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Articles

Past Article

The Unflappable Henry Jaglom
By Caveh Zahedi
December 5, 2004 - 11:55 PM PST


"The truth is messy."

Chapter 6 - In which the definition of the word "ego" causes further friction.

Caveh: Here's a more abstract question.

Jaglom: Any question's okay.

Caveh: Okay. I want to talk about ego.

Jaglom: [laughs] I like the introduction.

Caveh: Some people don't like your films because they feel like there's a lot of ego in them.

Jaglom: Yeah, especially the autobiographical ones.

Caveh: Exactly. That period.

Jaglom: Especially Venice/Venice. Rocky Mountain News had a headline: "Jaglom on Jaglom Again. Who Cares?"

Caveh: [laughs] Well, I'm interested in this question because I get this all the time with my films. And yet, I have the same reaction to your films. Something about them really bothers me. But, at the same time, what I like about your films is they're so messy in terms of the human component, and they're so embarrassing. But there is a lot of ego in them.

Jaglom: Sure.

Caveh: So I just wondered if you feel like that's a problem with them or if you feel ego is just part of the human condition and should therefore be included in the film?

Jaglom: I think it should be included in the film. I'm very vain about my films. Like I am doing tonight, I keep editing a film until satisfied. The final result is always - like it or hate it - my film, frame for frame, what I want to do. So I am very pleased with what I do. So if the films are messy, they're that way because I want them to be. If they're egocentric, it's because I want them to be. But I think it's no longer about me, I've put away the autobiographical focus, so I don't feel like that's true anymore. I am trying to deal with the issue of the film. Eating is certainly not an egocentric film.

Caveh: No, not at all.

Jaglom: The issue of the film isn't my issue. It's the issue of the women around me in my life. The same is true with Going Shopping.

Caveh: But with Eating, even though it's not about your ego, one could argue that it's very much about the women's egos.

Jaglom: Well, all my films. Yes, that is a stupid criticism a lot of people have put out, which is that everybody is narcissistic and egocentric in my films. But the truth is that everybody thinks about themselves and when people are dealing with issues from their own point of view, if they're honest, they're reflecting that. And people are not used to seeing that as boldly or openly expressed. And if my characters are self-involved, which is the basic criticism, it's because we're all self involved, and people just aren't comfortable admitting that. When you go behind closed doors, everybody thinks about whether they're happy or not, whether their life is what it should be, and whether they've got issues or problems worth solving. My goal is to make people feel less crazy about what they're going through. To give them permission as much as possible to feel it's okay to be self-involved, to know that whatever your problems are, you're not alone, there's other people who have them, and it's part of the human condition.

Caveh: I agree with what you're saying completely, I'm just wondering - do you feel that the ego is a problem that one should try to transcend or is it something you embrace?

Jaglom: I embrace it completely. I don't think there's anything problematic about acknowledging ego. If you look at a little child - I have two little children - there is nobody more egocentric than children. And they learn slowly to hide it and cover it up. And it doesn't mean that you don't develop empathy or caring about other people. That's one of the things I like most about Venice/Venice, I go into what I call "good narcissism" as opposed to "bad narcissism." Narcissism that allows you to start with yourself and then embrace others, rather than pretending you're not self-involved and that you're only empathetic to others. I don't think there's anyone on the planet that's true of, including Mother Theresa.

Caveh: I'm with you here. I am just trying to understand something for myself really. There is something in some art that can be very elevating. You watch it and you feel attuned to your higher nature.

Jaglom: Well, that is not what elevating necessarily is - tuning into your higher nature. If it clearly reflects the human condition, like a Picasso. A Picasso doesn't appeal to your higher nature, it tells you the truth about human beings. I think art is about telling the truth about human beings, not appealing to one's higher nature. That's religion.

Caveh: Yeah, I guess it is religion.

Jaglom: Well, I'm not a religious person.

Caveh: Okay, then you've answered my question. [both laugh]

Chapter 7 - In which I admit to having mixed feelings about Jaglom's films.

Caveh: You know, I have such mixed feelings about your films. There are things that really bug me in most of them, but there are also things that I just love. Like in Eating.

Jaglom: What bugs you in Eating? The self-involvement of the women in there?

Caveh: That bugs me a little - but I appreciate what you're doing. What bugs me is a certain unattractiveness to the women...

