Saturday, November 9, 2013

Alec and Jim's excellent adventure

I would never have guessed I’d spend so much time listening to Alec Baldwin. The decline in his film career didn’t seem like a great reason for regret at the time, and there was ample apparent reason to dismiss him as an undisciplined boor. Actually, you still sometimes wonder about that, but Baldwin has at the very least demonstrated engaging relish at the possibilities available to him, and a skill at cracking them open. He’s introduced movies on TCM and radio broadcasts from the New York Philharmonic, been politically active, and launched a very enjoyable podcast, where the menu might be Rosie O’Donnell one week, an expert on the New York prison system the next (I listened to every single episode). He’s now taken that format to MSNBC, more or less unaltered except for the pictures. Also in the last year, he acted on Broadway in Orphans (where the behind the scenes conflicts helped to maintain the darker side of the persona) and in one of the year’s most highly regarded films, Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. And then there’s 30 Rock, seemingly endless appearances on Letterman and SNL, oh, and a new baby daughter.

Seduced and Abandoned

All of this constitutes an obvious danger though – when there’s so much Alec Baldwin around, how much would you pay for the chance to see him again? He good naturedly puts this question at the centre of the new HBO documentary Seduced and Abandoned, directed by James Toback (whose last project was Tyson). Toback and Baldwin evolve a proposal for a sexually charged drama set against the Iraq war, which they provisionally call Last Tango in Tikrit, with Baldwin and Neve Campbell lined up as stars; they then take off to the 2012 Cannes festival in search of the required $15 to $18 million budget. It rapidly becomes clear that the money guys don’t see the appeal of the project: two of them say exactly the same thing, that they could maybe be talked into $4 to $5 million at the most. Others propose changes of location for the sake of tapping other pots of money, or changing various aspects of the package, such as Baldwin (now perceived as a TV actor) or Campbell (yesterday’s news) or both. Along the way, the pair hangs out with a grand selection of classic directors, a varied bunch of actors, and some seriously rich people who could finance such a movie as a rounding error in their accounts (but of course, would rather not).

It’s a very entertaining creation, merging lots of good interactions and storytelling with immaculately chosen reference points from old movies; Toback and Baldwin make a highly appealing double act. The title alerts you to the underlying direction of the adventure, that cinema almost never lives up to its promise. At the outset, it quotes Orson Welles about spending 95% of his time running round in search of money, and 5% actually making films (which, thinking over Welles’ career, might actually understate the former number); and then once you get past that, there’s a pervasive sense that the 5% isn’t as scintillating as it used to be, that contemporary technologies and sensibilities have all but sucked the artistic soul out of it.

Last Tango in Paris/Tikrit

Looked at one way, it’s rather surprising how easily Seduced and Abandoned goes down. Toback certainly sublimates his creative personality here – there’s not much sign of the one-of-a-kind nerviness that powers such films as Fingers and Exposed (and even less of Toback’s own personal legend, encompassing just about every kind of addiction and compulsive behaviour known to science). But maybe this is exactly the point – that there’s almost no remaining room for that kind of character. This isn’t all about loss of nerve and vision by decision-makers. When he appeared on Baldwin’s podcast, Toback told a remarkable story about how, in the early 80’s, he persuaded a studio boss to put up the company money for Exposed only by personally paying him $2 million under the table; probably not the kind of governance that characterizes a sustainable business model. And Toback and Baldwin aren’t giving their prospective investors much to go on. Last Tango in Tikrit is barely more than a concept, apparently in no way nailed down as to form or style or content: of course, this works well as an engine for their adventures through Cannes, but it’s reasonable to ask: why would anyone realistically say yes to them?

The film avoids then becoming a mere screed at the avaricious ways of the financiers, spending just as much time charting a broader shift in film culture. The four directors interviewed – Bertolucci (whose Last Tango in Paris provides a particularly apt reference point for the film’s themes of cinematic bliss and pain), Coppola, Scorsese and Polanski – are all exemplars of accessible art cinema, their bodies of work overflowing with astonishing, indelible feats of composition, acting and revelation. Ryan Gosling (somewhat surprisingly) best sums up the difference when he describes much filmmaking now as a lifeless process of starting with a wide shot and moving mechanically in for the close-ups, progressively sapping whatever creative energy might have existed at the outset. Baldwin contrasts the confidence of Allen, happily letting actors change his scripts as they see fit, with directors of much less accomplishment who insist on sticking exactly to what’s on the page. The underlying dilution in character and confidence seems plain, reflecting the greater significance of big-budget films as corporate investments of strictly calculated risk. It’s worth noting though that this devolution isn’t just a story of cinema – you could chart much the same thing in politics, business, and perhaps most other areas of human accomplishment.

Resemblance to Death

 But of course, for whatever reason, the ins and outs of cinema seem to receive disproportionate attention. And the film ultimately works its way to a metaphysical meditation on this attraction, citing Norman Mailer’s claim that “Film is a phenomenon whose resemblance to death has been ignored for too long.” This leads to a series of reflections on one’s readiness to die, and to an ending that puts a facet of Mailer’s observation into action. More broadly though, Seduced and Abandoned lacks the sense of confrontation and full-blooded on-the-edge commitment that the writer seems to have had in mind, making the citation seem a bit opportunistic. Actually, the whole project has a similar catch-as-catch-can quality about it – presumably the only reason the interviewees include Diane Kruger, for instance, is that she was available.

But on this occasion, the somewhat ramshackle quality works. If you can’t make Last Tango in Tikrit, you can have more fun pretending to make it than in doing most other things in life, in conducting life itself as a creative act. In the end, despite the failure of the immediate goal, the seduction counts for more than the abandonment; you could easily imagine the two of them heading off on another adventure, whether it be to charm Rosie O’Donnell together, or to reform the New York prison system.

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