By Michael Ventura

While not all entertainers are artists, all artists must be entertainers - even if they're too arty to admit it. No matter how high or low the purpose, the issue for any entertainer is really: what do you seek to hold, to embrace, in your audience?

Put another way, the question is: what is it in others that you choose to entertain? Their fear, their illusion, their prejudice, their repression? In which case you make, say, Fatal Attraction. Or do you wish to entertain their need for a friend, their search for comfort or passion or the truth, their capacity for evil or beauty or awe?

Charlie Chaplin and Chevy Chase both make people laugh, but Chase gets laughs by devaluing everything in sight, leaving the world cheaper than he found it, while Chaplin, even at his crudest, inspires a cleansing, replenishing release. The sense of courage you get from Gena Rowlands or Humphrey Bogart is complex, as is the sexuality of Louise Brooks or Marlon Brando, while Sylvester Stallone's courage appeals only to what's powerless in us, and Kim Bassinger's sexuality to some more detached mood of masturbation.

The point is that entertainers make choices, conscious or not, about what to meet in you, what to ignore, what to address. The question we ask when we're entertained is: what is it inside me that I'm demanding be ignored, what addressed?

The three most personal, productive and original American filmmakers of our lifetime are John Cassavetes, Woody Allen and Henry Jaglom - the only American directors of our era who consistently do not depend on violence, victory or unambiguously happy endings. Much as I love Coppola and Scorsese, their films become deflated without the threat of violence.

In the films of Cassavetes, Allen and Jaglom, your fear of violence being done to you and your fantasy of doing violence to someone else - the two major staples of American entertainment - are neither the hook nor the perk, and certainly not the resolution. Neither is victory nor the promise of happiness. Cassavetes' Shadows, Faces, Husbands, A Woman Under the Influence, Opening Night and Love Streams; Allen's Annie Hall, Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Another Woman and even Radio Days; Jaglom's A Safe Place, Can She Bake a Cherry Pie? Someone To Love, Always, and his lovely New Year's Day - these are works that promise nothing, resolve nothing, don't titillate, don't offer hope without paradox, beauty without doubt, love without some presence or at least echo of the abyss.

If Cassavetes is threatening, it's because the human psyche is a threatening thing, it threatens the very life of the planet; if Allen is funny, it's because we are so often ridiculous; if Jaglom must struggle through sentiment and confusion to connect, it's because so must we all. They all go much further than projecting their fantasies onto an audience.

All three share the admission that they are desperate, and that there are no easy outs. What they seek to entertain, to embrace between themselves and the viewer, is the fact that we are desperate people, in a desperate time, in a desperate land on a desperate search - a desperation that will not be resolved by some glory-moment of action, some vanquished bad guy, or even great sex. If a UFO lands in your back yard, or you become a star, or meet a mermaid, or shrink or unshrink the kids, even if justice finally prevails - that's not going to mitigate the fact that you have a psyche, and it's on a journey, and the safeguards you try to put on your little life may not contain that journey.

Cassavetes and Jaglom deal with this all the time; Allen, only at his best.

Of the three Woody Allen is the most popular. Our white middle-class intelligentsia love him because he shares and ritualizes their favorite evasions: a kind of consumerism of ideas that passes for a life of the mind; shared anxiety substituting for shared missions; education trying to take the place of experience; an unconfessed greed for security; and a code of manners that smooths over, or makes vaudeville of, all human awkwardness. Cassavetes and Jaglom, on the other hand, hate irony, are passionate to the point of silliness but never snide, and enact (rather than discuss) ideas that they live by (rather than read about). Their films positively revel in awkward moments because they see awkwardness as valuable: it reveals what swift one-liners try to hide. Allen isn't so much searching for truth, like Cassavetes, or even love, like Jaglom, but for grace. His search imparts grace to others, and that's his greatness.

Woody Allen, John Cassavetes and Henry Jaglom are all actor-writer-directors, and the key to their differences is their screen personas. Except for a couple of scenes in Manhattan and Stardust Memories, Allen is always cute. A forceful, effective man in his life, he manages to evade responsibility for his worst work by a screen-mask of the lovable, ineffectual schmuck.

Jaglom the director-scenarist doesn't permit Jaglom the actor to take such easy outs.

What you see is mostly flaw: a voracious, babyish need of women; insular sentimentality; and a style of nagging manipulation that should be textbook for anyone interested in tapping into the weaknesses of others. These are qualities many men have and most try to hide. Allen's persona even makes them lovable. In reality, they're suffocating, a fact that Jaglom's persona leaves no doubt about. Jaglom's persona works the same turf as Allen's but, Brecht-like, gives the audience time and space to decide whether or not to like the character. One of the many refreshing things about Jaglom's films is that, while not covering his persona's flaws, Jaglom permits himself, as an actor, to express a patient weariness that can still tap the energy of its convictions - a character who is learning the cost of his flaws and is dealing with them.

And even when Cassavetes' livelihood depended solely on acting, he never performed to be liked. He could never resist showing an audience how much darkness you have to endure if you're really going to face yourself.

John Cassavetes. Henry Jaglom. Woody Allen. Love them or leave them, all three have made films that, once seen, stay seen; and even their worst have moments you can't avoid without avoiding something important in yourself. They work not out of fantasies, but out of the blood and spirit of their lives, so you can't help but watch with the blood and spirits of yours.