Sunday, September 05, 2004

DVD: Harvard Man (2002)

Diaries, particularly those that track the making (or unmaking) of an artist’s projects, have always fascinated me. My interest in them led indirectly to this website. I tried to keep a journal of my own work, but the results were so boring (read: depressing) that I decided to shoot my mouth off about movies and books instead. I never seem to be at a loss for words on those subjects.

But I still read diaries, and then reread them. My copy of Richard E. Grant’s WITH NAILS, in which the actor recounts 7 years’ worth of movie gigs, is falling apart. (And it’s the UK edition, so it doesn’t even have the chapter on the making of the Spice Girls movie.) Another favorite is Steven Soderbergh’s GETTING AWAY WITH IT, which combines a profile of the director’s mentor Richard Lester (A HARD DAY’S NIGHT) with a record of the year Soderbergh spent struggling to get a movie – any movie – off the ground. At the end of the journal, he’s offered OUT OF SIGHT, the film that turned his career around. Two years later, he would be competing against himself for the Best Director Oscar. Reading about his disappointments and seeing how quickly his fortunes turn is hugely reassuring.

Hands down, my favorite diary is the one that writer/director James Toback wrote for the film annual PROJECTIONS. I couldn’t estimate how many times I’ve read it, but it’s well into double digits. Toback’s fierce intelligence is alive on every page. In 1994, he was hard at work on several projects, but his main focus was a script about the seminal incident in his life, an eight-day acid trip from which he almost never returned. He writes it, rewrites it, confronts the material, retreats from it, meets with actors (Leonardo DiCaprio, Stephen Dorff) about starring in it, talks to producers about mounting a production. At one point he gathers strangers in Central Park so he can read what he has written to them, in hope of gaining some fresh perspective. For twelve months it’s always on his mind and forever out of reach. Reading about his obsession with this story is fascinating.

In 2002, HARVARD MAN was finally released. By then I’d read Toback’s journal ten or twelve times.

But I didn’t see the movie.

I was afraid his version wouldn’t live up to the one I’d imagined. In fact, I was sure it wouldn’t. As lively a figure as Toback can be, he’s wildly erratic as a filmmaker. He works best under limitations; he wrote BUGSY for another director, and on TWO GIRLS AND A GUY he had only three actors and one set. Without those restrictions, he produces shapeless, pretentious movies like BLACK AND WHITE (2000), movies that are full of ideas but with no story to serve them.

After reading Toback’s diary for the umpteenth time, I realized it was its ten-year anniversary. I marked the occasion by finally watching the movie.

ENTOURAGE’s Adrian Grenier stars along with Sarah Michelle Gellar. Al Franken has a funny cameo as himself. There’s a half-assed plot about point-shaving in collegiate basketball, another about an FBI investigation. Some of the acid trip visuals are clever, but no movie can come close to capturing what Toback describes: “No self left. No ‘I.’ Just the noise of words with no inherent meaning.” On the whole, the movie merely plays with the concepts it raises. It’s a complete mess.

You should see the version in my head.