Director Henry Jaglom's bleak post-Vietnam psychodrama left Judge Michael Rankins stranded at the station.
The Vietnam War has just ended. But for Jack Falen, the battle is only beginning.
Not just for Jack—the battle is only beginning for the audience too. This reviewer included.
Facts of the Case
As the Vietnam conflict grinds to a bitter conclusion, Army Sergeant Jack Falen (Dennis Hopper, Land of the Dead) draws the unenviable assignment of escorting the body of a fallen soldier to its final resting place. As the train bearing the coffin cuts its swath across America, Jack reaches out for conversation and companionship to several other passengers: a left-wing activist with an eye for the ladies (Dean Stockwell, The Manchurian Candidate); a pair of flirtatious college girls (Taryn Power, Topo Swope) in search of adventure; a fast-talking real estate salesman (Zack Norman, Festival in Cannes); a businessman obsessed with chess problems (director Jaglom's brother Michael Emil, probably best known as the Einstein avatar in Nicholas Roeg's Insignificance); a middle-aged woman looking for casual sex (Barbara Flood).
With his portable cassette player bellowing out cheesy old World War II-era pop songs, Jack grows progressively more despondent, desperate, and unhinged. Although the radio news broadcasts trumpet that the war is over, it's obvious that for Jack—as for many of his fellow veterans—ending the horrors of Vietnam will take more than some politicians' signatures on a piece of paper.
Twenty-mumble years ago, when I was a fresh-faced collegian studying broadcast media at a noted institution of higher learning, I had the privilege—or, as we called it in those days, a degree requirement—of taking a course from one of the country's leading experts in the field of semiotics (the science of signs and symbols). I vividly recall the course as endless, tedious hours of wiping the drool from my chin as the professor waxed eloquent about the symbology in everything from Luis Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou to the final two-part episode of Patrick McGoohan's cult TV series The Prisoner.
Watching Henry Jaglom's Tracks, I found myself transported back to that class.
Jaglom never met a cinematic metaphor he didn't embrace, and he employs each one with the sensitive subtlety of Spinal Tap's Smell the Glove album. Want to illustrate the helpless plight of the homecoming Vietnam veteran? Put him on a train. (Because the passenger doesn't control the train, you see, but can only travel where the tracks will take him.) Want to show how impotent and violated the veteran feels? Have him walk stark naked through the train holding a useless pistol. (A gun, get it? Nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more, squire!) Want to show how evil The Man is, and how he robs freethinkers of their God-given rights? Have a bunch of sinister government thugs pummel a middle-aged ex-hippie. All right, Henry—we get it, already.
The central problem with Tracks is that it's all symbol and metaphor. There's no plot, no coherent theme, no character development, no heart or soul. Jaglom clearly wants us to empathize with his hapless protagonist, but how can we, since there's no opportunity or context for us to see Jack Falen as a real human being, and therefore gain compassion for him? Jack, like all of the film's elements—human, locomotive, and otherwise—is merely a device Jaglom uses to hammer the viewer with his muddled message; something about how awful it was when American fighting men came home from Indochina in the 1960s and '70s—but it's buried under one trowel scoop after another of semiotic cement.
Against all odds, Dennis Hopper and his fellow thespians gamely attempt to craft meaningful cinema out of Jaglom's wretched mess of a non-script. (In the commentary, the director cheerfully admits that the script was minimal, and that much of the best dialogue was improvised by the cast members themselves.) In a role that fairly begs for Hopper's patented over-the-top histrionics, the actor manages to rein in his more excessive tendencies, turning in a performance that—although sprinkled liberally with enough twitchy paranoia to fuel a rocking-chair-filled room of long-tailed cats—almost makes us care about Jack Falen even though we learn nothing about him personally.
The players swimming upstream alongside Hopper are equally adept. Taryn Power (daughter of screen legend Tyrone; before this, I knew her only as the hot chick opposite John Wayne's son Patrick in Ray Harryhausen's third Sinbad special-effects spectacular) comes off as suitably sweet and innocent as the coed who befriends Jack. Michael Emil and Zack Norman contribute some oddly humorous moments as a couple of mysterious travelers. As Jack's newfound pal, Mark the radical playboy, Dean Stockwell overacts. (Of course he does—it's Dean Stockwell.)
Most likely filmed on a budget of goodwill and pocket change, Tracks looks (intentionally?) clumsy and amateurish throughout. Jaglom dotes on shaky handheld camera work, uncomfortable close-ups, and frenetic editing that together give the picture a sort of film-school-project-on-mescaline feel. All of the visual slapdashery can't disguise a posturing, self-indulgent message film whose message got lost in a Thunderbird bottle somewhere between Saigon and Chicago. By the time Tracks jolts and twitches its way to an ill-staged ending that cries out for heart-rending emotional impact but ends up generating only shrugs of bewildered ennui, the train has long since derailed. At least it's only 91 minutes long—91 baffling minutes I'll never recoup.
As a technical accomplishment, Paramount's DVD release of Tracks is adequate, but nothing more. The visual quality gives us about what we'd expect from a 30-year-old low-budget film—reasonable clarity and decent color balance, amid a considerable number of source print defects. The mono soundtrack is, well, a mono soundtrack.
Someone at Paramount actually cared enough about Tracks to pull director Jaglom and star Hopper into a studio ADR room to record an audio commentary about their work. It turns out to be a good thing, because the commentary provides a grounded humanity that the movie desperately needs. As commentaries go, it's not a particularly good one—most of the time, Jaglom and Hopper simply narrate (or chuckle about) what's happening on screen ("Look, there's Alfred Ryder!"), and far too often, they become too involved in watching the movie to remember to discuss it. Most of the film's key moments, including the conclusion, pass without explanation or elaboration. At a minimum, though, the two men's casual chat serves as a reminder that the movie was actually made by real people, and not just some strange experiment in visual communication.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Reportedly, Jaglom originally intended Jack Nicholson for the role of Falen. I can easily envision Nicholson thrusting his head through the door of one of the train's sleeping compartments and growling, "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." Not that that would have been better. Or perhaps it would.
For the sake of the subject matter and the earnest—if futile—efforts of Dennis Hopper and his castmates, I wanted to walk away from Tracks feeling something more powerful than headache and heartburn. Sadly, those symptoms of irritation are all that Henry Jaglom's aimless, soulless film generated for me.
Having lived the Vietnam years in a military family—my father served a tour of duty in Southeast Asia during the height of the conflict—I've seen the aftereffects of that misbegotten war in the lives of dozens of men and women. There's potent material for many a film in those aftereffects. Hollywood's even made a few in the three decades since Tracks was produced. (You'll notice that I didn't say "released." Due to the sentiment of the post-Vietnam years, the film never secured backing for a theatrical release, playing instead at film festivals and in art house theaters.) If only Henry Jaglom could have gotten over his pretensions long enough to write and direct a movie that made sense, and that mattered.
Skip this train, and take Greyhound instead.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Writer-Director Henry Jaglom and Actor Dennis Hopper
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