Friday, July 16, 2010

Films # 42 & 43: Bob Fosse Double Feature (Jul 16th)

All That Jazz
1979, 123 min.
Directed by Bob Fosse

1974, 112 min.
Directed by Bob Fosse

I looked at my watch as we exited our vehicle and started to make our way to the theatre. Hustle, hustle, hustle. It had been a monkey wrench of a day, with many speed bumps holding up the progress of my Friday. Don't you hate days where you feel rushed? Where it feels a hand is pushing on the small of your back and propelling you forward; not quite of your own volition? That was my day's motif, but finally (after rushing through dinner. Ugh. Isn't that the worst?) I was ready to relax and see the double feature at The Paramount. Tonight was a Bob Fosse twin bill, and my girlfriend was pretty excited. Me? I was eager, but less energetic. A few of my friends over the years have had dance backgrounds, so Fosse was their Stanley Kubrick of theater dance and direction. Since I possess two left feet but an appreciation of theater arts, I was curious to see what the big deal was about.

The time was 6:54 p.m. "Just enough time to get there before the movie starts," I thought to myself as I walked briskly down Congress from 10th Street. My only regret was that we weren't going to see What's Tappening?, a trio of ladies who were to perform in front of the theatre from 6:30 p.m. until the movie's start time at 7 p.m. Curse you, crappy Friday. Glancing at my wrist again, our pace quickened. We got in the door and found our way upstairs just as the first movie began.

I'll start with this. I know All That Jazz is highly regarded by many people, but I found it to be more "clever" rather than "genius." Despite winning the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or, it's not exactly the caliber of Fellini. Fosse co-wrote and directed the film, which is a thinly veiled auto-biographical tale. It is the tale of workaholic Joe Gideon, a director and choreographer who is putting together a Broadway production while simultaneously doing post-production work on a film he directed. The story of the descent of a man who works hard and plays harder, Jazz is a work of staggering ego, and would have been a fine love letter to Bob Fosse's career if it wasn't, you know... made by Fosse himself.

Not that the film itself is bad. The single best thing is the performance of Roy Scheider, who is excellent as Gideon (a.k.a. "Fake Fosse"). Yes, Jaws's Chief Brody is completely believable as the psuedo-Fosse. As a character, he's despicable; but Scheider makes him likable. In fact, I think this performance saves the movie from being even more over-wrought. Fosse wasn't keen on portraying this character as a saint, leaving the hedonistic tendencies on full display.

The list of Gideon's faults are legion. A womanizer, a chain-smoker, a hard drinker, a bad father, and a drug abuser, he compounds these problems with the stress of his endless work. Ironically, these vices likely arose from a need to escape the strain of his labors, but each helped to weigh him down further. Old habits may die hard, but hard habits can kill. His daily routine is frequently shown with a morning of Alka-Seltzer, Dexedrine, and Visine. Punctuated with a daily affirmation in the mirror, he starts each day with the phrase "It's show time, folks." Indeed.

For Gideon, his entire life is a production. A show unto itself. The manic energy of his lifestyle manifests itself in the vibrancy of his stage choreography and the bullheadedness of editing his film project (obviously a reference to Lenny, the film Fosse directed in 1974 about the acerbic comedian). His imagination and memory are shown in fantasy sequences that are intercut throughout the film. There, he seems to be sharing his life experiences with the angel of death, played by Jessica Lange. The audience sees it coming, but when Joe has a heart attack it seems to catch everyone by surprise. Everyone seems to care about his well-being except for Gideon himself. No matter what befalls him, the show must go on.

Despite these little moments of inspiration, the emotion is heavy-handed and many scenes (particularly in the third act) are woefully over done. Oddly, I found Jazz to fail on a technical level. First, the cinematography is very dated. The use of blue filter made many scenes look like a made-for-Cinemax movie. More sinful is the treatment of the dances in this film. After an electric opening sequence of dance auditions, it seems the choreography was then usurped by the film's editing. The choppiness of the movie's later dance sequences may have foreshadowed the smash cut editing style of the '80s (Fame, Flashdance, and videos by Michael Jackson and Paula Abdul come to mind), but I felt the film suffered, often removing me from the majesty of the choreography. It also takes away from the dancers themselves, and forces you to see the steps as Fosse wants you to see them. More than anything, I wish he would've let these sequences breathe. In a film like this, I think I was spoon-fed enough already without the editing of the dance numbers.

These musical numbers are original and entertaining, for the most part. Most are spectacle that come close to setting the screen on fire, albeit a bonfire of the vanity. It is in the third act where things careen out of control. The last 15 minutes or so feel like 50, and the dance numbers are the longest ending scenes I've witnessed since Return of the King. Those with his ex-wife, his lover, and his daughter are all very good, but the last number... when Gideon takes the stage with Ben Vereen (?!?) has to be the longest and most bizarre cover of "Bye Bye Love" ever recorded. Don't take my word for it. Look for yourself...

That's ten minutes you're not getting back.

It's an unnerving sequence, but for the wrong reasons. Early in the film, a voice over says, "To be on the wire is life. The rest is waiting." Sorry, Bob. I don't buy it. As said so eloquently in the film, "don't bullshit a bullshitter." Something dark lies behind the dances, the songs, the production of this very film itself. The fact that it is semi-autobiographical makes it all the more disturbing. A peek into a mind that may not have embraced the accolades he earned over his career, perhaps? Why else make the lead character so inaccessible? Why else repeatedly drum into the audience the five stages of grief? Would Kubrick have been so blatantly self-referential?

