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.
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