Thursday, August 05, 2010

GWEN WELLES'S SAFE PLACE



The world of Henry Jaglom has never been a safe place for me, but it certainly seems to have been that for many actors over the course of his almost 40-year career as a writer and director of what could generously be termed ensemble films that have consistently succeeded or erred (depending on your point of view) on the side of creative indulgence, for his actors certainly but also Jaglom himself. Jaglom disdained the “rules” of conventional storytelling from the start, opting instead to create free-form cinematic tableaux in which “real life” could be credibly represented by his actors’ long, shapeless improvisations. But I wouldn’t blame everything on the actors—Jaglom’s own fingerprints are just as sticky. He edits sound and picture with no concern over rhythm, pacing or even respect for one person finishing a sentence before a jagged cut-- ones which often, I swear, it seems you can see the visible marks of splicing tape roll by-- hitches the frame and delivers the viewer to her or his next destination, which is usually almost indistinguishable from the last. It is arguable whether Jaglom’s rejection of classic form and filmmaking fundamentals is purposeful or whether it is borne of simple disregard and, maybe, incompetence. What seems less arguable is that, looking back over his career, he has managed to balance his fumbling, look-Ma-no-training style with an almost licentious weakness for the raw voluptuousness of actors in their most vulnerable and self-indulgent moments.

I recently caught up with Jaglom’s first feature film, A Safe Place (1971), and the thing that astounded me right out of the box, and confirmed some of my own suspicions about the director, is how fully recognizable his rambling, “searching” style seemed right from the beginning. In a mid-period film like Someone to Love (1987), in which the director gathers a bunch of friends in a soon-to-be-demolished Santa Monica theater to reminisce and indulge their memories, all of which becomes a dissolute, upper-class white Hollywood meditation on the pain and folly of the creative process, Jaglom’s camera cuts back and forth between his actors with careless abandon. It prods and burrows into and just as surely evades the director’s subjects with a kind of phony interest that always seems to be most interested in reflecting the actor’s concerns back onto Jaglom himself. He casts himself here, as he almost always does when he casts himself, as the supreme yet conflicted listener, the one who will be there for them when everyone else throws up their hands and calls them on their bullshit, even as he recognizes—in that very sensitive yet condescending male way of his—that he’s probably full of shit too. Over his career he often cast Orson Welles, in a kind of balancing act of directorial iconography, as a kind of detached overseer, a magician, a muse, and in Somebody he cast himself as the off-screen interviewer who presumably sat at Welles’ feet and lapped up his every wry, bitterly wise observation. Yes, Jaglom is there for his actors, but like his camera’s phony observational status, Jaglom lets his subjects have the floor to his detriment and theirs—he rarely demands that they use the raw material of their experience and shape it into something that speaks to the entirety of a vision. It’s a constant wonder to me that someone who worshipped a control freak like Welles could find his way to a whole new martinet-like relationship with his actors, and with the craft of film, by so roundly rejecting the mastery of the film medium Welles represented. You can see him in a bit part in Jack Nicholson’s directorial debut, Drive, He Said (1971), as a self-indulgent, manipulative theater teacher who encourages a group of students into a series of guerrilla theater tactics that, for one kid in particular go violently awry, and he seems already the fully formed Svengali of “whatever, man” performance neurosis that he seems in films from 20 years later in which he would cast himself as the blunt-talking, whiny romantic lead of reason and constantly prodding psychobabble, a Woody Allen for nebbishes who, unlike Allen, are more or less convinced they have their shit together and are endlessly fascinated by the poor bastards (seemingly everyone else) who don’t.

