“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
That line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance really applies to The Outsider, Nick Jarecki’s examination of cinematic iconoclast James Toback, a man whose filmmaking is intensely personal and obsessive and whose life is incredibly over the top and mythologized.
Toback’s work is very much on the fringe, more often heard about than actually seen. Don’t worry if you’re one of the people who has read about films like Black and White or Three Girls and a Guy or Fingers but has never had a chance to watch them; The Outsider is beginner friendly, requiring no knowledge of Toback to get sucked into the dizzying strangeness and extremity of the man’s life.
The film began as a simple making of for Toback’s last movie, When Will I Be Loved, which itself began more like a reality show than a film shoot – Toback was given 2 million dollars to make any movie he wanted, but he only had 12 days to do it. But The Outsider doesn’t just focus on the perils and challenges of making a movie on that kind of an insane schedule (perils and challenges Toback meets with an almost Buddha-like calm, by the way); the movie explores the life and career of this larger than life character, tracing him from his days as a drug-dazed yet excelling Harvard man to now, often through the autobiographical prism of his own movies.
The stories that are told about Toback in the film – massive doses of acid, orgies with Jim Brown, taking out hits on Hollywood power players – often sound too incredible to be true. Yet while The Outsider doesn’t really bother itself with untangling the tall tales from the truth, it does become apparent that the crazier the event is the more likely it is to be real. On a purely voyeuristic level, The Outsider is fascinating just as an examination of a life lived so close to the edge that you’re surprised it’s still going on. But Jarecki isn’t interested in making a True Hollywood Story; his film is about the ways these excesses and obsessions come together to inform Toback’s movies. Unlike Woody Allen (who hired Toback to act in Alice, and who appears in The Outsider), Toback owns up to the ways his films mirror his life, and without an understanding of the man’s immense sexual history, his degenerate gambling addiction and his grandiose self-regard, it’s easy to not understand his films and write him off – as many have – as a misogynist or a pretentious jerk.
What’s great about the approach The Outsider takes, weaving Toback’s life through his films, is that it makes you want to run to your Netflix and fill up your queue with movies like Fingers and The Gambler and The Pick-up Artist and even Bugsy. Jarecki has no objectivity when it comes to Toback, and his enthusiasm for the man’s work – even the most flawed films (and flawed is a good word when talking about the Toback canon) – is catching. He’s not alone in the enthusiasm; almost all of Toback’s collaborators who are interviewed exude a sincere excitement to be talking about the guy. From the inarticulate Mike Tyson to the impeccably funny and insightful Robert Downey Jr, The Outsider’s interviews never feel like the kind of perfunctory fluff you might expect when an actor is paying lip service to a director they might work with again.
Fans of Toback will revel in the stories, newcomers will have their eyes opened and appetites whetted and Toback haters will surely find many things to back up their opinions. No matter where you stand when you walk into the movie, you are guaranteed to walk out entertained and enlightened; watching The Outsider is like mainlining pure movie love.