Sunday, March 29, 2020
Let’s try to calm down for a moment. Pause, take a breath and remember a few good things in life. We all have those people who have meant something to us and whether they’re still part of our lives or not, what they’ve given has helped make our worlds closer to what we want them to be. People like that remind us that something close to decency still exists out there, a feeling which makes us want to strive to become better and make the world we live in just a little more serene. If only all this could be as true as we wish. Forgetting the real world for just a moment, we don’t get that feeling very much in films these days either and for a number of reasons this makes sense. The world is not in the greatest place so films are going to reflect the reality but too often they don’t do anything to fight back against that either. It’s true that kindness can be difficult to make dramatic and drama, which can’t just be nice people doing nice things for other nice people, inherently needs conflict in some form. So roughly 30 years ago in February 1990, the world got what is now the mostly forgotten STANLEY & IRIS, the final film directed by the great Martin Ritt who passed away before the year was done. I actually saw the MGM release at the time since back then I saw almost everything and even remember taking notice of a particular sensitivity to the direction but didn’t really think about it for much more than that. It’s a nice, pleasant movie, about people who struggle to move forward with their conflict coming from within as much as anything and lives in its own sense of quiet, with a craft to the filmmaking that may be subtle but is still undeniable. STANLEY & IRIS is a film about an issue that affects many people but doesn’t get discussed much at all and it could even be argued that the issue itself isn’t inherently dramatic. While it may not be a forgotten classic there’s still nothing wrong with a film that has its own ideas of how to tell a story and in doing so tries to make its world just a little better.
Recently widowed mother of two Iris King (Jane Fonda), who works on the line at a local baking factory, meets Stanley Cox (Robert De Niro), a cook in the factory’s cafeteria. After several chance encounters an attraction clearly develops between the two but after noticing his occasional odd behavior, Iris soon discovers that Stanley’s secret is he can’t read or write. After losing his job and being forced to put his father into a home when he can’t take care of him, Stanley finally asks Iris for help to learn how to read. And she begins to teach him through the various difficulties of the process and the growing awareness of what their relationship is becoming.
Maybe it’s my current state of mind, but films set in Connecticut make me think of the past. To this day, distant memories of sitting in the backseat of the car with my family as we drove through the state still linger somewhere in my head, remembering those trips when we were on the way to visit someone, passing through towns that we rarely ever stopped in. Has much of anything changed there since I lived one state over? That doesn’t really matter. Some of the most famous films that address life in Connecticut seem to focus on the wealthy, that east coast repressed old world of wealth and affluence seen in things like THE ICE STORM or THE SWIMMER, but on the opposite side of the financial chain STANLEY & IRIS is set in the blue collar world of people living paycheck-to-paycheck, if they’re lucky enough to be employed at all. The opening shots of the small city it’s set in bring up those distant memories of passing through which is appropriate for a film that, after all, is about people stuck in a place that the rest of the world just passes through and the setting may not be specified but the establishing shots are clearly Waterbury—interiors along with less recognizable exteriors were largely filmed in Toronto—which I mainly remember for the sight of a giant cross on top of a hill (apparently part of a long closed religious theme park, go figure) that can be briefly spotted here. Looking at the film again now all these years later, STANLEY & IRIS plays as the sort of quiet social drama that might have come out of Hollywood regularly in the early 60s, maybe set somewhere in New England, possibly in black & white CinemaScope with a gentle score in the TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD vein, although the films directed by Martin Ritt during that period usually had more fire than this one does.
Starting his career in theater and live TV before being blacklisted in 1952, Martin Ritt’s films often place an emphasis on social issues alongside a strong humanist vein, lacking the pulp ferocity of someone like John Frankenheimer but instead finding dramatic power in the simplicity of how people relate to each other when they have no other choice. He’s maybe best remembered now as the director of the masterful HUD but there’s also THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, the blacklist drama THE FRONT (about as good a film on the subject as has ever been made) starring Woody Allen, the Sally Field Oscar winner NORMA RAE as well as the gentle MURPHY’S ROMANCE, which gave James Garner his one Oscar nomination, among others. Even Ritt’s first film, 1957’s EDGE OF THE CITY starring Sidney Poitier and John Cassavetes, is a dynamite noirish human drama with a hopeful tinge of yearning for the way the world, and the friendships in it, could be if it wasn’t for the hate that always beats it down. Stretching the comparison all the way to his last film, at the core of STANLEY & IRIS is a story about how people help each other to find the best of their humanity and in doing so overcome what are their greatest hurdles deep down, a victory which can matter more than anything when you’re just about ready to give up. The films he made were about how the world around people formed them and what they hopefully can do to move past their troubles to make those lives better.
The portrayal of the working class world seen in STANLEY & IRIS (screenplay by Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch, based on the novel Union Street by Pat Barker; this was the final credit for the screenwriting team who had collaborated with Ritt on multiple projects including HUD, HOMBRE and NORMA RAE) feels admirable looking at it these days but still a little idealized, spring days with clothing all neatly pressed as Iris heads to the factory with her co-workers like they’re off to camp for the day. The words the characters speak in the script make it clear they feel very different about their situation—it doesn’t seem like these are union jobs—with the dialogue underlining more than once how these people are all trapped in their own kind of prisons, accepting shoes that don’t fit because it beats having to pay for new ones and holding on to those dreams of actually owning a car. All this seems to exist in its own gentle reality with Iris getting her purse snatched at the start the only outward indication of real world hostility (which we never hear about again anyway) and the Madonna poster on daughter Martha Plimpton’s wall maybe the one sign of the late 80s in evidence anywhere else in the film. The various minor authority figures all seem a little grouchy but with kids playing ball in the streets and people calmly walking through parks there’s always a sense of tranquility in the air especially when Stanley gives Iris a ride on his bike after work one day as they get to know each other, a sequence which catches just the right tone for the start of this relationship with them both a little wary of trying to connect with someone new. The mood goes just right with such a simple, direct film about people who are lost but still trying to help each other even if the overall softness means that the film becomes a gentle stroll more than anything, the bitterness hanging on the edges in those scenes when someone chooses to simply walk away from the expected confrontation, no anger left in them, no more energy to bring out.
There’s also a feeling of regret that runs through things, with Iris unable to move on from mourning her husband so I’m guessing that’s his oversized Hawaiian shirt Fonda wears in one scene, trying not to let go. The guilt Stanley feels over having to leave his father in a modest, slightly shabby old age home stays with him as well and the sweet sadness of these scenes gets me deep down, especially when he apologizes to his father played by Feodor Chaliapin Jr., maybe best remembered now as the grandfather in MOONSTRUCK, delivered with a surprising vulnerability projected by De Niro and these moments are some of the film’s most affecting, bringing up a few regretful memories of my own father from around this period. The past affects how the characters behave in the present whether Stanley finally asking for help or the way Iris tries to pass along the right lessons to her pregnant daughter, trying to accept certain realities even with the bitterness in her voice as she says, “None of us stay cute,” while dealing with the volatile marriage between her sister played by Swoosie Kurtz and husband Jamey Sheridan. It’s a subplot that feels missing a resolution with the characters pretty much disappearing from the film but what’s left of it shows the danger of simply giving up and accepting how bad it’s going to be.
