Monday, January 20, 2014

Seduced and Abandoned

James Toback’s latest documentary, Seduced and Abandoned, was the most terrifying film released last year. But the film isn’t traditional terror. No one is killed or tortured. There is no blood to be seen, nor screams to be heard. Instead, Seduced and Abandoned documents the hell and whoring that every filmmaker has to go through to get a film made. Doesn’t matter if your name is Scorsese or Coppola, Chastain or Gosling – there’s a certain level of creative prostitution all artists must commit in order to shoot a picture.

But we all know this, right? Making a film isn’t easy. Marketability is everything, story a far second. Steven Soderbergh talked frankly and poignantly about the subject at last year’s San Francisco International Film Festival. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas soon backed up Soderbergh’s claims, predicting an “implosion of the film industry” in the near future. But Toback’s film is the most honest examination of the subject yet. It’s a first hand account of where the film business is, and, more shockingly, where it is headed.
Many may be unaware of James Toback’s indelible impact on American cinema. A proud, outspoken New Yorker born to create fearless art, Toback has been making wildly bold, remarkably personal independent films since the late ‘70s. His films are small in scale, but large in theme. Sex, racism, class, intelligence – all topics Toback revisits routinely. His 1999 drama, Black and White, is a searing drama about white kids trying to fit in with the hip-hop crowd; his documentary, Tyson, is a blunt portrait of one of America’s most controversial sports figures; and his first film, Fingers, was later remade by French auteur Jacques Audiard under the name The Beat That My Heart Skipped.

Regardless of Toback’s lack of commercial fame, the man knows how to make a compelling film on a tight budget. He’s also an academic genius, graduating magna cum laude from Harvard in the ‘60s, and continuing to intellectually impress his many very famous friends.

A few years ago, Toback got an idea. What if he remade one of his favorite films, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, and set it during the final days of the latest Iraq War? The story would chronicle a conservative man and a liberal woman randomly meeting in a hotel, and making passionate love for days. Alec Baldwin could play the lead. Neve Campbell could play the woman. They’d call it Last Tango in Tikrit, and for $50 million, it could be a hit.

So he started networking. He got Baldwin on board, Campbell too. And in May 2012, he and Baldwin crashed the Cannes Film Festival in hopes of selling their $50 million pitch, filming everything as they went along. Seduced and Abandoned, which aired on HBO in October, is the result of their tireless efforts.
Most of the documentary is footage of Toback and Baldwin pitching their film idea to various people. Hollywood elite, notable producers, foreign distributors, billionaire investors, and so on. The pitches never go well. The person being pitched often looks confused by the idea. Some look insulted. Others offer solutions. You need bigger stars, less money, a sexier location. Most every producer/distributor comments how exceptional Neve Campbell is as a person, but unmarketable as a female lead. Sadly, that was something I expected. What I did not expect was to watch wealthy foreign distributors insult Alec Baldwin, and his apparent lack of commercial appeal, directly to the actor’s face.

In the film’s most shocking moment, Toback and Baldwin sit in a small conference room with three potential male investors. “I’m familiar with 30 Rock,” one investor says, looking at Baldwin. “But submarines are your thing. It’s been a long time since you did a submarine picture. We need action, we need submarines. Listen, you can have sex as well, I don’t have a problem with that.”

The man is referring to Baldwin’s role in The Hunt for Red October, an action film released 22 years prior to this conversation. Baldwin does his best to laugh off the creative note, and the documentary swift cuts to a new, heartbreaking pitch.

With each passing meeting, Toback and Baldwin adjust their expectations. Instead of Campbell playing the lead, maybe she can play Baldwin’s wife that he’s left behind. Instead of $50 million, they’ll do it for $30 million, then $20, then $18. How about moving the story out of wartime Iraq, and setting it in post-war wherever?
Seduced and Abandoned bravely takes the glory out of the filmmaking process by showing us what the current process truthfully entails. Some interview subjects, like Martin Scorsese, Roman Polanski, and Francis Ford Coppola, talk candidly about the dismal, current state of cinema. Others, like Ryan Gosling, Bérénice Bejo, and Jessica Chastain note that, despite being “well known,” they have no pull whatsoever on helping a film get made.

Faults of the documentary? There are a few, sure. The musical score is, at times, so overbearing that you can’t help but laugh, and the film ends with a montage that felt unneeded and provocative for the sake of being provocative. But those flaws are easy to overlook. Last Tango in Tikrit doesn’t sound like a particularly good film, but that’s not really the point. “Good” doesn’t matter to the men with money; marketability reigns supreme. In one pitch, a man says he would consider backing the film if Gerard Butler played Baldwin’s part. And I ask: does that sound like a film that is more worth watching? A 

23 comments:

  1. This sounds really interesting, any idea where I can catch it?

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    1. It's a tough one to track down. I don't know how easily accessible (if at all...) HBO is to you, but that's how I watched it. It played in one LA theater for like 2 weeks, then vanished. So now it sits on HBO. No DVD release announced yet. But man... it's worth it.