In A Safe Place, Orson Welles is The Magician, who is seen only in what are most likely flashbacks (with Jaglom, from the beginning, one can never exactly tell), in which he relates with somnolent authority to a beautiful woman named Susan (Tuesday Weld). Susan is a dream vision of self reflected on by a woman named Noah (also played by Tuesday Weld), who thinks back on her more ethereal identity while she tries to make her way through a romantic life swinging between the attentions of bookish, well-meaning Fred (Firesign Theater’s Phil Proctor) and the dynamic, appetite-driven, vaguely sinister Mitch (Jack Nicholson, encouraged to improvise and already refining the “Jack” persona). Her time with the Magician, in which he entertains her with magical levitating balls and other devices, is Noah’s retreat from herself into “a safe place” where she dresses as she did when she was a child and relates to the Magician as a father figure, where she isn’t bound by the responsibilities and natural impulses of an adult. In her older roles Tuesday Weld always projected a bit of reluctance to move into the adult realm, and she’s perfectly charming here in a movie in which that reluctance is the ostensible subject. And it’s a bit of a relief that when Jaglom’s camera sputters and stumbles to its next scene, it’s usually one in which Weld can at least offer her natural luminescence, a quality Jaglom seems, at least at this stage of his career, ill-equipped to muffle. (Jaglom may be one of our most appropriately named directors, for the jaggedness of his editing and the way his movies lumber (lomber?) around in their given space.)

But Jaglom, even as a rookie, can’t resist the urge to meander away from his simple premise, and so we get a couple of scenes shot in the apartment where Noah lives—she works in some sort of salon which is apparently attached to the living quarters, so there’s always someone milling about who may or may not be part of the living arrangements, you know, in that late ‘60s, early ‘70s California-dreamin’ kind of way. She can be seen frittering about the edges of the frame in a couple of earlier scenes, but no introduction is given to the character played by Gwen Welles, whose very first film this was, when we are suddenly yanked away from the Noah/Fred/Magician triangle and into a scene in which Welles embarks on a monologue built around a peculiarly paranoid sexual fantasy. It’s one of those moments which are usually meant to embellish character, only here Jaglom, perversely, gives us the back story sans the actual character. It’s all rendered flat and affectless by Jaglom’s aloof observational approach and his insistent perforation of the scene with cuts to Weld in a state of romantic bliss or, worse, Nicholson, leering at the camera (her/us) and cackling while trying to think up something amusing to say.


Gwen Welles in Hellé (1972), directed by Roger Vadim

Welles was a pretty, natural actress who seemed incapable of a phony impulse—some I think mistook this rawness for lack of talent, and the kind of roles she is best known for (Sueleen Gay in Nashville being the best example) probably reinforce this notion to an uncomfortable degree. But she was smart, quick, and she used that nasal, disaffected voice to disarm those who hoped to catch her “acting” in pictures like Altman’s delightfully baked Southern California dreamscape California Split (1974) or Joan Micklin Silver’s comedy set backstage at an independent weekly newspaper, Between the Lines (1977), or even in Roger Vadim's period drama Hellé (1972), in which she plays a deaf-mute girl who befriends a French veteran who returns home during the earliest days of the Vietnam War. Welles had a captivating strawberry beauty about her and a slightly stoned fizz endemic to her personality that was sweetly seductive, and you can see in that monologue in A Safe Place that Jaglom had a camera subject, quite different from the one he had in Weld, who could do more to invite the viewer inside than he as a director might have been capable of handling at that point (if ever). Welles relates a situation in which she’s walking down some New York City street and suddenly becomes painfully aware of her vulnerability, and Jaglom surrounds her with actors hanging out, rolling joints, paying half-attention to what she’s saying and being condescending and inappropriately jokey when they do pay attention. After being scolded by a store owner for leaving herself open to attack by unsavory types on the street, Welles relates how she began, on her unaccompanied walk home, to let her paranoia about being attacked take over, eventually imagining herself as a lonely, bruised, ugly 45-year-old whore who can’t be sure if she even cared if she were to be raped or not. She goes on, her companions on the bed still only half listening, to describe becoming enamored of the entire experience of feeling so degraded—“I loved that whole feeling; It was a turn-on, very sexy.”