Ritt’s craft as a director always comes through even when the scenes are just a little too pat, expertly using the widescreen Panavision frame to place people in relation to each other during the teaching scenes as Iris tries to understand what happened to Stanley and the process of his learning as the words begin to come into focus. The film also occasionally pauses for those moments of daily life, showing Iris’s days at the factory, transitions held together by a lovely John Williams score to provide the connective tissue. And yes, maybe there’s not a lot of inherent drama to stretches of it since a scene where one person is teaching another to read may not have much conflict but in Stanley asking about himself, “Do I have a name if I can’t write it? Am I really a person if I can’t read it?” the simple clarity of the question comes through. Maybe the closest thing to a visual setpiece is when he’s given a test to walk to a certain intersection using a map he has to read and the trouble it causes, one overhead shot carefully laying out his silent confusion, the feeling of being completely, truly lost and alone.
The way the film cares about these people and their relationship to the world around them carries that sense of gentleness, the story of a romance which feels like it’s about the tentative nature of that romance, people who spend time feeling around each other while becoming aware of that passage of time and how they need to finally take action before it’s too late. There’s a feeling of warmth to Donald McAlpine’s cinematography that matches up with how the seasons change as the story progresses and at one point when Stanley is walking around a park with Iris’s son played by Harley Cross the scene briefly holds a shot on an odd perspective to show how dwarfed the two are by the nature around them which will be there long after they’ve gone. In another later scene Fonda and De Niro are separated by another tree in the middle of the Panavision frame, the world they share keeping them apart and this sort of lingering does give the feel of an old man’s film but looking at it as the last film directed by Martin Ritt causes every scene to play with a focus on the pure ideas of what he cared about, a way to just watch these people as they move through the world. More than a simple commercial for literacy, so much of it is about the tentative nature of holding back out of fear and what can be done to move past that, a reminder that we all only have so much time. STANLEY & IRIS may not be very much more than a nice movie with an ending that is a little too idealized, Stanley’s hobby as an inventor finally paying off almost as if to say that unless you have credit cards and a new car you’re not really a person. I don’t think that’s what the film is ultimately trying to say but it does feel like it’s an attempt to give the studio not just a happy ending but the happiest, least complicated ending possible. In the end, what sticks out is how this is a film about wanting, yearning to do more than just work and eat and sleep as Iris puts it in one scene, about the dream of making a connection and finding a way to escape from your own prison so maybe these days that message doesn’t seem so wrong.
Jane Fonda and Robert De Niro feel slightly at a remove from each other which makes sense—this isn’t supposed to be a movie about sexual tension anyway, just an easygoing tentativeness which will hopefully blossom into something else. The look in their eyes, Fonda’s yearning as she fights against the bitterness which is always about to overtake her and the look on her face as she realizes he has an interest in her. Seven months before GOODFELLAS opened, this film is a reminder of the charming awkwardness which can turn up in De Niro’s performances when he has to play an uncomplicated guy, in this case someone with a polite inquisitiveness with a lot bubbling up inside him to keep his secret and there’s a sweetness to it all so even when he shows up drunk at her house in one scene it’s never threatening, just sort of clumsy. Martha Plimpton matches up well against Fonda as her daughter, not intimidated at all and it gives an extra charge to a subplot which might otherwise just play as hackneyed. Stephen Root is the head of the nursing home while Iris’s co-workers at the bakery include Loretta Devine, Kathy Kinney, Julie Garfield and Zohra Lampert, practically extras but each giving the feeling that they’re embellishing their bit parts on the edges of the frame although if the film never stays with them for very long, but even those brief moments give the film another touch of humanity.
Where you come from and what happened to you matters. What happens now matters too. But right now my thoughts are drifting to people I’ve known and what they’ve meant to me. I’m not even sure I’d know how to tell them if I got the chance. In some cases, maybe it doesn’t matter. As a side note, STANELY & IRIS co-screenwriter Harriet Frank Jr. whose career dates back to the late 40s passed away at the beginning of 2020 at the age of 96 and not only was it the final film directed by Martin Ritt, after its box office failure it was also Jane Fonda’s last film for the next sixteen years—from this to MONSTER-IN-LAW—and is mostly forgotten now unless you happen to be digging through Amazon Prime. As I write this, our lives are on pause at best. Maybe I’m not even sure what my greater point is beyond that there’s something to be said for a film about people finding each other and using that as a path to a better version of this life. And, by the way, reading is good too. These days I have to try to remember something like that for as long as possible.
Saturday, February 29, 2020
We were never meant to be obsessed with STAR WARS for over 40 years. These things simply happen. We were never meant to remain trapped in our childhoods. Life should take care of that by itself. But the way things played out, two years after sitting in the El Capitan Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard while getting a sinking feeling about forty-five minutes into THE FORCE AWAKENS, I found myself in the exact same seat watching THE LAST JEDI, overcome with a huge sense of relief and, finally, delight. This film knew what it was doing. This was a film with a viewpoint towards providing something unexpected, filled with energy and introspection, locating the soul of whatever STAR WARS is supposed to be and infusing it with a strength towards that mythos which for a long time had felt dormant in my head and giving it something new. Any obsession that I ever had with STAR WARS is largely in the past by now and no complaints but THE LAST JEDI did something no film in that series has done in a long time—it made me thrilled to live in that world again for a few more hours and reminded me of what a joy that was. Of course, two years after that viewing I found myself back at the El Capitan once again for THE RISE OF SKYWALKER although not, I should point out, back in the same seat. Anyway, that film isn’t worth spending much time on no matter what year it is.
What happens in THE FORCE AWAKENS never stays in my mind very long even during the few times I’ve actually seen it but that doesn’t really matter. THE LAST JEDI, of course, begins with the Resistance on the run from the First Order as Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) encounters pushback from General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) over his hotshot tactics while Rey (Daisy Ridley) has located the missing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) only to discover he’s not what she expected and isn’t particularly interested in listening to her concerns about what may happen if he doesn’t come back with her to help in the fight. Back at the fleet, Finn (Jon Boyega) meets Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) and they team up to hatch a plan in search of a code breaker to allow them to escape from the clutches of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). As for how much this particular plot matters, it’s almost like STAR WARS films rise or fall on how much they really understand how important the basic plot needs to be—not story, that’s something else entirely—and how to maintain the correct balance.
