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Being James Toback

Writer and director James Toback doesn’t so much make movies as peel back his forehead and invite us -- importune us, dare us, beg us -- to peek inside. For the less squeamish, the offer is irresistible. In a business notorious for reducing honest human idiosyncrasies into saleable public relations, it‘s hard to think of many modern American filmmakers who’ve not only made careers out of their obsessions, but turned those obsessions into the sort of frenzied public ritual Toback has since he first began directing in 1977. That ability, or compulsion, is what defines Toback as a genuinely personal filmmaker -- the irony, even pathos, being that his obsessions have tended to be more interesting, more alive, more powerful, than his films. If Fingers remains his triumph, it‘s because in this outrageous, impossible first movie, the gap between his obsessions and his filmmaking was nearly closed, fused together in the story of a small-time fixer who wants to be a concert pianist and Harvey Keitel’s sublimely eccentric lead performance.

The gap widened after Fingers (Exposed; the charming, fraudulent The Pick-up Artist), but has narrowed again with Toback‘s latest, Black and White, a sui generis excursion into sex and race that is by turns terrible (any scene with model Claudia Schiffer) and close to divine (an already famous exchange among Brooke Shields, Robert Downey Jr. and Mike Tyson), and almost always watchable. It’s also funny, boring, gross, ugly to look at and one of the few new movies currently worth seeing. In a diary published in the movie journal Projections back in 1995, Toback wrote: ”I walk around the streets [while writing] Shrink, talking to myself, playing scenes of harassment, gambling mania, sexual jealousy, frenzy bordering on madness.“ Which neatly describes not just Fingers and various other of the director‘s films, but Black and White, a multicharacter fugue set in New York City, Toback-style. Once again it’s all about pussy and dick, specifically hungry white pussy and big black dicks and shriveled white dicks and so on and so on, which is doubtless why many critics can‘t get enough.

If Toback dazzles critics, he seems to daze male critics. In his A Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson writes the director a ”Dear James“ letter perfumed with wistful melancholy. After quoting liberally from his own review of Fingers, Thomson asks: ”Have you known, or guessed, that I’ve never liked anything of yours quite as much -- or nearly as much -- since?“ It can be hard for film critics to get over the first time we fall in love with a director, which is why Pauline Kael kept absolving De Palma and Thomson can‘t help but do the same with Toback, despite Exposed, in which Rudolph Nureyev plays Nastassja Kinski like a violin, or, worse yet, Bugsy, which Toback wrote for his friend Warren Beatty. (Worse because Toback is too untamed, too primitive, for such calculated Hollywood rubbish.) If Thomson finds it hard to absolve him, it’s perhaps because Toback has never stopped making and remaking the critic‘s beloved Fingers -- or at least reworking the same obsessions -- over and over again. Moviemaking is, after all, its own compulsion; movie reviewing, too.

In the aforementioned diary, Toback enumerates various disasters with the touching self-loathing and consuming self-absorption that defines all of his work. Among the disasters are his friend Barry Levinson’s movie Jimmy Hollywood (Toback has many friends, most apparently famous; he even bumps into famous people), the Northridge quake and a script he was writing for Beatty called Shrink. (In its opening scene, a woman tells her therapist that she‘s going to seduce him. He replies, ”I think we would make more progress if we could get through one session in which we avoided all speculation on my phallic condition.“) The script was overdue either by three and a half years (according to Beatty) or one and a half years (according to Toback). On the day he’d promised to deliver it, Toback read Beatty and Annette Bening the first half. Afterward, Beatty asked, ”How can you have done so much good writing and at the same time so little?“ It‘s a devastating comment, and while it plays like a summation of Toback’s career, the truer lesson is that Toback had the guts -- or the narcissism -- to publish it. Only Toback could turn Beatty‘s contempt into a blessing, his degradation into our entertainment.