Monday, March 28, 2011

A Safe Place

America Lost & Found: The BBS Series, Part IV

Susan peers longingly into space. At what? The past, mostly. Thinking about her brother, being able to fly. She's also known as Noah. It's not entirely clear to me why, though as I wrapped my mind around A SAFE PLACE, I thought of the scenes with her imaginary magician (played by none other than Orson Welles) constantly pulling a rainbow out of a pot, so that may have something to do with it.

Susan/Noah lives in 1971 New York, a harsh urban environment that she nonetheless smiles through, though the smiles mask much. Tuesday Weld plays her with an otherworldliness that is unique. She's gorgeous in the traditional senses (facial structure, skin tone, mesmerizing eyes), but also, she exudes an almost Greek goddess quality that fits with her temperament. She doesn't really belong to this world. It's not magical enough for her, not even NYC with its laugh-a-minute bizarre landscape. No, she remains in her "safe place" (aha?) most of the time, frustrating a suitor, Fred (Philip Proctor) who can't understand why the lass gets upset when he gives her his phone number, in digits. Not magical enough for her! She'd rather he spell out evocative names with those letters that correspond with the numbers.

Writer/director Henry Jaglom had written all this as a play in the 60s; the adaptation would be his first film. Cinematically, it's a marvel. A consistently visually inventive mess that so beautifully uses light and color to bathe our heroine as she again dreamily ponders some memory. She tolerates Fred's rationality with schoolgirl giggles but beams when an old lover, Mitch, (Jack Nicholson, doing his patented Jack things) shows up at 4 A.M. Fred is also there, and gets understandably frustrated while Susan and this interloper fool around on the couch (both actors improvising some interesting dialogue). But is Mitch even real? Jaglom's film is a continuous zigzag through time and we find ourselves unsure of most everything. This will undoubtedly test the mettle of many viewers. In fact, in this Criterion disc commentary, Jaglom remembers how half the audience booed at a screening, though he points out that some were also cheering. The author Anais Nin, by the way, was a champion of this film, citing its beauty. I'm not surprised by her endorsement.

Do I endorse it? As a study of the medium, A SAFE PLACE is a worthwhile exercise, with its visual style, amusing performance by a clearly-enjoying-himself Welles (who sports a hesitant accent), and Jaglom's ideas. Not all of them are good. Constant interspersing of Welles peering and/or spouting philosphy eventually becomes tiresome after the initial intrigue/unintentional hilarity. Jaglom would later be known for very different sorts of films like BABYFEVER and VENICE, VENICE, movie talkfests with charcters sitting and talking about themselves. Definitely an acquired taste. But so is this film, it's just more eccentric with its cinematography and editing. As part of the BBS series, A SAFE PLACE stands out as the most experimental.

Weld is the centerpiece, and it is a fine showcase for her beauty. Her acting is just right for such an enigmatic character. The final scene can be taken literally if you're so inclined (many critics did), which would render this film a tragedy. I took it as another fragment of Susan/Noah's imagination. Another moment of denial of the present, the banal, and a portal to somewhere magical. A flight, if you will, and if you make this journey, you may well debate me as to what that "flight" really is.
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