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    2. Awesome. I will keep my eyes peeled :)

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  2. The dirty underbelly of the business....that's for sure. So often the people behind the making of movies could care less about movies. There was a great conversation about exactly this subject years ago on Jon Favreau's IFC show "Dinner for Five". He gets together five random actors/industry people to talk shop over dinner. Each chimed in with a story of how a movie started, how they were convinced it would be some great work and how, over the course of producing and funding, it got bastardized into a piece of shit. Terrifyingly they were talking about the projects that actually got off the ground.
    This documentary was such a brave--and I'm sure humbling--project but really brought to light the truth behind moviemaking unknown to so many.

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    1. God bless you for reminding me about Dinner for Five. I remember seeing one or two of those when it was on, but I had forgotten about it completely. Thankfully, they are all on YouTube (legally), so I spent the better part of yesterday evening watching them. Of course I watched Dennis' first. The laugh that man had... it was intoxicating.

      Really glad to hear you like Seduced and Abandoned. A brave project indeed.

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    2. What a fun show, right? Love Jon and the guests were always a riot. You're so right--Dennis had a laugh that came from his soul. Tomorrow will be six months since his passing but nothing makes me happier than hearing that laugh--ok, or his swearing!

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    3. I remember that show. That was a good show. I remember when they had Steve Drozd of the Flaming Lips and Adam Goldberg as guests. Drozd talked about the time the band were on Beverly Hills 90210 (it was a guilty pleasure and I had a thing for Jennie Garth & Tiffani Thiessen, so sue me) where Ian Ziering said the infamous line "I'm not a fan of alternative music but these guys rock the house!" on the show.

      Drozd got to meet some of the cast who were pretty cool as he wanted to meet Jennie Garth and he ran up to Tori Spelling and asked where he could find Jennie and Tori was like "oh, I'm not good enough for you" as she scared the shit out of him.

      What a bitch.

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    4. Dawn - Six months, wow. The curse or the laugh... such a tough call!

      Void - I haven't made it to that episode, but I'm looking forward to it. Dude, I loved 90210 growing up. So... someone can sue us both.

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    5. 90210.....you're both adorable and I'm feeling old!

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  3. Wow this sounds fascinating. I just saved it in my Netflix queue. Great review! I look forward to watching this myself.

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    1. Thanks! I hope you have a chance to check it out soon. The ultimate insider's horror story.

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  4. This review made me finally watch Seduced and Abandoned which I've had recorded on my TV for ages so thank you! I really agree with you on all of these points, great review

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    1. Wow, I'm honored that my review could motivate you to watch the film. That's great to hear! Glad you liked the flick... I thought it was fascinating.

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  5. This sounds very intriguing. I'll have to check it out.

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    1. If you're a fan of behind the scenes Hollywood flicks, it's a must.

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  6. I have this on my DVR for months. I think I'll try and watch it next month as my DVR drive is starting to get a little clogged up. Neve Campbell and Alec Baldwin in a remake of Last Tango in Paris by James Toback? I would see that. If only there was a guy like George Harrison who would put up the money to get the movie made all because he wanted to see it.

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    1. I think you'd really dig it man. A Toback Last Tango doesn't sound like a masterpiece to me, but you can bet I'd be first in line.

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  7. I'll have to hunt this down. Seems very timely, given the 5-time Oscar nominated Wolf of Wall Street directed by Martin fucking Scorsese had to get independent backing!

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    1. Exactly! This film is honestly one of the best Inside-Hollywood films I've ever seen. Really quite horrifying. Hope you're able to see it soon.

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  8. I'm not quite clear on this. Was the pitch a put on or were they sincerely trying to get a remake of Last Tango made at any of the budgets suggested? I certainly am not saying that the commercial process in the film business is not out of wack, but you pitch me a 50 million dollar remake of a two person drama, set in a room for 90 % of the sequences, and I'm going to laugh and suggest maybe we can do it on a submarine too. Maybe the investors have a sense of humor too. It sounds like an interesting film either way.

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    1. That's actually one of the best parts of the doc: in the beginning, you don't really know if Toback and Baldwin are serious. But damn... are they ever. Like I said, I don't personally think their film sounded all that great, but that wasn't really the point. WHAT a film is about matters little... it's all about who's in it and how marketable is it. Damn shame.

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  9. Ooh, I completely forgot about this one. Can't wait to check it out whenever it's released on DVD or iTunes.

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    1. It's really a fascinating study of the biz. Hope you can see it soon!

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