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A Lifetime Seduction

Screenwriter and director James Toback has long been regarded as one of the most original and exciting talents in American film. He's been a lover of classical music all his life. BRIAN KELLOW reports.

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Speaking at a book discussion at Borders Books & Music, 2009
© Jemal Countess/Getty Images 2013
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With actor and colleague Alec Baldwin
© Stephen Morton/Getty Images 2013
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Toback, movie-maker and opera-lover
© François Durand/Getty Images 2013

James Toback has one of the most highly individual careers of any modern movie director. A former professor at New York City College, he burst onto the film scene in 1974 with his compelling screenplay for Karel Reisz's The Gambler, starring James Caan. A string of highly personal movies in the highly personal moviemaking era of the 1970s and early '80s followed — Fingers (1978), Love and Money (1982), Exposed (1983). Toback moved into more mainstream territory with The Pick-Up Artist (1987), starring Robert Downey, Jr., and his script for Barry Levinson's Bugsy (1991). Toback's imaginative documentary Tyson was inexplicably snubbed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in its 2008 nominations. Now he has teamed up with Alec Baldwin — New York magazine calls them "an unlikely gonzo filmmaking duo" — to create Seduced and Abandoned, a documentary about the Cannes Film Festival scheduled for release this summer.

OPERA NEWS: Do you have a memory of the first major piece of music that ever took hold of you?

JAMES TOBACK: I do, and it's interesting, because it was Mozart's Fortieth Symphony, and Mozart became somewhat marginalized in my musical canon in due course. So it's odd it was he who first hooked me. It was through my Viennese nurse/governess, Sophie Schwartz. There was music all the time coming from her, mainly Mozart and Mahler, who were Viennese icons. I didn't take to Mahler as quickly as I did to Mozart, although Mahler later became my favorite composer. I was eager to become a great composer, concert pianist, conductor, but I never had inordinate talent. It didn't stop me, because I wasn't aware of how unlikely it was that somebody who wasn't an absolute prodigy at the age of four, five, six or seven was ever going to be more than a mediocrity at best. 

The music died hard, though. I really was having what I would call religious experiences listening to the composers who really took me over — Mahler, Shostakovich, Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, Bruckner, as well as, at that point, my two favorite contemporary composers, Copland and Bernstein. It was the absolute transcendent experience I had with the first movement of Copland's Clarinet Concerto that made me know that there was something going on there that I had to, on some level, get connected with Aaron. A close friend of mine lived in Peekskill in the summers, and we went over. Unlike Jackie Gleason, who was also a Peekskill resident and who was militantly, abusively unfriendly when I tried to go to his house and meet him, Aaron was immensely friendly. We struck up a serious musical, personal relationship very quickly. He wrote me these great letters, and he was a terrific inspirational figure. First of all, he was massively opinionated about music and contemptuous of people that in public he was quite polite about. I once asked him who he thought the greatest composer who ever lived was, and he said there are three giants who stand above everyone else — Bach, Beethoven and Stravinsky. I actually responded to that by saying, "I like you better than I like Stravinsky." And he let out a howl of laughter, which I think was partly affection and appreciation and partly sympathy with my musical ignorance. 

He did not have an overwhelming love for either Bernstein or Leinsdorf, both of whom played his music — particularly Bernstein, and he publicly always was very friendly with Lenny, but I think as a composer he regarded him as imitative and derivative of Aaron. I told him I love The Age of Anxiety, and there was a sort of silence when I said it. I realized he thought it was a weaker version of him and his works. 

I used the Copland Clarinet Concerto in Love and Money. That was an interesting thing. I don't even know if the reason that was presented to me was true or not, but my recollection is that the only recording at the time that was available was the Benny Goodman recording with the Columbia Symphony, with Aaron conducting. Benny Goodman commissioned the piece. According to whoever was in charge of getting rights, Benny didn't believe in nudity in a movie, and when he found out that there was nudity in the movie, he refused to sell the rights. Whether that's true or not, I don't know. I do know I was confronted with a reality that there could be no Benny Goodman recording of the Copland Clarinet Concerto. So I didn't know what to do. 

I hadn't been in touch with Aaron in several years. I called his manager to find out where he was, and he said, "Well, what is it about? It's best if you talk to me." And I told him, and he said, "The ideal thing would be to get Aaron to conduct it for you, because there's no other recording right now. We'll probably use the Brooklyn Philharmonic — they're very good, they're inexpensive, and he likes them. Now I warn you in advance, he's lost all awareness of everything except music. So he will not know who you are." I said, "Believe me, he'll know who I am. We have a lot of long, deep, serious connections." He said, "He will not know who you are. I speak to him every day, and he doesn't know who I am when I call him in the morning, but he is musically 100 percent there, and if you put a score in front of him and an orchestra, he will not only conduct according to the score, he will conduct according to his interpretation of the score, which he, if he doesn't know the piece already, will feel his way into the score. He's musically as sharp as he's ever been." 