Jaglom: Yeah, showing that. Well, see, I was attacked by a certain kind of feminist. Gloria Steinem warned me about this. Certain feminists would attack me because they think you're not supposed to show all the flaws. You're not supposed to show, like you correctly said, the unattractivenss - the neediness, the desperation, the fragility, the f**ked-up-ness. The point is, they think you're supposed to show how to get out of it. Well, I don't know how - nobody knows how to get out of it. I think the truth is to show people an accurate reflection of themselves and to make them less isolated, and less nuts. So to me it's about showing warts and all. I think I did that with myself in my own movies.

Caveh:Yeah, they are very warty.

Jaglom: [laughs] Very warty. And Orson [Welles] even warned me on my first one, on Always. He said "My God, all this baby talk with your wife, people are going to go crazy, it's really going to offend a lot of people." I said "I know, but this is who I am. This pathetic, needy creature." And what am I going to do, try to show myself to be something else? Or make a joke of it like Woody Allen and try to be sort of ironic and intellectual about it? It just doesn't make sense to me, I just want to try to tell the truth. And you know, I swear to God, whatever you think, that is my motivation. The truth is messy, and in many ways unattractive. Many aspects of human behavior, my own certainly included, are unattractive, and I try not to cover that up for myself or for the characters in my movies. And there are women, politically-oriented women, who think that you're not supposed to do that. And you're supposed to just show, like in terms of Eating - you saw the documentary about me, right?

Caveh: Yeah.

Jaglom: They found some woman at a football game who started screaming "He hates women." There are women who think because it shows unattractive behavior - but every woman I know will tell you, privately, or admit it if they're that way inclined, that that is the way women are when they're alone with each other. They behave that way, and I'm just showing this behavior. I didn't make it up!

Caveh: You know what it is? It's like, I feel sometimes embarrassed about being part of the human race.

Jaglom: Sure. But we're f**king pathetic creatures.

Caveh: I know but that's the part that is always hard in your films, the part that makes you feel the mediocrity of existence.

Jaglom: I totally understand that. And what is really nice about you is you're acknowledging that. A lot of people will, instead of acknowledging it, just get pissed off. Because they'll pretend that they're not like that, it's these people in this movie that are like that, and that's wrong, that's bullshit because we're not like that. Yes, it is unattractive, it is messy, and it is pathetic. It's also sweet and human. And as long as you don't hurt other people... The sweetness for me is that people are just sweet in their pathetic-ness. I've always tried to make people feel it's okay to feel as pathetic as we really feel, not to try to pose ourselves as some kind of heroic creatures though we may occasionally be capable of heroic acts. The Firesign Theatre had a record out in the seventies called "We Are All Bozos On This Bus." For me, that's what making all my films is about. We are all Bozos on the same weird journey, the world.

Caveh: You are very accepting, much more than most people are.

Jaglom: I am accepting, and I know it alienates other people. And again, what's interesting is that it alienates men more than women. Because women are much more accepting - even though they are self-critical as hell, they're much more understanding of human fragility. Men are still pretending. They're taught to pretend - "Be a big boy," "Be strong," "Don't go there."

Caveh: That scene with Gwen Welles in the bathroom is an amazing scene.

Jaglom: But now look, Gwen Welles was one of my closest friends, was a bulimic, did throw up, and was willing - you know how brave that is to show that in a film? She wasn't playing a bulimic. Nobody in Eating is playing. Gwen got me a lot of women from Overeaters Anonymous. And none of them pretend to be anorexic who aren't - they talk about themselves. And they are just so brave. That's why I love people from organizations like AA or OA because they've learned the truth is you get up and tell it, you don't try to hide it. You expose it. You don't feel ashamed of it. You have to embrace who you are. Gwen is a great example. She was my favorite actress for that reason.

Caveh: She was great in that film.

Jaglom: She's amazing. She was amazing when she was sixteen in A Safe Place.

Caveh: But when she does that thing about "I'm a bitch." That's not her, right?

Jaglom: That is her, yes. A lot of my women friends in real life hated Gwen. She could be an incredible bitch. And she was also a sweet, sweet girl. And she just wasn't scared to show it. And that is what I look for in my actors. I really look for people who are brave about themselves, about revealing the unattractive aspects of themselves as well as whatever is easy to reveal. That's great that you singled Gwen out, because to me she was exemplary. She exemplified the kind of work I try to do.

Chapter 8 - In which the meaning of life is addressed.

Caveh: What's your ultimate unfulfilled life goal?

