A Safe Place (1971, Henry Jaglom)
If the BBS line of films, which went from the late 60s into the early 70s, consisted of artistic works exploring the oft overlooked aspects of American society and culture, then they would have been remiss not to have at least one movie offer a female perspective. Sure enough, several of the previous films in the marathon, which is operating in chronological order of their theatrical releases, have offered some significant female characters, but never at the very core of a story. Sometimes close, but never quite there. Along came Henry Jaglom in 1971, a man whose career concentrated predominantly on theatre, who was (and still is) keenly interested on the woman's perspective of life in general and what the woman's version of humanity's endless struggle to find its own place in the world is like. On case some perceive it as presumptuous for a man to have made such an attempt, it should be noted that on the Criterion Blu-ray supplements, the director reveals that several film and genre study professors have shown A Safe Place to classes of women, without telling them who had made the picture. They usually love it and are shocked to learn afterwards of the director's gender.
A Safe Place follows a young adult New Yorker, Noah (Tuesday Weld), who, as far as the film reveals, is a figure of especial solitude despite depicting her in a Manhattan apartment with plenty of other people who seem to be operating a sort of clothing style workshop. Her fascination frequently turns to Central Park, where a friendly, whimsical magician (Orson Welles) performs simple tricks for apparently only her, all the while speaking of strange tales and quirky philosophies. This appears to be the sort of individual Noah herself is, not does exactly behave as a full adult during every waking moment either. Rather, her admiration for oddities and strangely inquisitive nature denote a child-like nature, an outlook on the world which harkens back to an innocence virtually all people lose when developing into adulthood. Her world changes, perhaps for the better and perhaps for the worse, when Fred (Philip Proctor) enters her life. He is smitten by her charm and gorgeous looks, but soon realizes that life with Noah is not always as simple as it could be, such as when she speaks of a time, in her childhood, when she showed her brother she could literally fly... Then there is Mitch (Jack Nicholson), a former lover, who returns out of the blue, adding further layers of confusion to who exactly Noah is.
While the previous BBS films exposed a more ambiguously mature side to Americana, engaging audiences with stories whose moral were far murkier than what many were accustomed to at the time, director Henry Jaglom deliberately goes the extra mile for A Safe Place. Not merely satisfied with deconstructing typical film themes, he opts to turn traditional narrative inside out, blending past and present together via intricate edits. On several occasions in A Safe Place is is a fusion of moments foreshadowing what is to come with visions of Noah's recent past. Jaglom is, for lack of a better description, building his picture with the use of a cinematic language unto its own. For those who thought Easy Rider was experimental, which it was in many ways, they have another thing coming should they choose to give Jaglom's directorial debut a try. The experimentation pays off in most instances, although people reading this article should be forewarned that a few minutes are required to grow accustomed to the director's idiosyncratic way of presenting ideas, character beats and, above all, the flux of emotions Noah, or Susan as the Central Park magician calls her, experiences at any given moment of the movie. The only issue plaguing the film with regards to Jaglom's insistence on having the editing play such a staunchly influential role is that is does come off as overdone at times. Sometimes, resting on Noah's precious face as she reacts or provokes is all the is required of a scene to get the essentials across, but Jaglom often disagrees, preferring to send the viewer elsewhere, to another moment of that same day (or another day for all that is known). What it boils down to is that the filmmaking seems occasionally too frantic, too obsessed with doing things differently. On the flip side, Jaglom's audaciousness does lend itself to some emotional truth. Whenever he cuts to a reaction shot filmed at a different time and at a different place, it might be because that was the best shot of Tuesday Weld, regardless of the fact that is does not respect spatial and time contexts of a given scene. Additionally, the technique reinforces the notion that Noah is driven by an awkwardly constructed, unpredictable personality. The film never overtly explains who she is, where she comes from, the only assistance provided to the viewer being the many fragments of her personality, hence the very fragmented editing style. Again, it does prove effective on the whole, although some might become weary from restlessness after a while.
Much discussion of the director's strategy at presenting Noah, yet few words have been written to elucidate readers on this strange character at the film's center. There really is no 'correct' path to choose from in dissecting just who the protagonist is, which speaks to A Safe Place's desire to have the viewer stroll along for about 90 minutes, provide some fascinating content, but never reveal a punchline. It is an observation of a character in the purest and the most natural sense possible, which admittedly sounds contradictory when placed against the notion of how Jaglom's visual style dictates the picture, but it is true. Just as in real life, a person, when discovering somebody new, cannot possible know everything about them in 90 minutes. One can uncover some details, many which may or may not be directly related, but if we never see that person again, then that is all we have to base ourselves on, which is essentially how A Safe Place functions in the process of studying Noah.
Noah consistently refers to childhood memories, to specific qualities of her brother and father in particular. As previously stated, there is also her reminiscing of the days when she could supposedly float in the air. Lastly, the scenes which see her interact with Welles' magician do little to hide the fact that Noah, despite being played by Tuesday Weld in such instances, is very much a child, hence one can deduce that these sequences represent flashbacks of sort. All throughout the picture Noah comports herself with mannerisms fit for a kid. Has the hustle and tussle, the aimlessness, the disappointment of adult life warned her not to go any further, but rather, to revert back to a previous stage in her life? To what degree is she consciously behaving like this? Given all the evidence at one's disposal, it can be inferred she Noah is on a personal quest to evade the troubles of her life by simple not acknowledging her age and, in one of the film's more peculiar moves, by trying to 'fly away.' That is, however, but one interpretation among many possibilities. What just might be the film's most extraordinary aspect, even more inspiring than any trickery director Jaglom may try to throw at the viewer, is Tuesday Weld herself. It is hard to deny that her character is strange to say the least, someone with whom many will undoubtedly have difficulty adjusting to, maybe even have difficulty caring for. Weld gives a superb performance, highlighting some terrific emotional beats when they are least expected. There is an brutal honesty to many of her scenes which work smoothly.
A Safe Place is without a doubt the most difficult film to assess in the BBS marathon so far. Whereas Head, as fun and intricately strange as it is, threw a lot of political and cultural messages at the viewer, A Safe Place takes a hard, cutting edge look at one individual's very emotional journey to freedom. Just as Noah embarks on her quest to fly away, so does the aesthetics of the film fly away from traditional cinema language. It is an experience, that much is sure. Not necessarily an easily comprehensible one, but one well worth at least a look.