And all discussion of plot aside, it becomes a question of what STAR WARS is. The original trilogy began life as a tribute to old-time serials before turning into its own mythology entirely while the prequels, whatever anyone thinks of them, are at the least somewhat stodgier and less kinetic that have their own odd quirks, largely playing now as lengthy effects demos with an added, more overt political slant which certainly helps them remain interesting these days. For all the qualities those films have or are lacking at the very least they still play as experimental and attempting something new. The post-George Lucas trilogy takes an approach of streamlining that mythos to give the people what they apparently want and in rebooting the franchise THE FORCE AWAKENS discards all attempts at experimentation with pretty much zero interest in any new cinematic ideas at all. Written and directed by Rian Johnson (Academy Award nominee for the screenplay of KNIVES OUT), THE LAST JEDI, meanwhile, forces the hand on this bluff and quickly turns itself into an exploration of that approach to the modern myth, serving as a commentary on what the saga has come to represent in the world we live in filtered through characters who have mattered to us longer than we remember. The mystery of Luke Skywalker in the previous film played like it was stalling to avoid dealing with the character in any way at all, an approach that this film winds up embracing in order to use his status as Generation X icon to throw into question what the fight was really all about in the first place.
To be honest, I never wondered much about what happened to Luke Skywalker. I barely thought about whether there would ever be more sequels anyway. On the one hand, the concept of his living a totally drab, sexless life as essentially a Jedi samurai monk wandering the galaxy couldn’t sound any duller. So if his story was going to somehow continue, what we see here makes as much sense as anything, taking the characterization beyond the stasis he remained in for pretty much all of RETURN OF THE JEDI and still connecting him with what’s come before. At his most interesting, Luke was never the calm centered presence of Obi Wan Kenobi so having him serve as that figure here would have diminished the role which in some ways plays a reminder of all those things Luke still had to learn, that he never learned through the snowballing plot points of his own trilogy and, without total understanding, leading to his ultimate moment of weakness gradually revealed here in opposing flashbacks. He doesn’t have all the answers and never did in the first place which keeps his character relevant in the narrative beyond standard teacher-student dichotomy. It’s why tossing that light saber, or “laser sword”, over his shoulder which at first seemed like something out of an MTV Movie Awards sketch immediately caused me to perk up, realizing this film would be something different in directly confronting expectations and immediately questioned what was expected of Luke after all this time. Rey, meanwhile, represents the future looking to the past for answers without knowing why, searching for who she is with only a vague awareness of what this myth ever was and still needing to learn about it for herself. She’s looking for the ultimate answer to the truth behind the truth, the way she asks Luke what the Force is to try to understand and what it all means, what it can possibly mean, whatever we’ve been told in the past.
And that’s the thing. If there isn’t an attitude towards all this to help make the film live and breathe creatively in the now then it just becomes empty homage, a reminder of how nice it was to be ten years old and I can’t think of anything more depressing. In some ways Rian Johnson’s take on the universe in THE LAST JEDI is comparable to what Nicholas Meyer did with directing STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN as if to ask questions like, “What is this place? How does this all work? Who are these people?” infusing the answers with a sense of wit along with a snap to the dialogue in every scene, starting early on with the hotshot tactics that Poe takes near the beginning to get the First Order’s attention or the approach taken by Vice Admiral Holdo played by Laura Dern (Academy Award winner for Best Supporting Actress in MARRIAGE STORY) in dealing with him later on, no interest in pretending she has to have patience for him. The growing connection between Rey and Kylo offers added depth as well as if trying to figure out why they’re good and bad guys in the first place but it also comes down to Rey’s examination of her own self to figure out who she isn’t and never was, providing an open book towards whatever she could become in the future. Facing an infinity of her own reflection in the equivalent scene to what Luke once encountered long ago in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK makes sense since the entire film plays as sort of that film in reverse or maybe turned inside out but with its own conclusions, so even the unexpected plays out in an unexpected way but also at times much more simple than we could have ever realized. Even the presumably all-powerful Snoke, Palpatine redux but much more intriguing than in the previous film, is really just a ranting old man with little else to explain him since none of that matters, nothing more and maybe even less.
The confidence of Johnson’s direction is always in evidence, bringing a true sense of craft along with a sense of exhilaration and energy to that epic old movie feeling as well as an extra kick to the space battles which bring the right sort of punchy quality to scenes onboard the First Order ships and the clean style of the way each of them gets laid out. No matter how much is going on through all the crosscutting there’s always a balance maintained so the film doesn’t rush, all the better to pause for some fresh green milk, and the pacing of what is the longest STAR WARS film ever is always measured thanks to editor Bob Ducsay, never overly hyper and playing as totally confident. Even if a few minutes could be cut, that pacing lets the film breathe and exist inside of scenes, interested in more than just the action beats and whatever needs to move the plot forward. Like all good directors, Johnson is interested in exploring the environment that the film is set in and he loves those moments where we can feel the weight of all that has happened and, enriched by cinematographer Steve Yedlin, shots that quietly explore how the events affect the characters and their understanding, the way Luke gets Rey to understand how the Force works visualizing the very concept for the first time ever in sort of the STAR WARS version of THE TREE OF LIFE and the unavoidable darkness it leads to. The film is always enriched by those moments, the simple character beats of Rey feeling the rain as it drips down outside the Millennium Falcon or Leia standing silently outside the rebel base on Crait, the weight of all these years on her, waiting for whatever’s going to come. For once it’s a STAR WARS film that wants to explore the feel of all those worlds it takes place in beyond whatever the basic ecosystem of a planet is and how all this affects the balance of the Force as well.
That approach brings a sense of richness to every scene and even the clutter of the Canto Bight section has a purpose towards lending clarity to the universe in general, the casino playing as an update of the original cantina scene filtered through all the CASABLANCA nods, of course, but also containing another kind of wretched hive than we’ve seen before as if to answer what’s been going on with all the rich people in this galaxy since the prequels. Rose Tico sees right through that but it also helps bring out who the unformed Finn is becoming, all impulse and still learning, not yet understanding what sacrifice really is. In its commentary on how much the series seems to take for granted that these wars are going to go on endlessly it’s further challenged by Benicio Del Toro’s rogue code breaker (his best line: “Blip bloppity bloop.”), kind of a Han/Lando mashup crossed with his USUAL SUSPECTS character, tossed in with the actor playing it like he’s both unimpressed by all these massive sets yet is more overjoyed at sharing the frame with BB-8 than anyone else in the film but still with an unpredictability of the rare person in one of these movies that never really cares who the good guys are after all.
