Seduced and Abandoned is not to be confused with the classic Italian film directed by Pietro Germi that came out in 1964, but I doubt you’ll be fooled after five minutes into the picture. No, this 2013 release is a movie that purports to make a statement on the state of filmmaking today. At the same time, it’s also one of those movies where the filmmakers don’t realize that the statement they are making may not actually be the statement they are making.
The basic premise of this semi-documentary revolves around director James Toback and actor Alec Baldwin taking an idea they have for a movie to the Cannes Film Festival and seeing if they can get someone to fork over $40 to $50 million to make it (and no, before you ask, they are not punking anyone; they are quite serious). When they don’t get the support they think they deserve, they then suggest that this is what is wrong with film financing today—no one is willing to take a chance and produce a work of art; they are only interested in the bottom line.
But let’s take a closer look at what is going on here. A director with a small cult following, but who really isn’t that impressive a filmmaker (for anyone who wants proof of this, watch Toback’s movie Fingers and then watch Jacque Audiard’s French remake of it, The Beat that My Heart Skipped, and one can immediately see what I mean), takes an idea (not even a completed script, but the barest of bones of a gleam in a father’s eye) that is to star Alec Baldwin and Neve Campbell (Neve Campbell? Really?) and pitches said idea to seasoned producers. The idea? (And please try not to chortle and disrupt the audience members around you as I did): Last Tango in Baghdad (I told you, no chortling), the story of two people, a war haunted U.S. agent and a liberal journalist, who meet for a series of sexual encounters in a hotel room in the war torn city.
No, I am not making this up—that’s the idea. Actually, I’m being a bit harder on it that it deserves. There’s nothing that wrong with the premise. It’s perfectly serviceable and with the right screenwriter, there’s no reason it couldn’t be a good movie. But for me, things start going off the road a bit the second they started pitching it as a Last Tango rip off. In fact, the moments with the most humor in this faux-doc are the scenes Toback shows from that once, but no longer, scandalous movie—like Brando asking Maria Schneider to stick her fingers up his ass (at least they didn’t do the “pass the butter” scene); it’s unfortunate for Toback that Last Tango… hasn’t, unlike cheese, aged that well.
The other issue is that Toback and Baldwin pitch this idea as if it were the most original and daring idea in the world, that they are going to break new sexual ground and create something really scandalous; a statement that could only be made by people who have never seen a movie like 9 Songs where you actually see, in pornographic detail, a man and woman have sex, including cum shots. Now, are Baldwin and Campbell going to break new ground here by pulling a James Deen (no, not the actor, the porn star—notice the spelling of the name) and Joanna Angel? Why do I suspect not?
So what do we have? We have a second rate filmmaker, with barely an idea for a movie (and hasn’t been written yet), and an idea that’s not that original and with a lousy pitch, to star two non-bankable actors; and yet, Toback and Baldwin are shocked, shocked (in their very best Captain Louis Renault manner) that they can’t get $40 to $50 million in financing. Hence, their conclusion that something is rotten in the state of moviemaking. Meanwhile, I’m in the audience going, Uh, guys, you do realize that the only thing you’ve proven is that the guys out there financing films can smell a lemon a mile away? In fact, rather than demonstrate that something’s gone wrong in France’s version of tinsel town, Seduced and Abandoned ironically suggests that the future of movies is in sound hands.
Which is too bad. Because I actually think that Tobac and Baldwin are right. In many ways, I agree with the basic premise presented here. I do think that producers are too interested in the bottom line with little to no regard for the art of film (a huge change since the growth of independent film in the 1990’s). It is just unfortunate that Toback and Baldwin have chosen a less than stellar example to prove it.
And they seem so behind the times. They don’t explore how many contemporary filmmakers are finding money to make their films. In fact, there are no contemporary filmmakers in the movie. They interview Francis Ford Coppola, but not his daughter Sofia, who is one of the most exciting directors in film today (and seems to have less problems finding backing for her film than her father, or Toback). They talk to Martin Scorcese, but not such up and comers as Shane Carruth, Benh Zeitlin or Martin McDonough, all of whom are making some incredible films. The only contemporary artists they talk to are actors like Ryan Gosling and Jessica Chastain, all of whom have insightful things to say about what it’s like to be an actor today, but nothing about how to get a movie made.
There’s just something so false about the whole thing. Not only does the movie they are promoting never seem quite real (it’s all so vague, one wonders how they ever got the time of day from any financier to pitch it), it starts out with Toback telling Campbell that she is in the movie and nothing will stop that from happening. You know this scene is there for only one reason: so that at the first opportunity, Toback can make a satirical point by telling just about the first person he negotiates with that he will gladly jettison Neve for Jessica if they can agree upon a price. But again, it feels so fake, it’s hard to take seriously.
There is one other aspect of the film that gives a lie to Toback’s premise. When they decide to scale back the film and make it about these two people meeting in New York after both have left the war zone, yet are still scarred by their experiences, and meeting for sex at that point, they suddenly get offers left and right for a $4 to $5 million dollar film. Not only does the film now sound more interesting, Toback has found a way to finance his movie. It’s not his original vision, no; but then again, his original vision wasn’t worth $40 to $50 million in the first place.
Toback may be saying that these money men know how to make a profit, but nothing about art, but to be ruthlessly honest, I think he kind of unintentionally proved they knew both.