Thursday, June 18, 2009

TOERIFC: Someone To Love

[This post is prompted by The Oldest Established Really Important Film Club, which will be spotlighting a different blogger-selected film every month. This month's selection is courtesy of Ray from Flickhead. Visit his site to see his thoughts on the film and to join the main discussion.]

Towards the end of Henry Jaglom's Someone To Love, Orson Welles, playing an unnamed father figure who arrives mysteriously on the scene to dispense wisdom and prophecies of doom, asks the film's main character Danny (played by Jaglom himself), "why have you imposed this peculiar misery on your friends in a noble institution like the theater?" It's tempting to extend Welles' question, to expand upon it, to ask Jaglom, why have you imposed this misery on your audience? Because Jaglom's film is undoubtedly among the most painful cinematic experiences imaginable, an extended two-hour prediction of the most self-obsessed sitcoms that would arise in subsequent decades to take over the airwaves. Like a particularly unfunny and maudlin episode of its spiritual successor Friends, Jaglom's film spends virtually its entire running time wallowing in the miseries, insecurities and whiny banter of a group of aging show business types, all of them gathered in a dilapidated theater on Valentine's Day by Danny, who wants to create some kind of film/performance art/psychology hybrid by experimenting on his friends and acquaintances. His conceit — and by extension, Jaglom's — is that there is something about his generation, these aging boomers who grew up in the 60s, that makes them particularly susceptible to the condition of loneliness and an inability to make lasting romantic connections. So he gathers together everyone he knows who is going to be alone on Valentine's Day and invites them to a party, which in fact turns out to be some kind of group therapy session where he asks them all about why they're alone, how they feel about being alone, what they think causes them to be alone, and so on.

Yes, it's exactly as aggravating as it sounds, and exactly as solipsistic. Jaglom's work isn't funny enough to be a comedy, and it isn't exciting enough to be a drama, and its characters aren't developed fully enough for it to really work as the kind of Cassavetes-style fly-on-the-wall realism to which it so desperately aspires (Jaglom even namechecks Cassavetes at one point). The result is that nothing really cuts too deep, or makes one laugh, or creates any interesting tension. There are occasional ideas and lines of dialogue that have some heft, a frisson of intellectual vigor and insight into the lives of these people. At one point, Danny delivers a great speech about how the biological origin of loneliness must be intended to drive us towards each other, just as the feeling of hunger drives us to eat. At times like this, Jaglom cuts to the core of the issues he's dealing with, really engaging with his themes at a primal level. The same can be said of Welles' entire cameo appearance, both because Welles is such a powerful actor that his mere presence elevates any film, and because Jaglom gives this father figure some of the film's best material: an edgy, probing investigation of the effects of feminism and the sexual revolution on the nature of modern romantic relationships.

So it's not like the film is intellectually or emotionally bankrupt. There's undoubtedly substance to Jaglom's inquiry into romance, and one senses his sincerity. But he tends to bury his insights in a morass of chatter and nonsense, in a neverending torrent of regurgitated clichés. This might be bearable if the silliness and banality of the dialogue emerged in some way from the characters, if it felt organic to them, but the characters are mostly such flat, cardboard constructions that it's hard to get any sense of them as people at all. Moreover, most of the acting is at such a stagey, mannered, contrived level that it's constantly breaking the fourth wall, even when Jaglom isn't intentionally breaking it by hauling up all kinds of camera equipment onto the stage and having his actors speak to the camera as part of the film within the film. All this artifice is just another hurdle to leap in trying to get closer to Jaglom's ideas and characters (a futile effort, I'm afraid). Even Danny and his afraid-to-commit girlfriend Helen (Andrea Marcovicci), ostensibly the main characters, don't really develop beyond a very surface level: their whole dramatic arc throughout the film can be summarized as Helen being afraid to give up her independence by letting Danny spend the night in her apartment, and by the end making a slight concession that she may change her mind someday. Jaglom is after profound themes and big ideas, but he approaches them through the most mundane route, through the kinds of utter trivialities that could only be of interest to the most committed of solipsists.

