One evening this past spring, just before leaving New York for the Cannes Film Festival, James Toback was sitting in his Upper East Side apartment watching Game 6 of the Knicks vs. the Pacers in the NBA Playoffs, the TV volume muted and Bruchner’s Ninth Symphony blaring from the stereo. In lieu of the halftime buzzer, the orchestra crescendoed to an ecstatic climax just as the clock hit zero and the screen faded to a commercial.
Yet, what might seem odd in anyone else’s living room is par for the course chez Toback, who has made a career out of charting the sometimes harmonious, often violent meeting of dissonant forces, from the gifted classical pianist (Harvey Keitel) who dirties his hands as enforcer for his loan-shark father in his electrifying debut feature, “Fingers” (1978), to the privileged white teens drawn like moths to the hip-hop flame in “Black and White” (1999) and the gangster seduced by the Hollywood machine in his Oscar-nominated screenplay for Barry Levinson’s “Bugsy” (1991).
“My insistence on doing two or three things at the same time has been endemic since I can remember, since I was 5 or 6 years old,” says Toback while keeping one eye squarely on the game. “I was always reading and watching something and talking to somebody at the same time. Or playing a sport and listening to music at the same time.” Or, as it happens, winning — and losing — small fortunes at the Vegas tables with an ever-present Walkman strapped to his belt and headphones in his ears. It’s an image invoked by Art Manteris, former manager of the sports book for the Las Vegas Hilton, in his 1991 memoir “Super Bookie,” in which he devoted one entire chapter to Toback entitled “Nobody Played Like Music Man.”
“I used to listen to alternately to Juice Newton singing ‘Angel of the Morning’ and Mahler’s Third Symphony while playing blackjack and betting on baseball,” Toback recalls. “So, the idea of making a movie in which one is asked to give one’s full concentration to one image and one central notion has always struck me as a potentially insufficient demand on the attention of the audience.”
Hollywood, gambling and gangsterism all figure prominently in Toback’s latest film a clef, “Seduced and Abandoned,” which is airing this month on HBO following Oscar-qualifying runs in New York and Los Angeles. In addition, the film opens theatrically November 8 in the U.K. and will be screened on November 13 at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image as part of a three-film Toback retrospective. Later in the month, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will present a special 35th anniversary screening of “Fingers” with Toback appearing in person.
The product of a friendship with actor and cultural gadfly Alec Baldwin that blossomed during the filming into a full-fledged bromance, “Seduced and Abandoned” is a movie about movies: the struggle to make good ones, and the age-old battle between art and commerce, the latter ever gaining ground on the former. The setting is Cannes, where “Seduced” premiered in May and where it was shot in 2012, with Toback and Baldwin starring as thinly veiled versions of themselves, descending on the Croisette in a (mostly unsuccessful) bid to finance a film.
“There was a series of lunches and dinners, most of them at the Harvard Club, which I found bracingly exciting and interesting and unpredictable, and one night I said, ‘This should be the seed of a movie we do together,’” recalls Toback, who first met Baldwin in 1990 on the set of Woody Allen’s “Alice,” in which they both played supporting roles. “The subject kept coming up, and finally one day he said, ‘You know, I’ve never been to Cannes.’ It just evolved from there. Then we needed an intention, or a MacGuffin, and we ended up with two of them: one, which was my idea, was for us to go there to try to get another movie financed; his was to have memorable and unique cinematic portraits of certain landmark figures in the film world, and somehow to make those two movies blend into one.”
“Jimmy is kind of a Carol Reed-esque figure in the world of film, a man of mystery if you will,” adds Baldwin. “I’d seen him around and seen the films he’d made and thought he was an interesting guy. Then I was introduced to him, and right away we talked about our discontent with moviemaking and how tough it was to raise the money to do a serious film, and on and on.”
So Toback and Baldwin headed for the Riviera not just in search of financing but also in search of interesting subjects to sit before their camera and talk openly about their adventures in the screen trade, a roster that eventually ran the gamut from present-day A-listers like Jessica Chastain and Ryan Gosling to four legendary, Oscar-winning auteurs: Bernardo Bertolucci, Francis Coppola, Roman Polanski and Martin Scorsese. They even found room for the odd critic, including this writer, the Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy and Michel Ciment of French film magazine Positif.
“Jimmy is a vessel of a lot of the dreams of artistic purity and cinephilia that people have had all their lives,” says Baldwin. “They just love to talk to Jimmy about movies. Coppola and these other people…if I had called them, they wouldn’t have done an interview with me. But when Jimmy’s the one ringing the doorbell, they all say, ‘Jimmy, come in!’ because they know he’s sociopathically hooked on filmmaking, and they know he’s smart.”
