Saturday, November 24, 2007

Amplifier Article #2: Henry Jaglom's A Safe Place

The original version of this article can be found at this link. This is my slightly revamped version for Moon In The Gutter.

"A SAFE PLACE is an important milestone in the art from of the motion picture."

"Tuesday Weld changed the whole way I did films, she taught me to be true to myself."

"I may be self destructive, but I like taking chances with movies. I like challenges and I also like the particular position I've been in all these years, with people wanting to save me from all the awful films I've been in. I'm happy being a legend. I think the Tuesday Weld cult is a very nice thing."
-TUESDAY WELD on the eve of filming A SAFE PLACE-

"A SAFE PLACE is an essay on time and memory."

"The part was written for me and about me. I'm really that girl, Noah, except that I don't want to go anywhere near my past. I would like to develop amnesia about it...I feel misplaced everywhere."

The unexpected success of Dennis Hopper’s low budget EASY RIDER threw a major monkey wrench into an already struggling studio system machine in 1969. Suddenly, baffled movie executives desperately began searching for young talent to come in and create their own counter-culture success, in order to flip the bill for such big budget disasters like PAINT YOUR WAGON.
The two years following EASY RIDER is one of the most audacious and uncompromising periods in Hollywood history. Never before had so many young filmmakers been given Cart blanch in the Studio system. Films like Jack Nicholson’s DRIVE HE SAID, Peter Fonda’s THE HIRED HAND and Hopper’s own THE LAST MOVIE would have been unthinkable just a few years before, but Hollywood was in trouble. The studio heads knew it, and blank checks were being handed out to anyone with a vision.

No one had more of an uncompromising vision than 29-year-old actor and writer Henry Jaglom in 1970. British born and mainly known as a TV actor, Jaglom had struck up friendships with Hopper, Fonda and Nicholson in the sixties and had appeared in EASY RIDER with the three of them. On Hopper’s recommendation Columbia Pictures gave the go ahead to Jaglom’s first feature, A SAFE PLACE ( a work originally written as a stage play), in the hopes that it would find the same sort of massive success Hopper's film had secured.

Despite the studios bafflement at the young Jaglom’s ideas about making a film dealing with childhood as a mystical place of magic and memories; they were thrilled when he quickly secured not only friend Jack Nicholson for the film but also legendary Orson Welles as well. The key to the film though lay in the casting of the female lead who would be known at different points as Susan and Noah.
Tuesday Weld was already something of an underground legend by 1970. Thought by many to be the greatest actress of her generation, the intense Weld seemed to take great delight in continually sabotaging her career, and by 1969 had turned down everything from BONNIE AND CLYDE to ROSEMARY'S BABY. After finishing up work on John Frankenheimer’s underrated WALK THE LINE in 1970, Henry Jaglom offered Weld the complicated lead role in his film. She quickly signed on for it and set into motion one of the most baffling and moving performances in American film history.
With his cast in place and MIDNIGHT COWBOY camera operator Richard C. Kratina along for the ride, Jaglom began shooting his partially scripted, largely improvised first feature in early 1971.

Any attempt at detailing the plot of A SAFE PLACE is futile at best. Think of a special childhood memory that is so vague that you can’t be sure if it actually happened, and you might get a feeling of how A SAFE PLACE feels. Unlike Hopper, Fonda and Nicholson, Jaglom didn’t seem to be a filmmaker concerned with the day’s politics or the youth movement, which he seemed to accept as only an idealistic gesture destined to fail. His film, scored mostly with songs from his youth in the place of the expected popular music that had helped sell EASY RIDER, was a strange and at times deliberately absurd valentine to childhood slipping away.

A SAFE PLACE feels authentically dreamlike and, viewing it today, it also feels very much like a film divided between two ideals. Tuesday Weld’s Susan/Noah is a woman literally split between becoming the person the blossoming women’s movement was asking her to be, and the child she wanted to hold onto so tightly. Nicholson, who later said he improvised his whole part, as an old free-spirited boyfriend, and Welles, as a wise old magician, seem to be the two catalysts pulling Weld in these very different directions. There are other characters that randomly wander in and out of the thin storyline, but it all centers on Weld’s struggle with her identity, a struggle that many young women were going through in 1971.