Jules Feiffer, a dabbler in film and a masterful cartoonist and playwright, has pretty much perfected the kind of inquiry that Jaglom is after here. In his script for Mike Nichols' bracing Carnal Knowledge, and in countless cartoons for his now-ended weekly newspaper strip, Feiffer has traced the antagonisms and insecurities and self-erected barriers that plague the relationships between men and women in the modern age. Jaglom's dialogue constantly recalls Feiffer, and it's not a favorable comparison. These characters, who speak in self-aware psycho-babble and jittery self-analysis, are the kind of people who Feiffer would satirize and deflate, with merciless wit, in his best cartoons about the gender wars. Jaglom, on the other hand, doesn't want to poke holes in his characters, maybe because he's one of them, so he spends the bulk of his film indulging their whims, listening to their whining, allowing them to spill their utterly prosaic souls. And then, in order to have it both ways, he ushers in Orson Welles to take the piss for a while, to call them out for being whiny and annoying and self-obsessed. It's a welcome change of pace, and Welles basically says everything that any impatient viewer was probably shouting at the screen well before the hour mark, but it doesn't quite take the edge off the film's overall indulgence of such solipsism.

Ultimately, though, what hurts the film the most is not that one is forced to spend so much time with people who only want to look in mirrors, but that Jaglom lacks the cinematic panache — or the inclination — to do something interesting with this cast of bland characters. He's a poor man's Woody Allen, a poor man's Eric Rohmer, a poor man's Jules Feiffer. He's got all of Allen's neuroticism and insecurity, without the humor and visual craftsmanship. He's got Rohmer's inclination towards endless talk, without the French master's wit, emotional subtlety and pictorial sense. He's got Feiffer's archetypal themes and subjects without the insight and satirical bite. Worse, his filmmaking itself is amateurish and uneven. His cutting is inept, displaying all the distracting attributes of a theater director working in film: especially, the awkward reaction shots in which people, supposedly watching something happening nearby, seem to be in an entirely different room or maybe a different building. Sometimes Jaglom's looser moments, mostly involving the camera crew within the film, evoke Cassavetes with the informality and spontaneity of the aesthetic. More often, though, Jaglom's visual sense is stagebound and unimaginative, a perfect complement to his banal writing. It's impossible to watch this film without thinking of all the better films in this general style that one could watch instead. These comparisons are perhaps unfair to Jaglom, but mostly they're a function of boredom: if he'd given his audience something interesting to watch or to think about, they wouldn't have to think about other, better films instead.


Greg said...

It seems like you hate each new TOERIFC selection more than the last. I suppose that will end now with your own pick. I have to agree with you on this one wholeheartedly though. In the interest of more civil discourse for the film club I co-founded I held back a bit so now allow me to express myself more bluntly: I hated Jaglom and this movie. Hated it. I hope to never, ever see it again. That is all. Thank you.

Sam Juliano said...

Thanks for clearing the way for me Greg. I also disliked this film, and am no fan of this director at all.

Ed Howard said...

I'm with you, Greg, obviously. Hopefully, no one's offended if I say I don't like the movie they've picked -- I fully expect many people won't like my selection, and I hope they feel free to say so. And even if I don't like the film for any given month, I really enjoy the discussions we have.

I like Fox's pick as well, though, so that'll be at least two months in a row where I dig the film.

Joshua said...

I like that you mention the poorly done reaction shots, I haven't seen the film in a while but I remember being incredibly annoyed by how clear it was that Orson Welles was not in the same room as any of the other cast members aside from Jaglom. I think the film's interesting for what it's trying to do, but fails so miserably it's hard to take all at once. And if you ever feel masochistic, listen to the commentary track which adds a layer of nostalgic pomposity that makes the film nigh unbearable.

Marilyn said...

Ed - I don't think anyone will hate Black Book. It's a superb film in every way.

I would quibble that the theatre is not at all dilapidated - it looked finely preserved, though I understand a subsequent earthquake damaged it. Shame.