place in a theatre facing the wrecking ball (the filmmaker is prone to confined spaces and ticking clocks), Jaglom the director and Danny the alter ego gather his/their single friends together for a February 14th encounter to figure out why they’re alone on Valentine’s Day, or more specifically, why they’re alone at all. Exposed wires, cameras and microphones flow casually before other wires, cameras and microphones, the movie within the movie within the movie, acquaintances and ex- or soon-to-be-ex-lovers playing at being themselves when not playing themselves as imagined by Jaglom. In no time the place resembles a warehouse overstocked with psychodrama, to serve, in Welles’s opinion, “the dilemma of a deeply sentimental man, and nothing more.”
Party guest Jeremy Kagan, a film and television director far closer to the mainstream than Jaglom, tells the camera that he’d never make a picture the way he sees this shapeless project simultaneously growing and unraveling (heaving? breathing?) around him. While it’s true that it feels less revolutionary than anarchic, Jaglom’s endeavor—with no small support from cinematographer Hanania Baer, an instinctive talent clearly capable of reading his director’s mind—utilizes simple and subdued photographic and editing techniques that allow us to digest the ceaseless dialog, posturing and attitudes.
They work primarily with two-shots bereft of cuts and close-ups, affording the chance to hear and observe talkers and listener reactions at the same time. It relies on a natural flow of improvisation, from actors retaining their intuition and self assurance even in times when they’re being denigrated. Such an approach can easily escalate beyond mere annoyance. Sally Kellerman’s meltdown while taking off her makeup is a candid tirade against herself, her profession, and especially at Danny or Henry or both, the real and the unreal. In another scene, an emotionally shaken Kathryn Harrold simply walks out of the theatre to avoid any further psychological penetration.
David Duchovny and Henry Jaglom analyze bullshit in New Year’s Day
Running (and I do mean running
) throughout is a tense, raw, nervous energy emitted from transient people searching for stability. In Tracks
, Hopper’s soldier is incapable of sitting still around others for more than a minute or two. That film also introduced the world to Michael Emil, Jaglom’s older brother and a case study who inadvertently raised jabbering (on everything from chess to masturbation) to a fine art. By a stroke of luck, Jaglom paired him with Zack Norman, a sharp comic actor and barbed straight man to form a comedy team direct from the analyst’s couch.
is mired in Vietnam aftershock, Someone to Love
scrutinizes that generation’s search for consistency and fulfillment in the midst of the cultural and sexual revolutions. (With liberation, it implies, comes the need to reinvent our wants and desires without falling back on old ideals.) New Year’s Day
could be the day after Someone to Love
. Jaglom’s character, now called Drew (they all begin with the letter D), has flown (fled?) from Los Angeles to New York City, discovering that his new apartment is still inhabited by the previous tenants, three single women with a day remaining on the lease. With the hotels booked for the holidays, he’s forced to stay and wants to sleep, but they’ve planned a going away party to say goodbye to their friends, and, by implication, all their old ideals.
Another gathering, another million conversations, but without a simple, concentrated topic to hold it together. Indeed, New Year’s Day
reflects the transitory state of its characters, with the feel of something less finished, less a creation than a concept in search of dependability and self worth. The conspicuous tension in Tracks
and Someone to Love
has hardly vanished, but Jaglom here softens its intensity while working from the title day’s hangover, a gray area on both the calendar and the mind.
The lead character, played by Maggie Wheeler, is in her early twenties and about to embark on a dream for Los Angeles. Her two roommates convey topical issues that grew in the public eye throughout the 1990s—and which Jaglom worked into themes for later films: Gwen Welles as a tragic waif with eating disorders (Eating
), and Melanie Winter as a childless, single woman pushing thirty, racing against her biological clock (predicting 1994’s Babyfever
). After the flight from male domination in Someone to Love
, they survive entirely on hopes and dreams. The controlling, needy men circling Wheeler’s character—Jaglom’s Drew (an older but caring stranger), her father (played by veteran TV writer Harvey Miller), and a philandering boyfriend (Duchovny)—bombard her with a menu of options with strings attached.
Photographed in cramped quarters by Joey Forsyte, New Year’s Day
continues the use of two-shots, though with far more cuts and close-ups than in the previous film. There are times when Jaglom flashcuts to discordant reaction shots (often of himself or the comic landlord played by Milos Forman) to underline the intrusive male influence. It may look hasty or even amateurish, but the director’s art comes from the gut, the emotional availability of his actors, and a burning fixation to preserve the mood of the moment.
Widescreen versions enhanced for 16:9 TVs, the Paramount DVDs look terrific. Quick to point out the contributions of his actors, cinematographers, the oft-sited guidance he received from “Orsy” Welles…or impulsive risks, such as using natural light against the advice of his camera operator on Tracks
, Jaglom’s audio commentaries help to illuminate the technical expertise of the filmmaking. The commentary shared with Dennis Hopper on Tracks
is spare but eloquent, stressing certain visual and thematic values that would otherwise be lost on outsiders. With Andrea Marcovicci on Someone to Love
, and Maggie Wheeler and David Duchovny on New Year’s Day
, Jaglom reveals tidbits of a highly personal and undeniably unique style.
Could Henry Jaglom survive in the mainstream, or flourish from a more conventional approach? It’s difficult imagining his passion, the adoration of women, the fascination with lies, conversation and self deception, ever taking flight in a rigidly controlled, scripted environment. Others, like Eric Rohmer and Hal Hartley, have worked in such ways to great advantage. But they may also possess a patience that extends beyond Jaglom’s reach. His is a nervous talent, uncertain of fate and fearful of compromise. His work reflects the frightened child within, crying for love, affection and purity in a scary world drunk on rules, power and corruption.