Jaglom: John Richardson, a critic from Premiere, said that I don't want anything more or less than to capture contemporary reality itself. That's really my goal and each one of my films is a chapter in some big film novel that I am trying to write. So it's just to make as many chapters as I can before I become too feeble to be able to do it. Just to keep making the films as truthfully as I can. And try to reflect the time we live in, and my culture, as honestly and as accurately as I possibly can. And especially for women, since I consider women so misrepresented on film by Hollywood, and so overlooked, so fantasized about by the sort of sixteen-year-old adolescent mind that runs Hollywood. My job is to try to tell women the truth about their own lives in film, and try to represent that truth back to them so they see themselves on film. As corny as this sounds, I want to make people feel less crazy about themselves, less alone, less like they're nuts - and more that it's okay. We're all going through this thing together somehow and it's okay. Not to worry about people telling you that you are too self-involved, or you shouldn't have this eating issue because people are starving in China. Whatever the subject is, it's important to let people know they are okay and that they should not, in addition to whatever problems that they have, feel guilt about those problems. It's part of who we all are. I just really honestly want to try to communicate that and to keep communicating that. That's my goal.

Post-Script - our subsequent e-mail correspondence

[Caveh: After our conversation ended, I was inspired to send Henry Jaglom an e-mail. Here is what I wrote:]

Dear Henry,

Thanks for taking the time to answer all my questions, but mostly thanks for being open and honest. I was a bit worried about offending you during the interview, and didn't realize until the end that I could be much more honest than I was. So for the sake of greater honesty, I would like to say a couple more things. First, I was kind of disappointed by your DVD commentary for Eating. I felt that you often simply reiterated (or worse, simply described) a lot of the things that had already been shown or said in the film. I would have loved to know more about the making of the film, scene to scene. I would therefore like to cast my vote for a more pre-planned and filmmaking-oriented DVD commentary for your next film. I've done a couple of DVD commentaries for my own films, and I know it's a really hard thing to do, but I think it's important. Secondly, I've had a very ambivalent relationship with your work mostly because it's really astonishingly similar to my own films, but different enough that it occasionally rubs me the wrong way - in the way that only something very close to one's own concerns can do. You make certain choices which are radically different than the choices I would make, which often causes a kind of aversion, but the essential similarity in terms of project and shared assumptions is really rather astonishing. I kind of wish I had talked to you more about these specific choices, but again, I was worried about being too critical in an interview meant primarily to promote your DVD release. But the differences are really far less striking than the uncanny similarities. For instance, my first feature film was a re-enactment of a crush I'd had on an art student in which all of the actual people played themselves. And I've been accused of all of the same things that you get accused of.

Anyway, it was a pleasure and an honor to talk with you, and I look forward to continuing the dialogue over the coming years.

With sincere best wishes,

Caveh

P.S. My question about "trying to communicate" vs. "self-expression" was really a question about editing. What do you do when you think a shot is hilarious, and then you have a test screening and no one else sees what you think is so funny, but they all think some other moment which you hate is hilarious? Do you just ignore them, as I have often done, or do you chalk it up to a loss of perspective and listen to other people? I find this a maddening issue, and really am interested in what you have to say about this. I don't think I'm always right about what I think is funny, or moving, or effective. But I'm certainly not interested in making a film by committee either. Any thoughts?

Henry wrote back:

I screen my movies dozens of times in Rough Cut form and ask everyone invited to tell me every response they have, especially negative, to make sure they understand my intention, not that they necessarily like my expression of it - but I am influence by them in terms of comedy, I admit, and have changed things to get the laugh I want sometimes. But on Tracks there was a scene that I kept in through 12 screenings because it always got a huge laugh until I finally and painfully took it out because it was fake and cheap and I couldn't stand it being there, despite everyone loving it.

Hope that anwers your question. It was fun talking with you and I never mind criticism or negative comments. Orson was always amazed because I carried around bad reviews that I loved - like People Magazine saying of one of my films, "If this were a horse I'd shoot it!"

[To which I replied:]

Dear Henry,

Thanks. One more question about ego: isn't art that is more egoless better than art that has a lot of ego? In the same way that people with a lot of ego can be annoying and unpleasant to talk to, and people with less ego are more pleasurable to talk to? I guess I believe that egolessness is one of the criteria of good art. Which is why I find your films a bit confounding. Because there's something really interesting about the ego that is in them, and yet I can't help feeling that this element diminishes the artistic element. I appreciate the embrace of ego (we're all human, after all), but I guess I believe in striving to overcome ego, both in life and in art.

