Shopping With Henry Jaglom

The filmmaker is genuinely interested in women. But sometimes it feels too voyeuristic.

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Have you heard of the filmmaker, Henry Jaglom? He’s not well known because he wouldn’t appeal to that large demographic, the teenage boy, for whom most movies are made nowadays. I myself am conflicted about Jaglom. Is he a genius or a jerk? And are these categories mutually exclusive? A thought to be pondered.

Henry Jaglom is one of those quirky filmmakers who seems to have forged a career without ever developing a profile. He began, as far as I can see, by knowing some of the right people. The Internet Movie Database states that “he was a frequent escort of Natalie Wood.” He befriended Orson Welles toward the end of his life and snagged that legendary figure for a movie (Someone to Love, 1987). This must have gone some way to establishing his artistic credentials.

Jaglom’s distinctive style was forged in three `80s films: Always (1985), Someone to Love (1987), and New Year’s Day (1989), which chronicle the break-up of his first marriage and subsequent search for love and companionship. In these and other films of this period, Jaglom attempted the triple feat of the aspiring auteur: He wrote, directed, and cast himself in the lead. That last act of narcissism was a mistake for reasons too numerous to go into; not the least among them was getting himself dubbed, by some critics, “The West Coast Woody Allen.” Once Jaglom began to stay behind the camera, his films improved markedly (compare the 1992 Venice/ Venice with the 2001 Festival in Cannes, a similar movie but a much better one in which he remains blessedly off screen).

Jaglom’s hallmark approach is to assemble a group of women — friends mixed with wives and/or girlfriends of the moment — and provide them with a subject and a loose, fictional narrative on which to improvise. One thing must be said for Jaglom: He is genuinely interested in women. He loves them young and old, tall and short, boney and pudgy. He loves the way they dress and talk, and, most of all, he loves their dependencies and compulsions.

Which brings me to the film that pertains to this column, 2005’s Going Shopping. This film is the third in a Jaglom trilogy on female neurotic desire that includes the 1990’s Eating and the 1994’s Babyfever. As with the two earlier films, Going Shopping has a flimsy plot line: A dress designer and boutique owner, played by Jaglom’s current wife, Victoria Foyt (an attractive dame d’une certaine age), wants to keep her exclusive clothing store afloat after her boyfriend squanders her money. She holds a sale and invites all her friends, and in the course of these proceedings, meets and falls for a new man, played by Rob Morrow. Morrow has diminished in cuteness since his stint as the New York doctor banished to Alaska in Northern Exposure. Fortunately, this doesn’t matter, since his role is perfunctory. The focus of the film is on Foyt and her friends as they engage in a series of conversations and monologues about why they shop.

Jaglom has hit on the idea that shopping is a female quest-narrative, and the statements that his cast members make to the camera are pungent and revelatory. Some express how they feel when they find a garment they love: a joy as pure as any music aficionado acquiring a wonderful CD, or any art lover stumbling upon a great painting. By the same token, these women also harbor great wells of existential angst. They confess that shopping reflects their need to fill an emotional and possibly spiritual void.

As interesting and often true as I found Jaglom’s treatment of this topic, his film — like others before them — made me uneasy. I realized that Jaglom views women much as women view shopping. They are his quest-narrative. He is looking for something in them, some revelation about their nature and needs that will assuage his own anxiety, much as his characters are looking for the same thing when they hunt for the essential handbag or pair of shoes. The difference is that they are focused on things; he, on people. I am reminded of Freud’s famous question: “What do Women Want?” Jaglom has devoted his career to seeking the answer, and, in doing so, he inevitably fetishizes women, the way women often fetishize handbags and shoes. There is a creepy quality to his camera’s gaze, and a tendency to go too far in trying to make his points. In one scene in Going Shopping, the women in the boutique are shown wildly waving their credit cards, crowding and elbowing each other with maniacal fervor in their effort to make a purchase. Jaglom wants to convey the fierce, acquisitive spirit and competitive delight that women have in shopping, but the scene tips over into condescension and caricature. I’ve seen women go a little crazy at a chain store sale but not in an exclusive boutique. The scene rings wrong.

It’s a misstep that doesn’t invalidate the movie, but still makes you pause to consider what it is about Jaglom’s films that is vaguely distasteful. I like the affection that he has for women’s bodies, even when they sag. But there is also something of the voyeuristic leer to his camera’s gaze, though it’s not the typical leer that only cares for perfect, airbrushed bodies — it’s an anthropological voyeurism.

This raises the larger question of how far it is possible to explore the so-called “Other” without demeaning the subject of study. Does the outsider position give perspective or does it lead to objectification — the sense that one is peering through the bars of the cage at the creatures inside? Documentary filmmakers have been debating this question for decades — and it goes back to questions raised about early-20th-century ethnographers like Margaret Mead. I don’t know the answer. Jaglom looks at women so obsessively because they are Other to him; he wants to understand them but feels condemned — but also, I sense, glad — to be different.

To put this another way, Jaglom’s fascination with women as Other is what fuels his work and also what limits it. In the throes of his curiosity, he’s forgotten that he’s not really so different from what he’s looking at. But, then, if he acknowledged this, he’d have nothing to make movies about. • 12 December 2007

 

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.

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