I still didn't believe he wouldn't know me. So we go for the recording session, and he says, "Hello. Nice to meet you." And he looks very good for his age. I said, "While you're at it, I need to get a recording of the Fifth Bach Brandenburg, which I'm also using. Do you think he'd be interested in conducting Bach?" He said, "I think he'd love it, because I know he never has, and I think it'd be a real challenge." So we decided to do both. So, in the morning, he conducts the Clarinet Concerto's first movement. He comes back to the room, and he listens to the playback. He says, "Marvelous performance. Who conducted that?" and I said, 'You did." And he said, "When?" and I said, "Just now. Ten minutes ago." And he nodded, as if it were perfectly acceptable not to recognize. So then we broke, and he had lunch with his manager, and in the afternoon he did the Bach Brandenburg. Somewhere I have the recording. It is done at an unheard of, stately, pace. It's magisterial and magnificent. Then he comes back and listens to the playback of that recording. He says, "Very original interpretation of Bach. I don't think I've heard Bach done that way. Who conducted that?" I said, "You did." 

We went to the Harvard Club for dinner, and it was mobbed. The whole dinner he was just not there — it was impossible to have a conversation of any kind, and I refused to just accept it, so I came up with a kind of radical idea. I knew, in a rather vivid way, of a lot of extremely specific, erotic actions/episodes that involved him, and I started recounting them in a very matter-of-fact, quiet voice. One lurid, erotic detail after another. Five minutes into this rendition of erotica, he lets out this howl of laughter and says, "My! What a memory you have." So it got through. Three minutes later, he had no clue where he was or what he was doing. What always fascinated me about it was the separation in the brain of his musical genius from every other part of his consciousness.

ON: I love the scene in Fingers, in which the concert pianist played by Harvey Keitel flubs his Carnegie Hall audition. Did you go back and forth over which piece to use for that scene?

JT: No. I always knew I would use the Bach E-Minor Toccata, because I thought it's both the slow and the fast, lento and allegro, different extremes. I thought, this is a great place for him to screw up, because I wanted that moment where he would try and slow down and get it right and still couldn't do it, because I was always told to relax, slow down, no matter how absurd, to get the fingering right, and then work your way back to where you control it, and even that didn't work. I thought that was a great place for that to happen.

ON: What do you think the music of New Yorkis now? Does anything spring to mind as appropriate background music for the city, as Gershwin's once was?

JT: I actually thought, when I did my movie Black and White, which was ten years ago, that Wu-Tang Clan had become the music of New York City. And I would still say that some form of hip-hop is the dominant sound in New York, and it's the dominant sound because it's no longer black, it's no longer ghetto-ized, it's pervasive among people between the ages of five and forty. 

ON: Do you think that naturalism, or some attempt at realism, is compatible with opera?

JT: Absolutely not. And it's interesting you say that, because I was an opera fanatic all through my high-school years. I had a subscription to the old Met, which was the greatest musical hall, ever, and I've been through most of them around the world. I loved Wagner, and I saw a great Tristan at the Met with Karl Liebl and Birgit Nilsson. Here's what I remember very vividly. When he's dying — first of all, he was shorter than she was. Secondly, he had a rather big potbelly, and he's lying there with the potbelly in the air, and she's distraught over his death, and yet I completely went with it, because of the music and the occasion. And I remember thinking, "It's irrelevant." The naturalistic phenomenon that one would insist on in a movie — in an opera you just give it up. Because of their singing, you absolutely bought it. 

ON: As a film director, how do you feel about the current interest in marketing opera as a director's medium?

JT: I think that it is potentially a great idea. I've never seen it done in the way I would do it. I would love to go to Bayreuth and interview the different members of the family, particularly get some of the squabbling that's still going on, go into Wagner's history and relationship to Bayreuth, intercut it with rehearsals, let that be the first hour of the movie, and then have the rest of the entire production done, so you have a four-and-a-half-hour movie, and you'd shoot the entire performance from many, many different angles, including backstage, including the audience, including outside — so you can make a real overall cinematically inventive vision of the experience at Bayreuth, which I consider to be one of the great places to go on earth. I haven't been there in years. Is it air conditioned now? I remember being there when it was about ninety-eight degrees, but I didn't really mind. After about ten minutes I looked as if I had just come out of the ocean and then was absolutely transformed. spacer 

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Current Issue: January 2015 — VOL. 79, NO. 6