Black and White
Someday James Toback may actually do what he's always promising, to make America's first great all-out sex movie. Maybe it will be his next project, recently greenlighted, a fictionalized version of his own drugs-and-Dionsyian days circa 1970 at tawdry Harvard University. Until now, we've got to thank him for some fine soft-X sequences sprinkled through his pictures, though the hottest of the hot of these Toback, you blatant sexist pig! are "menage a trois" male fantasies: footballer Jim Brown with two chicks chewing on his chest in Fingers; Robert Downey, Jr., doing his post-Last Tango lessons on Heather Graham as moist Natasha Gregson Wagner lounges about in Two Girls and a Guy; and the super fly-open opening, girl-on-girl kissing and finger-probing of white high-schoolers with a black rapper, in Toback's new, typically out-there, sometimes wildly entertaining, Black and White.
It's not only sex which obsesses this outrageous writer-filmmaker: in Black and White, James Toback tackles race in contemporary America! ("Skip" Gates and Cornell West, move over?) Much of the movie takes place in his fantasy version of rapperland, a New York apartment where a collective of young African-Americans practice their raw street poetry amidst the distractions of elephantine TV screens and sprawled-about takeout food, exploitative white producers (Toback himself in a spirited co-star turn), ditsy white documentarians (a hilarious duo of Brooke Shields and Downey, Jr.), white anthropologists (model Claudia Schiffer, stiff as an academic femme fatale), white undercover cops (a fabulously sleazy, motormouth Ben Stiller), and white teen groupies (Bijou Phillips, Jared Leto, ex-Ford Model Kim Matulova).
It's the last group which most has Toback's sympathies. Himself a sort of Maileresque "White Negro" hipster, Toback certainly relates to their desire to walk and talk and gesture black. For his lead teen, he's uncovered a mini-star in the mini-skirted, uninhibited Phillips with her Natalie Wood demeanor, gold tooth, and masterful hip-hop lingo; and the best of Black and White's improvised screenplay is located in the amazing, anti-standard English sentence structures emanating from his much-integrated cast: "It was a chill mellow environment until you showed up" and "There's some disrespect goin' down."
Black and White falters a bit when it turns sociological and neorealist with plot: a contrived storyline runs through involving a black basketball player (the Knicks' Allan Houston) and his decision whether or not to take a $50,000 bribe and shave points. Toback's movie is far more successful when his cast just lets go: a colorful screwball scene in which Downey, Jr.'s character, barely in the closet, cruises a cute young guy on the Staten Island ferry; some startling set pieces in which Mike Tyson as Himself spars linguistically with the actors. The ex-champ's oratory is extraordinarily heavyweight: "This is what I'm deciphering from your vernacular," he explains to a rapper, adding "I'm fastidious with my words."
When we conversed at last fall's Toronto International Film Festival, I told Toback (who's the most entertaining interviewee I know) how impressed I was by Tyson's conversation. He, of course, smiled and agreed. "What's the point in me writing dialogue for him? How am I going to get dialogue half as good as that? I've done a full 180 degrees on improvisation, and I don't think anyone else does that amount.The most interesting moments in my movies in the last four years have been outside my scripts. It's embarrassingly idiotic to choke off actor impulses when later you can be God in the editing room. What are you afraid of? If you're that uninterested in what they invent, why are you using them?
"We shot widescreen super 35mm, with a Steadicam going all the time. It had to be quick, jagged, like the lifestyle. Ben, Brooke, Bijou Phillips, they're all fast talkers, fast movers. The cameraman, David Ferrara, is a fucking genius. I couldn't have a conventional cameraman. Caleb Deschanel had a protege I liked but then he said, 'I'm a little nervous without a script.' Then I said, 'OK, you won't be shooting it.'"
I wanted to know about Robert Downey, Jr., who, in earlier movies, The Pickup Artist and Two Girls and a Guy, has been an obvious stand-in for the famously womanizing Toback. (The first time we met, years ago in Cambridge, our Casablanca lunch was mostly Toback-in-fever hustling our waitress.) But this time, Downey plays swishy and passive, and comes out at the end. Is that Toback's tale?
"The story made me look at gay behaviour. I had to look in the mirror and squint and examine my gay possibilities," Toback instantly admits. "Mike Tyson calls Downey a 'cum-drinker,' and Downey finally says, 'Mike was right! I'm a cum-guzzler!' Downey's got a serious gay self in there. I think there was more than an idle desire to do this role."
