Bob Fosse Was A Certifiable GeniusPosted: September 14, 2014
The ‘70s continue to be recognized as one of the most fertile creative periods in film history. So many great filmmakers began or defined their careers in that time, many of whom are still creating terrific work to this day. And yet there are still filmmakers who have fallen through the cracks of history, whose work has either become forgotten or misremembered. In my recently-enlightened mind, one of the best filmmakers of that era had to be Bob Fosse, who only ever directed five feature films. This is disappointing for me, as after seeing both Cabaret and All That Jazz for the first time, I have discovered how amazing Fosse was, and I’m already depressed to think how little more of his art I can see.
Based on these films, Fosse seemed drawn to the notion of narcissistic self-interest, and the weird rot hiding underneath polite society. For both Cabaret and All That Jazz, there’s an energetic darkness at play, that both dazzles and disturbs in equal measure. I found myself entranced by the dance, the song, the camera, the edit… and in the end I found myself haunted in a potent fashion. These were movies that were there to confront and challenge and maybe even horrify. I can’t even imagine Hollywood making musicals like this now.
Look at Cabaret, a story about hedonism in the face of mounting hatred and insidious power. Fosse and company wisely focus the sprawling narrative on just the love triangle between Sally Bowles, Brian and Max, and also on the romance between Fritz and Natalia. Unlike other musical adaptations since, Fosse is unafraid to lose several songs in the process (only to reclaim them as background music), and instead focuses on the plot lines that best emphasize the dark thematic underpinnings. As a result it’s most specifically concerned with the self-involved partying and angst of Sally and her beaus, and how it dulls them to the rising tide of hate and entitlement of Nazism.
Sally and the others are so fearful of everything- failure, rejection, love- that they drown themselves in base pleasure, rather than face life head-on. Even Fritz has been pretending to not be a Jew for so long he’s forgotten how dangerous things are for people like him. Only Natalia seems aware of the true dangers in life, and this just leads her to shut herself off from everyone else; a different route to the same destination. Even the Hollywood-esque casting of Liza Minelli feels right for Fosse’s interpretation. This Sally Bowles, rather than being a pathetic wannabe, is so threatened by the idea of failure that even talented as she is, she can’t rise above a scuzzy cabaret. She’s emblematic of this circle of people who would rather run away than confront potential failure.
One of the most horrifying moments I can recall seeing on film is the “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” sequence, a song that might otherwise sound like an inspirational song of empowerment until you realize it’s being sung by a Hitler Youth. As the song continues and the people around him join in, the hateful looks on their faces while they sing are chilling, and drive home the creeping danger that has otherwise been in the background. Just as off-putting is the Master of Ceremonies, played with unnerving aplomb by Joel Grey. Aside from the performance itself, Fosse adds quick shots of the Emcee staring into the camera with an impish grin, usually at the most uncomfortable moments. Unlike Sally and the rest, he seems fully aware of the growing horror around him, and his embrace of hedonism, rather than being an escape, is a knowing- almost nihilistic- embrace of the dark. He’s unafraid of whatever is coming because at least he’s had fun while waiting. All of it culminates in that final haunting shot, where the camera pans over the murky glass, reflecting the crowd that we slowly see is filled more and more with Nazis, reminding us of the vipers that are already inside the walls, and it might already be too late.
And then there’s All That Jazz, which is one of the most intensely autobiographical films I can recall. Even without knowing the specific details of Fosse’s life you can clearly see the parallels between him and Joe Gideon, an intense director working on both film and theater simultaneously. Fosse shows an impressive amount of self-awareness in this incisive deconstruction of himself and his work, and in the process explores a great deal about artistic obsession and self-determination in the face of death.
In the film, Gideon seems almost compulsively self-indulgent, incapable of avoiding his more base instincts. Early in the film we see him smoking a cigarette in the shower before popping some pills, and even after being laid low by a heart attack he continues his hard-partying ways. That self-indulgence seems to stem from his work, where his self-indulgence leads to truly powerful art: when he samples the Air-rotica dance sequence for the songwriter and producers of his new show, it’s something very different from the initial song, but also something vibrant, challenging, and intense. Even if the producers are horrified by how “unsellable” it is, it’s a truly powerful piece of art.
It’s almost understandable how someone with such unhinged artistic tendencies would be frightened to ever let safe mundanity infect his life, lest it rob him of the furious energy that makes him who he is (at least in his mind). But in the end, while Gideon wastes away on his deathbed, he is confronted with vibrant visions of his own failings, with his ex-wife, lover, and daughter all dancing and singing about how he has wronged them and how he can no longer do anything to repair it, while an alternate version of himself directs everything. This perfectly encapsulates the self-aware nature of the film, as Fosse seems to be admitting that he knows he isn’t a good person, and how there might not be any way for him to change that any further, and so all that is left is his Art.
And Fosse’s brutal honesty doesn’t stop with just him. One terrific sequence intercuts Gideon’s graphic heart surgery with the show producers and accountants breaking down the financial worth of Gideon’s work and the potential cost of continuing to produce the show with or without him. It’s a harsh moment, made moreso by the producers’ conclusion that Gideon might actually be worth more to them dead. By the time Gideon himself takes the dream-stage for “Bye Bye Life”, he’s had everything stripped away: his art by producers and critics, and his family and friends by himself. Without all of that, he’s abandoned any pretense of caring about a life that was only a means to explore those things. Of course, that conclusion mostly stems from Gideon’s self-absorbed fear of not being the boundary-breaking artist he sees himself to be, and how he’d rather run away than confront the possibility that he is too grounded or real (sound familiar?).
While Joe Gideon’s fear of mediocrity may or may not have been something that Bob Fosse himself felt, it certainly was not something he need worry about. Fosse’s work was truly amazing, in the definitive sense of the word. These two films are some of the most impactful and startling that I’ve seen in some time, and much more challenging than I ever could have imagined. While it is disappointing to consider that there are only 3 more Fosse movies that I could ever see, it is still a great gift to us all that these movies made it into the world at all… and I’m sure Fosse himself was happier not to have any mediocre late-career floundering. Both Cabaret and All That Jazz are bold and emphatic cinematic statements born from a fevered artistic mind, one that deserves respect and admiration from everyone. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be over here, searching anxiously for copies of Lenny.