Those challenges to what’s come before blend perfectly with Rian Johnson’s filmmaking prowess which always finds a way to approach a scene to give it additional power with a clear sense of composition to make every shot matter, even providing continuity to the degree of homage not seen in these films since what Lucas did as director in 1977 from the BLACK NARCISSUS vibe found in the lived-in feel of the island of Ach-To with the fish nun caretakers to the unending red of Snoke’s chamber that seems ready to stage a darker version of Marilyn Monroe’s famous “Diamonds are a Girls’ Best Friend” number from GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES so whether intentionally or not it becomes its own show stopping musical number with spectacularly thrilling choreography in this light saber duel staged just as precisely as the finest Jack Cole number imaginable. The overt homage to Billy Wilder’s THE APARTMENT in the layout on the main First Order ship sadly wound up in the deleted scenes on the Blu-ray but the floating camera of the establishing Canto Bight casino shot lifted directly from WINGS goes perfectly with the dynamic feel just as right as the line partly cribbed from THE WILD BUNCH at one point later on because of course that should be in there. These elements are in some ways incidental but still integral to the richness of the world and overall sense of tradition of how these films were always meant to be paying tribute to the past, the things that happened a long time ago which mattered more than anything to the person making the film and affected the world of the film they were making down to the bones. And, as I’m not the first person to point out, this is the only STAR WARS film to feature the John Williams theme from THE LONG GOODBYE, however briefly, which naturally means that if this isn’t the best STAR WARS film it comes pretty close.
But more than that it’s the characters searching for who they are within, what is found under Kylo’s mask that he destroys early on, Rey and her identity, Luke and his understanding of himself, just as Johnson even explored later on in KNIVES OUT and how much that film’s main character realizes that in spite of everything she is in fact a ‘good person’. Part of that search within in THE LAST JEDI is found in the recurring imagery of hands reaching for a connection, reaching for the Force, searching for those answers that aren’t coming, yearning for a way to understand, the connection between Rey and Kylo that gets broken by Luke before he’s able to admit the truth of what led to this. And it extends to how the film honors the memory of Carrie Fisher ever before she died so for once the character of Leia really does feel like an extension of what we think of when we think of Carrie Fisher, worn down but her humanity and flippancy never leaving her. The way the film honors Fisher even before she died is found in every moment we get of her here, culminating in what feels like the first ever cinematic moment to actually make genuine use of the character’s famous theme forever alters how we’re going to see this, how much she knows her time is passing but still with a final understanding that what she’s accomplished will somehow continue on.
All this connects to how the film feels about STAR WARS history in general, confronting and embracing that all at once, even down to the way it engages with the prequels and what happened in them as Luke explains what separates the concept of the Force from the Jedi and even now I get a rush out of hearing Mark Hamill say the name ‘Darth Sidious’ to acknowledge a past we remember that he didn’t witness. And whatever Rian Johnson actually feels about THE FORCE AWAKENS, his film wisely not only doesn’t ignore certain elements introduced there (Snoke, Phasma, etc.), it also confronts and subverts them, improves them and in the end renders each of those elements irrelevant as well as showing why they should be irrelevant in its pursuit of loftier thematic goals. The film’s view of Kylo is complex but the evil around him is appropriately hollow so the pastiness seen on the face of the likes of Domhall Gleeson’s General Hux is treated with all the contempt that he deserves no matter who’s dishing it out. But in going further back to the past, it’s the surprise introduction of Yoda, of course once again voiced by Frank Oz, and what it contains that turns into the most emotional moment of the film for me, a reminder that we all have our soft spots during certain moments that come out of nowhere in these films. What that Jedi says about failure feels like the greatest lesson for Luke ever, the sort of lesson that makes it a film perfect for this moment. It’s very much a film about failure and the lessons that come from it, the sort of failure each of these characters encounters throughout to help you understand the reason you’re fighting in the first place and why you need to keep on doing it. Failure is a hell of a thing to live with each day, a reminder which meant something in 2017 just as it means something now. Within that becomes finding that love of what we’re fighting for and we love about it. What we love about what it might be. And what we might have in ourselves to move forward.
In a way, THE LAST JEDI is a middle film in a trilogy that is itself about finding that middle ground, just as important as the balance to the Force that’s always being talked about and the search for hope that the characters find themselves in. It’s the bravura filmmaking during the best moments in this series which always mean more than the plot, when all the elements manage to coalesce into pure cinema maybe especially during the showstopper of Holdo’s final action but also when the glorious John Williams music kicks in for the climax going full throttle and the Porgs that I love so much, who I assume have finally been accepted by Chewbacca, go crazy so during those moments all that is required is to be caught up in the coolness and pure joy of it all. Part of it is also Luke at the end, seen in full spaghetti western close-up, discovering his own truth as the symbol he finally realizes he needs to be and only he knows how to be. So does Rey using the force to lift those rocks at the end as she finally understands the complexity of what she can do in simple terms, taking the lessons of the past and translating them for herself. It’s a movie that wants to find the light in the darkness that the middle chapter is expected to be, the way Rose finds joy in the Fathiers on Canto Bight in a way that no one has ever reacted to anything in this universe before just as the very uncomplicated Poe Dameron spends the film in the middle of an increasingly complicated situation. It’s Holdo who reminds him about what hope means but it’s not until the end when he repeats what her determination to serve as a spark to light the fire of the rebellion that he can understand the film’s own argument against nihilism, that it’s not about the crazy plans and cool sacrifice that Finn almost makes for nothing but what can really be done to make things better to defeat the darkness. Unlike the increasing gloom of most blockbusters (and would be blockbusters) of the past decade, many of which I feel such a growing emotional distance from, this is a film that feels alive and vibrant and, once its own cynicism has been addressed, even optimistic about what its world can be, about what STAR WARS can be, and to make the past itself remember why that mattered. It’s beautiful.
Because if the argument could be made that great films are either puzzles or dreams, that also explains how STAR WARS can work at its best. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is definitely a dream in how little it makes any rational sense and yet still works flawlessly in all its glory and emotion, just as you could argue that a failing of the prequels is that they each get caught in some sort of middle ground between the two. THE FORCE AWAKENS, not at all a great film, never feels like it’s about more than its own puzzle which means there’s nothing particularly to explore on repeat viewings. THE LAST JEDI, a STAR WARS film very much about the interpretation of STAR WARS and what we imagine it to be gloriously brings the dream back with possibilities of how we still can prove what we have. Of what the future can hold. Because you don’t let the past die, at least not completely. You grow from the past and you have to, because if you don’t then there’s just a void as empty as Kylo Ren’s hands are near the end, forever lacking any knowledge or understanding. The myth only means something if you directly confront it, using that power to turn it into something more before moving on. A few years later, after everything that’s happened in our own world to make this struggle seem all the more resonant, it’s a film that feels even richer than it has yet.
In scene after scene it feels like the actors are energized by the material in Johnson’s script and there’s always an extra kick in the air between them in scenes as they face off against each other. Mark Hamill is phenomenal, giving this taking this return to the character a power I didn’t see coming as he plays every moment with an air of regret that weighs upon the gift he’ll always have no matter what, all the stories of what led him here found in his eyes and the cumulative effect is a performance that is fearless. Carrie Fisher, in what is basically her final performance, brings an unexpectedly soulful quality missing from the previous film along with a resigned sadness while keeping the humor which is so much about the character and what we want to remember about the actress. Daisy Ridley is especially effective with the growing conflict within what she faces along with the joy that sometimes shines through while Adam Driver is flawless at capturing Kylo’s arrogance and ultimate confusion, growing increasingly unclear which side he should be on, along with the determination of Oscar Isaac and Jon Boyega with how locked in they are in their storylines along with the sense of true goodness and light that Kelly Marie Tran brings to this world. The quiet determination of Laura Dern also pays off with a bang, along with the ball that Benicio Del Toro is having every moment he’s around and Andy Serkis actually gets me interested in Snoke in this film, at least for those few minutes where it’s needed. Even the small roles pop, whether Ngo Thanh Van who is nearly silent as Rose’s sister Paige Tico or Amanda Lawrence as Commander D’Acy and the cumulative effect of these moments from the actors gives it all a humanistic quality unlike any other STAR WARS film ever seen.