Suddenly the guys lying around her smoking, relaxing, become more sympathetic to her story, and Jaglom’s camera settles into its customary stare. Welles’ vulnerability increases as she admits that imagining herself as a beaten-up whore freed her from her everyday sense of isolation, of being apart from the dinner guests and normal contacts of everyday life, freed her from the sense of isolation, cueing her into the oneness to be found amongst those whose very lifestyle is built around despair. This is Welles’ moment in the movie, a point at which the young actress was given to command the camera, a chance any young actress would relish. But Jaglom undermines it by his hunger for “truth,” for the unadorned relating of experience. It is, of course, a lesson Jaglom has yet to learn, for all of his devotion to actors and their craft-- the stripping away of actorly effects in pursuit of some nugget of realistic insight usually results in less fascination, less revelation, because an actor’s art is built on artifice, the acclimation of experience, borrowed or lived, on moments made from the construction of an interior world which the actor then makes exterior. As Jaglom’s own movies have so often proven, the more convinced an actor may be that he or she is diving down deep and exposing something real, the more likely it is that the audience is painfully aware of that actor putting on a show, perhaps one more “raw” than a heavily rehearsed stage or film performance, but a performance nonetheless. Jaglom, his self-satisfied smirk evident even when he’s not on camera, leaves Welles, in her first film, to twist in the wind of this kind of ultimately embarrassing self-revelation, ostensibly because he’s fascinated by the actor in the moment, but I think more likely because he hasn’t a clue what to do to help Welles shape the moment into something truly affecting. The camera zooms in when Welles confesses about her strange affinity with these possibily violent street people: “If this is where one is happy, I don’t know where one goes from there. I felt completely apart from anything that didn’t resemble being completely miserable.” Dr. Jaglom nods patiently, and the scene cuts away, presumably for good, to Tuesday and Jack gamboling in the park, with Welles (the rotund, bearded one) always hovering nearby and bursting into inexplicable laughter.

Yet after 10 minutes or so, suddenly we’re back on that bed with Gwen Welles and her sympathetically stoned friends. “And they said I’d taken all these sleeping pills, and I couldn’t remember doing it.” The movie, as is Jaglom’s wont, roughly tosses us back into the realm of Welles’ psychic confession with nothing even resembling nuance. At this point it’s clear that Jaglom has let the camera run for a god-awful duration, and Welles sits mid-frame, skewered by her director’s patient anticipation of that therapeutic breakthrough that is surely on its way. “I took three pills just because I could stand the pain,” Welles now pleads directly into the camera. “Do you think people get to a point of pain where they just can’t stand it?” Long, uncomfortable pause. There are lots of tears now. “I took three pills to sleep and I almost died. You can imagine when I woke up I really wished I was dead.” Long pause. “I constantly beat myself on the head for being so unhappy, and I just get more unhappy and I ask when it’s gonna stop, and it never stops.” Long pause. The tears are flowing for real now. A hand reaches out from right of frame and cresses Welles’ face. (Could it be Jaglom’s?) There is another jagged cut to a boardwalk scene, a woman smoking in the foreground, and the shot is so clumsily composed you could be forgiven for missing the fact that Welles is in the background of the shot, dressed in a child’s black dress and holding a doll, staring forlornly. I imagine it’s the novice director’s intent to equate on some level Welles’ pain with Weld’s more free-wheeling attempt to deal with her past and her present romantic dilemma, but it’s a weak connection. There is no Welles there beyond this monologue, and Jaglom wouldn’t, by evidence of his superficial visual treatment of Weld, be much capable of digging into a real character anyway, let alone a doubling relationship like the one he blithely infers here.


But then we get the pay off. We cut back to Gwen Welles, inexplicably smiling through her tears, still pained but with light in her eyes. “Gee, I feel all better,” she proclaims, in the manner of a patient getting up off a psychiatrist’s couch after a particularly productive emotional spew. “All of the sudden I don’t feel so sorry for myself!” It’s an emotional Band-aid moment, but it turns out to be what Jaglom, with his peering, relentless camera, is after, and it’s hard to imagine we’re supposed to take it for anything but a triumph of sorts, the magical exorcism that occurs when people just “talk about it” and “let it all hang out.” Welles, beaming, ends her stay in the movie with this proclamation: “I don’t think I’ll try to kill myself anymore because I like walking down the street with all the bums.” Presumably without the indulgence of the paranoid fantasy that came along with that walk just a few moments earlier. Well, who wouldn’t feel better about all that? It’s a testimony to her luminescence as an actress to know that her talent would out and she would go on to contribute superb work to two or three of her generation’s best movies despite being essentially betrayed by the director of her first feature. (That feeling of betrayal I sensed from the film was likely not one shared by Welles herself. She may have well felt that indeed Jaglom took her to a safe place where she could do good work-- she did act for Jaglom two more times, in 1989’s New Year’s Day and in Eating, released in 1990.)

