Monday, February 10, 2014

'Seduced and Abandoned' (2013) directed by James Toback

It's a humid night in Tikrit, soundtracked only by the clatter of distant automatic weapons fire and muffled screaming.  Into a dirty hotel room strides Alec Baldwin, buck naked, fully engorged and humming with sexual potency.  Lying on the bed, softly biting her lower lip as she parts her thighs is a flushed Neve Campbell, her face a cocktail of arousal and disgust. This is The Last Tango in Paris for a modern era: Baldwin's right-wing government operative erotically exploring new frontiers with Neve Campbell's leftist protester.

Now, how much money can we put you down for to make this happen?  $10 million? 20?  

This is the question that powers James Toback's lively documentary about the film industry. And rarely has it seemed more like an industry.  Toback forms a double-act with Alec Baldwin, and the two trek around the 2012 Cannes Film Festival trying to secure funding for the film, which I think is meant to be so ridiculous a concept that it would never be made - though honestly it's far from the silliest pitch I've heard.  To get this made they meet a bevvy of perma-tanned, yacht-based billionaires, all of whom have their own opinions on what kind of movies make money.

Interspersed with these meetings are a series of freewheeling conversations with Hollywood directing luminaries (Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford-Coppola, Bernardo Bertolucci and Roman Polanski) and genuine acting A-listers (Ryan Gosling, Jessica Chastain, James Caan, Bérénice Bejo).  It's a hell of a credits reel; and to Toback and Baldwin's credit they seem able to winkle out of them answers that go beyond your usual PR static.

Though these faces twinkle like stars in the sky, the real leading performance is from Cannes as a whole.  It looks like a farmer's market, but rather than livestock on the block there's films.  Here you can buy Amour, or The Big Wedding, or Spring Breakers, less art and more assets that can make the right person a whole lot of money.  Creativity and filmic excellence don't enter into this world, this is where people come to fatten up their wallets.

These well-fed individuals attach themselves like leeches to cinema.  They hold court like feudal lords, halfheartedly tossing off ideas as they reek of privilege.  Alec Baldwin is dismissed as someone only fit for comedy or submarine movies.  Neve Campbell fares even worse, her casual dismissal always preceded by "Well, of course we love Neve but....". Forget Edward Cullen, Blade or Dracula, these people are the real cinematic vampires.  The best illustration of this is coked out racist fascist Taki Theodoracopoulis who, bobbing up and down in his grotesquely opulent yacht, laughs and jokes about how rich he is while guzzling down a banquet.  Still, at least he's a smart evil guy. the same can't be said for the aptly named Denise Rich, who blathers that her ambitions are "peace on earth" and "I want to go to space".  I hope she achieves that last one - and never comes back.

It's these pillars of moral decrepitude that the modern film-maker has to whore themselves out to in order to get a film made.  The 'seduction' of the title seems to work both ways; the film-makers and actors trying to administer an expert handjob to the egos of these bastards, and them in return basking in the radiance of real stars; treating the 'talent' like a particularly interesting accessory to display at a party.  It's dispiriting yet blackly comic stuff - especially as Toback quickly begins to alter his putative film to suit their visions - wondering if he could change the location, the stars or even the basic tenets of the story in order to even start production.

Obviously he is cool as hell in this.
Balance is provided by the interviews with the directors and stars of the films.  Scorsese talks engagingly about the differences in getting a movie made now as opposed to the halcyon days of 'New Hollywood', laying out his philosophies on life and how it relates to his cinematic style.  Ryan Gosling explains the grind of attending constant auditions and never getting parts you want, the existential doubt of feeling like one face in a million hopefuls and never achieving anything.  Granted, these people are enormous successes in their own right, yet you see the dent in their pride (especially in Alex Baldwin) at having made it, yet still having to scrabble around for money to make anything remotely interesting.

Entertaining though this journey is, there's a tinge of hypocrisy to the whole thing.  You feel a tingle of annoyance as Toback and Baldwin casually dismiss a $5 million (!) budget as completely unworkable.  Toback would quite like us to see him and Baldwin as scrappy artistic underdogs up against the brainless Hollywood corporate machine - something that's a bit hard to swallow considering the two are swanning through a sun-kissed heaven and living a life of opulence aboard his A-list friend's yachts.

But this is such good fun that it's easy to put these quivers of annoyance to one side. Toback is a great interviewer, his 'insider' status putting the stars at ease right away.  He's clearly 'one of them', and so they reveal things they perhaps wouldn't normally.  A highlight is Scorsese offhandedly explaining that all his films are about brothers looking out for each other - something so headslappingly simple that you can't believe you've missed it.  

Even better is a sequence where Toback and Baldwin quiz everyone whether they're scared of death.  Hollywood is here defined as a quest for immortality; to live on in the minds of an audience as an icon.  The interviewees seem surprised by the question; some reacting to it philosophically, some obviously not expecting the interview to take this morbid turn - but all revealing something 'true' about themselves in that nanosecond before they respond.

If you're at all interested in the nuts and bolts of movie-financing then Seduced and Abandoned is pretty much required watching.  It's a well-paced, well shot and smart look at a business that ventures into farce the more you learn about it.  No conclusions are reached as to how to improve things, but simply watching the Mammon Machine of cinema in all its debauched glory is easily worth the price of admission.


Seduced and Abandoned is available on DVD from February 17th

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