Self-Hating James Toback Asks: When Will I Be Loved?

James Toback’s When Will I Be Loved, from his own screenplay, has received an enthusiastically favorable “thumbs up” from Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper on their weekly television show and a blisteringly unfavorable critique from Robert Koehler in Variety. That my opinion is much closer to Mr. Koehler’s than Messrs. Ebert’s and Roeper’s inhibits me somewhat due to my slight—and not an entirely congenial—acquaintance with Mr. Toback over the years. I can only use the words “brash” and “taunting” to describe him as he approached me at an awards dinner and, out of nowhere, facetiously offered me a part in a movie he was making, or at least writing. His casting choices, he added, were between Pauline Kael and me. In this period (and ever since), I didn’t have much of a sense of humor regarding jokes about Kael and me. I took his bizarre comment as a very devious insult and let it go at that. I didn’t know him from Adam at that point, but much later, when I read up on him, it turned out that he’d been born on Nov. 23, 1944, in New York, which made him more than 16 years younger than me. He had been educated at Harvard and Columbia and had taught literature at City College. His first movie credit was as a screenwriter for Karel Reisz’s The Gambler (1974), which, I was told at the time, was based on Mr. Toback’s own life as a reckless gambler on the point spread in college and professional sporting events. In the movie, his alter ego, played by James Caan, has to be bailed out of his life-threatening gambling debts by his mother’s squirreled-away life savings. It was a dreadful moment to watch on the screen: Mr. Caan bowing his head in shame from the sorrowful scorn heaped upon him by his mother, played by that excellent actress Jacqueline Brookes. There was something undeniably original and unsettling about all of Mr. Toback’s self-hatred turned inward. And so it went with his even more masochistic self-portrait in his directorial debut, Fingers (1978), in which Harvey Keitel takes on the fanciful role of an aspiring concert pianist moonlighting as a strong-arm debt collector for his loan-shark father.

I remember being even more repelled by Mr. Keitel’s character than by his gambler predecessor—you know, Aristotle and all that jazz. I began to regard Mr. Toback as the curse of the auteur theory. His work was too personal for my taste, and yet I could never stay away from it. His smugly virile big-buck nemesis, Jim Brown ( Fingers), was followed by the grotesquely unmellowed Mike Tyson ( Black and White, 1999), who also appears in When Will I Be Loved —another dark-skinned id flailing away at the director’s damaged superego and self-doubting purgatory. Both Mr. Brown and Mr. Tyson seem to provide some kind of mythological gut-check that Mr. Toback, in all his fictional creations, invariably fails to summon up.

A contrary view of Mr. Toback and Fingers has been provided by his most steadfast friend and admirer, David Thomson, in his marvelous volume of film scholarship, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, in which he reprints the coda of his original rave review for Fingers:

“James Toback’s Fingers is the best film by any American director since Badlands. Even that is inadequate praise, for whereas Terry Malick’s debut was an inventive ballad about innocent energy run amok, Fingers is ingrowing and wounding. It does not belong to any familiar genre. It is more like a psychological allegory or ordeal. The outward signs of a New York crime movie are only its vehicle—like the body that houses the shivers of a dream. Fingers is that genuine oddity, an American feature movie that treats plot as merely the imprint for compulsive passions of terrible but dramatic force.”

Mr. Thomson almost makes me want to take another look at Fingers —almost, but not quite. Indeed, the language he uses to extol Fingers is very close to the language I would use to derogate it. In any event, Mr. Toback, now nearing 60, is still playing defeatist mind games with his self-image. In When Will I Be Loved, he has even written himself a part—not as his own alter ego, but as a ridiculously disguised and oddly accented clownish professor named Hassan Al-Ibrahim Ben Rabinowitz, who is supposedly teaching African studies at a local university. Anyone else might be accused of witless racism with a dash of anti-Semitism, but considering that Mr. Toback has made his quarter-century campaign of self-abasement a personal idiosyncrasy, his feeble conceit is more laboriously pathetic than maliciously bigoted.

Neve Campbell’s sensually vengeful Vera Barrie occupies the emotional, if not thematic, center of Mr. Toback’s latest film. Vera is introduced as a tastefully nude bather in her well-situated poor little rich girl’s apartment. She flirts shamelessly with every man she meets and calls the shots, especially with her indulgent and exploited parents, played in semi-obscura by Karen Allen and Barry Primus; the lighting and camera placements made it hard for me to see their faces.

The two men in Vera’s cynical, self-aggrandizing life are Fred Weller’s Ford Welles (I kid you not, fellow auteurists) and Dominic Chianese (on leave from The Sopranos) as Count Tommaso Lupo, an Italian media mogul. Count Lupo is turned on to Vera by Ford, her hustling lover/mentor, who functions more as a high-rolling pimp with a mile-a-minute sales pitch. For her part, Vera seems willing enough, even killing some plotless time with a curtained lesbian sex scene involving a blond charmer named Sam (Joelle Carter).