Not long ago I was thinking about how the last thing Luke says to Kylo Ren in this film is “See you around, kid,” making me think that in the next film he might return as a Force ghost unlike any we’d seen before only to have him finally show up basically redoing Obi-Wan Kenobi in RETURN OF THE JEDI spouting exposition while sitting on a log and oh god why am I still going on about all this. But that’s the thing with obsession. It’s very possible that I’ll never find myself back in the El Capitan again seeing another one of these movies, just as I’m aware that this may be the final thing I ever write about STAR WARS in any form but in the best noir tradition we keep getting pulled back, like it or not so I can’t say for sure. And for all the debate over what STAR WARS ‘is’ maybe by now it’s become about the obsessions of our own past as much as anything and how it all means we have to look back, like it or not. Recalling George Lucas’ own penchant for pure cinema, STAR WARS films generally shouldn’t have any sort of last line so in its final shots THE LAST JEDI shows us a seemingly random boy who will one day have his own adventures that we’ll likely never see. No dialogue is needed to tell us this but that future is clearly destined, just as it’s destined for these stories to continue, here presented in a simple, elegant image of hope. What that image means, what it should mean, what it may always mean. Feel free to take that as an ending and maybe the final piece of STAR WARS related media I’ll ever need to pay attention to, since as it’s turned out, what followed this film wasn’t particularly interesting in any way. So let someone else have those adventures, if they even want to. It’s possible to stay in the same place forever, not moving forward and never truly finding your place in the world. That very idea has always been at the heart of STAR WARS, certainly the George Lucas version of it but maybe this film as well, the very human fear of not wanting to let go and of what the future may hold if you do. It was what Anakin Skywalker didn’t want to lose, what Luke Skywalker was afraid he might learn, what Rey can’t seem to admit to herself. But you can’t stay in the same place forever. It’s the very thing Luke was trying to avoid to begin with, a long time ago. Even then he knew that sometimes you simply have to move on.
Tuesday, February 18, 2020
Some anniversaries only matter to you and no one else which is just the way it is. But I recently passed the ten year mark of being laid off from a certain showbiz-related news program where I had worked for several years, which was a pretty good job all things considered, and I can’t help but think about it for a few minutes. The day I was let loose from there back into the world remains as vivid now as it was then and my life has never really been the same since. That’s going to happen. The people I know now are different and my world is different which isn’t to say that’s a bad thing. And, yes, it’s weird that I’m thinking about it after all this time but anniversaries have a way of doing that to you, so I’ll get over it soon enough. Anyway, the day this happened in December 2009 was exactly one week after seeing Jason Reitman’s UP IN THE AIR on opening day, a film about the very thing I would soon be going through, I just didn’t know it at the time. My feelings about UP IN THE AIR have always been somewhat conflicted as a result since, after all, what did Jason Reitman and George Clooney have to tell me about being unemployed? About what that actually felt like? Ten years later, the movie still has an undeniable slickness that makes me keep it on cable in the background but I still feel like I’m watching from a distance as if being reminded how this film is only ever going to care so much. Removed from the feeling that it’s trying to say something about the-time-we’re-living-in is an equal sense that the film never wants to stray too far from first class and spend all that much time worrying about what it’s never going to be able to change.
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), expert corporate downsizer for employment consulting firm CRC, spends much of his life flying one from one city to another with the simple job of firing people. Along with a sideline gig as a motivational speaker, he is forever in love with his first class lifestyle of impermanence maintaining almost zero attachments and never having to stay in one place for long, even meeting a businesswoman named Alex (Vera Farmiga) with a similar attraction to life out there on the road between places. But when he’s called back to his home office in Omaha, Ryan is faced with the possibility of it all going away due to the arrival of Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a young and ambitious new employee at the firm with the goal of making all business done remotely over video links, completely removing any need for Ryan to travel. With boss Craig (Jason Bateman) still figuring out how to proceed, Ryan is sent back on the road with Natalie so she can learn about what he does and what their job really entails. They are soon met by Alex but this new relationship along with an impending family wedding causes Ryan to finally question everything he’s become for the very first time.
Revisiting UP IN THE AIR a decade later, far removed from its status as an Oscar contender (six nominations, zero wins), the film plays as a smooth ride with a tight script and solid role for George Clooney, even if it never seems willing to stare into the pit of the moment the way the great MICHAEL CLAYTON featuring the actor did two years earlier. With a screenplay by Reitman and Sheldon Turner based on the novel by Walter Kirn, more than anything UP IN THE AIR feels like what began life as a satire on the coldblooded nature displayed by corporate America as people are tossed out that was eventually smoothed over to better relate directly to the present moment in a more hopefully empathic way. The remnants of the darker approach still hang in the air, the briefly seen Zach Galifanakis getting fired introduced for comic effect which takes a shift as we glimpse his actual pain and the plot point of the business plan to fire people via what we now commonly think of as Skype serves as a reminder of the ruthlessness that’s always going to be involved no matter what the business entails. Playing a little now as a time capsule of the hope of early Obama and Blackberries everywhere, the film’s well-publicized gimmick of using actual victims of such cutbacks to respond to their firings lends the snappy patter a jolt of verisimilitude with the genuine hurt and anger coming through. But looking at it now the conceit feels slightly undercut when at one point the film removes the documentary element to have it actually cut to the lead actors, turning the pain of real people into reverse shots for George Clooney and Anna Kendrick to react to, even if the genuine pain is still felt through their eyes in these moments.
At the very least it’s the characters that are the film’s greatest strength with plotting loose enough that it’s easy to miss exactly why Natalie travels with Ryan in the first place, which is fine, and the way it dispenses with that plot for long stretches allows the film to breathe as it focuses on them, with sequences like the tech conference party during a stay in Miami charmingly playing a little like a memory recalled later on with a wistful fondness. But there’s maybe too much of a wannabe Alexander Payne vibe to the approach both on the surface (Omaha home base, Rolfe Kent score) and down below (character examination during a long trip where someone is confronted with certain truths about their life) with what feels like a sort of meta commentary on what we presume to be the secret life of George Clooney. Along with a dose of 70s-style naturalism that never feels entirely lived in, the smoothly laid out plot schematics always feel a little overly calculated when they have to come into play, as if the characters are shifted around on the chess board because the movie tells them to as opposed to simply being.
