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Filmmaker Toback Talks Philosophy, Drugs

By Ashley Aull, Contributing Writer

Twenty-five years after it was first released, Fingers, the once-controversial first film of James L. Toback ’66, is making a comeback. Recently released on DVD, it was screened to a full house at the Carpenter Center for Visual Art last Friday.

“There was so little to prepare audiences for a movie like this,” said Toback, who attended the screening as part of the film archive’s “People We Like” series. “It’s now my endlessly loved bastard child whom I appear with on a long leash at various countries at various times.”

Harvey Keitel, the star of the film, was originally scheduled to attend the event, but instead appeared via a taped interview from Los Angeles.

“Fingers happened because there was no access to Hollywood,” Keitel said. “We probably would have tried to make an explicitly Hollywood film, but we’d never have made our Fingers. I’m glad we didn’t fulfill our original goal and conquer Hollywood.”

The film had “permanent significance” both for its director and lead star. According to Toback, Keitel still tells him, “We have to do another Fingers.”

The film is anchored around lead character Jimmy “Fingers” Angelelli (Keitel), a classical pianist and debt collector for the mob. In the opening scenes, he ecstatically plays a Bach toccata in his New York apartment, then meets with his raspy-voiced mobster father for his next assignment. The film traces his descent into criminality as the divisions in his character lead to the destruction of his dreams.

While Fingers long ago disappeared from the pop culture landscape, the psychological divisions of its main character continue to attract the interest of film critics.

“There have been about 20 or 30 essays that have been really smart,” Toback said. One, a Jungian analysis published in a book about actor Harvey Keitel, “was immensely convincing,” according to Toback.

“I wasn’t aware of anything until I read it,” he says. “I called [the author] up and said, ‘Who the fuck are you? How did you write this thing?’”

Toback, who names Dostoyevsky as his primary artistic and philosophical influence, considers psychoanalysis and existentialism key influences on his films. He describes Fingers as “a psychological and physical unraveling into nothingness.”

“My films try to make some sense of the chaos that I create and live in,” Toback says. “The whole Wittgensteinian, Kierkegaardian, Heideggarian essence of my consciousness is explored to the extent that one can explore it in a movie.”

Last Friday’s event was not Toback’s first return to Harvard. His film Harvard Man (2001), a semi-autobiographical reenactment of Toback’s life-changing experiments with LSD during his undergraduate years, was filmed on location in Cambridge. And Toback was a key speaker in a conference sponsored by the Department of Afro-American Studies after the 1999 release of his film Black and White, which explored the popularity of hip-hop music in white suburbia.

“When I come back now, I have this terrific feeling of visiting a place that was very valuable in my life,” Toback says. “Oscar Wilde, in Frank Harris’ biography of Wilde, talks about what Oxford meant to him. There was no other place he could have dreamed of going. I felt that way about Harvard…It was the place I must have, could have, should have been—and actually was.”

Toback recalls that, as an undergraduate, Harvard was “the place to be…if you wanted to do LSD.”

Toback’s next project is Russian Girl, which will be filmed in June.

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