I watched Deja Vu last night and I really liked it. I really appreciate what you're saying. But again, I'm always a bit bothered by the lack of attention to form - you seem to have very little interest in the language of cinema, which I guess is really the main thing that keeps me from fully embracing your work. Do you disagree with this, or is form just not something that interests you? And isn't art about form?

Sincerely,

Caveh

To which he replied:

So silly - who had bigger egos than Orson Welles, or Picasso, or Arthur Miller, or Fellini, or any important artist you can mention? Egolessness may be nice for spiritual guides, but those who accomplish significant things have always had the biggest egos imaginable, how else could they overcome the odds against anyone doing anything and getting it seen? This is so commonly understood that artists are excused all sorts of thiings and behaviour that others would be taken to task for. Surely you must know this? Read some autobiographies or biographies of artists you admire and you won't find a modest or egoless one among them.

To which I replied:

Dear Henry,

Thanks for responding, but I still feel like I'm not making myself understood. Maybe I mean something different by the word "ego" than you do. I would argue, for instance, that Fellini most definitely did not have a big ego, in the sense that I'm talking about. And I don't mean a lack of modesty, or of self-importance. I guess I mean a kind of insensitivity to the other - a kind of not-seeing. I think women are generally more egoless than men, in this sense of the term.

As for form, and the "language" of cinema thing, there are people who write well (to use an analogy) and people who don't. And those who write well are more attentive to the form and to the history of what they're writing than those who don't. Flaubert comes to mind here as a supreme example, or Joyce. In film, Kubrick, let's say, pays more attention to form than Ron Howard. His films are better. And Tarkovsky pays more attention to the language of cinema (which is to say he thinks about it more deeply) than, say, Richard Donner. And the DVD commentary of Eating, is, I'm afraid, not as good as it would have been if you had put more thought and attention into it. Which is all I'm talking about - the quantity and the quality of the thought that goes into each artistic decision.

I am interested in spirituality, it's true, and I honestly believe that spirituality is not unrelated to art.

I like you Henry, and I would like to be your friend, but you're being a bit condescending here. I feel you're assuming a lack of reflection on my part which is simply not the case. I may see things differently, which is part of why I'm interested in having a dialogue with you, but you seem utterly uninterested in exploring that difference, which is fine if that's how you feel. I feel this would be a lot simpler if you saw one of my films - it might clarify where I'm coming from - but I don't expect you to have the time or the inclination to watch one. Maybe some day.

In any case, I remain open to further discussion, and to further friendship.

Best,
Caveh

To which he replied:

I AM NOT condescending, I have answered you as best as I can, several times, but if you perceive my answers as condescending because they firmly disagree with you and all your examples, I would suggest - no doubt arrogantly in your opinion - that THAT explains this disagreement about what is or isn't ego. I don't have any understanding at all of what you are talking about in all this or about form or Ron Howard or Fellini and I don't think we are going to understand one another and I have no intention of tiptoeing around my answers to you so you won't find me suffused with ego and condescension.

To which I answered:

Dear Henry,

Thanks for that reply. I appreciate it. I guess my feelings were hurt by what I perceived as the tone of the previous letter, but I'm fine now. And of course, I don't want you to tiptoe around your answers, so please continue to be yourself. But just so you know, it wasn't because your answers disagreed with what I believed that I felt condescended to. That I have no problem with. It was the line in which you encouraged me to read autobiographies or biographies of artists. I felt that implied a perception of me as ignorant about art and the history of art, whereas I have in fact read a lot of autobiographies and biographies of artists. Also, the line "SO silly" felt a bit condescending (this may be an e-mail thing as opposed to a phone thing), but I think I'm getting a better sense of where you're coming from.

In any case, I continue to wish you luck with the new film and all future films, I continue to look forward to crossing paths in the future, and I again thank you for your frank and speedy reply.

Best,

Caveh

To which he replied:

Good...thanks for this response...I'm glad that's settled... I really like your enthusiam and your passion and there is no reason people have to agree on any of these things, just to feel passionately about them and about the work, which both of us clearly do.

back to past articles >>>



Index
"I don't try to appeal to the other 90 percent."
"The truth is messy."

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Caveh Zahedi
As an actor, Caveh Zahedi has appeared in films by Alexander Payne and Richard Linklater, and of course, in his own unique and highly personal films. Heartily recommended: His own site and Craig Phillips's interview with Zahedi in May 2004. His new film, I am a Sex Addict, premieres at the Tribecca Film Festival this Spring.

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