When James Toback's first directorial effort, Fingers (1978), was panned by several influential critics during its original theatrical release, author Norman Mailer had one piece of advice for his filmmaker friend: if you keep working, you'll outlast the critics.
James Toback isn't wholly a rebel or a maverick; he's had films released by studios, enjoyed the accolades from Bugsy (1991), his best-known script, and most of his films have been released on home video on one format or another. Unlike fellow New Yorker Abel Ferrara, however, Toback's films are more accessible, less narrative-challenged, and his fixations on gambling, crime, and smart guys making stupid, self-destructive choices are integrated into each story in a less indulgent manor, and they often enhance deeply flawed characters like Bugsy Siegel.
Both Ferrara and Toback share an interest in raunchy behaviour, sexual aggressiveness, and volumes of profane dialogue, as well as classical and contemporary art, and the schizophrenic use of classical and contemporary urban music in one soundtrack, but unlike Ferrara's street smart roots, Toback came from a privileged family, graduated from Harvard with honors, edited the university paper, taught classes, and penned a frank portrait of actor/athlete Jim Brown prior to filmmaking.
Toback's obsessive personality also led him to explore drugs, booze, and chain smoke cigarettes, but he's also been able to dump those addictions, with gambling and filmmaking being his primary and occasionally synergistic indulgences. He's more addicted to taking risks on film, guiding his actors through dark characterizations, and accepting challenging assignments like When Will I Be Loved (2004), which had to be shot in 12 days, and completed within 3 weeks.
Nicholas Jarecki's documentary, The Outsider: a film about James Toback, began as a fly-on-the-wall project, but it slowly developed into a rich and inspirational portrait of a filmmaker as seen through Jarecki's camera, and via incisive and mostly unguarded peripheral interviews with colleagues, mentors, collaborators, fiends, Toback's unofficial support network, his critics, and peers.
Jarecki spent about a year editing and re-editing his film, and with the exception of a minor lull near the end (during the post-production segments), this is an extremely vibrant examination of a filmmaker who's very open about his weaknesses, fixations, and personal triumphs. Chapters on each day's filming, post-production (editing, scoring, mixing, and timing) and finding a distributor are broken up with related comments from diverse interviews, plus clips from Toback's major works.
The structure of The Outsider is a textbook example on how to take a familiar concept, and through journalistic/fan curiosity, establish a new standard in film-centric documentaries; for all the hype that surrounded the dopey reality TV series On the Lot (2007), Jarecki's doc has more realism, creativity, and professional insight guaranteed to inspire burgeoning filmmakers. Like his best-selling book, Breaking In: How 20 Film Directors Got Their Start, The Outsider is designed to educate and inspire, and Jarecki applies the same careful attention to his commentary track – one of two that appear on the DVD.
The sleeve art makes no mention of any extras, but Westlake 's DVD is loaded with good stuff. Jarecki's commentary track is notable for the director's own deconstruction of his film – what works, what didn't, and what editorial changes were made to fix problems – and characterizing his feature film debut as a perfectly cheap way to make a movie: be a one-man operation with a camera trained on real-life subjects, and you're good to go.
That's an over-simplification (the film is loaded with expensive film clips, major period songs, and fine original jazz cuts by Jim McGrath), but the message is be smart, treat your subject with respect, and shoot whatever the hell you can; all the post-production elements will eventually fall into place, and the film will get done.
Ironically, like When Will I be Loved, where Jarecki ran into a roadblock was getting a distributor for his own film; it's a bizarre dilemma considering its intriguing content, but like Toback's movie, it was regarded as a hard sell and took a strange length of time to find a home.
Toback's commentary track is also engaging, but besides fans, others might want to take it in small doses; unlike his appearance in the film (which has been edited from raw materials), Toback's voice is deadly monotone, and regardless of his views on the doc, on himself, and his work, the lack of spontaneity in his voice turns the track into a heavy drone.
Also included are over 90 mins. of extra material; some of it's longer edits of scenes detailed in Jarecki's commentary, or genuine deleted scenes. The rest are extracts from raw interviews, which offer more or less vital but occasionally worthwhile views. The most amusing (and unintentionally so) section has Robert Downey, Jr. repeating a few anecdotes almost verbatim, and with the same earnestness that makes each take seem fresh.
The Outsider is great stuff, and one is consistently amazed when another icon glides into the narrative (Woody Allen, Norman Mailer, Robert Towne, Barry Levinson), and deepens the nutty, ego-filled filmmaking process.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan