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Henry Jaglom's first movie, the 1971 psychological drama A Safe Place, featured Orson Welles in a leading role, and Welles's last screen performance came in a Jaglom film as well. Someone to Love (1987) is part autobiography, part talkfest, part comedy, part romantic drama, and even something of a musical. But most touchingly and pleasingly, it's a younger auteur's tribute to a friend, confidante, and guru who clearly meant the world to him. The tribute is all the more poignant when you realize that the most prominent theme of the film is loneliness in the modern world. Jaglom misses Welles, and hopes this movie will somehow keep him close.
In addition to writing and directing the picture, Jaglom plays the main character: director Danny Sapir, a thinly disguised version of himself. Making the theme explicit, Danny explains that he wants to find out why people often feel cut off from others, emotionally if not physically, even when others are all around. Although he never finds a solid answer, he hears a wide array of theories and conjectures in the conversations that dominate the picture. Not surprisingly, the gregarious and garrulous Welles has plenty to say about the matter. But in a crowning touch of irony, he isn't really "there" at all - he died in 1985, two years before Someone to Love was made. Jaglom has spliced in footage shot when the legendary actor-director-writer-producer was alive, and the effect is both bitter and sweet, like seeing a ghost pay one last visit to the movie world he loved.
In general outline, Someone to Love is less a story than a party. Danny has invited a long list of friends, acquaintances, and strangers to mingle on Valentine's Day in an abandoned theater that his brother Mickey, played by Jaglom's brother Michael Emil, has purchased in order to demolish it for a profit. To memorialize the occasion - and make the picture we're watching - Danny has brought in a movie crew that's filming the party from start to finish. Some of the guests are people you've never heard of, and some are show-biz professionals played by actual entertainers like Andrea Marcovicci, the actress and cabaret singer who portrays Danny's girlfriend Helen, and Sally Kellerman, who's best remembered as Hot Lips O'Houlihan in Robert Altman's classic MASH (1970). Singer and songwriter David Frishberg tickles the ivories a little, and Welles's longtime companion Oja Kodar is in the crowd. You can also spot actress Ronee Blakley, filmmaker Monte Hellman, and producer Jeff Dowd, who inspired the Dude character in The Big Lebowski (1998) by the Coen brothers. And plenty of others.
It's fun to hang out with such a varied gang. You may not know these folks when you arrive, but you quickly get a sense of their personalities, liking some right off, finding others rather irksome, and getting bored or fed up with a few. With its meandering structure and endless affection for words, Someone to Love is a sort of mumblecore movie for the older generation. At its very best moments it recalls the richly idiosyncratic films of John Cassavetes, who shared Jaglom's preference for words and performances over spectacle and suspense. It's also a bit like one of Woody Allen's less sharply constructed films, and there's even a Woody Allen character of sorts: Danny's brother Mickey, an uproariously self-centered guy who'll talk your ear off, say a thousand crazy things, and make himself everybody's enemy by sticking to his guns about tearing down the movie theater. Emil has been playing this kind of role in Jaglom's films for decades, and he's an expert at being just irritating enough to keep you listening without quite knowing why.
At the other end of the spectrum, you can't help hanging on Welles's every word; he isn't profound, and his big scenes are limited to the first and last parts of the movie, but his sonorous voice and commanding presence hold the screen like nothing else around. He's also the guest who gives Danny the hardest time about his simplistic notions, and Jaglom deserves credit for allowing his friend more intellectual clout than his own character has. Danny wonders why people feel so alone these days, and Welles points out that people have always felt alone, and even worse, people have always tied up their freedom in chains of their own devising. Modern society has liberated women from slavery, he observes, but in the future men and women might all be slaves of computerized systems. Isn't this depressing, Danny asks? Welles replies that he didn't come there to cheer anyone up, he came to see a show!
Now he's in the show, of course, and we're the lucky ones who get to see it. As for happiness, Welles isn't sure he likes the word. "I've always been deeply suspicious of that line the Founding Fathers wished on us," he says, "the pursuit of happiness....I think we should be full of joy, whenever there's a reason to have joy....Happiness isn't our right, it's an achievement, it's a bit of luck." That's hard to argue with, and Danny doesn't even try.
Some of Welles's most provocative thoughts have to do with shows, films, and filmmaking. Motion pictures are "technologically...almost pass," he declares. "A great problem with movies is that they're always old-fashioned," and it takes so long to make one that "by the time your idea is on the screen, it's already dead!" While that sounds gloomy, Welles is actually upbeat about the future. The demolition of the movie theater might be for the best, he says, because when old forms of expression make an exit, space is cleared for exciting new ones. Welles cleared many new paths during his career, and here he encourages his younger counterpart to look forward with enthusiasm instead of merely complaining about the present.
Always willing to question his own work, Jaglom lets Mickey give a harsh critique of all these goings-on, suggesting that the party and the conversations amount to nothing more than "very silly, pretentious, indulgent nonsense." Danny's girlfriend Helen also gives a harsh critique - when he tells her at the end that the party and the movie shoot are all a Valentine's Day gift to her, she indignantly walks out on him. She returns later on, but Someone to Love ends on a note that's ambivalent rather than joyful. Some viewers will agree with Mickey that the picture is ridiculous, and others will agree with Helen that Danny's self-indulgence is a drag. But many will agree with Welles that the world needs exciting new kinds of storytelling, and Jaglom is doing his best to find them. That's reason enough to attend the quirky, loquacious party he's put on for us.
Director: Henry Jaglom
Producer: M.H. Simonson
Screenplay: Henry Jaglom
Cinematographer: Hanania Baer
Film Editing: Henry Jaglom
With: Henry Jaglom (Danny Sapir), Orson Welles (himself), Michael Emil (Mickey Sapir), Andrea Marcovicci (Helen Eugene), Sally Kellerman (Edith Helm), Oja Kodar (Yelena), David Frishberg (Harry), Monte Hellman (Richard), Ronee Blakley (partygoer), Jeff Dowd (partygoer)
by David Sterritt