Most of the movie is made up of almost unintelligibly improvised Steadicam shots of the streets and parks of our great noisy city. Mr. Weller’s Ford Welles attains a new extreme of self-loathing on Mr. Toback’s part: This compulsive chain-talker has even less charm, substance, dignity or wit than any of his self-hating predecessors.

As for Ms. Campbell, her cool-eyed murderess in John McNaughton’s Wild Things (1998) was a much subtler and more effective bitch-goddess femme fatale than she is here in what Mr. Koehler uncharitably but accurately describes as evidence of Mr. Toback’s extended period of “faux feminism.” The plot, such as it is, is a steal from Adrian Lyne’s Indecent Proposal (1993), in which financially embarrassed gambler Woody Harrelson sells wife Demi Moore for one night to multimillionaire Robert Redford. To be fair, Mr. Toback has provided more melodramatic zip to his dénouement than Mr. Lyne could ever have contemplated with his expensive cast; he even covers the plot theft after a fashion by having Ford Welles tell Vera that he got the idea for the caper with the Italian count from a movie he saw the night before on television, but he can’t remember the title.

After all was said and done, I found myself moderately fascinated by Mr. Toback’s Radley Metzger–like glossy flesh fest, and mildly amused by the insistent use of Beethoven’s string quartets and Glenn Gould’s Bach arrangements to give the proceedings some aural class, as well as attest to Mr. Toback’s background at Harvard and Columbia. In view of his persistent self-denigration on-screen, Mr. Toback would’ve been better off attending Yale instead—where, if George W. Bush is any indication, self-love is a required subject.

Patriot Acts

Persons of Interest, directed by Alison Maclean and Tobias Perse and produced by Lawrence Konner, is one of the most austere nonfiction films of the year, and a powerful indictment of the U.S. Justice Department’s profoundly totalitarian response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks: more than 5,000 people, mainly Arab or Muslim immigrants, taken into custody without any due process, secretly detained, held in solitary confinement and deported without any public acknowledgment of who they were or why they were being held. Of course, these victims of police-state tactics didn’t include any of the relatives of Osama bin Laden, who were safely flown back to Saudi Arabia by the Bush administration, which apparently didn’t want anyone asking them too many questions.

Persons of Interest derives its power from the direct testimony of 12 New York area detainees—some held for weeks, others for over a year—and their family members. There are no cinematic tricks, no shifting backgrounds, simply portraits of people who sought opportunity in America being subjected to mindless bigotry and injustice. Guilt by ethnic, racial and religious association is hardly unknown in this country: After Pearl Harbor, Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the greatest breach of civil liberties in American history by his indiscriminate internment of Japanese-Americans. The horror is that most Americans thoroughly approved. Indeed, I remember seeing a movie at the time glorifying the incarceration of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps.

Persons of Interest reminds us once more that our freedoms are especially fragile in times of national peril. There are always people among us who positively salivate at the prospect of unchecked repression of unpopular opinions. In fact, during the McCarthy era, pollsters presented the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution (also known as the Bill of Rights) to a representative sampling of Americans as legislation pending before Congress, and a majority of those polled came out against them. Yet each pretext for tyranny is different, and eternal vigilance—to which Persons of Interest contributes so passionately—must be our watchword.

Asian Fusion Cinema?

There are two Asian films moderatley worth seeing during this calm before the cinematic storm about to be unleashed by the New York and Toronto film festivals through the fall and winter seasons. It seems that almost everyone everywhere wants to make movies, and an unprecedented number of people are doing just that.

Tsai Ming-Liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn, from his own screenplay, is set for the most part in an old Taiwanese movie palace about to be demolished. On the last night before it’s shut down, the gigantic screen is featuring a 36-year-old historical martial-arts epic entitled Dragon Inn. The skeleton staff of the theater consists of a lame female ticket clerk and a young male projectionist, who have both been working in the place for a long time without ever meeting each other—partly due to the vastness of the theater, but mostly due to the reluctance of the projectionist to link up with the clearly interested ticket clerk. There is no “cute” resolution to this impasse, only continuous frustration.

The movie palace has long been known as a magnet for cruising homosexuals, and most of the patrons are engaged in ritualized activity—both inside the theater and in the adjoining men’s-room urinals. There is a touch of magic realism in the suggestion that the theater is also haunted; the old men fraternizing the theater strikingly resemble the young stars on the screen from 36 years before. But the real star of the movie is the doomed movie house itself, and the dominant subtext is the emotional transaction between the viewer and his (or her) more vividly vicarious adventures projected on-screen.

Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe, from a screenplay by Prabda Yoon and Mr. Pen-ek (and with cinematography by Christopher Doyle, the omnipresent Australian based in Hong Kong), is a Thai film in which much of the dialogue is spoken in English and Japanese. Indeed, major characters in both this film and Goodbye, Dragon Inn are Japanese abroad, and anything but fully assimilated. Last Life has much more plot than Dragon Inn and many more surprises to boot, as a seemingly whimsical noir comedy and love story suddenly explodes into yakuza melodrama. Both films reflect the growing interpenetration of many individual national cinemas into a cultural conglomerate that reflects the irresistible tide of cinematic globalization.