Thursday, August 27, 2009
Length: 89 minutes
Writer/Director: James Toback
Cast: Harvey Keitel, Michael V. Gazzo, Tisa Farrow, Jim Brown, Danny Aiello, Tanya Roberts, Anthony Sirico, Dominic Chianese
The perfectly adequate new HBO series HUNG is all about protagonist Ray Drecker's other-worldly huge dong. It enchants all who lay eyes upon it and it dangles freely over every aspect of his life; most notably, his decision to use his wangasaurus sex to stack up paper in the recession by becoming a male prostitute. Yet, in a rare moment of pay cable restraint, his cock has yet to be unsheathed for the home audience. According to the producers, this was a conscious choice since revealing this magical penis would rob it of it's mystical superhuman qualities as no actual cock (real or prosthetic) could possibly be as groovy and gratifying as the cocks' we constantly build in the throbbing tower of our own mind's eye hole. Essentially his member is a kind of Cock Me Deadly/Pulp Fucktion suitcase type deal, we know he's packing something special in there, but special how? Long and thick? Veiny? Mushroom head or Gregorian monk? Enquiring minds demand to know.
Harvey Keitel, on the other hand, has rarely been so coy about whipping it out. With his fly-breaking work in modern classics such as Abel Ferrara's ode to ugliness BAD LIEUTENANT, Jane Champion's multi-Oscar winning THE PIANO and Theo Angelopoulos' artsy fartsy blow bartsy ULYSSES' GAZE, Keitel almost single handily brought full-frontal male nudity into the American mainstream. Since Harvey's early to mid 90s triumvirate of penis showing, male nudity has become increasingly prevalent in mainstream movies from the collected works of Ewang McGregor to the comedy penises of Jason Segel in FORGETTING SARA MARSHALL and the fat dude sporting a GG Allin Denny's Sausage in OBSERVE AND REPORT.
However, being the Rosa Parks of cock-revealing can have its limitations and nowhere is this more apparent than in his lead performance as Jimmy Fingers in James Toback's ode to his own penis FINGERS. You see Jimmy Fingers is a passionate thoughtful conflicted young schizophrenic who is torn between the violent underworld of his life as a mobster's son and his desire to play piano at Carnegie Hall like his crazy old mom. Hanging over this parental schism is the fact that Jimmy Fingers is constantly horny as hell because he has a prostate problem where every time he ejaculates it hurts like fuck. He finally gets his ass checked out by a proctologist who helps to cure him of his constipation issues and also maybe to allude to his latent homosexuality. But this relief is only temporary as he is emasculated later on by having Jim Brown make out with the girl he crushing on. Harvey Keitel's penis just can't catch a break, except for the really weird scene where he has 30 seconds of heaven with Tanya Roberts in a women's room for one of the most repulsive and indulgent sex scenes I've seen in a while. For the most part, he's ruled by his disagreeable cock and it makes his life a living hell, yet even though Jimmy Finger's penis is the catalyst to pretty much all his actions in one way or another, we thankfully never get to see it ourselves, even though I was expecting Harvey to pull a himself at any given moment and show us the goods. Here's him getting a finger (note the title motif!) shoved up his ass.
He also walks around at all times of day with a tape player playing insanely irritating doo wop like some kinda Proto-Radio Raheem. He is particularly fond of playing the song SUMMERTIME SUMMERTIME by the Jamies over and over. It sounds like this . . .
Needless to say, throughout the movie this song irritates all within ear shot, including the audience, as it is the most irritating song of the pre-smell.you.that era. Please don't complain to Jimmy Fingers about it though cause he will threaten to cut your lips off, you cocksucker (again with the latent homosexuality and the penises).
This is James Toback's directoral debut and pretty much all the themes and ideas contained within here are recurrent motifs throughout his 30 year career. By all accounts, James Toback is a self-centered blowhard who makes movies about himself and the things he's obsessed with over and over again. A main character who is driven by sex and can convince gorgeous women to sleep with him at the drop of a hat? Sure, try FINGERS, LOVE AND MONEY, THE PICK UP ARTIST, TWO GIRLS AND A GUY or HARVARD MAN. A fascination with the sexual prowess of huge black sports stars? Try FINGERS, BLACK AND WHITE, or TYSON. Main characters who get mixed up with the criminal element? Try FINGERS, EXPOSED, THE PICK UP ARTIST, BLACK AND WHITE, or HARVARD MAN. A main character who loses touch with reality? FINGERS and HARVARD MAN are the ticket. You get the idea. Lots of directors are guilty of re-making the same film their whole careers (Wes Anderson comes to mind as a recent example). Few have done it with the same relentless drive as Toback has over his eight narrative films and two documentaries, which would be fine or even admirable if Toback were actually, you know, talented (hint: he's not).