It’s the look at Ryan Bingham’s daily rituals while traveling that serves as part of the approach, the calming reverse of Edward Norton’s outlook on the lifestyle in FIGHT CLUB from ten years earlier, so the emphasis is really on the way he lives, one hotel to the next, one airport to the next, the rapid fire montages of his travels appropriately seeming out of a commercial. The idea of what this job is doing to the insides of the people in this industry that’s designed to thrive in misery is left mostly unexamined, the ‘can sir’ one flight attendant asks him about in a brief misunderstanding left hanging. His life never lingers in the moment so the film never does, at least not enough, the ‘What’s in your Backpack?’ motivational speech aimed at getting rid of all the dead weight in your life is used as the partial framing device to all this, an extension of the speech he falls back on during firings to convince people that this is a sort of rebirth. All he does is send them out into limbo which, after all, is where he’s happiest, so why shouldn’t they be, with nothing but the totem like device of those packets they hand out to everyone being let go which I suspect will do them little good at all beyond giving them the strength to actually walk out of that room to face the inevitable.
Maybe it’s fitting that there’s a hollow quality to all this slickness in the world Ryan embraces, gladly residing in that limbo with the closest thing he has to a friend a fuck buddy who’s moved on so bonding with Alex during their meet cute over a mutual love of how synthetic the lifestyle is and the brief nudity courtesy of a body double for Vera Farmiga plays as a superfluous element which feels cheap and artificial but maybe that’s part of the point. Even when we go with Ryan to the more genuine world of his family life back in snowy Wisconsin it still feels a little manufactured as if the handheld modesty on display is what equals reality. As it is, one of the most natural moments in the entire film becomes the awkward silence between Ryan and his sisters, siblings that have nothing to say to each other beyond the awkward smiles, which suddenly feels like it takes take place in a world that is completely recognizable.
As much as the emphasis on showing life out on the road and those establishing gods eye view of all the cities flown into, Reitman’s direction is often best when he cuts out the talk so at times there’s the feeling the film knew how to slice certain scenes down to the essentials and play out moments through the eyes so the film is ok with spending moments with the characters in those silences, whether a shot of Kendrick sitting in a room of empty chairs that were likely once occupied by people no longer working there or the way Clooney’s eyes read at the possibility of anything at all messing with his enjoyment up there. The lengthy conversation between the three leads after Natalie is dumped by her boyfriend via text also feels like it genuinely comes out of the characters and plays as totally relaxed even as it goes for a few obvious laughs, each of them letting their veils drop as much as they’re willing to. “Life can underwhelm you that way,” Farmiga’s Alex tells Natalie at one point and it’s one of the better lines in a film that ultimately is about people who try to keep that from happening but some of them know a little bit more about dealing with that than others, the way Ryan Bingham treats his job with seriousness—the film isn’t that callous about its subject—but he also wants to keep away from the real world for as long as he can.
The bitterness towards it all felt more palpable a few years later in Reitman’s YOUNG ADULT, likely thanks to that script by Diablo Cody and the way UP IN THE AIR discards the shocking fate of one victim feels like a reminder that some people are mere collateral damage who can’t be saved, not in the midst of all this cruelty. The way Natalie reduces one older guy the size of a linebacker to tears as he’s fired via the video linkup makes her pat words of encouragement ring all the more hollow, the workflow of downsizing she focuses on morphing into actual pain she has no idea what to do with. The way Ryan has to finally use his motivational skills for the exact opposite reasons he’s gotten used to, to talk someone into not letting go for once becomes his own harsh lesson of a certain truth that he always refused to grasp for himself. The moral of UP IN THE AIR seems to be not about knowing what you want but realizing what you’re missing out on, the pitfalls of what it is to be a ‘human parentheses’ as Ryan finally realizes he is. You have to be somewhere in this world after all. In the end, if you’re everywhere, you’re nowhere.
The film is still a smooth ride although maybe it needed to be more than that, maybe we needed to feel the uncertainty Ryan finally grasps a little more in the end, the stylized shot of Natalie moving away from him late in the film serving as a reminder of a connection he’ll never be able to hold onto. Granted, most people only change so much by the time they get to a certain age and when he lets go of his suitcase at the end it feels like a tiny, significant step, a realization of someone who never realized how trapped he really was in all that freedom and what it actually meant. But in being about someone who realizes what he never had, this also means it’s never about what he lost. This never becomes someone who chooses to quit his job or refuse to fire someone since that wouldn’t have accomplished anything and even if the character does walk out on his big motivational speaking engagement, another one of those plot points that feels a little too calculated, it’s not like he gives up anything so instead of a Billy Wilder ending the movie gives Ryan Bingham more of a Hal Ashby ending, another version of Warren Beatty’s George Roundy at the end of SHAMPOO as he realizes what he’s missing a little too late. Looking at the film now as a flashback of The Way Things Were in 2009, or in the early months of 2010 when it’s set, it becomes clear how everything has gotten meaner this many years later and by now there’s no end in sight. To this film, firings and layoffs are a natural force, like the weather. I guess the cruelty is too. The distance Ryan and his company keeps is almost troubling and feels more troubling now in a world that has only gotten more willing to discard you when that time comes. If anything, the film is a reminder that it’s nice up there in first class, I say that from experience. Of course, eventually you have to leave. That’s where the world is. That’s where your home needs to be.
It’s now been several years since George Clooney last appeared onscreen in a feature film so it’s hard not to think we’re missing a few films he might have gotten made that could have at least aspired to what this does, the sort of film he was striving to make—at times with more success than others—during the peak of his star power. I miss the guy. Even if you can sense when he knows exactly how to play certain moments to get the audience on his side he’s always totally relaxed and confident here which helps make the vulnerability that finally emerges seem totally real. The way he holds himself onscreen means no one, no one, can come close to saying an exasperated, “Oh, fuck,” the way he does and damn it, he’s really, really good. Vera Farmiga projects just as much confidence in her own way, offering a cool authority that plays well off Clooney during their initial flirtation and especially when it becomes clear how much more assured of her situation she really is while Anna Kendrick is especially strong, the chipper quality of her line readings displaying her eagerness that cut through with moments where it feels like what’s going on is told through her eyes, truly seeing what she’s chosen to be a part of. The strong supporting cast also includes Jason Bateman as Clooney’s boss bringing a callous pragmatism to what he’s in charge of, a particularly effective Melanie Lynskey who is so good in projecting reams of unspoken feelings about the brother she barely knows during her few minutes onscreen, Danny McBride with a vulnerability unlike any of his other roles, Jason Reitman regular J.K. Simmons nailing his one scene getting fired and Amy Morton who brings a grounded determination to her role as the sister who won’t let Ryan get away with any excuses for even a moment.