All that Jazz is a musical that despises show business. The message is noteworthy, but the execution left me feeling empty. It doesn't balance very well on its own high wire, so I was waiting for the film to stop being so masturbatory. The moments of brilliance are outnumbered by its self-indulgence, leaving a bitter aftertaste. Ultimately, it was too self-gratifying for me to love it. As a viewer, I felt unnecessary. The movie loves itself, whether an audience is there or not. Jazz gives you lots to ponder, but what made me caustic was its lack of heart.

A little bewildered as the movie ended, I ventured outside to get some fresh air. Many of the patrons were also outside, talking about the film. Reaction appeared to be polarized, which if nothing else leads to nice healthy discussion. After a few minutes, we went back inside. Then, popcorn and drinks in hand, we waited to see what the second film would bring.

Lenny is damn close to being a great film. It is very good. But again, the last 15 minutes or so drag it down like a diver wearing heavy chains in the ocean. In the context of stand-up comedy, Lenny Bruce was the original instigator. He broke down barriers and politicized routines that had long languished in bad one-liners and bad impersonations, paving the way for future groundbreakers like Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Bill Hicks. What could have been a legendary anti-establishment film on par with the best of Milos Forman instead made me want to swim with the fishes.

True to his theater background, Fosse opens Lenny with a stage number, but this time one from a strip club. He sure does love a spotlight, but here the black and white photography and smoky haze make the scene one of burlesque beauty, despite its sleazy location. And truth be told, that's the only real Fosse trademark on this film. It's not a musical. It doesn't have a single dance number. But Lenny is a show business film, and illustrates how inner demons devoured a seminal talent.

Technically, the film is amazing. The cinematography by Bruce Surtees is beautiful, shadowy and often elegant. Fosse's direction is very steady and confident, perfectly cutting between Bruce's story as told by his agent, his mother, and his ex-wife in a series of recreated interviews.

Dustin Hoffman is simply amazing in this. There's a real sense of ferocity and insecurity in his portrayal of Bruce. You can see the decay of his soul as the film cuts back and forth along his timeline. In his youth, we see the youth and playfulness, and in his later days we see the shell of what he once was. Like a tired boxer swinging blindly, Lenny's later years were full of tired, misdirected rage. And Hoffman nails it. If he had gained 70 pounds for this role, we'd talk of this performance the way we do De Niro's in Raging Bull.

The surprise in this film, however, belongs to Valerie Perrine as Honey. The subject of the opening burlesque number, she is a stripper who crosses paths with Lenny and eventually becomes his wife. We see their relationship as it blossoms, ripens, and then decays. Honey was both elixir and poison to her husband, but there is no mistaking that she accelerates his descent into hell. In many ways, Honey was an early Courtney Love, and yet not once does the audience hate her. We see enough of their life together to recognize the promise of their love, and look upon her choices with sorrow rather than hate. It's a restrained and sad performance. A role that makes you see Perrine as more than "Ms. Teschmacher" from the Superman movies and as a genuinely underappreciated actress.

As I said earlier, this is clearly the film referenced in All That Jazz that the director was toiling over. If Fosse worked as diligently on this as Gideon did on the fictional version, then clearly the hard work paid off. The movie moves beautifully, and brings up many valid points as Lenny fights the establishment. How can decency be a black and white issue? What social responsibility do entertainers have? Can they enlighten instead of entertain? Can't they do both?

Lenny Bruce's battles began to clear the landscape of puritanical and tyrannical values. He held up a mirror to the warped aspects of our society that is usually kept in the dark with our skeletons. Does he swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? You betcha. Some might take issue with the emphasize the swearing, yet others more on the truth.

A flawed man combating a flawed system; it's incredible to think what we take for granted today because of him. Would there have been a South Park or a Chappelle Show without Lenny Bruce? Probably not. Hell, without him we'd be missing so many dangerous comics that brazenly speak "the truth." All we'd have is the likes of Jeff Dunham. Now that would be hell.

The tragedy of Lenny's self destruction is gut-wrenching, but Fosse handles the story with such artistry. His decision to use a single-take master shot of Lenny's last performance is brilliant, powerful, and heartbreaking. It shows rock-bottom; a man out of control. Similarly, the film begins to spiral off the tracks during the third act, venturing close to becoming repetitive. In addition, it's very hard to watch the characters we've grown fond of sink to such depths. The movie begins to parallel Lenny himself, progressing from genius to disarray to ending with a whimper. As the lights rose after the credits, the entire audience rose in shocked silence.

So what have I learned? I walked away from The Paramount with the knowledge that Bob Fosse was a talented director who had a knack for making movies that are consistently 15 minutes too long. I have yet to see Cabaret, so perhaps that will help shape my final opinion of him as a film director. His cinema may be passionate and well choreographed, but from what I saw tonight they are also self-indulgent and manipulative. Nevertheless, I appreciate that he doesn't shy away from the darkness of the entertainment industry. No one will ever mistake his musicals with those of Rodgers & Hammerstein. He gave us subjects to deliberate as well as be entertained by.

Under the marquee of the theater, I checked my watch again. 11:40 p.m. Almost midnight, and the night is still young. There's still time to enjoy the evening out on the town or back at home. The choice is ours. As we venture back to the car, I'm grateful that there is no more hustling to be done for now. That tranquility itself can make life more enjoyable. I'm grateful that I can enjoy evenings like this with the person I love. I exhale and smile to myself as I walk back down Congress. No, sir. I don't need the drama, the agony, the high wire act, or all that jazz.

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