Toback: the new confessions

He doesn't do the drink or the drugs any more, but the life led by James Toback is still wild enough to fill several movie scripts (and now a diary).
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Consider these two lurid episodes, one from a screenplay, one from life. a) A young man is driving through a snowstorm with his girlfriend. He's going much too fast, and the car spins and overturns. Windows shatter, and a splinter of glass lodges in the woman's eye. She's howling with pain and fear, but the man is so aroused by their brush with death that, once they have fought their way through the drifts to a (deserted) police station, the couple end up copulating furiously on the floor.

b) A literature student, tempted by the exotic visions of madness in the books he's been reading, takes a massive dose - about a hundred sugar cubes, or twice the previously recorded maximum - of blue Sandoz laboratory LSD-25. Not surprisingly, his psyche explodes and he runs around town beserk for about a week until a compassionate biochemist holds him down and injects him with a mixture of heroin, Thorazine and mellaril that miraculously drags the boy back to earth.

So, which is the movie moment? In one sense, the latter - it is the climax of Harvard Man, a script written by James Toback which should be going into production this autumn; Barry Levinson (Disclosure) will produce and Toback himself will direct. In different senses, neither and / or both. The LSD flip-out and the crash were both actual passages from Toback's varsity days, but if they have the whiff of sensational fantasy about them, it's because his whole adult life has been lived under the sway of fiction and the pursuit of extreme experience - gambling, drugs, orgies. Conversely, his films have been dedicated to blurring, if not erasing, the boundaries between fiction and autobiography or other narratives of real life.

For example, there's a sickening scene in his debut film Fingers (1977) in which a tough club owner, caressing two women, suddenly cracks their heads together. What makes this sequence particularly grim is the casting. The tough guy is played by the sports star Jim Brown, who had been questioned by the police over half a dozen similar offenses. What makes it even nastier is Toback's revelation that when they were shooting, Brown suddenly decided not to fake the blow.

Given anecdotes like this, and given the pervasive savagery of his more confessional films (Fingers ends with a concert pianist, played by Harvey Keitel, ripping out the genitals of a criminal, played by the real-life gangster Tony Sirico), the prospect of meeting Toback is faintly alarming. Chances look good that he'll either stomp you, slip you a synapse-blasting microdot or bamboozle you out of your life savings.

The reality is rather more sedate. Now a year past 50, the age at which he once announced he planned to be a corpse, Toback is a large, genial and garrulous presence, more like a radical college professor (in his twenties he taught at City College of New York) than one of the existential thugs he likes to write about. He looks absurdly healthy for someone who has inflicted countless outrages on his body chemistry, and says that hasn't touched drugs, drinks or cigarettes in years, though the standard portrait of the reformed hell-raiser is tarnished slightly by the admission that he's still in thrall to gambling: "Unfortunately, because I don't think I have anything more to learn from it, and haven't for about 10 years now. It was tremendously educational - I don't think there's any other single activity from which it's possible to learn as much about oneself as gambling...

"It's the toughest addiction to stop because it fools you. It's very easy after catastrophic results [Toback has sometimes been in debt to the tune of more than a million dollars] and a two- or three-year vacation from it to step back in and make a fortune in two days. So you say to yourself, `What idiot was trying to talk me out of this?' And then three weeks later you realise that you're back into the insanity and you quit again."

Toback is passing through London to publicise his latest publication - a professional and personal diary of 1994, an eventful year in his life (but then, one suspects that few of his years are exactly humdrum), when he was ricocheting between writing three scripts - Harvard Man, Shrink and Vicky - each of them hopelessly overdue. The diary, which was commissioned by Faber for their annual film forum Projections, offers a swift, enjoyable read, and its indiscretions make it a lot more revealing than most such documents. It also, as one might expect, reads a little like a novel told in the first person, the subject of which is a man locked into the shame and remorse of incurable procrastination. Deadline after deadline, ultimatum after ultimatum goes by and our protagonist still doesn't finish the tasks that he knows are well within his powers. What's his problem?

"I've thought a lot about this, and I think what it comes down to is that, for me, making a movie or writing a script is a metaphor for living and dying - as long as you're still working on Harvard Man, you're still alive, the moment it 's finished you're dead. I do go into a total sense of depression and depletion at the end of any movie - I remember when Fingers was finished I went off to the beach at Key West and did nothing but stare at the ocean for two weeks like some zombie until I thought, `What is wrong with me?' And I realised that I had been treating Fingers not as a substitute for life but as life itself, and now it was over and there was nothing left."

For a while, it looked as though this sensation was not so far from the truth: the perfume company Faberg, which had produced the film after a series of negotiations and accidents too complex to relate here, loathed it and tried to shuffle it away from public sight. But Fingers drew some favourable reviews and won some influential fans, including Warren Beatty, with whose career Toback has been bound up ever since. Beatty commissioned him to write the script for Bugsy; he also made possible Toback's Love and Money, a movie which for a brief but heady period boasted the New Yorker critic Pauline Kael as a producer, and if Shrink ever gets completed Beatty will take the title role - that of a psychoanalyst who is wilder and crazier than any of his analysands, and gambles as compulsively as his creator.

The Toback filmography also includes his screenplay for Karel Reisz's The Gambler ("In many ways I was much more deeply immersed in gambling and debt than the character played by Jimmy Caan, because I was gambling over a much longer period, and if you do it for long enough, it really starts to rip things apart."), two other features as director (Exposed and The Pick-Up Artist) and the near-unclassifiable documentary The Big Bang, for which Toback gathered together a motley cast of 19 people - a gangster, a film producer, an Auschwitz survivor - and asked them to talk about large and ultimate questions.

The Big Bang remains his favourite film, partly because it confronts his deep dissatisfaction with the pat nature of scripted features, partly because it addresses problems he's been nagging at ever since that eight- day plunge into acid psychosis, and most of all because it was conceived in the spirit of the writer who "has been my main literary, psychological, philosophical inspiration since I first read him": Dostoyevsky.

"When I first read Dostoyevsky, I had the shock of feeling I was reading someone whose voice existed in my own mind. With Dostoyevsky, I felt `this person actually lives inside me'. I know that my gambling started because I understood his gambling and had to play it out." Unlike most such student crazes, Toback's Dostoyevsky fixation has lasted into mid-life, just as his undergraduate LSD freak-out remains a touchstone for all his subsequent experience. A 30-year apprenticeship to the Russian master plainly doesn't guarantee you the most conventional of movie careers, but it does seem to be helping Toback along in his unflagging quest for extremity. "The other week I was looking at a new biography of Dostoyevsky, and it was really frightening - it was like reading someone writing with clinical detachment about me."

n `Projections 4' is published by Faber at £9.99