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Jaglom's Edge


Born Tree: Victoria Foyt in "Last Summer in the Hamptons"

Filmmaker Henry Jaglom mines for emotional bedrock in the 'Hamptons'

By Richard von Busack

He works without without big-name stars, without scripts, without rehearsal--"If the actors are surprised, then the audience will be surprised." Henry Jaglom has been carving out his own niche in cinema history since the late '60s when he was one of two editors in Easy Rider, persisting ever since as an independent filmmaker.

At the top of his form, as in Can She Bake a Cherry Pie? and Always, he is fresh, and refreshing, in a way few filmmakers can match. In his best works, Jaglom demonstrates some valuable lessons: Movies are like haircuts--the ones that cost the least are the best. Shoot in your back yard with your friends as stars. Independent film doesn't have to be paralyzed with angst, nor does it have to mimic the action movie.

At worst (Eating and Babyfever), Jaglom's films can be almost deadly to watch. The same techniques that sometimes captivate can at other times bore the brains out of you. Even the mention of his name around critics brings up the phrase "self-indulgent" (as meaningless a critique as "exhibitionistic," which, coincidentally, Jaglom has also been called). David Thomson, the smartest film critic currently practicing the unholy trade, sizes up Jaglom well: "Someone would have shot him a long time ago if it was not for his intelligent whimsy and ironic charm."

Reviews of Jaglom's newest, Last Summer in the Hamptons, manifest what I consider the mark of a movie worth seeing: Critics can't tell whether Jaglom's being serious or not. One critic, when I piped up that I enjoyed Last Summer in the Hamptons, replied patronizingly that there was a difference between an enjoyable movie and a good one, and I did know the difference, didn't I? (Nope.)

As the antithesis of boring corporate art, Jaglom persists breezily in an era in which, as critic Jonathan Rosenbaum put it, "the avant-garde doesn't even show up to claim the body," in which Blue in the Face is fraudulently advertised as "the first instant movie" (as if John Cassavetes and Jean-Luc Godard had never been born), and in which the films of Woody Allen and Billy Crystal are getting closer and closer in spirit. Jaglom, making movies to please himself, ends up now and again pleasing an audience without losing a shred of integrity.

Jaglom's 11th film, Last Summer in the Hamptons, is one of his best or, maybe, as he says, just his most accessible. It went over well at the last Toronto Film Festival. "The audiences are loving it," Jaglom says as I interview him and his collaborator, wife and star, Victoria Foyt.

As co-scriptwriter, Foyt gives Jaglom a strong structure to work with. "I love good stories, so I'm responsible for ruining Henry," she jokes. In fact, the frequently abused Jaglom is a little suspicious of the film's better-than-average reception.

"I'm used to a third of the audience liking something I do, a third of them absolutely hating it, and a third of them not sure," he says. "There's a good solid third that really doesn't like my kind of moviemaking, that thinks that filmmaking should not be about the examined life, should not be introspective, and should be distracting entertainment. Those people are going to hate my movies. This one has enough of a narrative apparently even for them. That's why I was most concerned about selling out."

Last Summer in the Hamptons is a study of a theatrical family gathering Labor Day weekend for one last time at a large summer house. The biggest fish in this "barrel full of theatrical eels" is the matriarch, an aged performer (the late Viveca Lindfors) who puts on a play every summer for an assortment of friends, neighbors and family.

Among the guests are a celibate director (André Gregory, of the late Louis Malle's My Dinner With Andre) and a successful but frustrated Hollywood actress (Foyt). This year, the play is Chekhov's The Seagull, but in a sense, the play-behind-the-play is The Cherry Orchard, since the house is about to be sold. The enacting of the drama-within-a-drama sets the stage for a variety of the kind of intimate emotional revelations that have always fascinated Jaglom.

Regular themes in Jaglom's films harmonize in Last Summer at the Hamptons. There is first his fascination with women; he's a great director of them. He also meditates on the craft of acting--studying how actors live and feel, how the same observational qualities that allow them to reproduce human emotion turns on them, makes them constantly wonder what they're thinking when they're thinking, thus driving themselves and everyone around them crazy.