When it was first released, FINGERS was heralded as one of the most promising debut features of the 70s. And, despite my numerous reservations about it, it's not hard to see why. Removed from the repetitive grind of Toback's subsequent garbage duty (which also made many of his early adopters abandon ship with the quickness), FINGERS is a pretty impressive debut feature. Harvey Keitel gives one of his best performances as the tortured and conflicted Jimmy Fingers. As written, Jimmy is tickier than Waburton in blue with his continual air piano, tape decking, and repressed penis rage, but Keitel walks a fine line by embracing these quirks but just barely holding them back from the precipice of self-parody. Except when he's supposed to be playing the piano, then it is fucking horrible. Case in point (cut to 3:10 for his wacky piano antics).
He's supported by a murderer's row of mob movie supporting actors including Michael V. Gazzo (who got a supporting actor nod for the Godfather Part II), Danny "The Pickle" Aiello, Lenny "Luca Brasi" Montana, and Dominic Chianese and Anthony Sirico, who would gain fame 20 years later on THE SOPRANOS as Uncle Jun and Paulie Walnuts respectively. The film also features the earthy, gritty photography of Michael Chapman, an underappreciated DP who shot THE LAST DETAIL, TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL, and THE LOST BOYS in the 70s and 80s before being relegated to studio hackdom in the 90s and 00s. Oh well, somebody had to shoot SPACE JAM. Actually, no, they didn't.
The whole film is wildly disjointed and erratic in its pacing and in its connection to reality, which those who praise it often attribute to the filmmaker's attempts to have the film mirror the character's mental decline. FINGERS does ok in this regard, but it's still pretty amateurish. It's not as brilliantly evolved as something like THE BUTCHER BOY, which actually made me feel like I was slowly going insane myself, nor is it as assured and disturbing as the aforementioned OBSERVE AND REPORT's handling of bi-polar disorder. That his films that don't deal with schizo main characters often share the same disjointed and clumsy vibe is more of a testament to Toback's generalized shittiness as a writer-director than anything else.
Now, let's try to go full circle, shall we? (No Michael Palin) The problem with HUNG is that you can't make a show about a dude with a huge penis and not show the audience said penis (especially while showing us the boobs of just about every single female character on the show) without it seeming like some kind of cheat. I'm not alone in this as a decent amount of the discourse online about HUNG has tied into this very problem with the show. The same principle applies to making a movie starring Harvey Kietel that is essentially about his character's dick and not showing us said dick as well. However, in this case, this problem wouldn't be a problem to audiences watching the movie back in 1978 because, at that point in his career, Keitel had yet to realize his potential as Hollywood's great bearer of cocks. It's only in retrospect that it seems particularly strange and yes, like some kind of cheat, that we don't see lil' Harv because of his subsequent reputation for and association with bearing his penis constantly in movies when nobody in their right mind would want him to. This very same retrospective expectation taints the movie FINGERS itself because, as previously stated, almost all of the themes and ideas in this pretty good film have been flogged over and over again by Toback throughout the subsequent 30 years of his career to diminishing returns in increasingly horrible bloated self-mythologizing crap like THE PICK UP ARTIST, TWO GIRLS AND A GUY, BLACK AND WHITE, and HARVARD MAN. My own experience of the movie FINGERS was undoubtedly kinda ruined by my having seen those four shitfests before watching FINGERS. Thus, Toback's refusal to stop making movies about the same shit for the love of god is the primary threat to FINGERS' legacy as a pretty interesting and exciting debut film from 1978. It's kinda like that scene in the movie HANNIBAL where Ray Liotta eats his own brain. You can bite off a little bit of your brain to keep going and provide your body with the nourishment it needs to survive being interred by a manic Anthony Hopkins. But if you eat too much of your own brain, you will die because you need your brain to live and your brain is what also enables you to eat in the first place so if you eat the part of your brain that tells your mouth to chew, you can't chew anymore and then you can't eat and you die. Toback's been eating his own brain (the brain apparently on full display in FINGERS) his whole career; taking bits and pieces from it and throwing them repeatedly against the wall in all his other movies, leaving nothing else on the withered husk of the film FINGERS but a thirty year legacy of repetition and self-indulgence. If he'd only had the good sense to either retire or quit after making FINGERS, he could float around like a Leonard Kastle or even Charles Laughton (as director) showing his great debut film and having people think about what if because, in this case, the what ifs that we can imagine after seeing FINGERS are invariably much better than any of the actual movies he's made in the interim. So basically, just like Michael Jackson was in the last few years of his life, Toback has been the biggest threat to the legacy of the material he made when he was still good (i.e. FINGAZ). Fortunately, Michael Jackson had the good sense to die at a time where it was still possible for us to pretend to forget about all the weird awful antics that marred his last 20 years of life and made it possible for us to all enjoy his fucking awesome shit once again free of the looming specter of his weird noseless face and pederast tendencies. Toback's release of a documentary about Mike Tyson this year creatively titled TYSON seems to be a move in the right direction for him as well. It's his most critically acclaimed movie since FINGERS (well, in fact, it's his only critically acclaimed movie since FINGERS) so there may be hope for him yet. My advice is just to avoid any and everything the man produced in between. (ok, except also for his Oscar nominated screenplay work for the perfectly acceptable Barry Levinson movie BUGSY, but once again, there he was eating someone else's brain and not his own).