July 13, 2011

No question about it: Henry Jaglom’s Always is a true one-of-a-kind, a movie not quite like any other. It’s a film Jaglom made about his painful divorce.

The twist is, not only did Jaglom write and direct the film, he also stars as himself, and his real ex-wife, Patrice Townsend, stars as his ex-wife.

Technically, this feat is not quite unprecedented. Other actor-directors made films with their actress-spouses and sometimes obliquely commented on their relationship: Charles Chaplin and Paulette Goddard in Modern Times, Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai, Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Annie Hall.

But those movies couched themselves in fictions of one kind or another. Jaglom’s movie is about the actual divorce, with the actual participants, filmed in the house he and Townsend shared while they were married.

As the film begins, Jaglom speaks directly to the camera and explains that two years have passed since he and his wife broke up. Now, this evening, she is coming over to sign the divorce papers and make it legal. He fixes her dinner, they have a few drinks, she starts feeling nauseated (she accuses him of trying to poison her). So she spends the night, and they never quite get the paper signed.

The next day, friends arrive unexpectedly to spend the weekend (they are played by Joanna Frank and Alan Rachins who, not surprisingly, are real-life friends of Jaglom). Then Townsend’s sister shows up with a new boyfriend in tow. In a concession, Jaglom cast a non-related actress in the part of the sister.

The film covers this weekend, which turns into an endless group-therapy session for the gang. Jaglom encourages his actors to improvise from a loose outline, so there’s endless touchy-feely dialogue as everybody tries to find themselves.

There’s something just awful about all of this. Every winsome truth that was ever spoken by a pop psychologist turns up in the course of the weekend. Everyone hugs each other, constantly. And the thought that these people are nakedly acting out the things that really happened to them—well, it’s either courageous or embarrassing, depending on your point of view. Maybe both.

Jaglom—who’s been making his low-budget independent films (Sitting Ducks, Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?) since he worked as editor on Easy Rider—does, at least, have some sense of structure. And Always is no Ingmar Bergman gloomfest. It’s a comedy, but about pain.

But, boy oh boy, when a film looks at a bunch of actors (and non-actors) improvising dialogue about things that really happened, they had better be watchable people. And, for me, the people got more excruciating as the film went on.

They’re constantly talking about their messed-up lives, what to do about them, and generally letting it all hang out. This leads to an inescapable conclusion as to why they’re so messed up: they talk too much about getting in touch with their feelings, they hug too often, and they let far too much hang out. But this is, I suspect, not exactly the message Jaglom wanted to send with this film.

First published in the Herald, October 1985

Of course this was not a one-of-a-kind movie, because Jaglom has gone on to work his very particular corner of the cinematic universe for twelve subsequent features (and counting), often films starring his latest protégée. He’s got a following of fans, and he seems to have a lot of loyal friends, and although I don’t much like his movies I have developed a kind of fascination-response to them, the way you can’t draw yourself away from some terrible spectacle. By the way, the actress who played the sister-in-law was Melissa Leo; David Duchovny was another early find that Jaglom should get some credit for. But the movies just keep coming.