Even if it seemed like a lot of things were collapsing during the last few years of the aughts, looking back on it now it becomes clear that we didn’t know how good we had it. The day after I got laid off in December 2009, during a very rainy weekend, I got a call from a certain friend of mine who asked me to meet her at the House of Pies where over coffee she gave me her own version of Ryan Bingham’s “Anyone who ever built an empire or changed the world…” speech. Only since it wasn’t her job it was for the right reasons. So what she said helped, it really did, and it isn’t much of a stretch to say that I may not still be writing this if not for what she did that day. The eventual falling out a number of years later turned out to be more painful than losing a job ever could be, especially one where I had to fake an interest in the Kardashians. And maybe I still don’t quite know where the last ten years have led me to. I don’t know where I am now. I only know that there are people who come into your life and leave a mark which never fully goes away, something I still don’t quite know what to do with. Which, no matter how aware I am of my own ambivalence towards it, is of course a reminder of what this film about, the things those real people who have been laid off say near the end about what really matters in the grand scheme of your life. That you have those people close to you which, in its way, can be its own kind of pain. And in between all that is the luxury of being up there, where you really want to be, where you like to think you’re safe, at least for as long as they let you stay.
Tuesday, December 31, 2019
It can be near impossible to avoid thinking of the past, especially at the end of the year. Remembering what you did, how you screwed up, or if you did anything at all. And sometimes you think even further back, as far back as a decade, wondering what your world used to be and how things changed, going over the things you did wrong and what you could have done instead. In our minds we hope for the best, we have to, but it can be difficult to face the truth as we wonder how much time we really have. Too much becomes our own fault if we’re willing to admit it. So at the end of the year, at the end of the decade, maybe all we have left is the chance to just wait for the next one, the next chance to make everything all right. That is, if there really is a chance.
If Bob Fosse is ever in danger of being forgotten that was likely delayed in 2019 with the airing of the FX miniseries FOSSE/VERDON which was enjoyable but never very substantial in spite of inspired moments from some of the performances. Drawing conclusions based on what seemed to be its own thematic goals more than anything having to do with history, watching it was like eating halfway decent Chinese food; enjoyable to munch down on but it left me feeling empty in the end. Some of the stylistic approach was clearly inspired by Bob Fosse’s own films, because how could it not be? And when I say ‘stylistic approach’ I’m basically saying it was hard to watch it at times and not think, isn’t this just ALL THAT JAZZ? And it didn’t even spend much time on ALL THAT JAZZ. Regardless, ALL THAT JAZZ turned 40 this year and it wasn’t Fosse’s last film but feels like it was meant to be, possibly serving as the final statement of a creative life and everything that it meant. ALL THAT JAZZ is exhilarating and addictive like few other films I can think of, one that draws me back to examine it, to wrestle with it, to try to deal with it, wishing that what happens could go in another direction even as you know the inevitable. Kind of like a recent decade I can think of. But unlike that decade, as I go back to this film I ultimately embrace it. It means too much to me, it speaks too much to me. It’s about as close to a perfect film as I can think of but it’s also better than that, not a pristine jewel but a complicated piece of work that’s still messy enough to allow for exploration of its parts and what it all means while trapped in the parade of our own lives. Maybe while trying to figure it out I find myself in there, but I suppose we all do.
Legendary choreographer Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) is beginning rehearsals on the new Broadway show that he’s directing while simultaneously attempting to finish editing his latest film. As his days ping-pong back and forth among the various projects with the women in his life all a part of it, including ex-wife Audrey (Leland Palmer), off-and-on girlfriend Katie (Ann Reinking) and daughter Michelle (Erzsebet Foldi) while in his head we see Joe with the only women he can be totally truthful with, a spectre of death named Angelique (Jessica Lange) who of course knows all his secrets. But when he’s rushed to the hospital with chest pains in the middle of working on the show, Joe’s total denial of his condition soon begins to catch up to him and he can’t fight where all this is going for very much longer.
It’s showtime, folks, as Joe Gideon says to the mirror every morning with his Vivaldi tape playing as he puts on his face on for the world, ready to start the performance all over again, even if he knows he can’t hold this face forever. Written by Robert Alan Aurthur and Fosse, ALL THAT JAZZ is an extraordinary film but it’s the kind which feels like it was never meant to be anything but an extraordinary film. What would be the point if it wasn’t? A musical unlike any other, an examination of the Broadway world and a man at the center of it with an energy to it all that puts us right in there. So much of what we’d ever need to know about Joe Gideon is his morning ritual complete with cigarette hanging from his mouth in the shower, but it’s the opening audition montage set to “On Broadway” that tosses us in without any orientation as if we’re one of those dancers looking to be validated by this legend but it gets us to understand the world instantly. The desperation of all those hopefuls isn’t his problem and to him the work which leads to all that brilliance is all there is, searching for his own inspiration as he choreographs his dancers, no qualms about fucking some of them who he may or may not decide to cast before torturing them to do better. Even the ones he’s not fucking get some of that treatment anyway.
The cutting style is as insistent as CABARET but this isn’t an extension of Fosse’s earlier films as much as a culmination of them but of course it’s really a culmination of his whole life anyway. And even more than those other films ALL THAT JAZZ is unrelenting in its pacing with each new shot adding to the intensity of the neverending delirium. To be on the wire is life, says Joe, the rest is waiting. It’s a justification for what he does, the pain he causes, the sound of coughing heard right from the start which serves as a tell of where this is all going to go. Angelique points out how theatrical the phrasing is while also getting Joe to admit that he didn’t come up with it. Everything about his life needs to be theatrical and even if someone in this day and age doesn’t know Bob Fosse, it’s impossible not to get a sense of a life that never slows down, that never waits. And Joe Gideon clearly never had any interest in waiting.
ALL THAT JAZZ is no doubt supposed to be too much, gloriously so, with an approach that goes beyond what you'd expect from any normal film with truly phenomenal musical numbers that go on and on to the point that you realize they have to be that long to mean as much as they do. Even the stylistic extremes it goes to during unexpected moments add to this feel whether the hospital delirium of the second half or the way all sound drops away during the script reading when Joe mentally checks out. But it’s how Fosse seems to find a way to shoot every moment with such life and vitality in the first place, the spectacular Airotica number for the backers of his new musical NY/LA featuring the truly awesome Sandahl Bergman coming out of seemingly nowhere and the power it gives off even in that tiny rehearsal space makes us dream not only of the fully produced version but offers an unexpected intensity which allows us to fully believe in his talent that's been talked up so much, even if it does come out of his own insecurity and desperation. That’s what the film does, especially in the first hour when it’s the creativity being focused on and it plays like a drug.
Over multiple viewings through the years I would gravitate towards that first hour and its unrelenting exhilaration, then feeling always a little let down when Joe entered the hospital for the second half where it would feel like the momentum halted. But seeing the film in 35mm at a New Beverly screening a few years ago (paired with LENNY) it all made sense—this is one of those nights at that theater which has stayed with me, a packed house (an audience that included Robert Forster, who we lost this year) that gave the night an undeniable energy felt from the unrelenting power of the second half that as it went on became emotionally overwhelming by a certain point, taking this film I’d already seen before multiple times and transforming it via that cinematic experience into something that I didn’t want to let go of, just as Joe Gideon doesn’t want to let go, as if the film ever let you off the hook that energy would dissipate.