Both director and star describe the project as a true 50-50 collaboration, shot at a frantic pace during the 11 days of Cannes (with a few pickups before and after in New York and L.A.) on a $2 million budget supplied by equity investors Alan Helene, Steven Beer and Neal Schneider. Toback then spent 10 months in an editing room working out the film’s complicated array of split-screen visuals, in which he annotates the film’s interview segments with stills, film clips and other supporting documents.
“I always hate to think that the audience is capable of taking in more than you’re exposing them to at any given moment,” says the director, who previously employed split-screen effects in “Black and White” and the 2008 documentary “Tyson.” “I just thought this is the movie in which to go all the way with it, because obviously there were going to be clips illustrating the points that are made throughout the movie, and why shouldn’t there be two or three at the same time? It’s not happening all through the movie, but it was a goal, so I went as far as I could without feeling like I was going to split the consciousness of the audience.”
Unsurprisingly, Cannes proves to be the perfect place for taking the temperature of the global movie business, with a couple of dozen high-profile art movies vying for the coveted Palme d’Or as, down in the bowels of the Palais des Festivals, films are sold (or, as the case may be, pre-sold) by the pound to the highest bidders. All the while billionaires bob up and down on their yachts in the port, flirting with becoming producers, keen to keep their exposure minimal. And “Seduced and Abandoned” is rarely funnier or more savagely revealing than when director and star find themselves face to face with studio heads (Ron Meyer, Jeffrey Katzenberg) and international financiers (Mark Damon, Ashok Amitraj, Avi Lerner) who tell them kindly but firmly that, together, they don’t amount to a whole hill of beans in the lucrative foreign sales market. Couldn’t Baldwin do another “submarine movie,” like “The Hunt for Red October,” asks one Australian backer, without a lick of irony.
“I think what’s happened, culturally, pretty much around the world is the naked, unembarrassed elevation of money to its unmatched place in human commerce,” says Toback with typically grandiloquent flair. “The phrase ‘how much is he worth?’ — we mock it in the movie — has infected everyone and everything. It’s taken over politics completely, where the entire political world in our democratic society is now an elaborate fundraising game, and it’s what’s happened to movies. If I need to associate myself with a massive financial success in order to matter in the larger context of movies, that’s the real death of film as we used to know it.”
Toback points to the career of his erstwhile leading man Robert Downey Jr., who served as the director’s verbally dexterous alter ego in “The Pick-Up Artist” (1987) and the explosively funny “Two Girls and a Guy” (1997), and delivered a memorable supporting turn in “Black and White,” playing the closeted gay husband of a documentary filmmaker (Brooke Shields) who, in one scene, ill-advisedly tries to seduce Mike Tyson.
“What has happened to Downey is a highlighted version of what has happened to the movie business as a whole,” Toback says. “He has gone from giving several sterling performances in personal dramas, among which he often cited our collaborations, to the greatest present-day array of impersonal billion-dollar franchise movies. In other words, he has gone from being the paradigm of what the business used to want to the embodiment of what it single-mindedly craves today. Today, if you can get away with big-budget movies in which there are also human beings doing interesting things, as Scorsese has done on several occasions, it’s rare to the point of semi-freakishness.”
No less rare, however, are the careers like Toback’s, where the budgets are markedly lower, but there is never any shortage of human beings doing — and saying — interesting, provocative things. Yet uncharacteristically for Toback, who has directed only 11 feature films in 35 years, he currently has three projects lined up that seem likely to go back to back to back: an HBO original film, which he’s already signed to write and direct; his long-gestating biopic of 19th-century suffragette Victoria Woodhull, once set to star Faye Dunaway and Cary Grant with George Cukor directing; and a third film he describes only as being “tightly up my sleeve.” Also, Paramount is set to begin production in January on a remake of the Toback-scripted “The Gambler,” starring Mark Wahlberg in the role originally played by James Caan.
Toback settled on the title “Seduced and Abandoned” he says, because “it describes in three words the relationship — not just Alec’s and mine, but almost anyone who gets into film — that we have to movies. You’re seduced, you’re taken in, you’re thrilled you came back, and then everything falls apart. You swear you’re never going to do it again, and then you’re seduced again, and then you’re abandoned again.” Fittingly, the film makes a recurring visual motif out of the illuminated carousel that spins day and night just steps away from the Cannes Palais.
“It’s this glimpse of something all of us have to deal with, which is that raising money has become harder and harder,” says Baldwin. “You see someone who is as indefatigable as Scorsese say at one point in the film ‘We have to find a way to make movies around these people.’ I just think it’s a fascinating look at people who make films and why. This is a pain in the ass. Making films is such a pain in the ass, man.” But, as an onscreen title asks rhetorically mid-way through Toback’s film, what is the alternative?