Criterion Cuts – The BBS Summer 5: “A Safe Place”

Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.

Talking about Criterion’s BBS box set has been an interesting experience. While all of the movies have varying degrees of merit on their own, it’s as a whole collection that they work best, an examination of a very short, intense period of film making that in many ways was a microcosm of the entire decade that was going to unfold around them. As always, I encourage everyone to check out the history lesson provided with the first piece for context, but it’s impossible to talk about these mid-period films outside of the greater context of BBS Productions’ output, because they wouldn’t exist without it.

With the relative success of Jack Nicholson in both Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, even the directorial non-event of Drive, He Said did little to diminish his brand when he was in front of the camera. So getting him into a movie would at least mean there’s a market, even when said film comes from a first-time filmmaker who is adapting an already less-than-mainstream stage production to film, as is the case with today’s movie. When that director also talks the late, great Orson Welles into showing up? Well, you know you’re in for something magical. Maybe not good, but certainly magical. Welles doesn’t show up (on the cheap, anyway) for nothing.

A Safe Place (1971)

I’m going to be honest with you: I’m not sure I have anything to say about A Safe Place. Considering I wrote my first Criterion piece on a movie that was nothing more than shots of a hotel, that’s kind of staggering to contemplate, that I might just be completely brought up short by a movie that still has a plot and characters. But I’ve been literally putting off this article for three weeks now because I simply didn’t want to have anything to do with trying to put my conflicted feelings about A Safe Place down in something resembling a formal way.

The movie itself is about a woman named Susan, who sometimes goes by Noah, who lives in New York City in some sort of hippie commune space, where her and other free-spirited individuals crack in an apartment that seems to be little more than colorful fabrics and pillows everywhere for people to lounge on as they go about their business in various flights from sobriety. She lives here spending her time lost in memories, thinking of a concept of her father that haunts her waking moments, a figure that appears in her mind as a magician (Orson Welles) who for all his tricks offers her nothing but disappointment, memories of a life of glamour unfulfilled.

Orson Welles doing magic. There doesn’t need to be reasons for this. That was his whole career by this point.

At the same time she’s juggling two boyfriends, a good-natured but boringly dopey fellow named Fred (Phil Proctor) who she’s with mostly out of inertia and the much more aggressive and interesting Mitch (Jack Nicholson), who drifts in and out of her life with the allure of a bad boy who might not treat her well, but at least has something interesting to recommend him beyond sweet but hopeless Fred. As one might expect, the world being unfair to the Freds of the world, Susan ends up dumping her for Mitch at the first opportunity, content in something fulfilling even if she knows it’s deeply wrong.

But that’s kind of it, actually. The problem with talking about this movie is that its construction is at the heart of the experience of watching it. The film was shot and shot, overshooting everything and doing so in a way that straddles the line between surreal tableaux and verite styled looseness. And once all the footage (advertised as over 50 hours worth) was gathered, it was all cut into a non-linear narrative where these various aspects of Susan’s life played out all at once and without much rhyme or reason. The dream state in which Susan communicates with her father has them riding through the city, passing the present version of her on a date, where the film will pick up only to juxtapose it with a sequence of her at home, intercutting reactions of people who aren’t connected except for in her mind.

The general feel of the movie would best be defined as ‘hilariously dated Bohemian’

It’s a strange movie, and I initially found it wildly offputting. I didn’t just dislike it, I hated it. I hated how little sense it made, how arbitrary its choices were, and how meandering the whole thing seemed. It was just indulgent nonsense, or so I felt. I was ready to march into this article and tear it apart, point out that it was little more than a sign that full freedom breeds as much trash as brilliance, and call it the worst movie in the box set. Its obscurity compared to most of the other movies would be justified. The emperor has no clothes.

The problem is, I found myself mulling it over and deciding to listen to the director’s commentary to see where he felt the movie was coming from. It’s something I try not to do before I write up a movie, because it rarely does much aside from fill my head with a lot of reactions that aren’t my own, but in this case my reactions were so singular and not particularly complicated that I was seeking a second opinion. Who better then than the person responsible for this whole mess? Well, the commentary by writer/director Henry Jaglom was actually pretty instructive, and a fun series of stories involving plenty of historical context and fairly amazing Orson Welles anecdotes. And it also explained some of why the film was the way it was.

Jack Nicholson actually ends up being fairly unsettling in this movie, and it’s not even all on that mustache.

I don’t necessarily agree with all of it, but he spells out the movie as a vision into the inner life of its lead character. It’s subjective and whimsical because she’s subjective and whimsical, linking various parts of her life together that have no real relation the same way we all do, building up this inherently unique narrative to describe our lives that would probably not make much sense to the people outside of it who have a different set of associations. And thinking about it, I saw his point, and my opinion cooled quite a bit on the movie. It’s still a mess, but it’s a deliberate mess, the kind of movie that’s more interested in experimenting with representation of mental state on film more than telling a conventional narrative story. Which I can appreciate even if I don’t particularly enjoy it, though if a film requires its director to explain it to me I’m going to still probably go so far as to label the end result a failure, even if it’s one I think is more worthwhile in the second look than I did initially.

It’s difficult to admit that a movie just isn’t for me, but this is the one. I think there’s stuff of worth here, but it’s so hard to get at and so different than what we conceive as a ‘normal’ movie that I am left mostly just chronicling the evolution of my opinion of it. It’s something I feel like I’d like to come back to now and again, a sort of series of memories that play better when you know that they aren’t leading to anything at all and where they have the familiarity of many daydreams and fretful moments of worry, the way we all live in the worlds of our own creating. Admittedly, a unique goal, even if it’s a fairly baffling one.

The relationship between father and daughter makes up most of the best scenes of the movie.

A New Hollywood Summer — BBS Box Schedule
Head (1968) – 6/11
Easy Rider (1969) – 6/25
Five Easy Pieces (1970) – 7/9
Drive, He Said (1971) – 7/23
A Safe Place (1971) – 8/6 Rounding third!
The Last Picture Show (1971) – 8/20
The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) – 9/3

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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