Just as Bob Fosse was and in some ways still is, Joe Gideon is a god in this world with the way all his dancers look at him, whether he’s already fucked them or not, always looking for the answers they know his genius will provide, no matter how much he anguishes and the seduction of one of them set to Nilsson’s “Perfect Day” playing catches the perfect mood for the seduction. With Joe looking out from the cutting room of his big budget film at a strip club across the street to remind him that the two aren’t so far apart, the cynical laughs come from the inside sleaze of this world and the money men without a shred of art in their bones, so it’s all how much his life when he’s not around to be an artist comes down to dollars and cents. At times in watching this film I’ve wanted a little more of the world around these people, connected to all those young girls limbering up all over the place and the 1979 New York out there on the streets but that’s never where Joe Gideon is, he’s inside in that showbiz world where it feels like you’re going to live forever, like the 24 year old who finally gets “a house in Beverly Hills” that his ex-wife Audrey is so determined to play. It’s an entire world based on putting off death, no matter what the subject of the musical is (I’d still like to actually see NY/LA, whatever it might be) but it's also about putting off anything resembling an actual commitment that would take you away from it all just as Ann Reinking, more or less playing herself as girlfriend Katie, knows which buttons to push as she desperately tries to get him to give her a reason to stay.
The film is overwhelming but it has to be and it’s the only way for it to make sense, while Joe Gideon stands in the center of it, already aware of what everyone wants from him. Gideon’s latest film that he’s editing is so obviously meant to be LENNY it doesn’t even try to hide that, with the film’s comic played by Cliff Gorman, who won a Tony for playing Lenny Bruce on Broadway only to have Dustin Hoffman take the role in the film version. The glimpse at the cutting process shows him listing off the five stages of death as part of his stand-up routine, patter that gets repeated a few too many times and it’s maybe the one thing in the film that strains my patience over multiple viewings. But it’s not like subtlety is ever really the goal, either in this world or in this film and even the repetition feels intentional, a reminder of what Joe is working on running in his head over and over so when his film gets trashed by a critic for giving free reign to the star, after all the time he’s spent obsessing over every tiny change in the cutting room, it’s a clear sign that the people who aren’t there for the creation don’t know. Joe’s talent, if not his brilliance, is never in question, but it’s clear none of that means anything if everything else is ignored. Maybe in trying to analyze ALL THAT JAZZ all anyone can do is simply not become that snarky critic and just try to understand what the film means for them deep down in a way they’ll someday have to admit to themselves.
It’s the whole death thing that matters in this freeform dive through Joe Gideon’s mind, going perfectly with the forced gallows humor that he can’t keep up forever. That attraction to it he’s always had only adds to the delirium of his interior dialogue with Angelique and the whole unresolved Fellini quality of these scenes, always feeling like there’s something outside of the frame in his subconscious. It’s like the film is a non-stop war between the danger of his lifestyle and how much living in this world gives us the rush of creativity, whether the eagerness of the dancers in the rehearsal scenes or with Katie and Michelle’s private performance of “Everything Old Is New Again” just for Joe, serving as the feeling of what this music does, what all this does, if only it could always be this joyous, keeping the cynicism at bay for a few minutes. Through all this is a game of which past Fosse project is being referenced at any given time, not to mention whatever he’s pulling from his own life and all of this detail means every new shot pierces your soul, shepherded by the editing mastery of Alan Heim (who appears onscreen as the editor of THE STAND-UP, adding one more mirror to things) in connecting the richness of those images photographed by Giuseppe Rotunno together. It all remains completely alive right up until the very last shot, which as anyone who’s seen the film knows is the way it has to be.
However critical (or self-critical) the film is about him, it’s done in a way that is deliberately self-regarding as if Bob Fosse himself in the guise of Joe Gideon saying, I’ll hate me enough for both of us so please love me. Which is still a justification in the midst of all that self-loathing but it still feels more honest than the FOSSE/VERDON approach of simply trying to poke holes in the myth. The unrelenting and extraordinary “Bye Bye Life” sequence which serves as the finale puts the lie to the concept of people criticize a scene like this for simply being indulgent because there is no film otherwise, there’s no way it would come anywhere near this power if it wasn’t. And without it we wouldn’t feel the tragedy of what’s being lost and grieved in the shot of Joe’s daughter embracing him one last time. There's no point in saying 'if only he could have known' because of course he did. It just didn’t do any good. He is who he is. We’re all who we are as we get closer to the end, facing a little piece of truth at the end of each year, like no business I know.
Roy Scheider, Oscar-nominated for this performance, is absolutely remarkable and totally transformed, without an ounce of his more familiar screen persona and light years beyond anything else he ever did, making me wish we’d gotten more of this side of the actor in the following years but how many films like this are ever made? Even if the film has to shoot around how he’s not really a dancer, Scheider’s very physicality in every movement sells it and he perfectly finds the balance of where his brilliance comes from, how he can command a room even while that self-loathing is never far behind. Maybe because in spite of everything we still see ourselves in there. Playing Joe’s ex-wife, the remarkable Leland Palmer (who I guess we mostly know for serving as the namesake for a certain famous fictional character) finds just the right balance between her bitterness and being unable to hide her unending love for him, always finding something unexpected in the tiny moments including the very last thing she does in the film. As his current girlfriend, Ann Reinking builds up to the yearning she feels for him until it can only be contained in giant close-up, desperate for a shred of his love, whatever he really feels. Erzsebet Foldi as Joe’s daughter is almost too believable in what looks to be her only screen appearance, displaying such directness when acting with Scheider and such joy in her musical numbers that provides more raw emotion than anything else in the film while Jessica Lange, somewhere between KING KONG and TOOTSIE, tantalizes as the vision of death outside the main world of the film but always ready to challenge Joe on his legend, knowing what has to come eventually. Every performance, however small, fits perfectly including Deborah Geffner’s dancer looking to be a movie star and willing to be seduced by Joe, the desperation of Anthony Holland’s songwriter to keep the show going, Ben Vereen’s oozing insincerity as “O’Connor Flood” always making introductions on his variety show and the nasty, fragile ego of John Lithgow as rival director Lucas Sergeant.
Like it or not, the end of the year always feels like waiting anyway. You’re done with the holidays, itching to get back to whatever it is you do and just want to see the damn ball drop already. But The End is still something we think about since it can mean a lot of things. Even Bob Fosse made it another eight years after this so there was no way for him to know everything about it, not even after making this film. For a film about The End, ALL THAT JAZZ is still alive like few other films I know. Maybe because in its way the film is saying don’t be afraid of all that, just try to do a few things better while you’re here. Don’t fuck up. That’s the sort of lesson worth taking from what might be one of the best films ever made. So, as the New Year approaches, it’s back to waiting as I get ready to begin again. Sometimes we don’t have a choice.