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I had a film professor who once said that there was no such thing as a bad or misused moment in a film, because if your mind started to wander into other areas of your life and thoughts occurred to you that were of some importance during that wander, then the film could be said to have performed some important function for you. This is a premise that seems necessarily separate from whether a film works as art—sitting and watching a ticking alarm clock, to grab a random image, could function in precisely the same way, yet would we shout at the top of our lungs, “Henry Jaglom’s alarm clock is a masterpiece!”? Probably not. Yet my mental meandering during A Safe Place, especially where Gwen Welles was concerned, did set me to wondering about the actress and the circumstances that led to her death in 1993. As I reflected on the content of Welles’ monologue, I realized that I had no memory of how she died. And considering that I found Jaglom’s use of the actress to be borderline exploitation, I really hoped that Gwen Welles did not give in to the kind of demons she wrestled with “in character” in A Safe Place and kill herself. Suicide would already be an irreconcilable tragedy, but to have an on-screen moment that so prefigured this destructive act would be, as Welles herself put it, too much to bear. So I set about Googling Gwen Welles, an actress whose life was too short, as was her résumé, in the hopes of finding out something more about her life and what ultimately happened to her.


A good part of my summer was spent with several of the documentary films of Allan King, who will be the subject of a Criterion Eclipse box coming in September. King’s films deal with aspects of life we generally, as a society, turn either a polite or a defiant eye away from or work desperately to ignore altogether. His 1967 film Warrendale documented five weeks in a home for mentally disturbed children, and the nonjudgmental, patient way in which King observes and constructs the “stories” of his subjects would set a standard for excellence in nonfiction film making that could coolly stand beside the more emotionally exhaustive approach of someone like Frederick Wiseman. But it is King’s films dealing with aging and the inexorable finality of life’s final processes, which result in Alzheimer’s-related derangement, isolation and, of course, death, that so absorbed me over the past summer. I will have much more to say about the films themselves when the set becomes publicly available. But I will say that I have never seen a more quietly wrenching film than King’s two hour-plus document of life in a Toronto cancer ward entitled Dying at Grace (2003), a work of profound intimacy about the insistent approach to the most intimate moment imaginable, that in which a person’s life force passes out of the body, turning a person into a shell, a deteriorated physical memento of remembrance. King exquisitely frames the stories of several patients, some of which are more coherent and ambulatory at the outset than are others, but with their consent he has endeavored to portray the dignity hidden within the indignity of being at the mercy of a ravaging disease. We are privy to moments that chronicle the despair of loved ones, their anguished acceptance, and the struggle of the patient him or herself, shrunken and comatose, to simply draw another wet, ragged breath. And yet King’s approach is completely without exploitation.

This is not to say King’s films, particularly Dying at Grace, are without moments where the individual viewer might question the appropriateness of being privy to such moments of intimate agony. King’s ultimate statement is to leave those kinds of decisions to the viewer. In attempting to chronicle what is a legitimate, inevitable stage of life and to look on it with honest inquisition, searching for the grace which, despite the individual circumstances, can be located if one can simply bear to cast a gaze, King demystifies one of our greatest, most profound fears. King himself died of brain cancer a mere five years after finishing this film, and watching it one wonders if he knew of his own condition when he conceived the film. Even if not, the finished film remains an unparalleled act of empathic therapy, for him but just as surely for us.

I bring up King’s films here because, among the many things they do, they bring us close to the lives and deaths of “real” individuals (I hate the way reality TV has bastardized the use of a word like “real”) with whom we have never occasioned to meet before, and by doing so make us feel, within the span of two hours, the price exacted by the privilege of seeing someone, anyone, given up to death. How much more devastating, then, would it be to document, or see documented, the death of someone one knows, even in the most superficial sense?

