Henry Jaglom’s films are notoriously loose tapestries made of moments (joy, discomfort, humour, tragedy) woven together with a delicate thematic thread. To borrow a phrase from William Burroughs (in reaction to the work of Canadian novelist David Gilmour), Jaglom’s films are psychologically up-to-the-minute. More often than not, however, a Jaglom film viewed as a whole is less than the sum of its parts.
Not so with his latest, Hollywood Dreams. Here, his career-long desire to wring every drop of truth from a moment converges with a unified, satisfying viewing experience that ranks with the better work of Woody Allen or John Sayles.
The usual Jaglom tics are on display and those averse to his work will not convert after watching Hollywood Dreams. Most obvious (and distracting for some) is the technical ambivalence. At its best, it is reminiscent of the psychological elegance of Robert Altman’s gliding camera. At its worst, it plays like a home video shot by your mildly inebriated octogenarian uncle. The visual meter of the film lurches between silk and P12 sandpaper, but unlike most Jaglom films, it serves a dizzying purpose.
Margie Chizek (Tanna Frederick) is a struggling actress living in Los Angeles. While obsessed with the glamorous trappings of Hollywood’s Golden Era, her hunger for fame is a true product of this century. She aches for the approbation of an audience and hopes that it will fill the hole in her heart. She plays to the weakness and desire of any audience with an instinctual genius that would gladden Machiavelli.
In this regard, she is ripe for celebrity; that manipulation of and receptacle for our dreams. But is she conniving or simple? Guileless or devious? Fragile or tenacious?
As introduced, Margie is a skittish, friable, ten-car pile-up of a human. Once thrown out of her shared apartment for blowing up the microwave, she leaves with all her chiffon and feathered boas in hand. Homeless and out of work, she stumbles across a kind man (Zack Norman) who reveals that he is a producer. Margie responds by hyperventilating and fainting. When the producer kindly offers to buy the starving actress lunch, she tearfully admits that even her collapse was performance. Instead of anger, the producer is impressed and invites her to reside at his mansion amidst his stable of developing talent.
Worries that the simple Margie is walking into a trap dissolve as she meets the producer’s partner Caesar (David Proval), acting/celebrity coach Luna (Karen Black) and Robin, a beautiful young actor on the cusp of the big time (Justin Kirk). The balance of the film unfolds in a Hollywood mansion that is the perfect setting for a cast of characters wrapped in their own delusions and deceptions.
Most notable is the young actor Robin, who is building a career on the unconfirmed but widely held belief that he is gay. It is a gambit that has served him well. Once he meets Margie and all of her whirling passions and neuroses, he falls in love. Only in a film by the ardent feminist Jaglom would a pretty boy feigning homosexuality serve as the romantic ideal. “A woman with a penis” Margie says, describing her fantasy partner.
This leads to Jaglom’s weak spot: his male characters. While all actors deliver good performances, (David Proval of The Sopranos in particular, playing a character recently out and wrestling with his new-found love), Jaglom only seems comfortable creating a world where men exist as female proxies. It is hard to fault him as the masculine sensibility is over-served, within and without the studio system. Yet it remains a blind spot in Jaglom’s work, a complication he avoids that might enrich his films if diligently investigated.
Across the board, all characters are full of life and contradiction, approaching the multi-protagonist richness of Hannah and Her Sisters or Lonestar. Zack Norman draws a heartfelt yet satirical portrait of West Coast Zen calm. Karen Black portrays a loopy, scattered intensity best signified by the electric-shock frizz of her hair. She also delivers the film’s funniest line when flirting with an acting coach from the loathsome East Coast. “I could never fall in love with you because you’re not from LA,” she says, eyes rolling independently of each other over the rim of a wineglass. There isn’t a better encapsulation of Hollywood insulation in the entire corpus of Dominick Dunne.
While the film is rich in supporting characters, this is undeniably the Margie Chizek show. The complexity of the character demands it and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
It is early in a career to talk about a defining performance, but Tanna Frederick inhabits Margie Chizek in all of her wobbly contradictions. She shifts between pathetic, endearing and contemptible often within the same scene. It is a mesmerizing performance reminiscent (and I don’t say this lightly) of Harvey Keitel’s in Bad Lieutenant. Frederick’s acting contains the same breathtaking promise of detonation and inevitable scatter of shrapnel that is difficult to watch yet impossible to ignore.
As embodied by Frederick, Margie’s fragility makes her a prime candidate for tragedy. However, just when it looks like she’s charging toward a pathos-fuelled collision of reality and fantasy echoing The Purple Rose of Cairo, Jaglom pulls together the threads together for an ending that surprises and confounds, but ultimately makes sense.
You can live in a dream world, Jaglom seems to say, provided you’re in a city that feeds on dreams.