Thursday, March 06, 2008

Gideon and Jagger!

One of the common threads in Bob Fosse's short but unforgettable filmography is how performance, both onstage and in life, is in some ways a denial of our own mortality. In All That Jazz, a grinning emcee (Ben Vereen) eulogizing soon-to-be-deceased choreographer and Fosse stand-in Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) spells this out: "Like, for this cat, the only reality is death, man." The astonishing feat of All That Jazz, as with much of Fosse's best work, is how its director transforms his morbid cynicism into something vital and exhilarating. Though the story of All That Jazz is an unbroken trajectory towards an inescapable end, few films feel so wholly alive. How is it that a story about a hard-living, womanizing, self-loathing liar is, without a doubt, one of the most inspiring movies I've ever seen?

Fosse introduces us to his surrogate with a burst of Vivaldi and a rapid montage of Joe as he pops Dexedrine, tries in vain to conceal the aftereffects of a long night and, looking into his bathroom, announces "It's showtime!" with an enthusiasm betrayed by his weary eyes. This sequence of image is repeated several times throughout the film, underlining the constant state of momentum that defines Joe. Drawing its inspiration from a particularly chaotic moment in Fosse's career, All That Jazz finds Joe juggling a new Broadway musical, the editing of his feature The Stand Up (patterned after Lenny) and the many women in his life, his seemingly ceaseless energy and creativity only just keeping imminent physical and emotional collapse at bay. As with Fellini's 8 1/2 (it would be almost as perverse to not reference Fellini when writing about All That Jazz as it would be to leave Hitchcock out of a discussion on DePalma), Fosse weaves his protagonist's life and art together in a complex tapestry so that the two become inseparable. As Joe sorts through his memories with a mysterious, teasing angelic figure (Jessica Lange), Fosse nakedly examines his own life and relationships - with his estranged wife (Leland Palmer), his girlfriend (Ann Reinking, more or less playing herself) and especially his beloved daughter (Erzsebet Foldi) - through moments of performance (most moving is an impromptu dance number staged by his daughter) that boil down their complex emotional meanings to something essential and indelible. These moments are seen through the broken mirror of Fosse's work, with Pippin's sinister ringleader, the sexual gymnastics of Cabaret and Lenny's self-destruction taking on new and surprising meaning. Not only does Fosse succeed in anticipating any volumes devoted to analyzing his work, he also offers one of the most frank, unsparing self-portraits of an artist's inner life in cinema or any medium.

Fosse is greatly aided by his star - Scheider not only demonstates a comendable lack of vanity, he makes Joe at once virile and contemplative, a welcome refutal of the notion that real men don't do musical theatre. He navigates both the stage and the bedroom with such effortless cool that we begin to see how Joe's art and his personal excesses stem from the same compulsive place; when Joe says he needs to go home to figure out a production number and Fosse cuts to him seducing a dancer, it's clear that Joe wasn't lying. All of Fosse's work is a seduction, and few filmmakers are at once so sensuous and cerebral. This is evident not only in how Fosse celebrates his dancers' physical perfection but in how the cinematic apparatus becomes another performer. In scenes such as the celebrated opening audition number, each shot and edit not only frames the action but becomes a part of the action, the cuts constrasting and complimenting the constantly probing camera in such innovative ways that they become partners in an invisible dance. Both Fosse's masterpieces and his merely very good films (he never even made a "just okay" movie) demonstrate a prodigious understanding of montage, jumping between different chronological points with a seeming effortlessness. Indeed, All That Jazz's influence can be found everywhere today, but with disappointinly shallow returns - MTV and the Simpson/Bruckheimer school of filmmaking have repicated Fosse's style but not his aesthetic rigor.

Fosse himself acknowledges this perfectionism in my favorite scene, which finds an apoplectic producer (Max Wright) rambling about budget and schedule overruns while a distracted Joe scrutinizes a scene from The Stand Up on a KEM. We've seen an earlier, so-so cut of the scene earlier; as Joe leaves for another rehearsal, the producer exclaims, defeated, "It's better." Fosse has inserted a brief tutorial on editing into the narrative, and All That Jazz is indeed required viewing for any aspiring filmmaker. Though my own directing experience is limited, many of the details - the constant gaze of performers waiting for direction, the sting of a bad review, the constant, calculating pressure of investors - definitely touched a nerve. All That Jazz is inspiring because it nails how odd and alienating it is to be a director, to inevitably have even the people closet to you constantly scrutinizing your motives, and yet it insists that a director must be probing, uncompromising and painfully honest. The famous "Take Off With Us" number shows Joe antagonizing his writers and producers by taking a cheesily titillating number and transforming it into a kinky, Bacchanalic paean to the joys and complexities of sexual desire; this should be the goal of any artist, to find the truth in any moment totally and without apology.

It'd be easy to dismiss All That Jazz as a colossal monument to the ego, and indeed its protagonist is knowingly narcissitic. But it's more than an act of omphaloskepsis - it's a thrillingly revealing look at the mind of a director and one of the most compelling arguments for the virtues of excess (in this sense, it's also a perfect epitaph for the 1970s). It's also incredibly fun, with Gideon's final reflection on life and the ways he created his own meaning coming in the form of a jaw-dropping final number that transforms the fact of death into a pure pop high. For Bergman the ultimate metaphor of death is a cloaked figure leading a mournful dance across the horizon; for Fosse it's spandex-clad dancing cadavers, Ben Vereen, a robot band and silver lame as far as the eye can see. There's room for both in this world.

5 comments:

Allen L. said...

Liked it, did ya?
I have seen this film more times than I can count and it changes with age. As a youth I was titillated by the brazen (and somewhat loveless) sexuality. As an adult I want to shake Gideon and scream, "Lo-carb, you idiot! Stop smoking!"
But as a piece of art, it is almost peerless.
1979 was a great year. Pitting Fosse against Coppola again. But, where the audiences were split in 72, giving Fosse the director and Coppola the Picture Oscars, in 1979 a new animal would creep in and take over: The revenge of Love Story, so to speak. Kramer Vs. Kramer is an important flim, especially when seen as backlash and response to a perceived castrating women's movement, but, as time wears on, it's really just a movie of the week.
All that Jazz was a triumph. A masterwork. Sadly, a nearly forgotten one.

Dammit, B, I hope you have a nice tv to see this stuff on......

Great work, as always.

Bemis said...

A very nice tv, but I'd still love to see this in 35mm. I was surprised at the relative dearth of reviews for All That Jazz online, though Kim Morgan at Sunset Gun and Nathaniel at The Film Experience have written about it in detail. It would be great if film geeks doing their personal Scheider retrospectives rediscovered this and Fosse's other work like I did (I'd seen everything except this and Star 80 before, but it really does make me appreciate his other films even more).

Scott C. said...

I've watched this twice over the past year and I'm amazed at the movie every time, a great study on mortality and joy. Gideon is on the fast track to death but he's enjoying every minute of it, including the big musical number at the end that's probably his version of seeing his life flashing before his eyes.

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