I recently saw Henry Jaglom's A Safe Place for the first time and was completely floored by the experience, it's one of those films that sticks with you and resonates long after you've seen it. A film that makes you realize just how much the medium can achieve when in the right hands. A Safe Place had been largely unavailable, having only a brief theatrical run and never being released on VHS or DVD, until Criterion's recent dvd box set America Lost and Found: The BBS Story. BBS was a production company created by Bob Rafelson, Burt Schneider, and Steve Blauner that in the late 1960's and early 1970's created some of the most distinct and innovative movies to come out of the New Hollywood; Head, Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens (all included in the box set along with Drive, He Said, The Last Picture Show and A Safe Place).
A Safe Place, based on a play originally written and directed by Jaglom in the early 60's, was first released late in 1971. It's a complex movie, one that benefits from multiple viewings. It's narrative is told in impressionistic fashion placing the viewer inside the mind of its main character, played by Tuesday Weld. Jaglom explains, in one of several of the dvd's bonus features, that one of the themes of the film is how we perceive time in an emotional sense, consequently the films narrative is non linear, cutting back and forth from the past and present and returning to earlier motifs/scenes regularly to add resonance and meaning - as we often think back on the past in the present which is continually becoming the past. At times the audio played over the visual is from a different point in time entirely, it calls for attentive viewing, but the effect is not as scattershot or experimental as it may sound. These kind of narrative techniques weren't new in film at the time, but Jaglom's handling of them and the overall impact it has (in other words just how completely successful he is of setting the viewer down inside the mind of the film's main character) is staggering, especially when you realize that this was his first film.
The performances in A Safe Place are warm and naturalistic, incredibly so - this achievement is driven home by the bonus material that includes auditions of other actors in the main roles, all of which fall flat. Tuesday Weld embodies the character so completely its difficult to not feel, and I mean to take nothing away from her great performance, that in some respect she is playing herself. Jaglom has said that the character is a composite of himself, his former girlfriend Karen Black and Weld. A personal favorite though is Orson Welles in his role as a magician in Central Park who is a friendly father figure to Weld's character. Or is he simply a projection of her mind? Orson Welles with both the great achievements and disappointments of his own life, can't help but imbue a pathos to this character, who wishes to make real as opposed to stage magic-he regularly attempts to make animals in the zoo disappear.
Philip Proctor, of Firesign Theatre fame, is also engagingly empathetic as the put upon suitor of Weld's character (in a way representing the viewer or male viewer at least), who struggles awkwardly to get close to her and her world. Jack Nicholson, though receiving top billing, has a small but pivotal role, playing to type as a wise ass insensitive jerk that women find irresistible, he appears, quickly disrupts the lives of the main characters and vanishes (for a very different performance from Jack check out King of Marvin Gardens) . And there are many wonderful smaller performances in the film, such as a strange and moving monologue by Gwen Welles (no relation to Orson), on degradation, isolation and suicide, which ends in the character speaking tearfully straight to camera.
The soundtrack of A Safe Place, (never released though assembled here for your enjoyment) which features poignant songs from the 1940's, adds considerably to the wistful mood and dreamlike trance of the film. In the commentary included on the dvd Jaglom says he took a friend's collection of 78's and separated them into two piles, songs that made him cry and ones that didn't and then only used the ones that made him cry. The juxtaposition of early 1970's Manhattan and the somewhat hippie-ish main characters with the wistful and romantic music of several decades prior is one of Jaglom's many strokes of genius. The soundtrack to the film is strange, magical, and completely unique, with the music voicing, commenting on and intertwining with themes of the film.
From the early beginnings of the motion picture, Antonin Artaud said that only films would be able to depict dreams, fantasies, the surrealist aspect of our experience. But very soon movies veered away from that magic power and turned to one-dimensional stories. Very few made attempts to penetrate the deeper layers of our way of experiencing life. Yet film was the perfect medium for capturing our inner life.