It wasn’t difficult to locate an account of what happened to this wonderful actress. I Googled “Gwen Welles death” and was immediately directed to her brief obituary which was published in the New York Times on October 16, 1993. In addition to the fact that she was married to actor Harris Yulin, which I did not know, the obituary said only that Welles had died of cancer, and then went on to briefly list some her of most well-known films. (It was cold comfort to me to find out that, unlike her character in A Safe Place, Welles had not flirted openly with suicide or had ultimately taken her own life.) But the search also unveiled the Web site of director Donna Deitch, on which is posted a brief clip from a documentary Deitch filmed about Welles as the actress struggled with a particularly devastating form of colon cancer. The film, Angel On My Shoulder, which I have not seen, seems to aspire to something akin to what King achieved in his films, an unflinching portrayal of one’s person painful trauma that could never be mistaken for exploitation. Deitch was Welles’ best friend, and Welles, in a severely emaciated and weakened state, directly addresses Deitch (and us) to relate a most intimate agony. It’s that combination of our personal experience with Welles, the actress, and Deitch’s long history with her as a close friend that combines to make Welles’ pain so acute. The film also details Welles’ decision to reject the typical cancer treatment therapies, which helps us to understand the contradictory, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes exasperating personality that Welles possessed. (Deitch is interviewed at length on her site about the film and her friendship with Welles.) Yet even in the clip provided on Deitch’s site, Welles’ often displays an unlikely humor regarding acceptance of her situation, the elusiveness of peace of mind, the possibility for growth even as her body shrinks and turns away from her. “There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t learn something,” she says with a clarity that may not be so easily accessible during those extended periods of pain that demarcate her journey toward death. What’s most moving about the Welles we see in the clip is the reticence born of experiencing pain and then having that pain momentarily recede—when she’s riddled with pain death seems attractive, but in her moments of lucidity and (drug-induced) peace she is fully aware of everything she stands to lose, which for Welles may be a different kind of pain, but equally devastating.



I have provided the clip from Angel On My Shoulder not for shock value, but because I think it’s valuable, in the way that King’s films are valuable, for the way it portrays the awful reality of approaching death and the state of grace that lies within acceptance, both the intellectual kind and the kind forced upon someone when their body begins to fail. The difference between Gwen Welles and King’s subjects is that, with one notable exception I can think of, King's subjects are mostly inarticulate about their situation, sometimes frustratingly so (for them and for us). And the filmmaker stays with them like a loyal friend, long past their own physical and mental cognizance, offering every hitched breath and rattled moan as evidence of the dignity one would have thought evaporated. It’s the kind of picture of physical devastation, as it relates to aging or to debilitating disease visited upon younger people, which deserves to be considered by a society as fearful of death as we are. Deitch’s portrait of her friend Gwen Welles is served well by her subject’s training in expression, self or otherwise, one which naturally became more acute the more acting she did. At one point she makes a comment that forced me back into the world of A Safe Place, a memory of how even when she was relating her emotional isolation and devastation she was smiling through her tears, her eyes lit up from a mysterious source. Incredibly, as she lies hooked up to machinery in a hospital bed, that light is still present and just as mysterious. She looks to Deitch, who is behind the camera, and says, “I look sweet when I cry, don’t I? Everybody says that I break their hearts when I cry. My face doesn’t get ugly when I cry.”

Anyone who has valued Gwen Welles’ contributions to movies like Nashville and California Split and Between the Lines and Star 80 and Desert Hearts, and even Jaglom’s films, should be glad that this document exists. I hope one day to be able to see the entire film, which was an acclaimed documentary award winner at the Chicago Film Festival in 1998. I am entirely sure it will be worth the pain.

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5 comments:

acbleach said...

Wonderful. I've always imagined a remake of CALIFORNIA SPLIT, directed by Altman, that followed Welles' character around.

humdingercrazy said...

hi Dennis.. you don't have a search bar here where we can find your opinions on some other films.. I asked because I was trying to check what ever you have to say about "Happiness"...

Beveridge D. Spenser said...

God, she does look sweet when she cries...

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Humdingercrazy (if that's your real name...): I have to confess, I have not seen Happiness. I was so put off by Welcome to the Dollhouse that my interest in Solondz has been peripheral at best, and as I recall the release of Happiness coincided with perhaps the very darkest time in my life, and I've never felt the need to go back and experience it.

But I have to say, I liked Storytelling quite a lot, and on the strength of that, combined with the release of Life During Wartime,which I think may already be gone from Los Angeles theaters, my interest in Happiness has been renewed.Maybe it would be an exercise in therapy for me to go back after 12 years now and finally take a look.

What are your thoughts on it?

Dennis Cozzalio said...

acbleach: I've often thought that about characters in Altman films. I wouldn't mind a movie for each of the 24 characters in Nashville!