Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Toby Dammit: Tribeca Film Festival

Up until last night, the only thing I knew about Toby Dammit was that it was originally written with Peter O’Toole in mind, complete with references to his Hamlet and his drinking, and O’Toole was actually cast to play the part, but backed out or couldn’t do it for some reason. At which point Federico Fellini called up O’Toole’s agent in London and said “Send me the most decadent actors you’ve got.” The agent sent him James Fox and Terence Stamp, and Fellini took one look at Stamp and cast him on the spot.

Having finally seen the film itself (which is like an espresso dose of Fellini) I don’t know if this was the point in Stamp’s life when Jeannie Shrimpton had torn out his heart, sliced it up into little pieces, and fed it to her poodle, but if not, then it’s totally prophetic. Stamp doesn’t look like he’s acting; he's still Billy-Budd-beautiful, but you can see the rot creeping in around his eyes, and it's either a brilliant piece of acting or a brilliant piece of cinéma vérité, because he looks like he showed up drugged and drunk and stayed that way for the entire shoot.

The plot is simple: Stamp gets off an airplane, gets driven to an awards ceremony, drives off in a Ferrari, and dies. He’s ostensibly there to film the story of Christ as a western, but he could care less, all he wants is that Ferrari he was promised for showing up. In the course of his travels we see the kind of extras that populate Woody Allen films whenever he’s trying to be Felliniesque: nuns with guitars, cardboard cut-outs of people and animals, the Beatles in their Sergeant Pepper uniforms, men wearing capes, three matrons who look like The Furies watching the awards ceremony, and a lot of grotesque-looking women. It was weird to watch all this; seeing the original source material from which countless parodies and sketches and homages to Fellini have been mined was a vivid reminder that Fellini's art was actually something alive once, before it was embalmed as a style.

Judging by the Italian guy behind us who wouldn’t shut up, there were also all kinds of Italian cinema in-jokes during the awards ceremony. That was one Fellini moment in the audience; the other was when a gum-chewing brunette wearing perfume you could smell five aisles away and little else walked back and forth in front of the screen with her party of four, looking for a seat. In visual terms, she could have been an extra at the awards ceremony in the film; in architectural terms, her front porch and back porch were so counterbalanced that she had to arch her spine like a longbow just to walk.

One false note that only rings true after the fact: there’s no way any British actor no matter how squiffed would ever respond to a request for a speech from Shakespeare by quoting The Scottish Play. Which of course explains why he dies in the end, doesn't it?

And note to Tim Burton: please start paying back royalties to Fellini’s estate for stealing the entire look of Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice from Stamp’s pallid, corpse-like makeup.

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