Erich von Stroheim and Orson Welles were early, defining examples of the film director living like a work of art — larger than life, a wee bit self-destructive, and as entertaining as their movies. Yet looking, acting, and smelling like a great filmmaker doesn't necessarily mean you are one.
Nicholas Jarecki's The Outsider manages to just about completely avoid that troublesome issue. It leaves no doubt, however, that subject James Toback is a maverick, an auteur, and an original. The leap implied is that these inherently neutral designations imply quality, even greatness — not just, as Roger Ebert is noted as saying (in perhaps the closest the film comes to a critical evaluation), that anything of an off-the-beaten-track, personal nature is bound to be more "interesting" than whatever the studio assembly line spat out last weekend.
No argument there. But it would be ignoring what really does grab one's lapels about Toback's work to suggest (as The Outsider does) that he must make great films because they're unlike anyone else's. In fact, the reason he's been worth following for three decades or so is precisely because his work is often obnoxious, crackpot, and uneven at best and ouch-bad at worst. Toback's moments of garishly questionable judgment are sometimes world-class ones you can't forget.
After major druggy high jinks at Harvard and penning an infatuated book about Dionysian football legend Jim Brown, Toback wrote 1974's The Gambler, in which all his influences (the first being Dostoyevsky) and themes ("race, sex and risk") are laid out. It was about an intellectual (James Caan) driven by compulsion into gambling debts and other excesses that invite criminal violence — pretty much the quintessential Toback plot, someone notes in The Outsider, and one he's happy to confirm as quasi-autobiographical.
A similar scenario went into hyperdrive in 1971's Fingers, his first and still best directorial effort. Recently remade as the French film The Beat That My Heart Skipped, this electric genre-mauling had frequent collaborator Harvey Keitel bouncing off the walls of his inner Dr. Jekyll (concert pianist) and Mr. Hyde (psychotic mob enforcer). It remains crazy in a good way. Which could not be said of the international intrigues Love and Money (alas, there's no footage of him wrangling on-set with Klaus Kinski) and Exposed. The latter featured unlikely corn-fed Midwesterner Nastassja Kinski's encounters with terrorism, fashion modeling, and a Rudolf Nureyev struggling to convey blaze-hot heterosexuality in a uniquely constipated way. Like his friend Norman Mailer, Toback often regards women with a combination of Penthouse slobbering and Freudian horror; it's too bad the documentary doesn't ask any of his more recklessly messed-around actresses for their two cents.
It's a mighty spotty oeuvre. His more commercial stabs (The Pick-Up Artist, Harvard Man) are just poor entertainment; a smart screenplay for Bugsy was undermined by the wrong star (Warren Beatty) and director (Barry Levinson). The Big Bang was a look-who-I-know cocktail party masquerading as philosophical inquiry. Highly "personal projects" Black and White and Two Girls and a Guy gave Robert Downey Jr. way too much rope while giving me cause to repeatedly bang my head against the wall. Many of these films are playing at the Roxie in conjunction with Jarecki's portrait. Knock yourself out.