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SCENES FROM A LIFE DIRECTOR HENRY JAGLOM DRAWS FROM HIS OWN TRIBULATIONS TO MAKE ART OF THE HIGHEST DARK HUMOR

WHEN HENRY Jaglom's marriage to actress Patrice Townsend broke up, he "couldn't function for a year." So he said, anyway, on the telephone in 1984 when "Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?" was released. It got so bad, he said, that he walked the streets of New York crying and talking to himself.

"I once found myself lying on the floor, incapable of moving. I assure you there was nothing funny about it, but if you'd put a camera on me, it would have been hilarious."

Exactly. Consider that the cinematic art of Henry Jaglom in a nutshell.

In his blubbering, lachrymose broken-marriage state, Jaglom the Morose ran into actress Karen Black on the street. She asked what was wrong. He told her. Then he said, "Let's do a movie in which you play me." (They did. That's "Cherry Pie.")

Wait. It gets better.

Once their marriage had been nicely and irrevocably sundered, Jaglom got ex-wife Townsend to co-star with him in "Always," my favorite Jaglom film (and not to be confused in any way with the corn syrup Steven Spielberg fantasy of the same name).

Jaglom and Townsend play an estranged husband and wife who meet at their old house to sign their final divorce papers. If you have Jaglom's modus operandi by now, you know that, yes, indeed, they made the film in Jaglom's and Townsend's old house.

Husband asks estranged wife to stay for dinner. She consents, for old times' sake. He accidentally serves her a piece of tainted fish.

While her stay is therefore extended longer than expected while she purges (literally) and recovers, the house fills with family and friends, all undergoing the anxieties, hypocrisies and emotional tumults of love and desire in the late 20th century.

All of that is Henry Jaglom's subject -- that, and blithering neurotic losers with the infuriating habit of talking too much about everything under the sun, but most especially themselves.

I've said it before and I don't see any reason not to say it again: If Woody Allen weren't the author of the smartest and best-crafted gag lines in the Western Hemisphere and had a real heart instead of a library card, he might have become Henry Jaglom. So might John Cassavetes if he'd been romantically shot down more often.

The denizens of Jaglom's films are the walking wounded -- outpatients and veterans of urban occupational and romantic wars who scour the earth looking for revenge, a new connection or just some reason to stop blubbering out their souls to everyone in sight.

There at the harbors of anxiety and misery stands Henry Jaglom, saying, "Give me your tired, your horny, your huddled masses yearning to make an impression."

You've met Jaglom's people at parties, believe me. They're the ones who propound so many theories about masturbation that those theories almost seem to be another form of it (see "Tracks" and "Sitting Ducks"). They're the ones who talk endlessly about chocolate as a substitute for love ("Always"). They're the ones who lay siege to attractive women by pouring salt into their most recent emotional wounds ("New Year's Day," "Always," "Cherry Pie").

It goes without saying they're the ones who repeatedly violate one of Nelson Algren's inviolate laws: "Never make love to someone whose troubles are worse than your own." (Algren's other laws of adult behavior are: (1) Never play poker with a man named Doc, and (2) Never eat at a place called Mom's.)

Jaglom's films are not for everyone, granted. They will bore you, annoy you and, quite possibly, delight you. Some of them ("Always," "New Year's Day," "Cherry Pie") can even wear you down enough to move you.

I love them. I'm certainly not alone, either. Orson Welles was an old friend of Jaglom's, and his image serves now as Jaglom's logo. Andre Gregory, of "My Dinner With Andre," frequently shows up in his films to discourse on something or other. In "New Year's Day," one quick role is played by David Letterman's producer, Robert Morton.

Three Jaglom films are coming out in a clump on videotape to join the rest of his work: "Tracks," with a remarkable performance by Dennis Hopper as a Vietnam vet going mad; "Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?," in which Karen Black sniffles and plucks and obsesses her way through emotional ruin, and "New Year's Day," in which Jaglom moves into an apartment and discovers that the three young women tenants still there are having a last social fling. (Naturally, of course, he lays siege to the most attractive, intelligent and vulnerable, barely missing success but making a much longer, more promising and sweeter connection.)

Of them all, "Tracks" is, without question, the most fascinating. It is the Jaglom film in which you can see him abandoning all pretense of being one kind of filmmaker while turning into another.

The finale of the film -- with its dark, angry hallucinations and final revelation of madness -- should have been a film directed by its star, Dennis Hopper, not Jaglom. Jaglom has no business making a melodrama, especially not one with that dreadful and vicious dramatic cliche, the killer Vietnam vet.

It is in the beginning of "Tracks" -- with a Vietnam vet encountering a train full of lovely, vulnerable women, buffoons and head cases -- that you can see Jaglom in the act of finding himself as a filmmaker.

He has no business prowling the world's nastier pathologies. Drama isn't his subject -- yearning and idiocy is. The longeurs, inanities, blunderings and hilarities of life's club cars and sleeping quarters are where he belongs.

Extension is his method. He writes a scene and then lets his actors extend the written script with improv. And then, often, he'll just use the improv. That's how he gets that priceless and individual sense of people whining and saying far more than they should.

Enjoy them. That's what they're there for.

Sitting Ducks, 1980, 90 minutes, rated R, Media (available)
Always, 1985, 105 minutes, rated R, Vestron (Vestron Video went bankrupt, so only rental copies and used sale copies are available)
Tracks, 1976, 90 minutes, rated R, Paramount Home Video (available very soon)
New Year's Day, 1989, 90 minutes, rated R, Paramount Home Video (available very soon)
Can She Bake a Cherry Pie? 1984, 90 minutes, rated R, Paramount Home Video (available very soon)

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