Mar 24, 2007

The Other Side of Henry Jaglom

OOn Feb. 23, I had a telephone interview with director Henry Jaglom, on assigment for the publication "Micro-Film", about his film Going Shopping, which had just been released on DVD.

Going Shopping is a very enjoyable film, one of his best works to date, featuring his wife Victoria Foyt in the central role (and is a revelation as always). This features most trademarks we associate with the films of Henry Jaglom. First, there are strong female roles, and usually with more shades and quirks that you see in any Hollywood movie, and in roles big or small, everyone gets a chance to shine. (There are more interesting female characters in this one picture than half a dozen studio films.) And then there is the improvisatory nature of his work... in which the viewer feels like a fly on the wall as the camera unobtrusively gazes at characters with overlapping dialogue, unpredictable emotions, virtues and flaws... it gives a synthesis of real life, not "reel life", all happening at once.

Jaglom's films infuriate many people, even women who aren't impressed with the neurotic wounded creatures that the female sex is often portrayed as. And for that matter, his loose, meandering structure (typical of his pictures in the 1980's) wore thin the patience of many. His impressionistic films aren't made to please the general masses who can only appreciate the cookie cutter formula of Hollywood, and even though this picture, and his previous film Festival in Cannes (2001), are somewhat conservative in approach, they still show Jaglom exploring his themes, with his unique style that wavers between documentary and narrative.

And in my 20 years of compulsive film watching, I've made a point to see all of his films, for despite their imperfections, they do achieve something unique and insightful. Plus, I admire that still after 35 years, he continues to make his pictures outside of the Hollywood mainstream.

In my 45 minute interview, we talked about his approach to filmmaking, the female roles (especially in Going Shopping), and the independent scene. Out of respect to Jason at "Micro-Film", I divert any more exposition on this to his magazine. I admit being nervous to speak to Henry Jaglom at first, and perhaps my style of questioning was a bit wishy washy, but it still led to the answers I wanted to receive, partially I'm sure because he was inciteful enough to know where my questioning was going.

Somehow, we got on the subject of The Other Side of the Wind, which may be the greatest unfinished-unseen film of all time. Made by Orson Welles in the early 1970's, it features John Huston as a veteran director trying to make a picture in the Easy Rider era. While all principal photography was shot, (according to whom you believe) either the footage was never edited fully, or it has been, but Welles' estate is miserly suppressing the film from release. Welles was a mentor to Peter Bogdanovich and Henry Jaglom (both of whom appear in this film). Mr. Jaglom offered to send me a DVD of a segment from this film featuring himself with director Paul Mazursky.

A week later, I receive the disk in the mail along with a postcard for his next film, and a note. I was stunned to see that the DVD contained twenty minutes of footage from this modern Holy Grail of movies. This compilation of dailes and rough edits (none of which had final audio) however made me believe in movies all over again. This mixed bag of scenes shows Jaglom and Mazursky in an amazing unbroken take as they freely improvise about the state of modern cinema, with scripted moments of John Huston barking at his cronies. All of this is shot in harsh constrast lighting, recalling Touch of Evil and other Welles classics.

Equal parts exhilarating and overwhelming, this film is a crystallization of what independent filmmaking really stands for. While I realize this is a rough cut, one must accept the technical crudities, and the uneven rhythms that classical Hollywood has programmed us to perceive as "wrong". These are all the expenses paid for getting a little closer to the true ways in which humans behave. One comes away from this a little wiser due to its uncompromising text, somewhat invigorated by the unconventional filming style. Orson Welles is often considered the first independent filmmaker, and under his namesake one could also compare the films of John Cassavetes or Henry Jaglom... all deeply personal directors with a unique style, creating their singular worlds of truth within or without the cookie cutter moviemaking of Hollywood.

God Bless the Digital Revolution... The Manitou is in Town!

From 1971 to 1978, William Girder directed a handful of modestly budgeted horror films (and a couple of action pictures). The best known of which is perhaps Grizzly (1976), the JAWS cash-in, but with a bear. But over the years, his work has developed a following, not least a very good website also solidly reviews his films. And there you can find out about the making of such drive-in classics as Abby or Day of the Animals.

While enjoying the few of his films I have seen, I have been wanting to see his final film, The Manitou, for years, based on its reputation (or lack thereof). And now, Anchor Bay has released this notorious film on DVD, and yep- all the rumours I have heard are true. This is truly a mind-numbing movie: a hallucinogenic mess of special effects, bad acting, and a complete lack of sense.

What did the legendary Lee Strasberg think of his daughter Susan, appearing in such films as these? While a fine actress in her own right, one wouldn't know it from the sparse film roles she did get... proof point here. She plays the hapless patient who has a strange growth coming out of her neck... which soon develops into a life-sized body of a demon from Native American folklore! So Michael Ansara shows up as a Native witch doctor (with this great big wig that could've inspired the genetically reformed Klingons) to rid the world of this monster.

This spin on The Exorcist takes the "demons run amuck" theme to a new plateau. Girdler adapted this film from a best-selling novel by Graham Masterson, which I haven't read, so I cannot attest to what liberties were taken here. However, what we get is a big-budget excuse for icky makeup (like when the creature gets old enough to detach itself from Susan Strasberg), and lots of special effects to keep things interesting enough so that people don't notice the plotholes (in this case, this film predated the usual Hollywood mindset by a couple of years). My favourite is when Tony Curtis and Michael Ansara open a hospital door, and the entire universe is inside! Oh, did I mention Tony Curtis yet?

What is a big-budget 1970's horror film without one bad performance by a golden age movie star who's seen better days? On a par with Richard Burton in Exorcist II: The Heretic and Bette Davis in Burnt Offerings... Tony is so mesmerisizingly, stupefying BAD in this... it makes his cornball appearances in that godawful "Hollywood Babylon" TV series look dignified. The Manitou is proof positive of the golden rule that most 1970's big-budget Hollywood horror pictures sucked (with only rare exceptions), all while the genre was being defined in the margins with such pictures as The Hills Have Eyes, Deep Red and -gotta mention this- Blue Sunshine.

What were they thinking? What happened? Did this whole movie go to peyote? But for all of that, this film is actually a very fast-moving experience, in spite of itself. You are so thunderstruck by this movie that you have a hungry fascination to see more, to see what on earth they're going to throw at you next. It may be a bad movie in a conventional sense, but it is a very enjoyable one at that. The very least must be said, that when William Girdler actually had something of a budget to play with, the result was imaginative in some unique way. In that regard, it is much more entertaining than another studio horror of the day like Prophecy, or the Rock Hudson classic, Embryo. I can't wait for the weather to warm up so I can open the third floor drive-in again and put this on in its proper environment.

Sadly, William Girdler passed away at the age of 30 in a helicopter crash while scouting locations for his next film. He nonetheless left behind a filmography much larger than any other directors of his age at the time. Naturally, the big "what if" question emerges, pondering how his career would have continued, but this cinematic swansong proves that it at least would have been unique.