We know, we are aware of how our lives are an intermingling of dream, reality, illusion, fantasy, childhood influences, and wishes. As soon as I saw “A Safe Place,” I knew this was the film which attempted to penetrate that level and did so with unusual sensitivity and skill. It was a perfect fusion, the perfect superimposition of memory, dream, illusion, and the grappling with reality.
The writer-director Henry Jaglom accomplishes this extraordinary feat while situating his story in the most ordinary of all backgrounds: Central Park, New York, and the roofs of apartment houses in Manhattan. This magic transformation of reality by the dream, he tells us, can take place anywhere. It is in Central Park that the magician (Orson Welles), who so deeply affects the child in the woman, (Tuesday Weld), practices his skills. There is delightful humor, tender and wistful scenes, as when the girl shows her secret box in which she keeps her wish and the young man wants to open it. She knows that the day it is opened it might be empty, as the magician’s hands are occasionally empty. There is a beautiful scene in which she hides in a closet from the luxury and art of the young man’s background, which does not reach her, and where she contemplates the nature of love as it is expressed in different eyes. The writing here is that of a poet.
The theme, which runs through “A Safe Place” like a musical motif and gives the many-leveled story its continuity, is the constant return to the real bond between the girl and the magician. The girl bounces back from every encounter with love to the magician who performed for her when she was little. She is obsessed with the memory that, as a child, she was able to fly. She insists that the rational young man who loves her (Philip Proctor) should believe this. It is important that he believe this. The symbolism of what she is trying to reach, to assert, to seek, is deeply moving: she seeks a dimension in life in which dream and reality are fused. Everything in this film has to be interpreted as we interpret dreams.
One of the great seductions of “A Safe Place” is the perfection of atmosphere and poetic elements. The simplicity of the realistic scenes, a table at an open-air restaurant, a sun deck, and their facile replacement by a scene of fantasy. The hunger for magic. The girl’s recognition that she cannot love in a human way: No one has found the key to the locked box which she is for others. There is in this film great mobility, fluidity, a sensuous dwelling on color, light, facial expressions, with an original use of silence. The accompaniament of music and the flow of the images serve to connect these worlds which we have kept separate.
In most films, what takes place in our feelings, the imagery of our dreams around events, is rarely filmed. We know it is an external image, we know the dimensions are missing, that it is hard as a wall. We are not stirred deeply. The depths have been left untouched. In “A Safe Place” it is this depth which is touched, it affects one almost subconsciously. We become aware of what we aspire to, seek, may or may not find. All the subtle dreams and fantasies which colour our experience are captured here. The inner world of a young woman becomes as vivid as her outer world. Here is a dimension left out of other films. A new vision, more encompassing, of feeling, tenderness and humor.
The magician’s only failure is that he cannot make things disappear. In the world of childhood wishes they visit the zoo together, the most humorous part of the film. The elephant, the lion, and the Ilama do not disappear. He does make one lover disappear, but this is the lover who disappears anyway after each encounter (Jack Nicholson). But the wish to disappear has been transferred to the girl. When she meets with love divided, the lover who does not love, and the lover whom she cannot love in return, she thinks of disappearing. That she disappears in death seems natural. Magic has failed her, but at least she can disappear. For the first time in “A Safe Place” we find a description of the mixture we live by, this interweaving of dream, childhood wishes for magic power, fantasy interfering with experience, the constant transformation of reality by illusion. There is great tenderness and understanding of the power of the dream, a marvelous skill in seizing upon its subtle influence, a great daring in erasing the boundaries to immerse you in the very heart of it.
“A Safe Place” is an impressionistic film, an X ray of our psychic life, which gives an insight instantly into the secret self. Those who may be irritated are those who have always feared the depths and who, in spite of so many proofs to the contrary, think we live in a rational world. Better to face the minotaur of our dreams and know their fragility and gain a deeper understanding of the human dilemma. What makes for loneliness, “A Safe Place” says, is our inability to share our dreams. Those who fail to understand this film will drive themselves and others to the safe place of nonexistence. The real magician here is Henry Jaglom, because our fantasy, for the first time, is set free on film.