Welles and Nicholson are both fine in the film. Welles is certainly featured a lot more, and he floats in and out of the film like some wise old ghost with the ability to see just past where everyone else’s vision stops. His scenes with Weld are some of the most effective of his later career, and the monumental Welles surely must have felt some kinship with the idea frenzied Jaglom. Welles unfortunately remained mostly silent on the film in later years though, so it is hard to accurately know exactly what he was feeling.

Tuesday Weld is simply astonishing in the film, and very strange. Perhaps only Marlon Brando in Bertolucci’s LAST TANGO IN PARIS would seemingly give so much of his own memories and inner turmoil to a role. Weld invests her fragmenting character with a mystifying childlike intensity that is hypnotic at times, and extremely troubling at others. No other American actress could have played a role like this, and seemed anything other than ridiculous. Tuesday Weld is very much all of our lost childhoods in this film, and the work's final haunting disappearing act is a total triumph, even if it is one of the puzzling endings in all of American cinema.

Henry Jaglom confidently delivered A SAFE PLACE to Columbia studios in the summer of 1971, and it completely alienated and baffled the studio’s executives. With no idea what to do with the film, the Studio decided to take a chance and premiere it at the New York Film Festival in October of 1971. The film received such a divided and hostile reaction that screaming matches were said to have broken out in theatre between people who thought it was nonsense, and those proclaimed it a masterpiece.
The film had some brief European showings, and it received a handful of rave reviews in Paris and Britain and then, much like its lead character, it totally disappeared.
The film was pulled from circulation from Columbia and outside of a handful of Festivals, private screenings and gray market copies; A SAFE PLACE has virtually vanished.
By 1972 the Studios started to get a handle on the new Hollywood, and many of the periods most maverick artists would find their original works harder and harder to get made. Few directors were hit as hard as Henry Jaglom, and it would be five years before he was able to get another project off the ground, with the intense TRACKS crash landing in 1976. He has managed to get more than a dozen made since, but they have all been hard fights and he has never again been backed by a major studio again.
Jack Nicholson would of course go in to become one of the most respected actors and stars in the business, and he has thankfully still never completely let go the ghost of his independent days. Ironically his brave and brilliant 1971 directorial debut DRIVE HE SAID remains just as hard to see as A SAFE PLACE.
Tuesday Weld would have just one more leading role, that of the fragmented and destroyed Maria in Frank Perry’s masterful 1972 film PLAY IT AS IT LAYS, and has spent the rest of her career playing supporting roles in films almost exclusively not good enough for her. She remains one of Hollywood’s best kept secrets, the sad and complicated sex kitten who turned out to be the best actress of her generation , even if very few realized it.

The stage version of A SAFE PLACE is still occasionally performed, but the film remains one of Hollywood’s most hidden treasures. It is a near lost reminder of when, for a very brief shining time, the movie business was almost took over by authentic, and very sincere, visionaries; mavericks controlled by their imaginations and not a company’s pocketbook. A film like A SAFE PLACE should be being celebrated and not lying dormant in a studio vault somewhere.

For more on Tuesday Weld, I highly recommend the out of print PRETTY POISON: THE TUESDAY WELD STORY by Floyd Conner. The quotes at the beginning of this piece are taken from it.

1 comment:

Sister Wendy Beckett said...

I love A SAFE PLACE. I caught it on Los Angeles cable TV originator the Z Channel during the final month the service was on the air, when they were cramming in screenings of all of the best, most underground, hated, experimental and divided films in history, others such as ERASERHEAD, 3 WOMEN, HEAVEN'S GATE, ZED & TWO NOUGHTS, GREASER'S PALACE, PERFORMANCE, etc. I manically videotaped everything I could manage to record onto blank cassettes in that final month of broadcasting, and A SAFE PLACE was one of them which I didn't quite realize what I had salvaged until a few years later... Jaglom is a talented and funny man, much of his output I personally find a bit more self-indulgent than I usually prefer, however A SAFE PLACE and the much later Valentine to the career of it's aging starlet Viveca Lindfors, the whimsical and multi-layered LAST SUMMER IN THE HAMPTONS, I find to be among his best and most robust, meaningful works! Tuesday Weld and Viveca Lindfors forever!!!