For director, it was all in the digits

French remake of Toback film is a satisfying stretch of the `Fingers'


August 07, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Writer-director James Toback is equally euphoric and enraged over the reaction to French director Jacques Audiard's The Beat That My Heart Skipped, which opened Friday at the Charles Theatre.

Euphoric, because Audiard has remade Toback's one-of-a-kind cult movie Fingers (1978) in a way that honors its source with its own verve and originality.

Enraged, because some of the new movie's fans, who never got Toback's work, have contended that it improves on Toback's film by making the plot more "realistic."

"Realistic?" Toback asks incredulous, over the phone from New York. "It didn't throw me out of the movie, but if the hero acted in real life as he does at the end of Jacques' picture, he wouldn't last another 24 hours."

Otherwise, there's a poetic rightness to the way Fingers haunted Audiard for a quarter-century and compelled him to create this variation on it.

Toback composed this story of a pianist/mob collector in the kind of aesthetic transport that Samuel Taylor Coleridge made famous when he dreamed up "Kubla Khan."

"I wrote Fingers in a fever," Toback recalls. "I did the first draft on a single red-eye flight. It came out of the sense of taking a character and just going with him."

What would happen, Toback wondered, if an artistic mother - a concert pianist, say - and a hardened criminal - such as a loan shark - had a son?

That central question hatched a series of others. "What if he were trying to become the pianist he was never able to become just when he connects, or thinks he connects, to a girl who's involved with a man as imposing as Jim Brown [the legendary running back and sometime movie star who plays a club owner called Dreems]? And what happens if his father then coerces him to make a dangerous collection when he's juggling all these elements in his life?"

A `recording secretary'

With a protagonist who hoped to unite the farthest reaches of the physical and the aesthetic life - from landing his dream woman (Tisa Farrow), even if she belonged to a man named Dreems, to performing Bach's Toccata in E Minor - Fingers summed up the wildest, most disreputable aspirations of the young cineastes of the '70s. Unlike The Beat That My Heart Skipped, which doesn't even attempt to duplicate the Jim Brown figure, Fingers thrived on volatile racial, sexual and cultural divisions.

But for Toback, it was simply a movie about a boy-man caught in an Oedipal grip and struggling to find his way out of it by pursuing his obsessions. "Each incident provoked the next one. It was as if, as I was writing, I was observing this guy's behavior in my mind - and I was just, as one of the crooked union goons says in On The Waterfront, `the recording secretary.' "

Since then, Toback has experienced that process again and again. "It lasts only four or five hours, and I'm glad if I can get a couple of scenes out of it. But Fingers came out fully hatched; I did very little correcting on it. Whatever improvisation there was went on in my head."

Fingers (now available on Warner DVD) has overshadowed the rest of Toback's career (including his engaging cosmic 1990 documentary The Big Bang, his crafty, juicy script for Barry Levinson's 1991 Bugsy, and his raffish 2000 racial-sexual melodrama Black and White) because critics assumed a greater identification between the director and the hero than Toback intended.

They often depicted Fingers as a grotty sort of wish fulfillment.

It was as if any character as sexually curious as Harvey Keitel's Jimmy would have to provide his writer-director with vicarious satisfaction. Throughout his career, starting with his script to Karel Reisz's The Gambler (1974) and continuing with Fingers and beyond, Toback has suffered from the Uriah Heep-ish critical view that explorations of the demimonde are projections of a writer or director's fantasies, not his or her insights into extreme experience.

Sex, crime and music

It's a particularly egregious approach to Toback, who entered public life with a slender yet incendiary 1971 volume called Jim: The Author's Self-Centered Memoir on the Great Jim Brown. It recounted, among other things, Harvard-man Toback's marital breakup with the granddaughter of the Duke of Marlborough (a grandniece of Winston Churchill) while he was researching a proposed Esquire profile of the fabled football star, media celebrity and force for black empowerment. .

Becoming a part of Brown's fast-lane L.A. life, Toback regained his existential equilibrium. The reporter-subject relationship evolved into a lasting friendship, and a book that was ultimately about cross-racial brotherhood.

In fact, Toback was living in Jim Brown's house during the era in which Brown was routinely charged with violence or abuse resembling the sadism that he exhibits in Fingers - although Toback says he observed nothing of that in his friend's personality.

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