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A Separated Reality : Divorce May Teach Us More About Love Than Happiness Can Ever Manage

January 26, 1986|DAVID THOMSON | David Thomson is the author of "A Biographical Dictionary of Film."

Henry Jaglom and Patrice Townsend had lived together seven years, and had been married for five. Most of the time, he thought they were very happy; and most of the time, she thought so too. But she felt a rising set of differences and difficulties that he regarded as minor. He was interested in city life, apartments, cafes, meetings, talk and the movie business. She appreciated those things, but she wanted an earthier life, closer to clean air, water and sensuousness. They were very alike--they both thought so--but there was a difference, and it loomed larger for her than for him.

She was a dozen or so years younger than he. She had met him as a would-be script supervisor on his movie "Tracks." Jaglom was part of the young, liberal Hollywood, invariably associated with innovative, independent projects. He had studied as an actor, as had Townsend. He had helped edit "Easy Rider." He had made "A Safe Place," a bold, romantic film about the state of his mind, with friends Tuesday Weld, Jack Nicholson and Orson Welles acting in it. He had fallen in love with Townsend when she applied for the job on "Tracks," and he had gotten her to act in his next picture, "Sitting Ducks." He had to persuade her to act, he says, and apparently, she had to talk him into marriage. Of course, lovers do not have to marry. They often see it as a threat to the very lively feeling they have. But Jaglom and Townsend did marry, and they were happy.

And then one day she came home from her yoga class and told him, "I don't think I can live with you any more."

They divorced. Jaglom went through what he calls madness and pain. He roamed his empty house in tears. Townsend had the same sort of misery before and after her goodby line. He still thinks she made a mistake, that there was no better reason for their breakup than her insecurity and the importance she put on "small" things. Neither was involved with anyone else. It was just that she believed they were leading his life, and that she was buried or lost, not quite there. There did not seem to be any thought that they were out of love, or unencumbered by the debts and attachments that grow on us when we are together, like barnacles that may keep a ship together and afloat when the wood is paper-thin.

And then they made a movie about their love and their divorce, called "Always." That they were ready to go through the sequence again is a comment on the lack of anger in their divorce, the absence of an unforgivable wound. Yet perhaps the tolerance and the kindness are stranger than fury or recrimination.

"Always" is more than just a sweet, humane, gentle comedy--though it is all those things. It is also a mystery in which the divorcing couple seem like the most mature lovers left on earth, or at least in the secluded, privileged and mildly dotty recesses of Los Angeles where "Always" takes place. It is part of that mystery that divorced people do not just repudiate or forget their old loves, even if their distress or outrage is sharper than Jaglom's or Townsend's; they go back to being lovers apart, ardent creatures in whom imagination is more pressing than contact. Love lasts longest in the imagination. As people slowly rid themselves of familiar straps and knots, maybe desire, or yearning, comes back in all its fearful, exhausting purity. Just like lovers, the separated do not eat or concentrate on anything except where the other person is. As they wait in their empty places, everything they see is rimmed with the light of the other person's recent presence.

Divorce may teach us more about what we think of love than happiness can ever manage. Maybe we are prone to divorce now because we are curious to test this most powerful and everyday myth--being in love--and because we guess the extra discovery possible in disruption. That is surely a braver and more intelligent reason for ending marriages than deciding they do not work, or thinking one can start again.

One of the songs in the film is "The Folks Who Live on the Hill," a very sweet evocation of lovers' special location and status. I think when we divorce we remain hill dwellers, but on different hills, facing each other across a busy, crowded valley. The valley might be no wider than Cahuenga Pass; it might be 6,000 miles. Hill dwellers have their height in common, as well as the danger of falling, and they cannot stop looking across the distance, wondering what the other one is doing or thinking. When you divorce someone you begin to think of them in a different way, but you'll go mad if you think you can or should forget them. They're there, always, more certain than death, a history that cannot be renegotiated.

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