How it came about was cozily buddy-buddy. "We were lying on my hotel bed in LA. It's a small room. 4 AM. I'm exhausted. Downey: 'What do you want me to play? What if I'm the husband of Brooke Shields?' I say she doesn't have one. He says, 'What if she does? What if I'm the gay husband? In fact, what if I'm the gay husband who is compulsively cruising?'"
Toback readily agreed, which set up Black and White's most explosive scene, where the effete Downey smooths up to Tyson. The sequence, as usual, was improvised, and, according to Toback, the ex-pugilist didn't know that Downey was going to say, flirtatiously, that he'd dreamed that Tyson was holding him! "Robert asked, 'What if he kills me?' I said, 'It's a great way to go out!'"
Well, the horrified Tyson did slap Downey and choke him. It's all there in Black and White. Otherwise, Toback indicated, the former champ was a pleasure to work with. "He's a great guy, a very decent, generous guy. He's enormously complex. We have compatible senses of humor and many philosophical discussions. He's obsessed with philosophy death, loss of self, the lurking sense of chaos underneath. As for violent behaviour in terms of women, I haven't seen that side of Mike."
And his other ex-incarcerated actor, the drug-plagued Downey? "What you get from Robert is that he's living outside of society's laws. He's heroically oblivious to what is expected of him. The last thing he wants is pity. We're very, very close, and I've said to him, 'When you want to get high, go to Amsterdam. Treat yourself to a week of indulgence.' That way he could get high without going to jail."
What about his unlikely casting of Brooke Shields as a rastah-haired filmmaker racing through the New York streets with her digital camera, gay husband always a step behind her? "I felt she was perfect in this part, and she came out of the closet with a charge! No mamma! No Agassiz! Her sexuality in the movie is quite fascinating. She's married to a queen. She wants either a man who dominates her or a guy she can bend and fuck. She ends up with Elijah Wood, seven inches shorter, on his toes kissing her. A very passionate tongue kiss."
And Allan Houston, the Knicks' gentlemanly guard, as the unsure-of-himself basketballer who becomes willing to throw a game? Toback had thought of Allen Iverson or Steffan Marbury. They had too much swagger. "Houston definitely took a different turn in the road. He's more obedient and respectful. He has that in his breeding. He's only half at home on the basketball court. That's why, in the movie, he's the one who sinks himself, seduced by temptation."
Finally, what of his big discovery, Bijou Phillips, daughter of ex-Mamas and the Papas' musician, John Phillips? "She has everything! She's cute, pretty, a dymano, hilarious, naturally hysteric and wild. She says what's exactly on her mind all the time. If your attention isn't on her, 'JIM! JIM! Come over here! I'm not having any fun!' She's Natasha Wagner but faster and bigger, She's 5'8" and ready to provoke at any moment. Hip-hop is just one of her many sides."
And Bijou's generation? "For these kids, 14-24, they're into fucking and music and, in a way, race doesn't exist. Race is a divisive, unreal concept." Toback hopes that Black and White is for them, especially with the ultra-cool Wu Tang Clan soundtrack. "It should attract a very strong young hip white audience, a very strong young hip black audience, also an intellectually-inclined older white audience, not into hip-hop per se, who like the ambitiousness of the movie, the newness of the movie."
Pauline Kael, a longtime Toback friend and booster, was less than overwhelmed by parts of his last Two Girls and a Guy, and she told him abruptly, "You're not going to get away with that ending." At the time of our interview, he'd stopped talking to her. "At least initially, she could have asked me a question about it, saying 'I was with you until there.'" Bruised, he was bracing himself for hostility to Black and White.
"There will be people shaken by the quick series of aggressive actions, by being confronted by new and insistent lifestyles, by the black hip-hop guy with the two white girls finger fucking each other, in public, casually, in Central Park. But I'm not interested in a porno movie because there's no point in making what won't be distributed. It's in the contract: deliver an R! That's sexual censorship, and it took Eyes Wide Shut to bring to the fore what every idiot knows.
"I've got a four-hour version of this movie, what I call my Wagnerian cut. But the release is one hour and forty minutes. I had to change one shot, though my actors were totally with it, without discussion."
Yes, the lesbian finger-fucking. "Bijou's elbow was sawing away and they said, 'You have eight elbow jerks.' The MPAA. "So I took that shot out and replaced it with just Bijou's finger moving."
No closeup? Toback sighs about a Black and White opportunity missed for his Columbia Pictures release. "We didn't have a vaginal camera on Kim Matulova."