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First Look Review - OVATION

Romantic drama set in the backstage world of a struggling theatrical production.


Review by Benjamin Poole (@filmclubchs)

Directed by: Henry Jaglom

Starring: Tanna Frederick, James Denton, Stephanie Fredricks


"What sort of films does a 40 year plus fringe veteran of the industry like Henry Jaglom make? Judging by this year’s Ovation, he makes films that are stubbornly sharp, sincere and distinctive."




Henry Jaglom, director of rom-dram Ovation, is something of an unsung legend. Beginning his film career as an editor on Easy Rider (of all the potential seminal classics!) Jaglom is a true Hollywood veteran. Two years after Easy Rider, he graduated to behind the camera, directing Jack Nicholson and Orson Welles in A Safe Place, which he also wrote. Jaglom then became a protégé of Welles, and went on to forge an offbeat career as an auteur of 20 films,  making movies that are always thoughtful, idiosyncratic and deeply personal; a typical example is the ace Tracks (1977), which featured Dennis Hopper as a Vietnam vet transporting the coffin of a dead comrade across state. In between directing, Jaglom has also forged a successful career as a playwright, was a jobbing actor and also (probably) polished the Hollywood sign every other weekend. He is a film maker occupying that space just beyond cult; an outsider artist making art about outsider subjects, industrious and seemingly compelled to create; he is 77 years old (!), and still making movies. But what sort of films does a 40 year plus fringe veteran of the industry make? Judging by this year’s Ovation, he makes films that are stubbornly sharp, sincere and distinctive.
Ovation is a low key drama set in the backstage world of a struggling theatrical production. Tanna Frederick (Jaglom’s wife) plays Maggie, the best thing about the beleaguered show by all accounts; the main draw, and the reason why iconic television star Stewart (James Denton) makes his way to backstage to congratulate her on her performance. He’s slick as all get out this guy, and flattered Maggie begins to fall for him; tempted by his $50 smile, but also his promise of a contract with a television show. Will Maggie leave the ailing production, dooming her co-stars and crew? Is Stewart too good to be true? And, for the love of grease paint, what of art versus commerce?
In between the central drama of Maggie and Stewart’s relationship, a few subplots bubble along - one involving another bad romance, this one between a pushy young colt and his female co-star, and another comprising the endeavours of the show’s producer to keep the play afloat. The multi narrative approach has a deceptively loose Robert Altman feel, and like that other great maverick, Jaglom’s camera tracks, cranes and angles close; the better to capture the genuine, meticulous performances of the cast. Frederick is particularly good, charging the film with her nuanced, emotive performance. The script, with its raw and improvised feel, takes as its theme the value of genuinely felt art over commercially driven product, but Ovation never feels as if it’s tub-thumping. In fact, there’s a lot of humour; for instance, the winding plot strands are woven together by a backstage medium (yes, of the spiritual kind, as the production that Maggie’s play shares the bill with is one which entails magic), who reads the cast tarot cards, and tells their fortune, commenting on the action like a homely chorus.
As you’d expect of someone so familiar with the world, Jaglom’s representation of the theatrical scene feels lived in, and entirely convincing. As a matter of artistic decision, we don’t see much of the actual production, although what we do witness is structured, organised and controlled to a level of slick proficiency. What Jaglom is more concerned with is behind the scenes; a place of chaos and insecurity; a forge of hot and nervous energy from which art is produced. Onstage, lines can be committed to heart, and marks are met, but beyond that, in real life, all is flux. His backstage has a thrift shop aesthetic of piled costumes. props and posters of bygone stars, confined settings in which jealousies and aggression seethes; a motif of the film is the luvvie air kiss, the insincere hug between co-stars or hangers on, which in its repetition demonstrates the actual distance between these people, who are only truly co-operative within the diegesis of the stage. Thus, the plot is carried along on its own anxiety, leading to a series of events which in themselves could be worthy of a play; when, in a slightly unconvincing plot twist, a character is (perhaps) accidentally murdered and bundled into a cupboard for a couple of showings… Ovation isn’t without flaws; shot on video, the film has that saturated look that distinguishes American television, and which is initially distracting, however, this reduced style also befits the small world of the cast and crew (and also the suggested televisual destiny of Maggie). Writing this review, I find myself grinning at the amount of fun watching Ovation involved. One cannot help but hope that the implied finality of the film’s title does not signal the curtain call of Jaglom’s dramatic career.
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