Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Day 19: All That Jazz

Joe Gideon: Sometimes I don't know where the bullshit ends and the truth begins.

I don’t know anything about Bob Fosse. I’ve seen the movie Chicago and a stage version of Cabaret, but that’s the extent of my knowledge of the man and his work. I rented this movie because I’d heard that it was an autobiographical film about his life and I knew it starred Roy Scheider (who will hereby be referred to as Roy (Jaws) Scheider) as Fosse. The idea of Roy (Jaws) Scheider playing an influential choreographer seemed odd, to put it mildly. I was familiar with his work from Jaws, of course, as well as The French Connection, and Sorcerer (not to mention The Curse of the Living Corpse, but that’s a story for another day). I thought this was something different for him, because I always had this association in my mind of Roy (Jaws) Scheider in roles of sweaty manliness. Well, I was wrong and kind-of stupid. Why I didn’t think the world of dancing would lead to a similar form of sweaty manliness can be attributed to several cultural blind spots that I labor to remove every day of my life.

But about the movie: All That Jazz can best be summed up by two montages that open the film. The first details the morning ritual of Joe Gideon, by all accounts Fosse’s fictional stand-in. He listens to classical music in his bathroom, takes Alka-Seltzer, showers, and pops some Dexedrine. Ready to face the day, he looks himself in the mirror and intones, “It’s showtime.” This montage is used throughout the film, and to good effect. The bathroom is unclean and disordered, gritty and real. It’s edited quickly and economically, telling us all we need to know in a matter of seconds. The second montage in the film is a tiring, endless depiction of a cattle call audition for dancers. It goes on and on, using nearly the entire length of the song “On Broadway” as the large crowd is thinned out to Gideon’s final selections. It’s fun at first, watching the crowd slowly thin, but the whole montage wears out its welcome long before it ends. The conflict between these two types of story telling goes on for the entirety of All That Jazz, up until the final moments of the film. At the end of the movie, Gideon/Fosse performs in an overlong rock-operish musical number saying goodbye to his life and then the film cuts to his lifeless body, zipped up into a body bag.

The movie has one of those confessional tones that is endearing, yet superficial. The movie cuts periodically to Gideon discussing his life and attitudes with an angelic figure in an empty theatre and he’s blatantly honest about hurting others for his own purposes. This allows Fosse/Gideon to confess his many sins to both the angel and the audience, but the movie often winks at us and says of Gideon, “He can’t help it…” or “Ain’t he a stinker!” The result is that the confessions feel like an insincere apology, nice on the surface but fundamentally empty. The movie does effectively present Gideon’s self-hatred and how it feeds off the way he’s worshiped by the people he hurts. (Jaws) Scheider shines in the role as the conflicted, womanizing director. One scene in the movie has Gideon’s girlfriend and daughter performing an awkward dance routine for him and Scheider conveys a response that is at once embarrassed (at the bad dancing) and appreciative.

And then there are the musical numbers. The numbers are well choreographed, shot and edited with flair, and have an energy to them that is hard to deny. Generally, the set pieces depict an interior state of the main character’s mind, even when they aren’t hallucinations or dream sequences, and this is smart, but most of them go on way, way too long. They interrupt the flow of the narrative and pad the movie’s running time into overlong territory. One of them, in which dancers flop about in sexual poses, peel off their clothes, and cavort around, veers terrifyingly close to the ending dance sequence in Stayin’ Alive, a land no movie should wander near. The ending number goes on for ages, repeating the same emotional beat over and over again. It was hard to sit through, especially since some of the costuming would be more at home in a deliberately campy movie like Barbarella. It’s too bad that the dance sequences outstay their welcome because they are otherwise dramatically smart and, up until the overlong point, very fun to watch.

This movie is indulgent to its core. It wants to show us the flaws of the Gideon/Fosse character, redeem him, and then kill him. It hits all the tortured artist clich├ęs that have been with us since the first caveman couldn’t finish his wall painting. But, for all these shortcomings, it’s surprisingly good. A lot of the credit must go to Scheider, but there’s a real intelligence to the editing for about half of the movie. When Gideon wanders the hospital in a drug-induced fervor, the movie cuts in segments of a stand-up comedy monologue we’ve seen throughout the movie. The way the stand-up routine (which we’ve seen so many times that we almost know it by heart) comments on the action in front of us is clever and poetic. One scene foreshadows Gideon’s health problems with shock cuts that is as effective at conveying the premonitions of bad health as anything in memory. It’s a fascinating, layered movie, but a deeply flawed one, not unlike Fosse/Gideon himself.

Weekly Themes

Starting on October 29, I'm going to start doing weekly themes. I want to avoid themes like "films directed by Peter Weir" and go more the route of stuff like "films directed by actors" or "Monsters, makeup, and mahem" or even something like The Onion's AV Club Underrated Movie List. Any suggestions out there?

Another blog to give a looksee

Check out Without Feathers. Another crazy-tastic moviewatching blog in which some poor soul attempts to watch Woody Allen's movies in a month! Outrageous.