Lindfors plays the kind of elder mentor and catalyst who frequently appears in the director's stories--from Michael Emil, Jaglom's cantankerous real-life relation and star of Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?, to Milos Forman in New Year's Day and Orson Welles in Someone to Love.

As a director, Jaglom is a wonderful fan, and he manifests his fandom in Last Summer at the Hamptons, charting the reminiscences of Lindfors' character watching the real-life Lindfors on TV in old movies from her days at Warner Bros. in the late 1940s. Although the connection isn't conscious, Jaglom says, the character played by Lindfors might reflect on the importance of one particular mentor: Lee Strasberg of the Actor's Studio, where Jaglom spent 10 years.

"Strasberg was the biggest influence of my life," Jaglom says. "The Method [style of acting] is about getting to know yourself as fully as possible, paying attention to what's happening in the present moment. This was hugely important to me as a human being; it opened me up from a rather aggressive and one-dimensional young kid to somebody who for the first time was able to hear about other people's lives and pay attention. Until I was 20, I thought I was the only person who was alive. I thought other people were there to be mirror reflections of me, basically; and suddenly, I heard all of these other lives. I think of my films as Method films."

The Method derives from Stanislavsky, the Russian acting teacher who was director of the Moscow Art Theater, where Chekhov's plays were first performed, and thus Chekhov is a natural subject for Jaglom. It was Welles, after all, who called Jaglom America's most Chekhovian director.

"Chekhov more than any playwright," Jaglom says, "is obsessed with day-to-day minutiae ..."

Foyt finishes his thought, "the subtext of life."

Jaglom continues, "He understood more than any writer, or artist, or painter, contemporary moment-to-moment reality, what that was all about. If Last Summer in the Hamptons is much more structured than some of my other films, the material required it. In Chekhov, events cannot be left to happenstance.

"Victoria would keep saying to me, 'What happens next?' and I would say, 'I don't know; who cares?' The collaborations was fun for me, frustrating for her."

"He was less trusting about it," Foyt adds. "He didn't know if it would work."

"I resisted it," Jaglom continues. "I always feel like it negated the process of filmmaking to have a script to follow too exactly."

"I was too afraid to be in a movie of his without knowing where I was going," Foyt adds. "I just couldn't fly by the seat of my pants, like some very brave actors who have worked for him have done. So the [narrative] structure came out of my need to be able to do my best as an actor."

In one scene, Foyt, at the serious risk of looking ridiculous, demonstrates the Actor's Studio "panther" exercise (in which a performer portrays an animal) with Gregory. It is a typical Jaglom moment showing the border between genius and nuttiness.

"I said, 'Are you crazy?' " Foyt recalls. "I'm not going to expose myself like that. These exercises are meant build a character from an external viewpoint. Though Strasberg's whole Method was from the inside, this exercise was a way of approaching a character from the outside. Then you would gradually make this animal more and more human. This is not for performance--this is preparation. It's like a violinist going up on the concert stage and doing scales. I thought, well, I trust him, he's been right before."

I thought Foyt and Gregory made quite a convincing pair of snarling panthers, but obviously, it was the sort of acting that doesn't play on paper. "When it does work," Foyt replies. "It's fresher than anything else."

That statement fairly sums up Jaglom's style of moviemaking. In Last Summer at the Hamptons, he can be pleased with a fine movie about acting and the knowledge of having caught the last of Lindfors, one of our finest actresses.

Jaglom says, summing up, "[Lindfors] struggled all of her life to get her voice heard, and she fought like hell and never gave it up. She's getting such great response now, even though it's sad she didn't live to see it. I'm enormously happy we captured that spirit on screen. Somehow I have a feeling if it's there on films, it's there forever."


Last Summer in the Hamptons (R; 105 min.), directed by Henry Jaglom, written by Jaglom and Victoria Foyt, photographed by Hanania Baer and starring Viveca Lindfors and Victoria Foyt.

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From the Dec. 7-14, 1995 issue of Metro

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