News Column

'Seduced and Abandoned' review: Absurdity of film biz

October 25, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 25--Seduced and Abandoned: Documentary. 9 p.m. Monday on HBO.

There is so much irony and out and out lunacy in James Toback's "Seduced and Abandoned" that you could easily mistake it for a Christopher Guest mockumentary about the myopic absurdity of the film industry.

But every enlightening, poignant or funny word is true in the documentary airing Monday on HBO. The fact that it is so funny eventually becomes strangely sad, which makes the film thoroughly enjoyable but also irresistibly provocative.

The film follows Toback and actor Alec Baldwin as they go to Cannes during the 2012 film festival to obtain funding for a film inspired by Bernardo Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris." The new film will be called "Last Tango in Tikrit" and is meant to star Baldwin and actress Neve Campbell.

Toback, an Oscar nominee for the screenplay for "Bugsy," records Baldwin and himself trying to work potential backers at the festival. Before leaving for France, they assure Campbell that even if they are offered complete backing in exchange for casting a better known actress in the lead, they are committed to having Campbell co-star.

Remembering Brando

In France, Toback and Baldwin meet first with Bertolucci, who appreciates the irony that the meeting will take place in the Bertolucci suite at the hotel. Although forced to use a motorized wheelchair because of debilitating back problems, Bertolucci is brilliant, witty, expansive in his support for anyone wanting to make a great film and generous in sharing memories of Marlon Brando and "Last Tango."

Revealing that Brando didn't speak to the director for five years after "Tango" was released, Bertolucci is sure he knows why: "I stole from him so many sincere things," he says, by which he means that he got through Brando's defenses and elicited an especially raw and intimate performance from the actor.

Francis Ford Coppola, who also has a history with Brando, of course, recalls an earlier moment in his own career when he brought the deliciously quirky 1966 film "You're a Big Boy Now" to Cannes. "Then it became mean," Coppola says of the festival's later years.

From art to money

At first, Cannes was about the art of making film, but then it became about the industry as well. Some would argue that the festival and commercial filmmaking in general are mostly about money now, and that point of view will find no more ardent champions than the men and women who back films. They may speak of actors as "fantastic" or "sensational," but they readily confess they only care about making lucrative investments.

Toback reckons they'll need $20 million to $25 million, but one financier after another tells them that the Baldwin-Campbell casting downgrades it and makes it a $4 million to $5 million film. We have some interest in whether they'll get the money, but mostly because it's such a quixotic quest: The money trail is only a convenient path for Toback and Baldwin to follow as they explore the foibles of the film business.

In time, they meet with A-list actors Jessica Chastain, Diane Kruger and Ryan Gosling, among others. What about Campbell? Maybe they'll give her another part and she could get wounded, they propose to one potential backer who wants a bigger name in the lead role. Not kill her, mind you, maybe just wing her so she has to wear a sling.

In on the joke

The actors aren't fools. They know their own worth, which may be great one moment but minimal the next. Gosling tells a wonderful story about what an actor with little clout experiences auditioning for a part, knowing the part belongs to someone else but telling himself he's going through the motions as an acting exercise. Once an unknown actor living in West Hollywood, he remembers that particular act of self-delusion well.

The film takes its title from Baldwin's pronouncement that movies are "the world's worst lover. ... You are seduced and abandoned," yet you go back. And movies keep getting made to seduce and abandon you all over again. The abandonment may be disappointment, but it also may be that every film has to end, and when the great ones end, you are on your own again in the real world.

Always, the end

You are likely to be so captivated, charmed and amused by the rest of the film that when it takes a seemingly odd turn at the end, you may be confused. Abruptly, recognizing that they have been seduced and abandoned themselves, Toback and Baldwin ask various film artists and money men if they are prepared for their own demise.

Some of the answers are funny, others evasive, but they all have to do with Norman Mailer's observation that "film is a phenomenon whose resemblance to death has been ignored for too long." Every movie must end, just as every life must end. If art is an example of "Seduced and Abandoned," it is only imitating the nature of life and existence.

David Wiegand is The San Francisco Chronicle's executive features editor and TV critic. E-mail: dwiegand@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @WaitWhat_TV

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